With New Orleans Bike Week on the horizon, now might be a good time to start thinking about visiting one of America’s greatest cities. Just remember one thing: fun as it may be, there’s more to the Big Easy than pounding down drinks on Bourbon Street. Here’s a look at a different side of the French Quarter.
There’s all kinds of weirdness in here: masks, bones, feathers, carvings, foreign art, assorted totems. There’s something moving too, furtively, in a darkened corner of this stuffy candle-lit room that I share with Priestess Miriam, who is really in a groove.
“One breath goes out, another comes in,” she intones from somewhere deep inside her metaphysical space.
“A continues circle of energy.”
This is heavy going, but she has come highly recommended to me as one of Louisiana’s top Voodoo Queens, and I am determined to explore the French Quarter at depth. Is New Orleans’ oldest neighbourhood a good place to bring your motorcycle? Is there more to the Quarter than tourists pounding down Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street? Can a person actually survive the libations and predations of, say, New Orleans Bike Week this coming May? He can if—and this is a big if—he can steer clear of the bars and the fierce merry-making of the Quarter. My own thirst has heroic proportions. I figure if I can find other things to keep myself busy and amused along the Quarter, anyone can. That’s why I’ve tracked down Miriam, who looks a little like Tina Turner in strange jewelry.
Voodoo as a serious religion, as an underground lifestyle, and as a tourist trapping is an inseparable part of the French Quarter experience. Like street-corner jazz, the pirate legacy of Jean Lafitte or beers at Johnny White’s bar—a gloriously trashy “biker hangout” that gained national attention for being the only establishment to stay open during Katrina. Johnny White’s is just one of God only knows how many hole-in-the-wall drinkeries that liven up the Quarter, which is geographically bound by Canal Street, Basin Street, Esplanade Avenue and the Mississippi River. That’s 85 square blocks of National Historic Landmark, with nearly 300 years of history. The streets and alleys are narrow, but the lacy wrought-iron balconies upon which drunken young hotties pull off their tops for Girls Gone Wild videos are actually Spanish in design.
The Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 destroyed most of Vieux Carré’s French Colonial architecture—the Quarter was then rebuilt by the Spanish during an era in which Louisiana was tossed back and forth like a string of Mardi Gras beads by European imperialists.
Ironically, a school and convent built by the French Ursuline nuns in 1727 was one of the very few buildings to survive the fire. But impressed they were not. “The devil has a great empire here,” reported the Ursulines.
Their convent still exists as a living, component of life in the Quarter.
Miriam has more to say about that breathing thing: “When the last man and the last woman are born, that’s the end of the succession of breaths.”
Great, but what the hell is that movement? It’s creeping me out. I can’t concentrate on anything else.
There’s a photo on the wall of Priestess Miriam’s late husband, the High Priest Oswan Chamani, handling big snakes in a remote jungle village in Belize. Roaring fires light the night time ritual. Is that what’s in here with us now? A horrible jungle snake? Oswan’s been dead since 1995. “Transcended into the arms of the ancestors where he is now resting at the feet of the Master,” says Miriam.
Caesar’s Ghost! Don’t tell me that in all this time since the Priest’s passing there’s been a vile, loathsome serpent slithering around loose on the floor of Miriam and Oswan’s Voodoo Spiritual Temple. “Temple” is a touch too generous. A time-worn house with a shop front set on the edge of the French Quarter is more accurate. Miriam accepts cheques, Visa, and debit card payments for her services, charms, books, and potions.
I’m dinged $75 for the “interview” or the reading. I’m not sure what it was.
When I step out of the Temple onto North Rampart, across the street from Congo Square at Louis Armstrong Park, I’m immediately confronted with one of two choices. I can turn right and stroll smack into the middle of five or six tough-looking guys who are drunk or pretty close to it. Or, I can talk to the pirates lounging outside the Temple. I pick the pirates, and what a scurvy lot they are. One of them is Canadian though—she says she’s from Ontario someplace, but she’s arrived here for the annual worldwide convention of pirates. They call it PyrateCon, and they meet again in April with this year’s theme, “Search for Lafitte’s Ghost.” There’s a website too, but themes and websites dampen the disgust you might otherwise feel when encountering a dirty, foul-smelling rum-swiller.
Turning deeper into the Quarter I’m reminded of the advice given to me by Maxwell Materne the night before over a supper of blackened redfish washed down by rounds of strawberry Abita, a seasonal favourite local beer.
There are a lot of speciality shops in the Quarter,” said Max, whose family operates a motorcycle dealership with an inclusive name, The Transport Revolution, home of Ducati, Triumph, and Vespa of New Orleans.
True enough, especially on Royal Street where a buyer with discriminating tastes can still purchase a stubby, six-barrelled Civil War-era “pepperbox” pistol for $1,450, or a colonial Brown Bess musket from James H. Cohen & Sons, collector and appraiser of “Rare coins, Antique Weapons and Jewelry.” Many of the mercantilists along Royal have been in business since the 1800s.
On St. Ann Street I turn into the shop “Mask Arade,” where the proprietor Mary Behlar tells me she has 45 local artists cranking out one-of-a-kind Mardi Gras masks. These aren’t the made-in-China knockoffs found in every souvenir store in the Quarter, they’re authentic and richly-detailed in the traditional colours of purple, green and gold. Deeply entrenched in the culture of the Quarter, Mary is also the owner of Bourbon French Parfums on Royal, where she sells custom-blended perfumes and fragrances that date back to 1843.
