With my perverse propensity for life’s theater, I take pleasure in reading the streets of New Orleans. I read its life forces, its vitality and its levels of triumphs and tragedies. There is nowhere better to witness this passion play unfolding than in my beloved French Quarter; believe you me, Damon Runyon has nothing on us and that’s no phedinkus. So… let’s commiserate about the Quarter.
Trust visitors to see the French Quarter at best through rose colored blinders and at worst through an alcohol induced haze. However, ask a local, and they would probably tell you that it’s more like a kaleidoscopic mosaic of neighbors and nuisances; street musicians and magicians and face painted balloon merchants; cool shops and rip off emporiums; lap dancers and aggressive street hustlers; local pubs and tourist traps; small groceries and inconvenience stores; an explosion of sensory input where nothing is revealed.
We’re still a Mecca for the great unwashed migration in winter on their way to tarnished dread locked futures, canines and musical instruments in tow. Girly boutiques add luster and tee shirt shops take it away. Why anyone would come to the French Quarter for a foot massage is anyone’s guess. Pre-owned book shops both fancy and fanciful are (thankfully) safely entrenched. Bourbon Street is on its own spiral, rolled over for the Yankee dollar and playing that ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ for the masses. Greed, destruction and neglect have robbed us of basic services: Laundromats, hardware stores, post office, shoe repair and stationary supplies. We endure like abused spouses.
The economy has taken its toll on residential offerings; a lot of previous residents have found digs elsewhere: rents go up, folks move out. Children are imported to fill the schools, service personnel come from the outside; the voting base is left in the dust, Mom and Pop stores are gone as well as ethnic and racial diversity. BUT, art, architecture and aesthetics hang in. Preservation organizations jealously keep the draw of the Quarter alive and attractive but her name is still the Mother of Exiles, taking in the tempest tossed.
Some people come here and rise up from mediocrity; some fall through the cracks into obscurity. Some follow love to get here and others are fleeing heartbreak. People that live in the Quarter, work in the Quarter, spend time in the Quarter find themselves part of a small closely knit family. They celebrate their victories and mourn their losses; for indeed, some come here to live and others to die.
They know their bartenders, shopkeepers, neighbor’s pets, and local homeless by name and they’re outgoing and giving by nature; held together by bonds of cocktails, crab boils and classless distinction.
Anyone finding that they’re too busy to notice will actually miss a lot of what is going on in the street. The hungover clown; the drunk asleep in the doorway; the overweight cop smoking a cigarette; the pickpocket ready to strike; the stripper on her way to work. Plain clothes police; a man selling bananas; another washing windows for spare change; unruly teens making more money tap dancing than the dishwasher that’s grateful for the employment and the night shift waiters heading for the Gumbo Shop pass almost unnoticed. A scruffy guitarist holding down an alcove; the day crew smoking across from the Omni or K-Paul’s; kitchen help hosing the sidewalk in back of Café Maspero or Antoine’s; Johnny’s Poor Boy delivering another of the city’s treasures; a deal going down on Dauphine and St. Louis; Joe, outside his wine shop catching a bit of sun before heading off to afternoon mass at the cathedral. Lucky Dogs and Good Friends welcoming you to my world.
Michael is up on a balcony with blood dripping down his arm as a local gendarme (gun drawn) tries to talk him down; a group gathered by the river to celebrate Jerry the waiter’s life and too bad he got drunk and fell down the stairs and broke his neck; William out walking the dogs at noon and heading down to Flanagan’s for a scotch on the rocks; a small woman is selling her homemade jewelry shop door to shop door; a second line from Fahy’s for Cindy who choked on a piece of meat and then there’s Jennifer the hairdresser with her beautiful baby girl; all going on if you’d just look a bit closer. Frank and Winnie on their stoop, seeing it all; Amzie Adams on the street, knowing it all.
Ryan rides her bike to work at Michaelopolis at five minutes to ten so regularly that you could set your watch; they’re boiling crawfish at Yo Mama’s; the best jambalaya is still at Coop’s; WWOZ is on the radio at Kitchen Witch Cookbook Shop; the server up the street got a sweet settlement from BP and hasn’t taken a sober breath since; there’s a new shop and a sucker born every minute so watch your back or there’ll be a shoeshine goon trying to bully you out of your hard earned. No wonder that Tom Waits feels so comfortable here.
Movie stars have moved into a house on Ursuline Street across from Marinette who is throwing her annual ‘Christmas In June’ cook out, Croissant D’Or still has the best pastries but the best coffee is at Royal Blend where the lox and bagels are, Mr. B. at Rouse’s agrees on the blessing of the day and Samantha the checkout lady catches you with a hearty “Howyoudoin’??”, The Toulouse Grocery has breakfast for less than five bucks, music spills out of the Touché bar, the buggy driver is stopping in for a wine; Gerry and Danny are still running their culinary show at Café Amelie and here Comes A PArADe!!
Most folks employed in the French Quarter are overworked and underpaid, have clean bodies and dirty minds, know where the best music is, a parking place or a restroom; wouldn’t have a drink on Bourbon Street on a bet and are here only because they want to be. They know how to get from point (a) to point (b) skirting wide hipped tourists blocking the sidewalk only to get hung up on conversations with the woman selling the Newspaper on Royal Street, listening to Grandpa Elliot or the etheric violin player.
In short, if you come here and think that you’d never want to leave…don’t; with that attitude, you’d fit right in.