The French Quarter: A Driver’s Perspective
Photographs by Bryan Tarnowski
I say these words at least 10 times a day as tourists walk by. As a carriage driver in the French Quarter you get used to giving the automated response. “Is that a donkey or a horse?” they ask. “Both,” I reply. “Daddy’s a donkey and mommy’s a horse and, yes, they’re all mules.”
When I was looking for work last fall I came across an ad for a carriage driver. Even though I had never driven a horse-drawn carriage before I thought I’d give it a try. I mean, how hard could it possibly be – and how cool – to be in the middle of the French Quarter, where all the fun and action take place? I have at times rethought that question while sitting on my carriage in the middle of a thunderstorm that seemed to come from nowhere. I passed the interview but then came the hard part. There was about a month of scheduling tests with City Hall. There was the tour guild and buggy test, drug test, Homeland Security background check and a national safety-driving course. After that they teach you how to dress, take care of your mule and drive the carriage.
One of the things that drew me to this job was the fact that I would get my very own mule (you don’t own it, of course, but the drivers are assigned a mule). When you get a mule, no one else drives it. It works the same days you work and gets the same days off. When you work with animals like that day in and day out for months at a time you tend to bond with them. They become your pets in a lot of respects. You get to know their likes and dislikes. What spooks them and what won’t.
I am on my fourth mule since the beginning of the year. Unlike the drivers, the mules get three months of vacation every year. During that time you use a back-up mule. These are mules that are around in case your mule gets a cold or throws a shoe.
My first mule was Rock ’n’ Roll. When you’re a new driver they give you a mule that’s well-seasoned and has been around the block a time or two – Rock ’n’ Roll was one such mule. He was old. I mean old old. Just like horses, you can get a good idea of the age of the animal by the condition of its teeth. That and the gray hair around the nose – and the fact that this animal would not get up and trot if his life depended on it. Well, maybe if his life depended on it, but not for me.
Rock ’n’ Roll had a lot of drivers over the years and he knew if you were a new driver. Maybe it was because I was extra nice to him in the beginning that he took me for a pushover. Rock ’n’ Roll had his own route he liked to take and had no interest whatsoever in taking this new guy’s tour. He fought me on every turn that wasn’t part of his tour. Even though I held the reins, he was about 1,600 pounds; when he tucked his head down he got his way more often than not.
The thing is, we advertise a half-hour tour. Mine was a little on the long side, whereas Rock ’n’ Roll’s tour was maybe 20 minutes at best. We fought each other for a couple of months until the fateful day that I scraped a car bumper with my carriage. I blame it on Rock ’n’ Roll, but the lady was way out in the middle of the intersection at a red light when he decided to make an impromptu U-turn on his own. After that I got Onyx.
I liked Onyx a lot. He was a dark, almost black, mule from Canada. I was told from the beginning that he doesn’t do well in the heat; as it was spring at the time, there really wasn’t an issue. The only problem was that he didn’t want to stand still unless he was at Jackson Square. That isn’t generally a problem unless you have to drop someone off or pick a guest up at a hotel or restaurant. This happens once in a while, and with Onyx it proved to be a challenge, especially if there were small children or elderly people climbing onto or off of the carriage. I soon found that if I ran him at a nice trot for a couple of blocks before the destination he was tired enough to rest long enough for people to disembark or climb on at their leisure.
Onyx was my first runaway mule as well. That is an experience that will get your heart pumping. It was the beginning of the shift and I was on my way to Jackson Square when a clip that held his britches on broke. (The britches are the straps around his butt that help stop the carriage when he stops.) This made them slide to one side, a feeling he had never experienced, and so he took off at a full run. He was trying to outrun the carriage to which he was strapped. For about four blocks I pulled back on the reins as hard as I could until he eventually came to a stop. With my heart pounding I cautiously climbed from the carriage and fixed the clip.
By the way, people, if you ever find yourself in a runaway carriage, don’t jump from it! If you do, while you’re rolling around on the ground with half your face scraped off and the pain from your broken bones, you’ll see the carriage stopped safely about a block or two down the road.
My next and favorite mule was Charlotte, an amazing animal. Her driver was one of the top bookers for the company but she decided to quit and start a walking tour company. So Charlotte then came to me. She is mixed with a Tennessee Walker and she loves to get up and trot when asked. She is a red-brown with four white socks. The mule I’ve been driving since Charlotte is Marigny.
Marigny is a sweet, 7-year-old mule – but a total pain in the “ass.” She is mixed with a Belgiam horse, which means she’s huge – maybe 1,800 pounds – and she came to me with a condition called barn sour. This is a condition common in young horses and mules where, in the middle of riding them or driving them, they decide they want to go to the barn. This happened during almost every tour with Marigny and she knew the way home no matter what street we were on. The thing is, she doesn’t know how to read, so a one-way street is just a street to her. I often would have to climb off the carriage and lead her by hand to the right direction.
When I first moved to New Orleans a few different people told me that people work to live and not the other way around. There indeed seems to always be something going on here in the Crescent City. Whether it’s some amazing music, a food festival or a theme party, it’s easy to have your social calendar booked for weeks at a time. The first question they ask on the tour guild test is, “Why do you think you would make a good ambassador to the city of New Orleans?” Yes, that’s right, “ambassador.” I had to think on that, but I have to say I love this city. It isn’t just one thing, it’s the whole package: The history, the food, music, culture and people are some of the best in the country.
There is talk about a reality show called “Unstapled” starting soon about the New Orleans buggy drivers. It looks as though it’s a go, but it’s too soon to tell what direction they’re going to go with it. If it has anything to do with the drunks and the unruly cab drivers, traffic and Bourbon Street shenanigans that happen on an almost daily basis, it should prove to be very entertaining. In the meantime, if you happen to be walking by us at Jackson Square, and you’re not sure what kind of animal is strapped to the front of our carriage, rest assured, they’re all mules.