For longtime locals, running a simple errand in the French Quarter often turns out to be a lively social occasion.
by Nan Parati
photos by Ellis Anderson
It wasn’t a special day or a magic day; it was just a day where a festival in the Quarter needed some signs. There had been some changes in the music line-up, and they needed those changes illustrated for the public to see. So I wrote up the new band names, gathered the signs up under my arm and started into the Quarter from Rampart Street, carrying the signs to their destination.
Half a block in a man stopped me and asked, “Are you going to write on my house?”
I said, “Excuse me? What do you mean?”
He said, “People write on my house all the time and I now have to employ a full-time graffiti eraser!”
I allowed how I was sorry that was happening to him, but that surely, no indeed, I was a sign writer, but not a graffiti artist. At that very moment his full-time graffiti remover showed up and told me, within about 30 seconds, that he had also been Ernie K-Doe’s manager, back in the day.
Well, I recognized about three weeks’ worth of stories in that kind of relationship, but I also had to deliver signs -- being a slave to duty, as I am -- and I got his business card so that I may call him one day when I have time to sit down and ask about all of those stories, and I carried on my way with my signs.
Before I got to Burgundy, a young man on a bicycle yelled, “Do you know Nan Parati?”
I said, “Why certainly, that is I!” and he said, “I recognized your signs, but I didn’t recognize you!” Which was fine as I didn’t recognize him either, but as soon as he announced himself I remembered him from working in the old days at Jazz Fest.
So we hugged and clapped and hugged some more and caught up with all of the stuff we had been doing in the last 12 years or so, and then we exchanged contact information so that we might call each other one day when we both have time to sit down and tell the long versions of our stories to each other.
On the corner of Burgundy and Dumaine, a man stopped me to ask me about my signs, what they were and why I was carrying them, and then he told me about his life all the way from birth in such a musical and spiritual fashion it made me stop and listen to the whole story, despite my dedicated mission, and then he asked me to marry him, which I decided not to do, but as he was in need of money as well as a wife, I gave him more money than I could spare just because I felt his spiritual and musical presentation was worth at least what I was giving him, to help him continue on with it.
One more block down I saw one of my very own signs, from some other festival, posted on the outside of a house, proclaiming either that the musician himself lived in that house, or that one of his fans does, and I felt proud to be represented on the outside of a house for whatever reason.
I then carried on, thinking about a project I was working on in which we plan to create a back-end donation to some foundation we hoped to find that works with kids in the Treme. I rounded the “coinder,” as my friend Danny used to say, at Rouses, and ran into a man selling t-shirts in order to raise money for his foundation that works with kids in the Treme.
I don’t think he believed my coincidental story that I had just been looking exactly for him, and, probably thinking I was trying to weasel money from him in some underhanded manner, he stepped me back by letting me photograph his t-shirt, which was the closest thing he had to a business card, and sent me on my way.
As I walked on, still with my signs under my arm, I mused with my daily interest and appreciation of the houses in the French Quarter, thinking how nice one in particular looked, and wondered what it would be like to live there when I saw upon that very house a hangy-down sign with a name of a friend of mine who, apparently deals in French Quarter rentals. I thought he was an architect. But I do know now who to call if I decide I want to rent that house I was just admiring.
One block later, at the corner of Orleans and Royal, I suddenly flew deep back into wavy time, and saw there in the flesh, my boyfriend from 1985. He hadn’t changed a single bit, and there he was, a street artist, still with the same sweet face he’d had 34 years ago and I wondered how I had grown up over these last 34 years, while he had not at all.
Still thinking we were in 1985, I nearly threw my arms around him, though, thank goodness, I didn’t kiss him or anything, as he said, “Yeah – everybody thinks I’m him, but I’m not.” The resemblance was so dreamlike that I didn’t believe him at first, but finally realized it had to be true since I myself was so much older looking than I had been in 1985, so I finally took his bored word for it and carried on with my signs, noting aloud, all the signs of the day.
Three blocks later I found the festival site and delivered the updated signs to the stage manager, turned around and headed back towards Rampart Street, cutting a random zigzag path diagonally through the neighborhood to get there.
But as with all things in the Quarter, it doesn’t matter which path you take, because eventually someone will say, “Nan Parati!” And you’ll look up and it will be someone you haven’t seen since 1993, and he will tell you all of his stories since that last day in 1993 you saw him, and you will tell him yours, which is exactly what happened right there on St. Philip Street between Dauphine and Burgundy.
Had I gone a different way, the same thing would have happened on Governor Nicholls Street between Royal and Bourbon, or on Ursulines between Decatur and Chartres, because that’s just how the French Quarter is. And one of his good stories was about how his wife had told him one day to check out a free clinic that one of the hospitals was throwing, and so he went down, got checked out and learned he was standing tippy-toed on the knife-edged precipice of having his very own heart attack, and was thus sent immediately, without passing Go, to the hospital itself, where he spent the next several days averting a heart-stopping attack.
We hugged and kissed and celebrated the health of both our lives of the last 26 years, promised to see each other again before at least 25 more years got away, and, after a quick stop at Matassa’s just because it always makes me happy to shop there, I carried on back home. If this were a song, I’d end it with “All on a Mardi Gras Day.” Except it wasn’t Mardi Gras or any other sort of special day; it’s just how life goes in the French Quarter, every single day of the year.
Photographer's note: Shooting the photographs to accompany this piece underscored Nan's point: I ran into and had conversations with five different friends in the course of an hour!
As the sign writer for the Jazz Fest, Nan Parati may be the most collected artist in the world, but nobody knows who she is. Other than that, she’s lived in the French Quarter and the Treme, was the sign writer at Whole Food Company (before Whole Foods Market,) worked for Jimmy Buffet for a while, has made a life’s work out of festival design all over the country, has won awards for her plays, has a film script revving up for production and just sold a restaurant she opened in Massachusetts after Katrina took out her house and sent her out of her mind. Now she’s back in her right mind and having a real good time. Email Nan here, she loves to get letters.