A New York writer finds that a year of French Quarter living leaves him with an undiminished devotion to the neighborhood.
- by Richard Goodman
- photos by Ellis Anderson and William Widmer
I came to New Orleans from New York City in 2011 to take a teaching job at the University of New Orleans.
I’d never been to New Orleans. I didn’t know the city at all. Where to live? A friend, who’d once lived there advised me:
“Don’t live in the French Quarter.”
“Why not?” I asked. After all, Tennessee Williams had lived there, and he hadn’t done too badly, had he?
Because, he said, it’s too expensive. And you’ll never find a place to park.
I didn’t heed that advice. I reasoned since I didn’t know a soul in New Orleans, at least I’d be living in a neighborhood where there was always something going on. I wouldn’t be lonely. As for the parking, well, I’d lived in New York for 30 years.
When I came to New Orleans to search for an apartment, I enlisted the services of a real estate broker who specialized in the French Quarter. He lived in the neighborhood, and his family had been selling and renting houses there for years.
“What do you do?” he asked me.
“Well, I’m a writer. I’ve come to New Orleans to take a job teaching.”
“A writer? Oh, well, you must live in the Quarter.”
The realtor found me a place I could afford. It was an apartment on Ursulines Street between Royal and Bourbon, a lovely part of the neighborhood. I didn’t know yet that the Quarter, though relatively small, changes radically in temperament as you go from one end to the other.
My new apartment was on the ground floor of a two-story building with a small inner courtyard. One end of the apartment faced the street and the other that courtyard. The tall windows that faced the street were always shuttered, unless I threw them open. I hardly ever did.
That made it somewhat dark inside. Most houses with windows facing the street are shuttered, and remain shuttered all year round. I was told it’s because of the heat - the shutters fend off the sun - and I suppose that’s right. But there is also a sense of protection, of hidden lives.
Every time you go into a French Quarter house, you’re walking into a mystery. The shuttered windows keep the interior secret. You have no idea if you are going to walk into Jay Gatsby’s home or Miss Havisham's. Both are possible. The shuttered windows also give the impression that the people are away, they’re someplace else, maybe London. But the houses are seldom empty. Every once in a while, someone walks out the door. There is life inside, often of the most curious sort.
Soon enough, I felt as I did when I moved to New York decades earlier, that I was home. When I was absorbing the culture shock of moving from New York to New Orleans, I noticed the only thing the two cities have in common is the word “New.”
I would amend that now. Each is self-satisfied, cities that don’t care what anyone thinks about them or whether they’re liked or not. They are supremely, indifferently, self-confident. What the rest of the world does or thinks about them doesn’t concern them.
What else? In the French Quarter, especially, there is a general, pervasive idea of acceptance. As with New York, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, what you look like, how you dress. If you can survive, then you’re welcome.
And I was right: I was never lonely in the French Quarter. That was important for someone who did not know anyone. We all have been there. I was alone but never lonely.
While I was living on Ursulines, I had a routine. I’d come back from the University in the evenings and walk one block to the Verti Mart on Royal and Governor Nicholls, just a few blocks from my apartment. It’s a painfully small market that sells a limited selection of goods. In back of the Verti Mart is a kitchen nearly as big as the store itself. From this kitchen come wonderful things.
No one told me about the Verti Mart, or why that name. I just went inside one day looking for a place where I could buy something to eat when I came back after teaching. I was lucky I did. I bought their rich, New Orleans food that provided limitless comfort almost every night for an entire school year. Later, I learned that for many New Orleanians the Verti Mart is almost as celebrated as Galatoire’s and holds a similar reserved place in their hearts.
Morning is a wonderful time to savor ‘most any place, and the Quarter is no exception. Those first few months, I liked to rise early and walk through the empty streets. I began to know the neighborhood as I would a new friend. Sometimes I’d encounter a few drunks on the tail end of a drinking marathon. They might be sitting on a stoop speaking, or shouting, repetitively to one another.
But if I was lucky, I walked down unoccupied streets. The street-sweeping trucks sprayed out unpleasantly sweet foam across the pitted asphalt. The shops were closed. To have a place like that all to yourself, even for an hour, is a precious thing, and I was always grateful. A few hours later, I’d have to turn it over to the thousands of tourists who come there every day.
I found the French Quarter to be a neighborhood - unique, florid and dramatic, but a neighborhood nevertheless. It’s sometimes easy to think otherwise with the tawdriness of Bourbon Street and the souvenir stores on Decatur, where you’ll find the New Orleans version of tourist shops in Atlantic City or Myrtle Beach, selling trinkets and t-shirts.
