Certainly the most mobile French Quarter symbols are the horses and buggies, and their drivers. Up until recently Michelle Bernet was one of the buggy drivers, and she is still thought of by many as the “buggy lady.”
Community Standard: How long did you work as a buggy driver?
Michelle: Five and a half months.
Community Standard: What were your responsibilities?
Michelle: Grooming the horse, hooking it up, changing its diaper, driving to the Quarter and trying to coerce people into my buggy. Once they got into my buggy, I gave them a very good tour.
Community Standard: Did you have to feed your horse?
Michelle: No, that wasn't my responsibility — that was the stable hands', but when I came into the stable at night most of the time the feed bin would be empty, and I would feel obligated to fill it.
Community Standard: What were your hours, and how many days a week did you work?
Michelle: It all depends, it's very flexible. Supposedly you work six days a week about eight hours a day, but you could work two days a week, five hours a day.
Community Standard: Did you work on commission?
Michelle: It's pure commission, forty per cent. Some days you can make nothing. You can make over a hundred other days.
Community Standard: Did you charge your customers by the mile or the minute?
Michelle: You're supposed to give a half-hour tour. Whatever they want to do is up to them. If they want to rehire you they rehire you.
Community Standard: Did you get many tips?
Michelle: If people asked me how I worked I wouldn't tell them about the commission. I would just say I was working for tips, so I had a tendancy to make more than the others.
Michelle chats with a stubborn friend.
Community Standard: What is the biggest tip you ever received?
Michelle: My biggest tip was thirty-five dollars. Six men asked me to drive them up Bourbon Street and they left me fifty-three dollars. There have been people who have gotten one hundred dollar tips. James Coburn (the actor) took two buggy rides with someone and left him a fifty dollar tip each time.
Community Standard: Did you always use the same horse?
Michelle: I did for a long time. The first three or four months I worked there I had my little dappled gray mare named Ophelia. When I went on vacation I went to New York, and when I came back I found her very difficult to get back. I only got her on weekends. During the week I got this old swayback thing named Tony. He looked like an inverted camel.
Community Standard: Did you have previous experience with horses?
Michelle: When I was about twelve I moved from Manhattan to Long Island, and went horseback riding about four times a week.
Community Standard: Isn't driving a buggy quite different from riding a horse?
Michelle: It's a combination of driving a car and riding a horse.
Community Standard: Were you ever nervous in traffic?
Michelle: No, except when a couple of cabs and Volkswagens passed on the sidewalk. Sometimes people act impatiently….
Community Standard: How do they train horses for traffic?
Michelle: They whip them. Also, after being in traffic year after year they get used to it.
Community Standard: Would you say the horses are mistreated?
Michelle: Some are, some aren't. The more expensive horses, the bigger ones, aren't mistreated. They figure they'll be able to get their money's worth out of them. The horse I had, Ophelia, was bought for five dollars. They didn't bother with her much. They wouldn't feed her until her ribs started to show.
Community Standard: Did tourists complain very often about the condition of the horses?
Michelle: There will be tourists shaking their heads at the horses for fifteen minutes, which is annoying. You get the feeling they're doing it as a display: “See what a humanitarian I am.” Half the time there would be no reason for it. They would pick the wrong horses to be shaking their heads at.
I was getting mugged three times a week.
Community Standard: How did you feel about the regulation that the horses had to wear diapers?
Michelle: The trick of the trade is putting a little hole in the bottom, so you don't have to clean it out. I was probably the only one who did it.
Community Standard: Where does the company you worked for get their horses?
Michelle: All over, wherever they can get them cheaply.
Community Standard: What do the horses do when they can no longer pull the buggies?
Michelle: I don't know, I never really hear anything about it. I suppose they sell them for whatever they can, maybe glue.
Community Standard: How many companies operate buggies in the Quarter?
Michelle: There are two, Gay Nineties and Le Petit Tours. I worked for Le Petit.
Community Standard: What are the conditions under which the horses are kept?
Michelle: Very modest facilities, just stalls, bins for the feed and for the hay.
Community Standard: How did you get the job?
Michelle: Surprisingly enough, it was the easiest job I had ever gotten. There was no application. I didn't have any recommendation from anyone. I went to the stable and said, “I would like to drive a buggy.” They said, “Fine, go down and we'll get you a license.”
Community Standard: Did you have a training period?
Michelle: I trained for about a week and a half sitting in the driver's seat with the men. I knew the information already because the French Quarter is such a fascinating place that I had read up on it.
Community Standard: Being the only girl driving a buggy, how did you get along with the other drivers?
Michelle: Very well. Half of them were trying to be my father, and the other half were trying to be my lover. Some of them were just friends. I got along with them very well one way or the other.
Community Standard: Why did you quit?
Michelle: There were so many reasons. Partially it was just time for a change. I said the tour over and over again thousands of times. Partially, I quit because I was getting mugged three times a week. The high-school-age children were aware that I was coming from the stable and they would wait for me, hoping to get my money. I got to the point where I would stop off at my apartment and leave my money there, then go back to the stable and hand in whatever was due them. I was carrying a horsewhip and a knife with me on my bicycle. Also, the condition of the horses was annoying me.
Community Standard: Now that you are no longer the buggy lady, what are your ambitions?
Michelle: I want to be the greatest torch singer in the United States and the world.
“…Something interesting to put in my memoirs.”
Community Standard: What is a torch singer?
Michelle: Judy Garland, Sophie Tucker, along those lines. Kind of skulking around, leaning against the piano, wooing the audience, very emotional.
Community Standard: Was being the buggy lady a rewarding experience?
Michelle: It was a way of making money and something interesting to put in my memoirs.
Copyright © 1975–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.