“Growing Up Latchkey: A Story of Two Sisters’ Independence in New Orleans”

During the virtual school year caused by Covid-19, my sister and I spent many mornings venting our frustrations over trying to get our girls out of bed and ready for school — which was in the home via computers. We couldn’t comprehend why this was so difficult and discussed if other parents faced the same problems. Nostalgic memories of growing up in New Orleans took over our conversation. During our childhood, we looked after ourselves when Mama had to work; assistance from welfare or childcare were not available then — nor much of it decades later.

My Mama worked long hours in the French Quarter as a cook and took on side jobs like sewing for people and hosting Suppers to provide for us, which meant We were often home alone before or after school. Neighbors and family were always nearby to look out for us as well. Mama always called at the same time to check in on us, and we were allowed to call her at work if we were scared or had an emergency. We were given strict instructions about what to do while we were home alone, and we followed them to the T for the most part. She did her best to ensure that we were safe when we were in her care. Today, things are different with our kids. The rules around coming home after school have been adapted to accommodate modern technology; although phones play an important part in our children’s lives, we’re not quite as vigilant as we were growing up. We talk to our kids about the importance of discussion, learning from the community, and looking at role models who inspire them. I was so thankful that my Mama allowed us to see the world through different lenses when we were growing up. We reminisced about our childhood days, how small the world was then, and how small it still is when you look in the right places. Every day in New Orleans, something new can and will happen that you won’t hear about on the news. That’s a treasure that I don’t think many other places in the world can compare to. We talked about the best places to get crawfish and the music that gives New Orleans its soul. My Mama always said that the most important thing when we were growing up was to never lose sight of who we are, never forget our roots, and never forget our culture. That’s the only way you will continue to grow and thrive.


Early beginnings on the RTA

I was very young when I was entrusted to venture into the streets of New Orleans. I was six years old and tall, almost five-foot-frame, and very mature for my age. Of course, my Mama didn’t just say, go catch the bus at six years old. She taught me just as she did when she had to work. I started riding the bus years before I was left in charge. But we took several trips before I was able to go alone. I had to pass a few tests as well. My Mama or someone in my family would watch from a distance. Or follow behind the bus in a car, and so on. I was taught about dangerous situations and to rely on my senses and discernment. I was encouraged not to be embarrassed or afraid to ask for help. Looking back, I feel I was well prepared; it was the late 70s to early 80s. Life was very much different then, and someone’s Mama or Auntie was looking out for us. Back then, if you were caught doing bad by any adult, there was no waiting to tell your parents. They whipped your butt on site. I didn’t have to worry about that because I was a delightful little girl. I was always complimented on how well-behaved I was.

My first time riding the RTA in New Orleans was when I was in first grade, going to Lockett Elementary in the Ninth Ward. Our residence was a few blocks from school, in the Florida Projects, but my Mama worked, and my Momo, Auntie, and Uncle lived across the train tracks at the Desire Project. A ride on the bus was only five minutes, but walking to the stop after classes felt much longer and more nerve-wracking. Had it not been for the older kids that hung around, plus the railroads and roads to be crossed, I may have been allowed to go by foot.

My 1st Grade Bully

My classmate, let’s call him Lucifer for his devilish behavior, had thrown two Coke bottles at me as I made it through the fence. Before that day, he used to tease me – the usual kind of boyish teasing – but on this occasion, a teacher shouted for him to “stop or else,” and he ran away. The following day, he was suspended from school. The day I stepped out of the gate, umbrella-less and free from his taunting, I felt a wave of relief. When Lucifer returned to school, he approached my lunch table, handed me a small white fluffy teddy bear holding a heart, and told me he was sorry. I looked up, and Lucifer was crying. His eyes were red and swollen from crying. After meeting with the principal regarding the incident, the cafeteria went silent at the site of both of our Father’s entering the lunchroom. I’m pretty sure he made him apologize and promise to leave me alone. And he did.


