As I dipped in and out of Royal Street’s art galleries on my first morning, I came across a little place called The Historic New Orleans Collection, a large, 18th century house converted into a museum. I slicked back my hair- already wet with the city’s famous rain- and smiled at the lady on the front desk. This museum is free, and you get a discount to several other French Quarter museums and historic buildings by going in there. On top of that, the people here are super-nice. They seemed to match my energy- sometimes, when solo-traveling, I can get really chatty- and dare I say, confident– with the people I meet. I work well in that dynamic- where the other person is in a professional capacity, and so my presence has less chance of being received with disgust. One thing I’ve found out on this trip is that the other person’s body language and eye contact is so important to my self-confidence. My ability to assert my personality and spread my social wings goes up in direct proportion to the other person’s physical signs of approachability. All I need is to be looked in the eye and smiled at, and that reassurance that yes- I am welcome here erases all doubt, allowing me to trust my own words.
I ended up having conversations in almost every exhibit, and the curators here were excellent company. In most museums I go to, the curators just watch me suspiciously. But these curators respond to your level of interest in the exhibit. They smile and say hi when you enter the room, then wait for you to show signs of intrigue before approaching you. I was shown some of the original bureaucratic documents from the Louisiana Purchase which was pretty cool. Basically an invoice sent by Napoleon to the US government…
What’s also amazing about this place is that they are totally chill about taking photos, so long as you don’t use flash. I ventured into a room with some gorgeous oil paintings of antebellum scenes- and it was so interesting discussing with the curator what we could learn from them about plantation life. We spent a long time discussing a painting of a slave burial somewhere in the south Louisiana woods. The dog without a leash. Who looked after the dog? It probably belonged to the slaves themselves, the curator said. The masters could be seen at the edge of the painting, watching from the trees. It was custom, she said, for the slave owners to maintain a respectful distance during the ceremony. I asked how many of the slaves in the painting were related. They were most likely a mixed bag, she answered, as many slaves were separated from their families at the markets. However, she added, if the masters were kind-hearted folks, they may have tried to keep slave families together.
We went around the room together. She started telling me about some recent controversy in Louisiana about Confederate monuments. It was interesting to get a local take on it. The curator said that a lot of the monuments were erected in reaction to Northern oppression after the war. Carpetbaggers, they were called. I asked her what Creole meant, and if Creoles were white. The woman said that Creole didn’t refer to a person’s color at all. It was simply a word to refer to first generation Americans in New Orleans- that is to say, those whose parents were born elsewhere (be it Haiti or Calabria) and then immigrated to the Big Easy. So a Creole person could be white or black. I thanked her for the info and decided to move on.
I spilled out onto the street and saw that the rain had stopped. The rain came and went that day in short, violent bursts. The Big Easy rain was tantamount to the temperament of a true artist. Nothing is smooth and steady in this city, even on my dearest Royal Street. Driving a car through the French Quarter feels like riding a horse through a European trench. That was how one lady put it to me anyway. Every street was fixed with a dilapidated kind of beauty that comes with bearing the weight of past tragedies. A block over, on Bourbon, is where you’ll find little brass bands whose bombastic trumpets let you know that you’re in the hub of wild adventures. Conversely, Royal has individual buskers. Local singers that find a street corner, and whose melodies let you know you’re in the hub of artistic contemplation. There’s the one guy that stands across from the Cornstalk Hotel, starts clapping his hands, and begins “Don’t know much about his-tory…” right on cue as the low light of the setting sun comes to welcome tourists heading out to dinner.
One night, on the corner of St Peter and Royal, I saw a small crowd gathered around a young woman belting out soul music. She had a voice as rich and sweet as the slow-pouring of molasses. There was something about her talent for reaching- and more impressively, maintaining- ambitious notes that made me think of water and curved edges. Across the street I saw two middle-aged women utterly enraptured by this local soulstress, standing with their hands clutched to their breastbones and their mouths slightly agape. I honestly thought they might start crying. If anything, I found myself more struck by their reactions to the song than the song itself.
New Orleans- the French Quarter in particular- is not just a place where artists thrive- it’s a place where art itself is cherished and adored, like perhaps nowhere else I’ve been.