in 2013, I hit bottom. After Katrina, I fell into a downward spiral of clinical depression, psychotherapy, divorce, opiate addiction and several rehabs before I eventually kicked that habit. After finally crawling my way out of the rabbit hole, I found myself unemployed and, for the most part, unemployable, here in the city I know and love so much.
So, at the age of 53, I started waiting tables for the first time in my life, a last-chance, desperate effort to keep groceries on the table for my kids.
No need to play tiny violins for me; I brought it all upon myself. But still, it bothered me that I was not using my highly developed and attuned professional skills to make a living. Then again, I don’t actually possess any highly developed and attuned professional skills. I just know how to do two things. I write. And I talk.
I can talk a lot. Some might consider that a gift. My friends and family find it generally annoying. But I have discovered a way to make a career of it.
You see, I was born with a constitutional compulsion to entertain, inform and invigorate people. I crave an audience. Attention. The spotlight. But a table of four hungry diners in a restaurant was not the audience I was looking for. And then an epiphany hit me.
Walking from my French Quarter apartment to my restaurant every evening, I passed the same scene, night after night: Massive crowds of tourists scattered all over the Quarter, clogging sidewalks while patronizing ghost, vampire and voodoo tours.
Hundreds of people a night, in hot or cold weather, gathered in huge groups led by guys wearing chimney sweep hats and capes, carrying walking sticks, wearing Gothic eye shadow and holding the crowds in their grip with stories of legend, lore and mythology. Ghost tours, in a word. A thriving industry in this city, a place so often referred to as “America’s most haunted city.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists pony up anywhere from $25 to $75 every day and night in New Orleans to spend three hours getting their heads filled with fantastical stories of the afterlife, the occult and the netherworld.
I would walk past dozens of these groups every night and count customers: Twenty-five people paying $25 or more per person and I realized those tour guides were making more money for three hours’ work in one night than I was making during four eight hour shifts breaking my back slinging trays, suffering the vagaries of ornery diners, polishing silver and mopping floors.
And the tourists were eating it up! What’s wrong with this picture, I asked myself.
So I went on the city website to see how you become a licensed tour guide. Other than giving the city a bunch of money for fees, permits and other phantom expenses, you just need to pass two tests: One, a New Orleans history test and the other a urine test.
"I can talk a lot. Some might consider that a gift. My friends and family find it generally annoying. But I have discovered a way to make a career of it."
I looked at these guys out on the streets every night, some of them a motley crew, and I thought: If they can pass the tests, certainly I can pass the tests.
So I set about memorizing the difference between cast iron and wrought iron. The difference between Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. The difference between Bienville and Iberville. Who was the first mayor of New Orleans and the first Governor of Louisiana? Who was Don Juan Manuel de Salcedo? What are the ingredients of a Sazerac?
OK, that last one might not have been in there. Then again, it might have. The tour guide test is hopelessly tedious, based primarily on a hopelessly tedious, dense, somewhat out of date and overly romantic presentation of the city – a book called “The Beautiful Crescent,” whose revisionist history is a bit discomfiting, containing many pages and anecdotes about Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, for instance, but no mention at of Lincoln Beach.
Yes, the good old days.
Now, I have no problem with the city requiring some kind of test to get a license, providing some kind of standard or safeguard for those who officially represent the municipality, albeit in a minor way. But I would think topics along the lines of hospitality and/or public safety would be much more useful than, say, requiring a guy who tells ghost stories for a living to know the history and intricacies of our sewage and water pumping systems.
Unless, of course, there is a haunted pumping station somewhere in the city.
Oddly enough, the test is administered by, of all city departments – the Taxi Cab Bureau. And it’s not an easy test by any means. Lots of folks fail it. And it’s a bit of a racket. Both the Cabildo and Delgado Community College actually offer pricey courses to prep would-be guides to help people pass. Some folks put in eight weeks of classes and are out more than $800 before they ever get their license. That is, if they get their license.
Me, I skipped the classes and the book. I figured I’ve lived here long enough that I should have enough institutional knowledge to skate by. Plus, the test is multiple choice, and anyone knows that if you don’t know the answer to a multiple choice question, it’s almost always “C.”
I have no idea how that works, but it does. You need a grade of 75 to pass. I got a 93. And so in April of 2016, I got my tour guide license. And then I set about creating and writing a tour. I didn’t want to work for one of the big tour companies that require their guides to deliver mandatory prepared texts and, more to the point – I wanted to tell stories that aren’t being told.
My goal was to create a guided adventure unlike anyone else was offering – not only for our visitors – but one that would attract locals as well. And so was born the Magical Musical History Mystery French Quarter Walking Tour.
