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During our big move, I was startled and delighted to come across this old t-shirt of mine. It was presented to me outside a Natchez whorehouse on my 15th birthday by my Uncle Murphy, who had taken me and my buddy there to celebrate my big day.

Let me explain.

Uncle Murphy — Big Guy, as we called him — was a chronic prankster. When I turned 13 or so, he started telling me, “Boy, when you turn 15, I’m going to take you to Nellie’s to get you broken in.”

Nellie’s was a legendary Natchez bordello that operated openly, not far from downtown. Miss Nellie Jackson, a black woman from Woodville, Miss., was the longtime proprietor — and believe it or not, was a beloved local figure. She got around town in a white Lincoln, and favored French poodles. Here’s a clip from an Indiegogo appeal for funding to support a documentary about Nellie’s life and times:

Here’s the website for the film. I hope they make it.

Anyway, as my 15th birthday approached, Big Guy started the drumbeat. I was scared to death. Scared. To. Death. One Saturday evening, he arrived at our house with three friends, and picked my buddy and me up. We were going to Natchez. I wanted out, but my dad said I needed to go through with it. Secretly, I thought Big Guy wouldn’t really take two 15 year old boys to a Natchez brothel … but what if he did? You shouldn’t put anything past him.

We motored the hour or so north on Highway 61, and went to the house of his old friend Dickie Prescott, who was waiting for us. Dickie mixed a blender full of daiquiris, and gave one to each of us boys. Our courage having been boosted by the first drink either of us ever had, Big Guy, Dickie, and their pal Walt took us out to the Oldsmobile and drove us over to Nellie’s.

I was shaking. This was really going to happen.

We pulled up to the place — which I wasn’t entirely sure was real until I saw it — and there, in the backyard, was a statuesque Vietnamese woman hanging out laundry in a clingy dress. It was a warm February day.

“Boys, get on out,” said Big Guy, opening his door.

To tell the truth, I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I recall standing there in the driveway with my friend as Big Guy presented us with t-shirts he’d had made commemorating our visit. Our names were embossed on the back. Pictures were taken. I have the shot somewhere in a box at home, but I’m not going to post it, to protect the image of my childhood pal. I recall that my face in it looks stricken with utter anxiety, while his was filled with let’s go, boys! anticipation.

Of course we didn’t go in. That had never been the plan. (Though I wonder: what if we had begged to go in and sample the wares? What would Murphy have done? Had he gone through with it, my mother would have killed him, buried him, dug up the body, and shot him again). The guys piled us two virginal striplings back into the Olds, went back for their wives, and we all headed to a fancy restaurant for a birthday dinner. Murphy got us good and drunk, and deposited us back at my house at midnight.

photo-32-300x225We didn’t get anything at Nellie’s other than a pretty good story. Big Guy died in 1987 (I’ve written many times about his self-designed tombstone, won in a card game, with its epitaph, “This ain’t bad — once you get used to it”). Nellie outlived him, but she did not survive the Mississippi frat boy who showed up late one night at her bordello, drunk, and was refused entry. He returned with a gas can, doused her and the cathouse with gasoline, and set them on fire. She was 87, and had been running her brothel for 60 years. From a newspaper story about her after her death:

For many people, Nellie Jackson was a legend because of her acts of kindness to neighbors and strangers alike.

“She was an utterly kind person,” said Joan Gandy, managing editor of the Natchez Democrat and a close friend. “I never know her to have hard feeling toward another. At her house, she had standards. She would not let anyone in drunk or after midnight.

“She cared about the young women who worked there. If they called up two years later needing help, she would help.”

She also helped if someone had been burned out of their house, or if someone needed help to go to school, or if some of the city’s nuns needed a ride to Baton Rouge or catch an airplane, or, in the Civil Rights troubles of the 1960s, a black activist needed help getting out of jail.

These acts of charity and the fact that she ran a quiet business are the main reasons Nellie Jackson managed to operate all those years with impunity. Natchez itself was the other reason.

“This has always been an open kind of community, being a river town with a bawdy reputation,” said Gandy. “Things are accepted here for what they are.”

Whatever you think the South is, you’re probably wrong, as I keep discovering the older I get. This is a deeply weird place, and I can’t think of a better place to be a writer and observer of the human condition.