New Orleans is a city of layers – a parfait metropolis – and even on Bourbon Street, where the glitz is thickest, the authentic can still be uncovered. There is some eccentric, elemental power permeating the place (a filigree of John the Conqueror roots, perhaps, snaking through the subterranean piping), and especially its French Quarter or Vieux Carre (not an American neighborhood so much as a Caribbean one), that no amount of cheesy T-shirt shops, crummy souvenir stands, or corporate co-option can ever subdue.
Among its many fine and bizarre qualities, New Orleans is a great people preserve – a museum of Homo sapiens and unnatural history; a national zoo park of persons. While Paris offers a peerless collection of strangely shaped dogs, New Orleans has the corner on curiously forged personalities; an undiluted jambalaya of jazz geniuses, junkies, over-voluptuous blues mamas and video-poker-playing antique hustlers, Lucky Dog hawkers ranting Shakespeare, beautiful and not so beautiful losers, piquant tap dancers in Nikes, rats, bats and alley cats.
“New Orleans,” a former resident recently told me, “is a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.” It’s a town with a complicated soul: where the darkness ends and the light begins is not always easy to discern. A place where shadows are still abundant, still honored. The Vieux Carre’s sultry roux of ghosts – Marie Lavenaux to Tennessee Williams, Jean Lafitte to John Kennedy Toole, William Faulkner to Lulu White – probably has something to do with it. In any case it’s seductive.
Consider our waiter the last time we dined at Antoine’s. My best guess is that he was a specimen of late middle age who crept from his glass case to serve supper. His waxy complexion was as pale and translucent as one of Ms. Rice’s vampires. And his wispy hair a color of red-brown that doesn’t occur naturally, nor can it be achieved through a simple dye job. Foremost was his demeanor. We seemed to be either amusing or appalling to him, and he appeared only barely able to suppress whichever it was. Imagine Bela Lugosi mingled with Willem Dafoe gone to seed and balding, while still trying to achieve a pompadour, and straining not to chortle in your face, and you’ve got our man.
He was bent sideways at the shoulder, the cant of his head making every utterance a question, whether it was a question or not. He sweated, breathed heavily, took time to consider with bemusement everything we had to say – looked like he might drop dead if we didn’t get on with it. Still, he was friendly, even warm, in his own off-center fashion. And, unlike Lestat’s brethren, he didn’t walk on the ceiling.
We started with the Huitres en coquille à la Rockefeller (Oysters Rockefeller), because we had to: Antoine’s invented the dish in 1899, selecting the name to honor the rich sauce. It was the right thing to do (inventing it and ordering it). As we were finishing, our waiter crept over. “For your main course, Le filet de pompano Pontchartrain is quite good? And Les pommes de terre souffles to go along is always popular?” He was not only Gothic but clairvoyant. It was what I’d intended to order. He possessed a peculiar brand of charm, or he was the damnedest of freaks – take your pick.
Visiting museums in the French Quarter might seem redundant, but there are several worthwhile ones, and some others, equally meritorious, that don’t even know they’re museums. If you’ve come for the music (and if you haven’t, you’ve got the axiomatic hole in your soul) then there are two important relic centers at which your attendance is required. One is the permanent jazz exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum, the other is Preservation Hall.
Hidden away – as if it were something to be ashamed of – on an upper floor of the Louisiana State Museum in the Old Mint, at the far southeast corner of the Quarter, the jazz collection is a sweet exhibit of jazz (and some blues) photos, famous musicians’ instruments, and other artifacts. On one wall a frame holds old business cards for Eubie Blake, the Noon Bazooka Trio, Punch and his Bunch, Kid Sheik and his Storyville Ramblers, Paul Barbarin “Former drummer with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Martin (sic), Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong.” On the same floor, across the entryway, is a collection of Mardi Gras memorabilia – costumes, photographs of the parades and balls and various krewes in their regalia, and other fanciful pieces dating back to the early part of this century, when we all lived on a different planet.
A half-dozen blocks across the Vieux Carre, Preservation Hall is a dilapidated, transcendent garage filled with music performed by veteran musicians who have been making jazz longer than many of us have been up and walking. You will stand in line; if it’s raining you will stand in line and get soaked. Finally, you pay your $3 for the privilege of peering in a doorway (all the seats will be filled by the time you gain entry). The room itself is little more than crumbling pegboard, peeling paint, thick dust and bare light bulbs. The audience sits on the floor, in the few seats, or huddles in the entryway corridor. They don’t seem to mind the surroundings, nor do the musicians, nor does the music.
When it rains in the Quarter, it comes down and down like a towel being wrung. Water streams over the roofs in rippling windows, floats discarded plastic hurricane cups down the gutters, makes the wrought iron glisten (the only time it does), slows the cars, accelerates the pedestrians, overflows the fountains. And the Gulf wind curls off Canal Street into the Quarter, flaps the courtyard banana leaves like slick green elephant ears, rattles wisteria pods against the brick, takes the flatness out of the river, pushes street musicians into doorways, under archways.
As Willie Sutton remarked about being in a bank at midnight, finding yourself in a French Quarter courtyard during a cloud burst is not an altogether unpleasant experience. You will get drenched, and maybe get a chill, which is why you’ll need to warm yourself with a drink or two (or three or five) just as soon as the rain lets up. Fortunately, one of the Quarter’s best courtyards happens to be behind the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum on Chartres Street only a few steps from Napoleon House, one of the city’s favorite historical saloons.
