People still ask if they should come here. If it is safe. If it is Real any more. The answer is yes, to all three. And for the next two weeks nearly a million people will be here to take part in the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
I do love this City. And that itself is a pretty hard thing to admit. Like a particularly deranged and incontinent relative, New Orleans must be accepted with a wagonload of foibles. This is a magical, mystical, and - yes - mythical place. It lives its myth. Daily. Everyone who has ever lived in New Orleans, still does. In one way or another.
Then there is, of course, Bourbon street, the specific place most out-of-town people bring to mind when they heard the words New and Orleans together. I suppose that, in one way, Bourbon tells the city’s story.
Sure, as streets go, it is interesting enough.
Forty years ago Bourbon was still the heart of a neighborhood. Long-term residents considered it Main Street of the small, confined, detached space within the larger City. But back then the Quarter was more a sister city to Greater New Orleans than a part of it.
Shortly upon returning here after I had completed the school-dependent phase of life, I saw that the darling, innocent sister had mutated into a seriously twisted Elder Auntie with a breast fetish. The great, open neighborhood I had enjoyed as a part-time resident in the sixties had gone. At first she had just become a bawdy old working girl, but then things got a bit out of hand in the parlor. A demented sideshow atmosphere invaded the Quarter. The “normal” people of the universe, “normal” being the description tourists inevitably made of themselves when they were in New Orleans, visited in larger and larger numbers. They began to expect freak shows and psyche-churning rides as part of the New Orleans experience, and the growth industry geared to visitors encouraged those expectations. Anything to fill one more room, sell one more meal.
When I tried living in the Upper Quarter – that with the most tourist activity -- again in the eighties, I found a horror show. My car was either being towed away by the city twice a week for street-cleaning, or having its finish ruined by drunken vandals who walked down the block with a key extended to gouge a line on every car unlucky enough to be parked there. I do not know the logic or motivation of such an act, but I do know that it happened regularly enough that most residents were forced to rent spaces in parking garages. The streets had to be cleaned so often because tourists produced an enormous amount of refuse and disposed of it indiscriminately. The public sanitation was made necessary by other even less attractive products of the tourism industry. Visitors drinking well past the Universal Ninety-Proof Point of Imminent Beverage Return made for regular decoration of sidewalks, especially in front of my door, as I was living near a favorite watering-hole. When one day I discovered a full set of upper and lower dentures in the middle of such a splash, I decided that I’d had enough living in the old neighborhood.
But while the entire French Quarter was invaded by commerce and touted as a tourist attraction called the Vieux Carré, the Lower Quarter desperately hung onto as much of its residential core as possible. Even the poorest houses in the district are considered picturesque in an America filled with tract homes and formica counters. Here pastel stucco facades are falling into the streets, ferns grow out of every rain gutter, wrought iron roses hold up decayed wooden balconies. Picturesque. But even the lower Quarter is losing the battle, surrounded by garish hotels, historic building being broken into time-share condos and the possibly-only-semi-poisonous waters of the Mississippi which hem it in to the south.
Some houses, even some major Quarter restaurants, still run on DC electric power. The lights flicker during dinner and a waiter runs into the back room to make sure connections with the acid batteries are not collapsed. No problem there. Picturesque. Grande Dame restaurant Galatoire’s was finally rewired for AC only a decade or so ago.
In 1960 the City Council had allowed the first new hotel in many decades to be built in the Quarter. The construction further revitalized the Vieux Carré as a tourist destination. The new building was touted as the way to bring in fresh blood and new money. But in another way, the hotel signaled a mortal wound for the neighborhood aspect of this oldest part of New Orleans.
That neighborhood was getting busy. By the end of the decade, Mardi Gras parades had been permanently diverted from the Quarter onto the multiple lanes of Canal street. Carnival was deemed to have grown too big and dangerous for the French Quarter. It probably had.
The excesses of the Eighties gaudied up the Old Girl even more in search of increased tourist sales. Moneyed exploitation took all the fun out of being a Madame for the Quarter, but it did solve the modernists’ “problem” of omnipresent decaying old houses - the architecture became barely visible beneath boutique signs.
