NEW TALES FOR AN OLD CITY, ONE TOURIST AT A TIME
I romanticize the cultural figure of the tour guide, especially French Quarter walking tour guides. $25 for adults and $10 for children purchases up to two hours of enlightenment from these purveyors of history. Who wouldn’t love to lead wide-eyed tourists with disposable income to your most beloved spots, whisper juicy local secrets, and reveal niche anecdotes about the “true” New Orleans? You can look forward to finally paying off your liberal arts education with cash tips while your pupils return to Pensacola, Dallas, or Scranton as changed people, having experienced a paradigm shift in their worldview during your 90 minutes of tutelage.
I’m willing to bet that no one with a distaste for meaningful human connection or a sadistic desire to lie decides to pursue employment as a tour guide. Yet in my own jaunts around the French Quarter, I overhear many tour guides hurriedly repeating topical scripts: “This is the Pharmacy Museum where people got medicine… James Gallier owned the Gallier House…” or flippantly delivering some suspect racist and misogynist remarks: “Almost all of the African Americans in New Orleans were free people of color. They could even have interracial marriages called plaçage,” and “Marie Laveau was allowed to be buried in St. Louis #1 because she was really hot.” I have a hunch that stories of real significance to minority communities never see the light of day.
Three years ago, I started researching and writing about dark tourism and landscapes of power in Louisiana. I asked questions like, “How do we talk to tourists about chattel slavery and its legacy that continues to plague and shape Louisiana today?” and “What evidence of oppression, segregation, and violence exists in the material world?” Streets, public art, and commemorative objects tell a story of whose lives matter—and whose don’t. I’m going nearly blind from squinting at 18th and 19th century handwriting. In an attempt to switch gears, I took a gamble on becoming my own primary resource. Could working as a tour guide myself support this research? Was it possible to use this position of power for “good”— asking unwitting tourists to grapple with the real ghosts of New Orleans through sobering tales of cotton, capitalism, and human chattel?
LICENSE TO THRILL
Beginning in 2011, to mixed reception, the City of New Orleans required all walking and riding tour guides to obtain a license by passing a written test on New Orleans history, as well as a background check and drug test. The city ordinance defines tour guide as a person who leads at least one other person to “any of the city’s points of interest and/or historic buildings, parks or sites, for the purpose of explaining, describing or generally relating the facts or importance thereto.” Licenses are issued by the taxicab bureau and cost $50. A license is valid for two years. The ordinance is not new. The Landrieu administration began to enforce the ordinance during the summer of 2011.
On December 13, 2011, four tour guides sued the City of New Orleans, requesting an injunction on enforcement of the ordinance, claiming a violation of First Amendment rights. They argued that enforcement deprives tour guides of their right to speak freely. They raised concerns over identity theft and future restrictions of telling jokes or opinions.
They lost the suit, but the idea of tour guide licensing as a right of passage for the few, the talented, the passionate intellectual illuminati remained. There is a gravitas to this state-sanctioned mantle. The concierge at the French Quarter Information Center confirmed this perception. “These people are the real deal,” he said, handing me a carefully selected brochure. “All the guides are licensed. They all had to take a five week course and pass a big test on everything about New Orleans history. This way, you’re guaranteed that every single thing they say is true.” I asked if he was a licensed tour guide. “No, but I could practically be one. I’ve lived my entire life in New Orleans and love her history, but I don’t know about taking that test.”
So I definitely needed a license if I wanted to awaken the uninitiated masses. The written test is based entirely on the book Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans by Joan Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer, first published in 1982 with a one page post-Katrina update in 2013. Dubbed the New Orleans tour guide “bible,” Beautiful Crescent belongs where many other bibles come to rest—in a dark, private archive, not in circulation.
Its lighthearted tone disguises racist, misogynist parochialism as historical fact. A two-page account of “slavery” reports that enslaved persons “liked shopping for their masters in the colorful markets and shops. They enjoyed the looseness of the reins that held them in captivity and the hope that they could buy or earn their freedom.” The section concludes with a claim of a fully “integrated” 18th and 19th century society. “The slaves in New Orleans and their white masters exchanged cultural modes of expression and began a process of amalgamation early in the city’s history… Africans, who appeared to the white citizens as ‘brutes’ upon arrival in the city could, within one generation, become transformed into dutiful Christians and skilled laborers.”
Before French colonists could begin procuring captive Africans, they also needed proper wives. Beautiful Crescent discloses that “there was a shortage of unmarried women in the colony, and the men were forced to take Indian squaws as brides.” Bienville quickly remedied the situation. “‘Send me wives for my Canadians,’ Bienville wrote to Paris. ‘They are running in the woods after Indian girls.’” 88 previously incarcerated Parisian women arrived in New Orleans. Unfortunately, “within a month, 19 had married and ten died, leaving 59 to be cared for, which was not an easy task, as they were girls who ‘could not be restrained.’”
