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A pilgrimage along New Orleans’ Royal Road

At the corner of Royal and Canal, where the French Quarter begins, a taxi driver calls out to a pedestrian, “Hey, you want a taxi?”

“No, man. I gotta go to work so I can afford me my own taxi. How you doin’, though? You doin’ alright?”

When people ask me why I love New Orleans despite all the ways it’s been undone, I tell them yes it’s the music, yes it’s the food, but mostly, it’s the vibe. Because you tell me where else I’m going to find a guy who doesn’t want a taxi ride asking the cabbie about his well-being.

Tomorrow, I’m to board a plane and be dispatched abruptly home. But first, a pilgrimage through the vibe. One end of Royal Street to the other, starting in the French Quarter, which first drew me here, then through the neighbourhoods of the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, which keep me coming back.

Royal, a block down from Bourbon, is largely known to tourists for its art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants, but my first stop is Unique Grocery, which promises “cold beer” and “checks cashed.” Inside, a guy with twitching arms pulls a can of Coors from the fridge, carefully counting out change from the pocket of his khaki jacket. The jacket’s too warm for this day, but what the hell, the hour’s too early for a beer. Maybe their clientele has improved since my last visit, because they’ve taken down the sign offering “a free ride in a police car if you shoplift from this store.” To play it safe, though, I make full payment on my lemon-filled Hubig’s Pie, a corner store institution, and chow down on the sidewalk, where a tall, buxom she-male passes and asks, “So is this your first encounter with a celebrity?”

There’s a coziness to this stretch of Royal, many of the shops and restaurants tucked into former mansions, the intricate grillwork on the second-floor balconies shaped into the original owners’ initials. Right now it’s closed off from vehicular traffic so visitors can enjoy the street performers – human statues, swing dancers, and mostly, musicians.

A couple in overalls are tucked under the awning of a corner store. She’s playing a palette of spoons, faster than eye and ear can follow. He’s playing everything else, plucking at strings from homemade wooden contraptions, and keeping time by hitting a pedal against a suitcase. He’s got a hillbilly beard, she’s got a menagerie of tattoos; they’re both too shy for eye contact. In between songs, the small audience applauds and drop bills and coins in their bucket. I ask how they found their style of music.

“I just always loved junk bands,” he says with a Southern drawl, looking halfway up to me. “Hee Haw’s my mentor. And then I met this phenomenon. She’s from another planet.”

“Venus,” she clarifies.

But they don’t want to talk. That’s hard. They just want to play.

Further along, a folk-gypsy band occupies the middle of the street; consisting of a guitarist, fiddler, bassist, accordionist, banjo player, four sleeping dogs, lots of dreadlocks, and two open cans of Miller. They’re going at it hard yet relaxed. To shake things up, the bassist and guitarist switch instruments in mid-song. The banjo player announces the presence of the hat. “Ladies. And gentlemen. We are the G-String Orchestra.” His Southern twang, transforming “are” into a three-syllable word, is so thick, I can’t decide if he’s putting us on. But his lazy, defiant tone, suggesting he only tolerates his audience because of our wallets, seems sincere enough. “Now if you would all be so kind, we’d appreciate it if you would fill up that hat right they-ur. That way, we won’t have to sell our daw-ugs. Besides, we’re just trying to get to college.” As if on cue, another street musician walks by. “Hey,” the banjo player asks, “do you know where college is at?” The musician points straight ahead and keeps walking.

Down the street, I stop to watch a tiny violinist tucked under a huge arched doorway, her pink hair slipping from under her train engineer’s cap, green laces on one army boot, yellow on the other, her German Sheppard curled up beside her. With her chin perched on the violin, eyes facing downward, she seems lost in her music. I am her only audience.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a violin make that sound before,” I say, “but I’m sure I like it.”

“My mother calls it fidolin,” she says. “Part fiddle, part violin.” When she looks at me, there is disconcerting hardness in her eyes. A haggard friend wearing a dress made mostly of tulle comes running. Their voices drop conspiratorially, the fidolin player flashes a seedy grin, and again becomes one with her instrument.

I pass through the last of the barricades and enter the Lower Quarter, the more residential part of Royal, where the high horizon is often cut off by verandas stretching over the sidewalks. Away from the musicians and tourists, things quieten down and subtler stimuli take over; the rattle of a bike chain when a cyclist hits a bump, the faint diesel smell which I’m pretty sure comes from the other side of the Mississippi River levee a few blocks down.

At an isolated corner, Malcolm introduces himself as the drummer for the Rebirth Brass Band, telling me they’re all around the Quarter today, raising money to buy musical instruments for underprivileged children. It breaks his and his wife’s hearts to see kids with such talent and no way to play; they’ve even taken a couple home. Only his eagerness to accompany me to an ATM betrays him as a hustler. He takes it well when I say I’ll follow-up later.

Now some guy’s walking down the street, belting out “Mac the Knife” – pretty much on-key, but inept in his efforts to duplicate Louis Armstrong’s raspiness. But since I’m enjoying myself so much, I just keep singing.