Sisterhood Responsibility

My school days were spent riding the city bus with my little sister. I was responsible for ensuring we left on time and ate breakfast before leaving. Every morning, we’d watch cartoons until the end of the Jetson’s theme song, when it was time to go. Then, I’d feed our dog and lock our house using the key that I had around my neck unless it felt uncomfortable in my shoes, or sometimes my Mama would pin the key inside her backpack with a big safety pin.

My little sister and I would always take the same seat on the bus, near the driver. We rarely spoke during our rides—we were too focused on what was happening around us and when to get off. In elementary school, we had to sit surrounded by teenagers who made a nuisance of themselves—talking loudly, using profanity, and showing affection for each other.

The driver became fed up with the bad behavior of some students, so much so that he would often pass up complete stops just so he didn’t have to deal with them. When this happened, I felt a bit of joy inside, but soon enough, I found myself amongst the rowdy teens as well since I had to look out for my young sister. Even then, we still tried to act right.

Oh, Lawd, taking the city bus was no stroll in the park. The drunken stinky man would stand before us and ask for our transfers. Or the person who has a mental illness but then called them crazy because they talked to themselves, and when they said “hi, you weren’t sure if you should respond. Riding the city bus was no school bus ride by far.

I didn’t know what a yellow school bus was until I moved to Minnesota and had my child. There was no sitting by friends on the RTA. Being on the same bus with someone from your school was luck, especially in the morning. I can only imagine how nice it is to ride the school bus with friends versus public transportation with strangers, and more than anything, we had to be responsible and safe. After school was the best because we were all on the same buses for the most part. For fun, sometimes we would walk down to catch the Streetcar, which wasn’t crowded if we didn’t lollygag around. We loved riding the Streetcar; actually, we still do! The Streetcar made us feel like we were going somewhere! Somewhere fun, fancy, and fabulous!


Orleans Parish School Board Bus Tickets

Did I mention that we had to be responsible? Teachers would hand out manila envelopes with a week’s worth of roundtrip bus tickets every week. The tickets were yellow with the word “Orleans Parish School Board” across them, either “AM or PM,” and the use date. They’re easy to fold up and fit into a pocket. A signature from the parents was required to confirm receipt of the tickets; if not turned in by Wednesday, the student wouldn’t get any for the following week. The tickets were treated the same way as cash: if lost or stolen, it was up to the parent to provide bus fare for their child; most of the time, this resulted in daily bus tokens. This policy was put into effect due to adults taking advantage of bus tickets in the past. Years later, they were replaced with student-only cards similar to what is used currently.

Look twice before crossing.

Back in the 80s, my sister and I rode the Magazine St. and Napoleon Ave. buses to Allen Elementary School. We had to transfer buses at a busy intersection, and one morning we rushed down the steps of our bus without waiting for the next one to come to pick us up. In an attempt to make it in time, I grabbed my sister’s hand, waved my left hand, trying to catch the bus driver’s attention, and boldly stepped out into the street. The light changed instantly, and just as I was about to cross over, a truck flew past us so quickly that it felt like it gave us a push out of harms way with its invisible arms. It was a close call, but luckily I hesitated long enough to take a look before crossing.

I was rushing because we would be late if we missed the bus, and I didn’t want to mess up our perfect attendance. As I looked down, I felt my sister’s fingers tightly intertwined with mine, filling me with a sense of comfort. But that feeling was quickly replaced with embarrassment when we stepped onto the bus.

As we stepped onto the bus, the driver scolded us as if it were our fault that I had done something impulsive. Some of the teenagers who went to Fortier High School were sitting in the back, snickering and laughing at another one of them, saying, “You’ll be bout to get pancaked!” This affected me socially in a negative way.