In the Nineties the proliferation of t-shirt and porcelain mask shops slowed somewhat, but still showed no sign of abating completely. Holding off any action until the last possible moment, City officials finally realized they had allowed the serious corruption of one of New Orleans’ primary assets. As usual they had waited until it was almost too late. The aging Madame remained on life support approaching the twenty-first century. The residents who kept her alive are as mixed a batch of humanity as could be found on the planet. They knew that if they left, she would fall into the hands of the tourist machine. That industry believes most visitors would prefer the French Quarter without the “characters” who live there, anyway. The Quarter would then be less threatening, less real. More American.
In any case, the name of her wayward nephew “Bourbon Street” was much higher on a world-wide recognition scale than that of the ailing French Quarter. The “Bourbon” name was known in London, Delhi, Hong Kong, Capetown, and Vladivostok, in much the same way as another signature Louisiana word, “Tabasco”, was known. There was direct association: burning tongue for Tabasco, burning loins for Bourbon street.
Tabasco lives up to its reputation.
“Bourbon” came from French aristocracy, though of course most visitors tied it more closely with an amber beverage from Kentucky. Under a variety of brand names, small-B bourbon is consumed in the South in ritual quantities. And in fact, a great deal of that liquid does indeed make it into the mouths, throats and stomachs of those who tread the uneven flagstones of Bourbon street. Often more than once. The reality of the street is tied much more directly to the whiskey than to the unwashed Gallic wig-bearers of far earlier times.
The street's dozen blocks are for the most part vastly entertaining, when considered on a number of different levels. However, the first thing that confronts a pedestrian visitor, especially in summer, is the distinctive scent of the street. Every night stale beer and flattened corn-dogs combine as mash in the gutters with thousands of spilled fruit drinks. Somewhere in the wee hours, this gutter cocktail is topped with a wave of “juice” squeezed out by the hydraulic-press garbage trucks as they make their pickups. Then around 4am the resultant mix is splashed with a healthy dose of chlorine bleach and washed into the storm drains by cleaning crews. Shaken, not stirred, the viscous liquid sits fermenting in tunnels below the asphalt and flagstones. By the middle of an August afternoon, it can rise from the drains to take on actual form -- some say as a physical manifestation of a locally-advertised television attorney.
Entering Bourbon street is much easier on the nose in the cooler hours of the evening.
Close by the Krystal Burger and Hustler magazine lingerie (street sign motto: “It’s only sex”) parlor that dominate its start at Canal street, saxophonists have staked their territory as the dominant noise-making fraternity. Equipped with pre-recorded orchestral tracks issuing from distorted portable speakers, an assortment of reed men play informal shifts throughout the day and night in the echoing cavern between multi-story buildings.
A guitarist tried to insinuate his way into a regular performance position at the turn of the millennium, but was quickly run off. His ouster was made easier by the fact that the encroaching musician was rather dependent on his wheel chair. The saxmen had no pity.
The first block of Bourbon remains a safe haven for saxophonists and brass ensembles. There have been attempts to rein in their power, and their noise. The City Government enacted a regulation restricting Street musicians to public playing hours between 10am and 10pm. This was aimed directly at the sax brigade, but it did not make a dent in their ongoing performances. There were so few residents at the upper end of the Quarter now that no one complained. So the music seldom stopped. Police rarely hassled violators of the ordinance. Saxophone bleats did not seem to draw an NOPD patrol's attention quite as quickly as did the all-too-frequent staccato rhythms of Uzis and AKs.
The next seven Bourbon blocks are safe haven for no one. Scam artists continue to milk the old “Bet I know where you got them shoes” line for dollars, to this day. The answer of course was “On your feet,” but dozens, dozens of tourists pay off on this particular sucker bet daily. They laugh and hand over cash. “Ho ho. I'll use that one back home.” Reinforcing the perpetrators. These particular low-grade grifters have congregated between St Louis and Toulouse streets since the '50's. They are still there, and still making money off the same tired old line. The con men are not to be taken too lightly, however. Most are dangerously unpredictable sorts, having fallen back on this primitive ruse in desperation. When confronted or insulted, they display weapons as a matter of course. This is not show. They are not averse to liberally using these instruments of mayhem. Though these days the concentrations of NOPD officers in this area tends to discourage extreme action.