At Esplanade, a boulevard with a wide, grassy median, known here as “neutral ground,” I pass from the Quarter to the Faubourg Marigny. A bend in the Mississippi forces a wedge shape to the street plan. The first time I came through, I was thrown off course, but was quickly set right by a woman sitting among friends on her porch, who called out, “we’ve decided you’re lost.” I pass Frenchmen, quiet now, but certain to be hopping tonight, with maybe some elegant jazz at Snug Harbor, swing at d.b.a. or the Spotted Cat, folk at the Apple Barrel, and old-time country on the sidewalk. Then, more neutral ground at Elysian Fields. Someone has pasted a bumper sticker to an electric box: New Orleans, Proud to Crawl Home.

Crossing the boulevard, I’ve stepped beyond the tourist map. A couple of young women carrying shopping bags are trying to implore a friend, wearing a top hat, towards reason.

“Come on, Cheryl. We should go back to the French Quarter. Now.”

“She’s right, Cheryl.”

But Cheryl, God bless her, is busy with her smart phone. “Not yet. Let’s find out about where we’re at.”

Where we’re at is a neighbourhood well into gentrification but, in fairness to the nervous women, still with its ramshackle side. Many of the sidewalks are uprooted by a combination of neglect and wilful tree roots. And some of the houses could use a paint job or even an occupant.

What it has no need of, though, is character.

Cyclists, like the musician pedaling to work, a sousaphone towering from his backpack, are as common as motorists. And although this part of Royal has many impressive two-story mansions, some in better shape than others, I’m mostly taken with the neighbourhood’s more numerous low-flung shotgun houses and Creole cottages, modest in size and explosive in colour. Lime green, with tangerine window frames, and a royal blue door. Or purple with red. Or light purple with dark purple. Or anything with anything. I direct my camera at one, just as the owner opens his door.

“Hope you don’t mind,” I say. “Couldn’t help myself.”

“Let me improve your picture,” he says, “by going back inside.”

That’s another thing. Just about everyone here has time for a greeting.

“How are you today?” a large man walking a tiny poodle asks, in a tone that says he’s open to an answer.

Even the scruffy, bleary-eyed guy with a cup of coffee in his hands, has it in him to muster “Morning,” unaware that morning has expired.

I think of a woman I met the day before. I’d expressed shock that she was in her sixties. “I’ll tell you my secret,” she said with a sugary, Southern accent, before connecting her youthfulness with a particular bedroom activity. Almost too much information, but not quite.

Under the sagging veranda of a one-time mansion are a trio of industrial-sized garbage bins, each with a different-coloured version of the New Orleans Saints’ Fleur de Lys.

A lawn sign says: No Parkin’. No Peein’. No Hatin’. No Cat Sellin.’

A handmade bumper sticker with an etching of an old automobile says: I drove my Chevy to the levee & the levee was gone. New Orleans.

A tall tree at Spain Street, its branches festooned with hundreds of glimmering Mardi Gras beads, says: there is beauty in this day.

The driver of a mini-bus rolls down his window. “Hey guy. Is this Royal Street?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I knew that. I was just testing you.”

Crossing Franklin, I pass from the Marigny into Bywater, a seamless transition at first. Shotgun houses and Creole cottages still abound. Cyclists are everywhere. People still say hi, and some of them are styling, like the woman in a derby, jackboots, and fishnets, walking hand-in-hand with her guy.

At Press Street, I reach railroad tracks where a marker identifies the spot where Homer Plessy was removed from a “whites-only” streetcar in 1892, setting into motion the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling that would take decades to undo. Some here argue it’s never been undone.

On the other side of the tracks, I am at further remove from the Marigny. Some of the sidewalks seem to crumble into the road, more of the homes are in disrepair, and the architecture is more hodgepodge, mixing in warehouses and artists’ studios.

Between Piety and Desire, only a block apart, I feebly try to corral a runaway pooch who seems unperturbed by the ire of his owner, a young woman in a tie-dye dress yelling at him with a litany of curses that would make a sailor ask for an autograph.

Many of the homes still bear a big white X slashed between their shutters, reminders of the search-and-rescue teams that came through after Katrina. But this neighbourhood wasn’t hit nearly as hard by “the storm” as others, and gentrification has caught on here, too.

“That’s a painted lady,” explains a woman, lifting her toddler from his car seat. She’s referring to the house I’m admiring – purple, green, yellow and orange, with a ceramic gecko crawling up the side. “That’s what they call houses with three colours or more.”

Inside another house, someone’s cell goes off, and I jump at the sound, so discordant with the surrounding stillness. Then a tugboat blows its horn, a sound that fits right in, and I turn towards the Mississippi and, more specifically, Elizabeth’s, where my favourite table looks out on the levee. My taste buds pop at the thought of a shrimp po’ boy. I think of the nearby record shop, which the owner opened early for me, abbreviating his pre-lunch beer, and didn’t seem to mind when all I got from him was a tutorial on the local music scene.

Maybe I’ve chosen reverie over reality these past few blocks because of how Royal Street ends, with the nondescript F. Edward Hebert Defense Complex blandly stretching along Poland Street, obliterating the horizon. But this is New Orleans. A Fleur de Lys and a sign have been painted on the road beside an oil stain: Ugly Oili Ride Yer Bike.

I look back along Royal. Beyond Bywater and the Marigny and the French Quarter, the downtown skyline rises, looking surreal. Somewhere beyond it is an airport, the thought of which is enough to make a grown man cry.

So I turn towards Elizabeth’s, because I see no point in blubbering on an empty stomach.

More by this author on his blog, Lorne Meets World.

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