New Orleans’s economic rhythm depends upon the kindness of strangers. While we certainly enjoy year-round popularity, now is that time of year when we are most assuredly about to fill up our dance cards.
Our town—in fact, Louisiana at large—is a magnet for festivals, sporting events and celebrations of all things imaginable, and party shoes are always nearby. From Twelfth Night (the kick-off of Mardi Gras) throughout spring and finishing with the Greek Festival on Bayou St. John, this joint will be jumping. So since New Orleans is a magnet for tourists and travelers, and since these next four months will be the strongest pull, let’s think about the kindness—not only of strangers and the monies they bring to our ever-struggling economy—but also about how we can bestow some kindness upon them.
Tourism dollars are ill-gotten gains if we do not reciprocate. I get it that locals living in the thick of tourists can sometimes start to feel frayed at the edges, especially during high-volume times like Mardi Gras. However, we are New Orleanians and, as such, it is our job to make our visitors feel welcome. These folks are more than tourist dollars, they are just like us. Think about this for a minute. Remember that time you were vacationing in an unfamiliar city and simply couldn’t make heads nor tails of where you were—the map, Google, nothing could get you situated? Then that nice person stopped and asked you if you needed directions and all was made clear. How many times have you rolled your eyes at the tourist who, standing smack dab in the middle of Jackson Square, asked how to get to the French Quarter? Well, put your eyes back in place and use them to see when a visitor needs a little help.
When I was in London, I got my first really serious come-to-Jesus-smell-the-coffee-wow-this-is-what-it-feels-like-to-be-lost moment. There, I was in this hugely famous and hugely large department store, Harrods, and Boyfriend and I decided to spend some time browsing on separate floors. We had a plan on where to regroup and meet back—at the escalators on the third floor. Apparently, I was ahead of time and what might have been no more than 15 minutes turned into a nightmare of imagined worst case scenarios.
I stood there in a foreign country, albeit one with a language I knew, thinking “Where is he? What if something happened to him? I don’t have any identification on me. No idea where our hotel is or how to navigate the trains or buses to the hotel even if I could remember the name of it. And I have no money on me!…” My mind went crazy with “what ifs” and by the time Boyfriend met me, on time, at the designated spot, in the safe and beautiful Harrods, I was in tears. Needless to say, I never left the hotel again without money, a map, passport and a stiff drink. World traveler, I am not. That experience left me with tourist empathy. Whether the visitor is asking seemingly inane questions, asking for dining recommendations while you are trying to pooper-scoop your dog and juggle an armful of groceries, or mispronouncing “beignets,” you simply have to suck it up and be kind. Why? Because we have all been in their shoes at one time or another. And because it is the right thing to do—they are our guests.
Through the years, I have observed fellow waiters and bartenders profile customers and treat them with disregard because of a perceived poor tip. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You cannot judge a situation in advance. And, even if you could, why not extend some Southern hospitality and hope for the best? Also, this is an opportunity to clue them in to our tipping protocol and steer them to locally owned businesses. Example: “May I suggest Avery’s on Tulane for a great lunch? Even with gratuity, you should find it most affordable. Just call United Cab at 522-9771 [sorry, Uber—had to throw a bone to our taxi guys]. The fare and tip should run ya such-and-such amount.” Boom. In two sentences, you have promoted a family-owned business and twice mentioned the word “tip.” Reiterate “tip” when pointing out the great free music on Royal Street. You can let tourists know we are a tip-centric town without any rudeness.
My occasional burn-out with visitors and tourism is something that I find unavoidable. But every time I go on vacation, I come back with an improved attitude and empathy for travelers. However, most of us can not afford to travel much these days. Yet, you can still traipse about town on your day off and play like a tourist and view our city through another’s eyes. Go out to lunch and observe what makes your dining experience work and what doesn’t. Visit some uniquely New Orleans shops, bars and sights, and then share them with the next visitor you meet. Reward your friends and punish your enemies. If you have a beef with Airbnb, then find a bed & breakfast, hostel or small hotel that you can recommend instead. Unhappy with corporate cookie cutter souvenir shops taking over the Quarter? Then make a note of the small, locally owned businesses that offer locally made or curated cool stuff—like Junk Masters on 2563 Bayou Rd., SEASONED Experienced Cookware on 1016 N. Broad St., or Material Life on 6038 St. Claude Ave. Make sure you direct tourists and visitors to the many music clubs and eateries that are off the beaten track. And, at the same time, send—with pride—folks to any/all of our museums from the big (WWII Museum) to the small (Ronald Lewis’s House of Dance and Feather in the Lower 9th).
Simply put: do your city a solid and “talk tourist.” Or, as my mama would say, “Where are your manners? Make these folks feel welcomed! They are our guests.”