With this factual arsenal under my belt, I arrived at City Hall, Floor 5, The Permitting Floor. I sat sandwiched for two hours between a contractor seeking a variance for an exterior staircase in the Irish Channel and a Type-A architect submitting a petition to the Vieux Carré Commission (I put money on “Shutter Color Change Request”). Finally, a permitting officer sent me to Floor 2, The Transportation Floor, where I was then sent back to Floor 5. A second officer finally turned me away because I needed a background check. I returned to City Hall four more times—to pay my $50 fee, submit final paperwork with a background check, take the exam, and have my photo taken for the license.
Thanks to the young man who fingerprinted me on Canal Street at 7 a.m., I received my first taste of tour guiding early. He asked why I needed a background check. I told him I was studying to become a tour guide and he instantly perked up, “I just moved here and I’ve been trying to find an expert to show me the best party spots!”
QUALITY, SERVICE, CLEANLINESS, VALUE
Dabbling in a handful of meticulously researched private tours on Maroon colonies and hand-painted signage of the 1950s didn’t quite scratch the itch. I screened my audiences and remained in complete control of content. I wanted to operate within an existing commercial system that met a more general customer demand and introduced elements of randomness, uncertainty, and spontaneity. I finally worked up the nerve to join the ranks of the professional French Quarter guides. I sent my resume, chock full of awkward academic panels and children’s wheatpasting workshops, to every reasonable Google hit for “New Orleans Tours” and waited nervously for a response. Two bites. I rolled up to Jackson Square for training, joined by three new hires: a self-published writer with “tons of experience” hawking his own books from a bedraggled messenger bag; an aspiring comedian in a mismatched houndstooth and damask suit drawing deeply on a vaporizer; and a stout middle-aged man donning an ill-fitting safari hat and fumbling with his iPhone video kit.
As it turns out, the tour guide ballgame is less about what you tell and everything about how you tell it. My new vocation was 10% content and 90% schmaltz. And make no mistake, schmaltz is a gift and a skill not to belittle. No one wanted to read my paper on receipts of private slave sales. First pro tip: “Read the crowd and try not to murmur into your chest.”
In one week, I would be tested on my “stance” and if I could talk about “The French Quarter Five” (The Cabildo, The Presbytère, 1850 House, Madame John’s Legacy, and The Old U.S. Mint) with my own unique style and flair. I stood in my bathroom every morning deciding if I should put my hands on my hips or rub them together while regurgitating yarns from Beautiful Crescent. For $25 a head, I’d better have a good stance and a damn good costume. I dressed up as a ballerina, squeezed into gold lamé pants, and hot glued sequins all over a straw hat. I wasn’t in book club any more. I was in the entertainment industry.
“ALL THE FRENCH QUARTER IS A STAGE, AND ALL THE MEN AND WOMEN MERELY PLAYERS”
Was I theatrically provocative enough to actually make any money or achieve any degree of success? “All of us tour guides know each other,” I was advised. “The better you get at telling your stories, the more you’ll be known. Your reputation will spread and you’ll get more bookings.”
For example, every guide takes special pride in their rendition of the LaLaurie Mansion story. Some describe each purported human mutilation in vivid detail, leaning down to make eye contact with the teenagers as they recite, “A man… with his skin peeled off… like an apple! A little girl… with every bone in her body broken… stuffed inside a trunk!” Others choose a bird’s eye view, describing Madame Delphine LaLaurie’s three husbands, massive fortune accrued as a result of her widow status, sumptuous society parties used as a ruse, and her eventual political asylum and death in Paris. And yet others giggle excitedly over the provenance of the building—currently a Texas oil baron in absentia, preceded by Nicholas Cage, the most financially astute man in New Orleans.
So here I am looking in the mirror again, assuming my tour guide power stance, parroting: “Delphine LaLaurieLaLaurie” with the phlegmy French “R.” All the best guides say it that way, using a hand flourish to announce the full titles of French nobles. I keep forgetting to talk about Delphine’s dinner parties and instead describe her cook who was found chained to the stove with a spiked collar and digress into a description of the coffles still common at Orleans Parish Prison.
I can already see my Yelp! review (one star): “Our tour guide Robin only referred us to obscure books and ruined Jackson Square by exclusively talking about The Trail of Tears. We asked for our money back and a gift card to Amazon. If you book, definitely request the more convivial bearded guy.”
WALKING TOURS ARE FOR LOVERS AND FRIENDS (OF HISTORY)
My time to ponder had run out. I wasn’t treated to free tours for the exercise and fresh air. Time to step up to the plate. My first tour group was three young couples, all conspicuously hungover, who begged to leave early. They thanked me for my time, shoved some crumpled, slightly moist bills into my hand, and wandered off slowly toward the French Market Bloody Mary counter. My next group was an elderly couple and a burgeoning teenage romance. The pubescent contingent wanted ghosts. The other wanted architecture. I scrambled to please, barely making it to the 90 minute guarantee.
