‘It’s legal to drink on the street in Louisiana’
Photograph by Kevin O’Mara
I wasn’t technically a food bank employee, but rather a “fellow.” Every two weeks I got $415 from the government program and about $100 from the food bank itself. My rent was $450 and this wasn’t enough. Somewhere along the line one of my coworkers got me an extra job, working as a merch girl for a local record company that signed jazz acts. I went to the bar where the pianist or trumpet player was performing and sat in the back at a card table, selling CDs and tee shirts. Most of the bars I worked in were along Frenchman Street, a brightly lit strip of music clubs that’s within stumbling distance of the French Quarter and popular with tourists. Frenchman Street got its name when five French rebels were hanged on the levee at the end of it during the Spanish colonial rule, but this, it turned out, was not a good anecdote to charm tourists with at the bars. I wasn’t very good at selling CDs and spent most of my time hanging out with Brandon, a 40ish black guy in thick glasses who kept his hair in tiny, perfect dreadlocks. Brandon was a drug dealer who hung around in jazz clubs selling small amounts of overpriced weed to out-of-towners in sweatshirts. He smiled too much and couldn’t remember my name; Brandon always addressed me as “honey.” But I liked him anyway, in part because I was lonely and in part because he could do magic tricks. “A magician is the most honest man in the world,” he once told me in the back corner of the Blue Nile Bar, “because he says he’s going to trick you, and then he does!” Then Brandon made the ace of clubs appear in an empty beer glass at the next table. Because we were both working, we were usually the only ones there who were sober.
Out-of-towners, I was learning, come to New Orleans either to perform charity or to party. The party industry is bigger. At the jazz shows, I saw a lot of people treating themselves to benders. There were groups of heavy-gutted men down for bachelor party weekends. There were girls in tiny sequined dresses, delightedly calling to each other, “It’s so warm out!” It’s legal to drink on the street in Louisiana, and in the tourist districts at night there is often a group of people clustered on the sidewalk, chanting, “Shot! Shot! Shot!” Bourbon Street smells like piss and disinfectant. It might sound far-fetched that I ran into volunteers from the food bank while I was there, but actually it happened a lot.
If you spend enough time around the tourists in New Orleans, you start to pick up on patterns. At the food bank and the bar alike, I was told that the city was “magical.” People confessed to me that they were “under its spell.” This attitude is partly a success of marketing: the city has undertaken a massive and ongoing campaign to make New Orleans a major center of domestic tourism, and it’s working. But it’s also partly a real phenomenon of the place. This kind of thing isn’t easy to explain, but New Orleans is suffused with a seductive nostalgia that is surprisingly difficult to resist; it tricks you into participating in its own mythology in ways that you don’t expect it to. Even now, whenever I go there, New Orleans seems to be trying to draw me into some kind of conspiracy of signification. When I lived there, my apartment was on Independence, a one-way street. Two blocks over was Desire, a one-way street going in the opposite direction. It was things like that.
Part of the reason why New Orleans plays so strongly on the imagination is that it looks just like it does in the movies. If you have never been there but have an image in your mind of a building with an iron lacework balcony and gas streetlamp outside, I can assure you that this building exists, and that if you ever go there you can track it down and take a picture of it.