A few days later, they still hadn’t dropped it yet. That was when I made up my mind to stop taking the bus and instead take the Streetcar with my little sister. We’d have to leave home earlier since we had to walk about four blocks, but being away from their teasing and taunting would make those extra minutes totally worth it. Even though I felt bad for making her join me on this journey, we could also visit the gorgeous Latter Public Library with our new route. Best of all, my Mama loved it since there would be less time spent staying home alone. No, I didn’t tell her about getting hit by anything; I just said that the teenagers were always fighting and cussing.

It was the start of a new way of our morning commutes, but it was a beginning—a beginning of growing up in New Orleans.


Different Routes

Leaving sixth grade to go to elementary school was emotional for us, not only as sisters but also as best friends. We were essentially all we had and relied heavily on each other. This strengthened our bond even further and made us understand how important it was for us to care for one another. Despite the fact that neither of us felt a need to compete with the other, my teenage hormones made me want to branch out and explore on my own. Luckily, I still prioritized my sisterly duties, and since Mama worked only at night, she was around often enough to ensure things stayed safe. Each morning I’d walk with her towards the Streetcar, meeting up again after school at the library.

As I transitioned into my teenage life, I attempted to balance my new world with my sister. She was only two years younger than me, but sometimes those two years meant she was too young. By the time I was in ninth grade and boy crazy, I skipped class only to go to Pennyland Arcade on Canal St., or we would sneak into Loew’s theatre and kiss the entire movie away. Back then, the Ferry was free, so we rode on it like a mini-cruise boat until school let out. But there was no way my sister could hang out with me while I was a juvenile delinquent. I was the oldest and was supposed to be my little sister’s role model; there was no way I could expose her to my teenage foolery. So, I would get a transfer and catch the bus back quickly before meeting her at the bus stop.

As I grew older, my love for the Streetcar never waned. It was still one of my favorite things to do, and sometimes, when I was feeling particularly nostalgic, I would take a ride on the Streetcar just for old times’ sake. Riding through the streets of New Orleans, I’d reflect on all the memories I had made on the bus and the Streetcar. Memories of my sister’s small hand in mine, memories of teenage rebellion and stolen kisses, and memories of the people I had met on my travels.

Pennyland Arcade Room on Canal St
Arcade Room on Royal St

Loews State Theatre on Canal St

I faired out well.

Although it was hard being alone as a latchkey kid sometimes, understanding why this was necessarily motivated me. In essence, growing up in New Orleans like that formed me into a responsible adult. That trust and independence allowed me to have one-on-one time with myself. I got to know myself and my likes and dislikes early on. At that time, I could engage with different people and explore the city. I learned the importance of eye contact, body language, and speaking up for myself. I believe that that time out in the world at such young ages toughened us up, taught us how to be responsible in public, and assisted in our social development skills. My Mama was a phenomenal role model who worked hard for us. We couldn’t help but respect and appreciate everything she was trying to do for us, especially as single parents. She taught us about life by allowing us to observe all that she did and said.

I learned a lot about life from my experiences on public transportation. Lessons about responsibility, safety, and the importance of looking twice before crossing. But I also learned about the human experience. I had witnessed firsthand the struggles and triumphs of the people of New Orleans. The dreams were never realized, the hope never lost, and the beauty shone through even in the darkness.

Now, as I sit here writing this,I realize that my love for public transportation has never really faded. I still enjoy hopping on a bus or a streetcar and watching the world go by. It’s like being part of a larger community, a community that is diverse and full of life. And though it may not be as glamorous as other forms of travel, to me, it’s the most authentic way to experience the soul of a city.

As for my little sister, she grew up to be just as independent and adventurous as I am. We still reminisce about our days riding the bus and the Streetcar and make it a point to take a ride together whenever we can. As we travel down the familiar streets, we talk about everything and anything, and I realize that our bond has only grown stronger over the years.

Looking back, I realize that those days riding the bus and the Streetcar were more than just a means of transportation. They were a journey, a journey that shaped who I am.

It all grew me into a well-rounded, possibly overly responsible adult.

MY little sis, Dionne and I


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