Night tours are their very own beast. By 8 p.m., only young children and those on anti-seizure medication are sober. Approximately one out of every ten people is actually dressed appropriately for January night temperatures. On my first night tour in the pouring rain, an elderly woman gulped down two Lafitte’s Purple Dranks in succession and fell to the sidewalk with a charley horse. Her friend and I stood over her, massaging her calf so we could finish the walk. The next night, after visiting the Joan of Arc statue, two French tourists squealed at each subsequent stop, “Thank goodness that our people brought these small tastes of Pa-ree to America!” A bunch of little kids in matching jackets kept tugging on my sleeve, assuring me I was “gonna be great” because I “believe in ghosts, too.”
And finally, I shadowed a highly recommended “master” tour guide. He actually mentioned Pierre Maspero’s Slave Exchange and led the group to Congo Square. How promising! A kindred spirit! He dove into the Code Noir and its special allowances for enslaved Africans to work for hire on Sundays and possibly buy their freedom. In response, a guest exclaimed with sincerity, “Now there’s the entrepreneurial spirit!” My pedagogical hopes died along with the last sips of his Hurricane.
We stopped at the Basin Street Station Visitors Center. The giant wall map with lights showing the areas of the city under water during Katrina is a special focal point. Although it’s only been one month, I am nearly certain I will slap the next person who asks me about Brad Pitt. “Does he hang out here? Have you met him? No? Well, does Nicholas Cage still come here? What about Beyonce and Jay-Z?” I should really make something up about how Angelina is going to name her next Louis Vuitton Bayou Series bag after me: The Creole Robin McDowell. It will be made from repurposed rotten insulation from the Make It Right bungalows.
“BE A LOCAL. EXPERIENCE THE REAL NEW ORLEANS.”
I’m dedicating earnest energy to developing my schmaltziness and my LaLaurie Mansion rendition. I have a really solid stance now. Maybe one day I’ll be known as the guide whose sardonic wit can really jazz up colonialism. I even made a feathery bonnet-like device so my groups can find me in the crowd. I’m working on an original bit that uses this head furnishing to segway into the ornamentation and material culture of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez, who were on the wrong side of Bienville’s genocide spree.
The idea of an “authentic” New Orleans experience has been and still is nothing but a phantom. Beginning, arguably, with LaSalle in 1682, who incorrectly claimed the mouth of the Mississippi. Or the Le Moyne Brothers (Bienville and Iberville) who threw sumptuous dinner parties for indigenous tribes, then refused to follow their directions to the high ground of current-day New Orleans. Because isn’t authenticity best manufactured the hard way?
Does the nature of tours (quickly peeking into a world that doesn’t belong to you, narrated by someone else who was selected by someone else’s criteria) render them all fake? Did it matter whether I tossed my feathery hat into the ring? Is it all just competitive jockeying and circus-like showmanship, knitting together archival half-truths as window dressing?
While some may shudder at commercial tourism as artifice and spectacle, we should also pause before turning tail and proclaiming local academics “true” custodians of history. Many New Orleanians— natives, transplants, visitors alike— elevate milquetoast public scholars to ubermensch status. This warning rings true throughout history: Beware of white men bearing either the French flag, or now, bearing black and white photos. Give the tenured historian pissing contest wide berth. This high-profile display may be just as gratuitous as conducting tours in a tophat and tails. The business I’ve gotten myself into is quite different than writing coffee table books, sitting on panels, judging environmental art contests, or writing white tears columns for the New Yorker.
Are bite-sized, somewhat campy walking tours a “lesser” trade? I’m starting to think not. Walking tours are both service and product. And consumer demand is unrelenting. My concern that practices of commercial tourism crowd out minority narratives still ring very true. But I had no conception of the multifaceted challenges of successful French Quarter tour guiding. It is literally no walk in the park. You’re responsible for the safety of infants to 90 year-olds in wheelchairs while walking through the most popular, crowded places in the French Quarter. You lead groups of one to 28 people in every state of intoxication you’d ever care to witness, all while reciting as many historical sketches as you can remember and politely fielding questions ranging from “What was the exact date of Henriette DeLille’s canonization?” to “How do I marry someone who owns one of these pretty houses? Do you know anyone?” The Inquisition aside, your narration must still captivate the majority of your guests. I quell my usual self-effacing internal dialogue, place my hands dramatically in the air, and start in: “Our story begins in the muddy waters of The Mighty Mississippi…”
When you finally take a breath and find smiling faces and upright bodies, you feel an incredible sense of accomplishment and relief. You’ve just managed to talk for two hours and not lose anyone to a crosswalk accident or Tropical Isle. You begin to garner the confidence to look people from all corners of the world square in the eye and say, “Welcome to New Orleans!”