A mouthful to be sure. Ostensibly it is a “music” tour, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. What I do is use music as a doorway to open up stories about both our city and state’s history, culture, lifestyle, politics and a little bit of scandal.
Why music? Because, I believe, more than our cuisine and more than our architecture, music is the most fundamental element of our community’s shared cultural DNA. After all, what other state has not one, not two, not three, not four, not five…but six state songs?
Louisiana, the land of excess in all things. You wouldn’t believe what people from other places think their state songs are. Folks from New Jersey inevitably say “Born to Run” and I have had nearly a dozen folks from Seattle and other cities in Washington insist, inexplicably, that their state song is “Louie, Louie.” I am not making this up.
But, like many other myths I set out to destroy on my tour, I do my best to diplomatically inform these folks that they are possibly mistaken and may want to Google that, just to be sure.
(The truth is, New Jersey doesn’t actually have an “official” state song, despite a recent push in the state legislature to adopt the lyrics of a composition called “I’m From New Jersey,” and Washington’s is “Washington, My Home.” Which kind of makes you think “Born to Run” and “Louie, Louie” aren’t as bad as they might seem at first blush.)
And so I started giving tours. I was nervous as hell at first. For one, I was worried how the other tour guides – folks who have been doing this for years and now ostensibly my competitors – would treat me out on the street, but I have been delightfully surprised at the warm welcome most have offered me, and how many have openly wished me luck.
After all, the French Quarter tour guide business has earned its fair share of sordid publicity in years past. When I was a reporter at The Times-Picayune many years ago, I wrote a series of stories about the ghost tour wars, and some of the incidents that occurred between rival companies and individuals reached a truly menacing, even dangerous, state of affairs.
Car tires were cut. Advertising and promotional flyers and posters mysteriously disappeared from racks in hotel lobbies. Some concierges were bribed to send hotel guests to one tour company over another. Sometimes such tensions came to blows.
The hijinks escalated. In some cases, a tour guide from one company would show up at the regular meeting spot for another company, ten or fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure time, and would gather whatever customers had showed up early to nurse a drink while they waited and they would wrangle the waiting crowd and lead them away on their own tour before the regularly scheduled guide arrived on the scene – only to find that his roster of 25 reservations had somehow dwindled to six people.
Tensions grew so hot that once, many, years ago – back in the ghost tour industry’s infancy – that one tour guide fire-bombed a competitor’s car outside the French Market because he suspected him of poaching his customers. The police got involved. The city council got involved.
And in much the same way the Mardi Gras Indians were brought to heal several years back – to stop shooting and stabbing each other and start chanting and dancing with each other– the heavyweights of the ghost tour business agreed to an uneasy peace which seems to have mostly lasted. It is a much more civilized business than in the past.
So, as a newcomer to the business and – more to the point – a threat to established bottom lines, I was a bit intimidated when I started leading my groups past their groups on the sidewalks. But I haven’t proved much of an existential threat to the ghost tour conglomerates. They still get 25 people every tour. When I get 10, I consider it a good day.
There’s no question: Madame LaLaurie and her ghastly and ghostly past and the lore of Marie Laveau’s dark arts carry a lot sexier appeal for out-of-towners than Ernie K-Doe, Gennifer Flowers and Cosimo Matassa.
But the past year on the streets has been a great opportunity to meet lots of interesting folks, both local and visiting. When I arrive at our meeting place (no one ever steals my customers) I can always tell who the locals are right away: They’re the ones who already have beverages in their hands.
Sometimes out-of-towners will inquire: If I don’t want a drink right now but maybe would like to pick one up along the tour, is that possible? Yes, I tell them. This is the French Quarter. You’ll have that opportunity about every 40 feet. And then we walk. Not very far, just a winding route from Jackson Square to Armstrong Park.
I tell my stories. Stories that break down a lot of old, institutional myths, and I create a whole new set of them for consideration, many of them stretching credibility, but all of them the absolute truth. And folks seem to enjoy it.
Although it’s not for everyone, I realize. Sometimes we’ll start with, say 16 people and finish with 12. Somewhere along the line, we turned right, and they turned left.
And so it goes. Perhaps they would enjoy a ghost tour more. But at least it’s turned into fairly steady, if unpredictable work. I’m out on the streets, sharing the magic of the city I love. Taking nice walks several mornings and afternoons a week. No desk, no boss, no dress code, no staff meetings, no suffering through King Cakes on Fridays during Mardi Gras.
Just living the dream and doing what I do best. Talking. And talking.