Upstairs Lounge on Iberville St.

by Emily Wilmer

New Orleans, LA – June 24, 1973

Sunday nights in the French Quarter
beer flowed free – well, almost free –
$1 for all-you-can-drink drafts.

I’d come to drink, flirt, sing
along with the piano-man playing
Broadway tunes. That night a first date.

Took me two buses from out in the ’burbs
to stand at the door of the Upstairs Lounge,
press the buzzer and wait for the OK,

then thirteen steps up to the second floor.
No “nelly drama” that Sunday – fancy costumed
drag cabaret. Nope, just me and my guy

hanging with our friends. Even Pastor Bill
from church was there, host of the party,
last event of Gay Pride weekend.

Buddy served up the beer. Music loud
and swinging. Front door buzzer sounded,
insistent, relentless. Attendant opened and

firebomb hit the floor, staircase updraft
did the rest. Whole place turned raging
hot. Red velvet wallpaper, white lace curtains

exploded into flame, men screamed,
stumbled toward barred windows open
to the street; others crumpled to the floor.

I squeezed through the bars.
My body on fire. Weeks in the hospital,
then home to the house where I was born.

My memories, haunted: Pastor Bill,
big and burly, trapped in the window
           —half in, half out.

I loved this man who sang songs
and hymns and prayed over us.
I still hear his howl when flames

crawled his body, fused one hand
to the outside sill.

Emily Wilmer lives in Alexander, North Carolina. She writes poetry to make meaning of her experiences and the world around her. Sometimes the daily news pulls her heart and mind into places she never thought of going on her own initiative. One of her poems will be published in the forthcoming Pisgah Review.

About Upstairs Lounge on Iberville St.—I started this poem four years ago when my heart broke upon reading an article on the 40th anniversary of this event. Some have questioned my “right” to write this poem since I am not male or gay. I have discovered that asking me to limit or separate myself and my writing from the influences and experiences of those different from me is to ask me not to love.