Like most streets in Manhattan, the Quarter streets run as a grid. They are lined with one- and two-story houses, the latter often with balconies affixed to the second stories that are enclosed by black wrought or cast iron railings.
From these balconies often hang planters made of a porous, matted material. Sometimes I would walk under one of the balconies when the plants were being watered, and, surprisingly, it would begin to rain on a clear sunny day -- or so I at first believed. It can be a pleasant interruption on a warming summer morning. The sun livens the excess water that cascades from the planters with their flower tresses.
Those balconies are often empty, but during Mardi Gras they are groaning with an unlawful amount of humanity, far beyond, it would seem, maximum capacity. These balconies are supported by elegant, slim iron columns. I often rode my bike through the Quarter, especially early morning, because I liked drifting by its houses and shops like I was on a ship. When I stopped, I’d attach my bicycle to one of those black columns.
Royal Street is my favorite in the French Quarter. It’s lined with shops -- many other streets in the Quarter are not -- but these shops are not like those on Decatur. Royal is a street of art galleries, of stationary stores, of chic hair salons, jewelry shops. It’s proud of itself. On the weekends, parts of it are closed to traffic, and I could stroll mindlessly. This is also where the street musicians come to play and pass the hat. Wonderful musicians. I’ve never heard a bad street musician in the French Quarter. The great tradition stands.
By midday, Royal Street is full of people, and I have to surrender it to strangers. But far earlier than that I would be sitting in the Community Coffee shop not far from my new apartment, preparing for my classes that day at the university.
There is an elementary school across from the coffee shop, and I became a regular witness to its routine. I would sit at the window during the week, watching the children in their yellow Lacoste shirts and khaki pants arrive for school in the morning. One by one they were dropped off either by their parents or by the school bus. Each child had a backpack.
The adults from the school who met the children were young, too, most probably in their twenties. The adults would usher the children to the playground where they would gather, a swarm of bees in their yellow shirts. They shouted something in unison every morning before they went inside, a kind of ritual. I couldn’t hear what it was, but some sort of energetic anthem.
I would sit working by the coffee shop window, and, out of the corner of my eye, see the yellow flash of fabric from the children’s shirts, a rich summer squash yellow. I would pause, look up and watch them for a few minutes, drinking in their young lives, their wide-eyed stumbling, and I would feel refreshed and young and optimistic.
My walks in the neighborhood often brought me to Jackson Square, to the expanse and park in front of St. Louis Cathedral, the Rome of the Quarter, where all roads lead, literally and figuratively. Buskers and Tarot card readers, musicians and painters and magicians, establish their little plots of territory. Bunches of people school around them, day and night.
I would try to picture in my mind Sherwood Anderson sitting on a park bench talking while the young William Faulkner listened. Anderson promised he would send Faulkner’s first novel to his publisher only if he, Anderson, didn’t have to read it. The book, “Soldier’s Pay,” was published in 1926, and a career was launched. Now there is a small, delightful bookstore in the building where Faulkner lived, just off Jackson Square. We have Anderson to thank for so much in American literature, and he never did receive his due.
No one, by the way, writes better about the French Quarter than Tennessee Williams. He lived in the Quarter for various lengths of time in various locations for years. He loved New Orleans and flourished here.
If you want to see what life was like for him as a struggling French Quarter artist read his “Notebooks.” He once wrote of the vacuity of life without a struggle, and indeed he struggled freely and earnestly in the French Quarter and forged out of that struggle everlasting characters that live inside us.
The ultimate problem for me was that I wanted a bigger place with a lot more light, and I couldn’t afford that in the French Quarter. Not on the salary of an assistant professor at a state university.
Somewhat reluctantly, with a literal sigh, I moved away after a year.
So why, years later, am I here again, in the Quarter, at Royal and St. Philip in the Community Coffee shop where I practically lived that first year? I’ve come here early from my place in the Marigny, a much calmer and quieter neighborhood on the other side of Esplanade.
I’m back because despite the fact that the Quarter is raucous and intense, there is life here. I’m back because the neighborhood embraced me, and always embraces me. I’m eternally grateful to the French Quarter for making my first year in New Orleans so illuminating and stimulating.
I’m back because the early morning streets are lovely to walk on. I’m back because I miss Ursulines Street. I’m back to look at the second story balconies where people stand and watch the walkers below and from which the planters dangle and weep water. I’m back because I miss the walls of the courtyards, sleek, smooth as frosting, subtle-hued.
I’m back because an older woman, who is a painter, gave me the keys to the large door that leads to her courtyard with a trickling fountain and vast green palm fronds swaying over a cast iron table. I’m back because there is an architectural display here you can’t find anywhere else.
I’m back, because the French Quarter is in my blood. My blood is type FQ now, and that’s the way it is and will be.