Street performers are the life blood of New Orleans, our famed celebratory culture writ large. They provide the visual soundtrack of the city: Music falling from the sky like rain, fulfilling all the romantic notions a visitor to our city possesses upon arrival.
Louis Armstrong, Harry Anderson, Mr. Bojangles, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Tuba Fats, Glen David Andrews and Trombone Shorty comprise a short list of entertainers who began their careers on our streets. And all of them were arrested for doing so.
Jackson Square provides the most curious and vexing of venues for those who make their livings on the street – as I do. It’s Ground Zero for the city’s festive street life, our showcase of music, art and performance packed into one tidy space. The greatest free show on earth. And a hornet’s nest of regulation and strangulation.
I need one permit from City Hall to give tours there, another permit to hang my paintings there. But as long as I’ve got my lanyards hanging around my neck, I’m cool. Because I’m quiet. Relatively speaking.
The musicians face another jumble all together. They’re always getting in trouble, hauled up before the City Council or off to jail for playing too loud, too late, or too close to something.
One of those somethings is the St. Louis Cathedral, the Grand Holy Basilica of the South. Because of complaints from the Archdiocese several years ago, the city created the St. Louis Cathedral Noise Buffer Zone, which is defined as such:
“Bounded by and including St. Peter Street from the Chartres Street Mall to Cabildo Alley, Cabildo Alley, Pere Antoine Alley, Pirates Alley, St. Ann Street from a line parallel to Cabildo Alley to the Chartres Street Mall and the Chartres Street Mall to a line parallel with the fence line in Jackson Square.”
Do you know what that means? Can you GPS that? I’m down there every day and purvey my wares within those confines – I’m guessing – because I have no idea what any of that means or where it is. Nobody does. Probably not even the junior city planner who typed it up in some windowless cubicle at City Hall at the behest of the Council and the Church.
Why is it that laws – the most important and imposing of documents a civilian must abide and obey – are always illegible?
That’s why the musicians have played it safe down there. They are at the most risk of harassment and arrest because they make the most noise and attract the most attention. And because they likely never took a 300 level class in Civic Law. Never mind that they are the city’s most vital and visible cultural ambassadors. The reason that we are New Orleans and not…Cleveland.
But making bail can be rough trade for someone whose payday is delivered in a guitar case.
There’s an ordinance that requires anyone playing a musical instrument to keep at least 50 feet away from the Cathedral. So when you visit Jackson Square, that’s why you see them set up at purposely broad angles away from the Cathedral.
The brass bands, violin soloists, Blues players, Gospel singers, guitar pickers and bucket boys on any and every given day. All of them keeping their required distance from the House of the Lord.
Praise Jesus for that.
But the weird thing is this: In the stretch of slate and pavement in the Square between the two points where musicians are permitted to scratch out their livings playing for tips – resides North America’s largest open air market of the occult.
Directly in front of the Cathedral doors, rows and rows of palmists, soothsayers and magicians – with their folding tables, scented candles and mystery stones – beckon you to roll the bones, have your future foretold, cast a spell, speak to your dead grandmother and witness feats of legerdemain which defy even Satan’s logic.
Look into the crystal ball, if you dare. But if you play a saxophone in front of that building, you’re going to jail.
And if you can’t handle irony, you can’t handle New Orleans.