Covertly observing the cons at work is one of the street's more popular freak rides. It furnishes the ticket holder with much of the same thrill as watching feeding time at the nearby Aquarium's shark tank. Great fun, as long as the glass remains intact, and the street sharks don't see you.
Ironic juxtaposition is the order of the day on the new Bourbon street. The featured players' list is extensive. The afore-mentioned Galatoire’s, the sole grande dame restaurant left with its front door directly on Bourbon, is bracketed by bad-taste t-shirt shops and 25-cent peep shows. The restaurant accepts no reservations in the prime downstairs dining room, and still requires much of its clientele to wait in line on the street, thus giving those potential diners a compulsory education at Bourbon U.
A high-priced “gentlemen's club”, one of the topless-dancer variety, now sits directly across the street from another old-line cafe. The cafe light-heartedly deals with the new geography by advertising “topless oysters”, the bivalves served on the half-shell.
The second-floor Chinese Merchants Association has the La Bouche Orgy Parisienne for a downstairs neighbor. A German bier keller hosts Cajun bands on its stage. Next door a French restaurant positions a comely “Southern Belle” -- a young black woman in full hoop skirt and lowered décolletage -- at its door to lure in customers.
A country-western karaoke bar called the “Bucking Buckaroo” blares lyrics to “Wild Thing”, while just outside its entrance an R&B club twangs with a country-western house band. Patrons of the aptly-named “All Our Girls Are Boys” show can look across the street into a club where all the girls merely look like boys. The “Topless & Bottomless” club's barker will admit under pressure that the club name referred merely to pants and shirt - the dancers wore tops and bottoms. There are two places claiming to be the “Original Old Absinthe Bar” within a block of each other, and both do well with original customers.
The supporting cast includes: gypsies begging on the streets and picking the pockets of the generous; good-looking members of the Hare Krishnas, both men and women, in modern gear hustling cash between Conti & Bienville streets under the guise of being part of a “Vieux Carre Patrol”; an old man twirling his false teeth for a quarter thrown into his open umbrella; groups of violent teenagers trawling for wealthy drunks; pimps for all sexual preferences; eight-year-old boys with bottle caps tacked to their Nikes speed-tapping so fast that the sparks can be seen forming a nest under their feet at night; old women pushing shopping carts full of shiny car parts to the metal recyclers.
They are all there on any given night.
And there are go-cups.
As usual, the federal government is trying to eliminate this last vestige of human civilization. Stacks of plastic cups stand by the door of every bar in town, allowing patrons to carry unfinished drinks to their next destination. The idea is that The Party never stops. A dozen alleyways on Bourbon alone sell beer and mixed drinks in plastic containers for walking consumption. My favorite bears the sign “Huge-Ass Beers”. At half a gallon, they are indeed large. Until only recently, it was permissible to drink while driving here, as long as the driver was not drunk. Government, religion, and the organized Mothers With Rules, however, are bringing the perimeters of this extravagant activity steadily inward.
In the last decade we have seen the disasters, Katrina and the BP spill. Many people left, some never to return. But those still here seem more than ever dedicated to living out their lives as if those twin horrors never occurred. We are, for the most part, back in our homes. The levees are bigger and better. The seafood is perfect, though the oysters are not quite back to full numbers yet. Of course the loss of the major oyster beds was not due to British oil, but to Republican politics, as the ambitious Governor pulled the plug for fresh water to flow through the beds, supposedly to gain approval in public opinion polls as The Man who was doing something positive to push the oil back into the Gulf. He did not consult scientists or his own Wildlife & Fisheries Commission before doing this. The oil never got inland to the beds, but the fresh water he released did, killing the next four generations of shellfish.
But even the oysters are coming back now.
As are the tourists, music and food lovers. There always have been, and always will be, masses of people on any night of the year, weekend or weeknight, rain or moonshine, summer or winter, staggering down Bourbon or Frenchmen street.
Looking for The Party. It is still here.