She keeps files on every blend ever mixed in her store, so when a customer, such as Angelina Jolie, returns, even years later, their special fragrance can be whipped up on the spot. Like every elite business in the Quarter, celebrities such as Brad and Angelina are regulars.
Mary is generous with her time. She shuts down the mask shop to show me her community. That’s the thing about the Quarter: real people lead real lives here. It’s not just a stage on which to run riot. She brings me to meet her friends, such as Joan Good, who has owned a cluttered gem and rare oddities shop on Royal for more than 40 years. Among the bric-a-brac on dusty unorganized shelves are platters of garnet fleur-de-lis and ceramic horses from China’s Ming and Han Dynasty. Joan tells me that she used to play poker here with the playwright Tennessee Williams and even appeared by name in his play “Five O’Clock Angel.”
Outside Joan Good’s store we meet The Pie Lady, who has maintained the generations-old street-vending tradition of her family. Every morning, she walks down the street bearing a tray full of freshly-baked pies for sale. You can hear her singing from three blocks away. “Those chants she’s singing are probably 200 years old,” says resident Jay Bourgoyne, who once operated Circus von Amberg, (“The first alternative circus in America.”) and is now a moving force behind the Historic Bourbon Street Foundation. The Pie Lady, from Bourgoyne’s perspective, is an integral part of the fabric of the French Quarter.
“There’s a core element here that doesn’t change,” he says. “It’s tolerant and understanding of the weakness of human nature.”
Oh, to be sure, whatever you might have heard about the French Quarter is probably true. It’s always been a busy port with global influences where sugar, cotton and slaves arrived and departed. What they left behind is an American legacy that’s boozy, romping and decadent: the Big Easy.
Bars stay open deep into the night, and literally on every street corner, there’s music: jazz, blues, rock, the songbook of America. It’s simply impossible to go anywhere in the Quarter without music being there. From the soulful strains of a busking sax player under a street lamp, to hard-driving southern fusion in a sweaty, raucous watering hole, music ranges from the merely good to unbelievably great.
When I ask Grace Wilson of New Orleans Tourism where I can go to hear original Dixieland-Riverboat-style jazz (“Not the white boy interpretative crap”) she replies without hesitation: “Preservation Hall
on St. Peter.”
The Hall itself is a small ancient venue with a low wood-beam ceiling that can hold perhaps 75 people.
No food or beverages are served, but that’s alright—you can simply run across the street to Johnny White’s, grab a pint and dash back. Management on either end has zero problems with that. The mandate of the Hall, as its name suggests, is to serve as a sanctuary where “the elite come to meet” to play original New Orleans music. When I arrive Carl LeBlanc and the five-member Essential New Orleans Jazz Band really have the joint jumping. They roll out Basin Street Blues, Sweet Georgia Brown, and a host of heartland standards. But they have to draw the line somewhere. If you want ‘The Saints’ you have to drop $10 in the hat, says the band leader.
Is the Quarter dangerous though? It’s a question often asked. Well, it can be. Every night is a revel, and the streets are packed. And unlike most places in the civilized world, you can carry booze around openly on the streets—”Huge Ass Beers To Go,” declares the indelicate rusted signage hanging down on a seedy part of Bourbon Street. This liberal attitude ramps up the idiot level by a factor of however many drinks it takes to bring the yahoo out of the boy. Hustlers and scammers abound. “I’ll tell you where yoah shoes came from if you give me a dollah,” proposes one sly street urchin. “Okay, where did they come from?” asks the dupe, holding out a green bill. “From yoah feet,” replies the young villain as he dashes off with the American buck.
“Hey Mister,” says a life-weary woman with a Salvation Army presence. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to write you a ticket.” The dupe is again spotted.
“A ticket for what?” he asks.
“For not partying hard enough,” says the woman, as she scribbles into a notepad. “Or you can donate $10.”
As it’s unclear what the charity is aside from herself, the dupe declines.
These are the most prevalent forms of danger in the Quarter, though there can be nasty turns. On the other hand, cops are everywhere. Many ride cute little scooters, but they’re not in the business of taking guff. They’re not the only ones on two wheels: gleaming Harleys, Gold Wings, and Japanese cruisers prowl the Quarter until late at night. Technically though, no motorcycles are allowed there after midnight. That ruling seems to make little difference.
And despite Katrina, New Orleans, taken overall, is a “city on the rise,” says Larry Oliphant, who is the president of the newly-created Bike Week New Orleans. Entering its second year, BWNO 2010 is actually a four-day event with an auspicious start date, Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May. Standard “biker” offerings will make it a familiar affair with the Broken Spoke Saloon as the central staging area for bands, burnout contests, the Easyriders V-Twin show, a cook-off between celebrity chefs and top-flight customizers, and of course the good ol’ Wall of Death.
Oliphant “conservatively” estimates attendance will be in the range of 8,000, though the event was criticized last year for its lack of promotion. Even riders in Louisiana complained they had not heard of it or they might have gone. Businesses wondered why “the bikers” didn’t come through the Quarter.
This year promises to be different. “There’s been a great buy-in from the city, the police, and the Quarter,” says Oliphant. “The first group of tickets we sold last year was to Canadians. But tell me this, how can we get a thousand Canadians to come down here this year for Bike Week?”
• John Campbell