The Pharmacy Museum was once a real pharmacy, established in the same building in 1823. The original proprietor was Louis Joseph Dufilho Jr., the first licensed pharmacist in the United States. The museum courtyard has a fountain and benches, banana trees, a wisteria vine creeping high up a brick wall, stealthily heading for a neighboring balcony, and plantings of medicinal herbs. With luck it will rain during your visits. To get to the courtyard, you walk through the museum, which is well worth the meager $2 admission, and also worth a half-hour or so of lingering.
Inside, in hand-carved European rosewood cabinets, are antique medicines and doctoring implements of every description – apothecary jars of home cures and those prescribed by doctors, as well as patent medicines, leech jars, blood-letting tools, and bottles of gris-gris potions used by Voodoo practitioners. (Handwritten herbal formulas from a circa 1900 New Orleans pharmacist’s notebook are titled “Fast Luck,” “Wa Wa Water” and “Hoodo Mixture” – an effective-sounding recipe calling for “cayenne pepper, steel dust, Grains of Paradise, and lodestone.”) There’s a magnificent old soda fountain and a grim array of Civil War-era surgical instruments including an exquisitely frightening trepanning device. The revelation of the visit is not learning that Coca-Cola once contained coca, from which cocaine is derived, which everyone must know by now, but that its sparkling clear and clean competitor, 7-Up, once listed the mood-stabilizing lithium among its ingredients.
But the Pharmacy Museum is strictly a museum, so if you’re intent on acquiring supplies to do some freelance messing around, or charms to keep others from messing with you, you may want to stop into the Voodoo Museum over on Dumaine Street. In addition to selling gris-gris and potions, this small archive mixes a little tourist-targeted hokum with an honest effort to enlighten visitors about the world’s most misunderstood religion. The last time I was there, I was on my way out of town, leaving for a circuitous trip through the Mississippi Delta, driving to Memphis. To ensure that good luck would be my traveling companion, I dropped by to pick up a black cat bone from Prince Mougobber. He took me down a dark hallway to a back room altar, growled a few words to Voodoo’s mischievous child spirit-god and keeper of the crossroads (“Let us pass, let us pass …”), took a mouthful of white rum, sprayed it between his teeth across a Bible, pressed the bone into my palm, and sent me on my way. (“Keep it in your right pocket,” the Prince told me as I walked out, “not in your left, for God’s sake!”) And it was good luck, indeed, all the way to Graceland.
In the Quarter, one can even stay in a museum of sorts. Many think the Hotel Maison de Ville, one of New Orleans’ oldest buildings, is also its finest small inn. It was good enough for Tennessee Williams – the hotel’s Room 9 is where he lived while completing “A Streetcar Named Desire.” They say the playwright would often relax in the lush courtyard with a Sazerac. Maybe the spray of the water coming off the old cast-iron fountain cooled his hot brain as he ended another day of trying to help Stanley, Stella and Blanche resolve their overheated lives so they could become an iconic part of ours.
Williams’ affection for sipping Sazerac in the courtyard couldn’t have been more appropriate. The Maison de Ville was once the home of Antoine Amedee Peychaud, the pharmacist who invented the drink – a combination of bitters and brandy – and first served it to his grateful clients in an egg cup, or coquetier. Some say that’s the source of the word “cocktail.”
The Maison de Ville actually has two locations, the main one on Toulouse Street, adjacent to its equally splendid restaurant (the Bistro at Maison de Ville), and the Audubon Cottages two blocks away. The Audubon Cottages were home to naturalist John James Audubon and his family in the 1780s. While in residence he made many of the watercolors – hand-painted color photographs might be a more apt description – for his “Birds of America.” You enter the cottages’ compound by passing through a black door in a white wall on Dauphin Street, which opens onto a brick pathway lined with impatiens. The pathway leads to a swimming pool surrounded by low, vine-covered walls that enclose the small courtyards outside the rooms. Each courtyard has a fountain or fish pond. “The room you’re staying in,” the bellman told me as he opened the door, “is where Sissy Spacek lived while they were filming Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK.’”
His comment reminded me that the most cinematic vision I’d seen in recent years came walking at me down Bourbon Street one Halloween. Halloween in the French Quarter is considerably easier to take than Mardi Gras, and the costumes are often just as exotic, if not as abundant. I recall alligators with light-up eyes, faces painted gold and silver (remember the costume party cavorting in ‘JFK’?), and several burly ballerinas. But the outfit that left the greatest impression was that of a simple cowpoke. He wore boots, trousers, a shirt, a cowboy hat and a mask that covered his face. To every inch of his apparel he’d carefully attached a small square mirror. The effect was dazzling, a disco ball morphed into a man. As he languidly made his way through the crowd, every light along Bourbon Street bounced off his mirrored suit, sending thousands of luminous dots through the lurid New Orleans air to swim over the buildings, across startled faces, dappling police horses, sprinkling the black lace balconies, the strip clubs and T-shirt shops. People went silent, hypnotized, as they noticed him – the cowboy messiah come to the Vieux Carre.
But then something like that always seems to be happening in the Quarter. Or about to.