If you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of staring into the window of a pawn shop – ogling tarnished watches and pistols and Sumatran throwing knives and ancient Polaroid cameras – you’d go out of your mind on a tour of the home of Reno Jean Daret III.
Daret is a collector of “things.” He isn’t a hoarder, mind you, the kind of anguished soul you see on intervention television. It is simpler than that: If Daret likes it, he takes it home and within the blink of an eye he’ll have a collection started.
Daret’s “passions” have juiced him, keeping him in perpetual motion throughout his life. He has even collected jobs like most philatelists collect stamps. He has operated the “Fighting Tiger Music Company,” hustling LSU records, cassette tapes and CDs; he’s been an insurance salesman, real estate agent and a teacher in Orleans and Jefferson parish schools, a blackjack dealer on a riverboat (“I always had this thing about wanting to be a riverboat gambler”), chauffeur, tour guide, fireman with the New Orleans Fire Department and more. Somebody jokingly asked him about being a shirt folder in a Chinese laundry, but Daret couldn’t recall that one.
The master collector swears he’s traveled to all 50 states.
In mid-tour of Chile, just after a lecture about seemingly all physical objects in the universe (most of which are arguably in his possession), Daret waves his hand to signal a change of direction in his travelogue, informing all that he gets his first name, Reno, from Major Marcus Reno, that ill-fated cavalryman who rode into the last sunset with Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn back in 1876.
Daret clears his throat and points out that his middle name, Jean, is a little less fatalistic. It comes from Jean Paquay, the clarinetist who made his musical bones playing with the orchestra at the New Orleans Opera House at the turn of the 20th century.
Then, like a shot, it’s off to the backyard and Daret’s collection of a half-dozen or so box turtles, all of which are led by Tuga Rex, an African studded tortoise who’s the approximate size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
A nearby shed houses street signs, fireman helmets, Alcee Fortier High School memorabilia, plastic toys and games, a working pinball machine, posters, marbles, duck decoys, fishing lures and goldfish zipping around various tanks. It is wall-to-wall pandemonium, an explosion of things that were once at the center of something in the life of Reno Jean Daret III. Most are merely dusty caricatures of a brief and shining moment in that life. And these meld with other things from a panoply of long-forgotten castoffs from the lives of other people who crossed paths (at least vicariously through these items) with Daret. All these things seemingly have come to rest in this place, guided purposefully through some great, planned cosmic confluence. The flotsam and jetsam are collected, preserved and protected by one Reno Jean Daret III.
But even as with the most jaded of sultans, there’s one gem in the harem that tugs on the heartstrings more persistently than others.
In Daret’s case it’s his collection of more than 3,000 postcards that he keeps immaculate and well-preserved in some 65 scrap books, each as thick as a Manhattan phonebook.
“I started collecting postcards just about four years ago,” Daret says. “I’ve become obsessed with these postcards. I manage them by themes: Canal Street, Audubon Park, Tulane, LSU – I have LSU in my blood. You know there were postcard clubs all over the country but none here in New Orleans. I started one and we now have 14 members.
We’re a member of the International Federation of Postcard Dealers.”
Daret is on a roll and his eyes widen. Without missing a beat, he flips through a book of Mardi Gras-themed cards and stops at an early Rex collection.
“Look at this!” Daret says with the pride of a new father. “Each float had its own postcard. I’ve got the entire set.”
There is a Civil War collection, of course, with postal cancellation marks verifying each card’s authenticity. There are women in bloomers (some even showing ankle), Nazi-era “Dear Hans” cards and missives that wouldn’t even come close to passing the political correctness test today. There are fliers that read, exactly, “I will pay sixty five dollars – $65 for these cards: one depicting a garish lizard themed Mardi Gras float, one showing most of the attributes of long-gone Bourbon Street stripper, Sandra Sexton, a card touting ‘The Genuine Singer Sewing Machine … 185 Canal Street.’”
There is a knock on the door; it’s a man who’s interested in buying the 1978 Cadillac El Dorado that Daret has for sale. Before he disappears out the door, Daret mentions that the Cadillac is a “collector’s item.”
With Reno Daret III outside conducting business, Mary Jane Daret, his wife of 40 years, keeps up the drumbeat in the living room. She pulls out a business card that lists her talents as “… Hairstylist, Colorist & Make-up, specializing in Designer Jewelry, Semi-Precious & Natural Stones (sic)….”
To paraphrase that old saw: “The family that collects together stays together.”