Waking up to the sound of tubas and drums isn’t a bad way to start your day, but it certainly was a shock for me when I moved to New Orleans from my quiet hometown of Littleton, Colorado. Life here in New Orleans is simply different though. In a town that lives life on the edge, morays are made to be broken.
Spontaneous parties are a daily occurrence, even if it’s for a funeral. After all, honoring a man’s life with a massive street party isn’t a bad way to exit this world. Still, there are downsides to living in a city that never sleeps. There are better ways to wake up than having a crowd of revelers use your side yard as a urinal, but that’s one of the many prices I’ve paid to live in this unique corner of the world.
New Orleans lies on the southeastern tip of Louisiana. It is an island in the midst of swamps and lakes. The original French settlers must have been scurvy stricken to think that settling here was a good idea. Nonetheless, I lived here too, in the neighborhood of Treme, (it’s pronounced Tremay, not Treem) directly north of the Historic French Quarter on the other side of N. Rampart Street.
Treme is home to the great New Orleans Jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (who lived two doors down from me), Joe’s Cozy Corner, Armstrong Park and the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which is just across the street from St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. Folks from St. Augustine’s claim that slaves once worshipped within its walls.
I lived in New Orleans for one year, making only $75 per month, working at Innocence Project of New Orleans, a non-profit law office dedicated to providing wrongfully accused inmates with legal representation. I lived with six others who had also signed up for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working at various non-profit organizations within the Crescent City.
New Orleans is an extremely poor city, but this isn’t reflected in the prices which are often inflated to accommodate tourists’ dollars flying out of their pockets. We simply added ourselves to the list of those living well below the poverty level.
In spite of our financial inadequacies, we managed to get along fine. I never went without a warm meal, hot coffee or cold beer. I became an expert on living on the cheap, and in doing so, I found a side of New Orleans that few tourists ever discover.
I tracked down and often ate at the cheapest diner in town, where Jesus Christ plays guitar when he is annoyed with the prayers of men. I found the finest plate of Shrimp Creole, the cheapest pint of Louisiana’s microbrew Abita and the most altruistic folks in the world—all within walking distance of Bourbon Street.
Everybody knows about the stunning architecture and the accompanying puke/urine smell of the French Quarter. The historic neighborhood has a reputation for throwing huge block parties, and the wild traditions there are infamous. Still, most people miss my favorite places in the French Quarter – these off-the-beaten-path treasures that reveal so much of this city’s character.
One of those rare finds is O’Flaherty’s Irish Channel Pub at 514 Toulouse Street. It offers the cheapest dinner in town, and Mondays have the best deal of all, offering free red beans and rice, along with $1 Rolling Rocks. Renowned local artist Beth Patterson provides the live Irish music at O’Flaherty’s for free, throwing in her witty, often cynical views on life. Verna is behind the bar, and she’s always friendly and welcoming.
Jesus Christ plays guitar at El Matador, which can be found on the northwest corner of Decatur and Esplanade Streets between the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny The establishment is colored in red and black décor, with faint red neon signs shining through the cracked gold-lettered windows proclaiming El Matador to the world.
El Matador draws locals, tourists, well-dressed young people and threadbare old men who like to dance with young ladies. The music is as varied as the people. One night you’ll find a brass band highlighting the previous years’ hip-hop hits, while the next night could feature a gritty gutter band playing neo-folk tunes through an off-key guitar.
Jesus Christ, of course, plays El Matador frequently. I asked him once, since he is called Jesus Christ, why he comes down to earth to play. He said that this is how he unwinds. Why, I asked then, did he always come to El Matador? “Because there is no other place like it,” he said. I agreed and bought him a beer.
Making only $75 a month helped me develop the ability to mooch. My skills provided many meals that normally would have take at least two or three months to pay for. This is how I discovered the greatest plate of Shrimp Creole in New Orleans.
A drunk Irish priest offered to take me to lunch, so we headed to Petunia’s on 817 St. Louis Street. The food is pricey – well beyond my means – but the combination of excellent service yet humble setting makes it worthwhile. Before he started slurring his words, the intoxicated priest noted that the drinks were excellent, as well. Visiting Petunia’s is a necessity when visiting New Orleans.
The cheapest pint of Abita is at Marky’s, 640 Louisa Street. (Louisa and Chartres Streets in the Bywater). Pints of domestic drafts are $1.50, while Abita, the premium Louisiana homebrew is only $2.50 per pint. The Marky’s crowd is an interesting mix of local blue-collar workers, European ex-patriots and the occasional lawyer. Marky’s has free pool and darts all day, everyday of the week, and if you want to watch sports, the bar has televisions that the bartender will turn to whatever channel you want.
Coop’s Place at 1109 Decatur Street presents delectable Creole and Cajun selections that will leave you and your wallet feeling fat and happy. I can recommend every plate they have, especially the hard to pronounce Chicken Tchoupitoulas (chop-it-two-las). Their shrimp Creole is excellent, as well as their salads. Coop’s has a very friendly atmosphere, and the servers can be belligerent at times, so be sure to work on your witty comebacks.
Having spent a year in the heart of the Crescent City, I concluded that New Orleans is a city of relationships and extremes. It helps to talk with the locals. The real stories of New Orleans aren’t told from the horse and buggy rides that go down Royal Street, nor from the air-conditioned tour buses crowding Decatur Street. The good stories are reserved for bars frequented by locals and coffee shops full of young idealists plotting their next protest or service project.
The real history of New Orleans is told by the toothless old man who looks like an alien and frequents Flora’s coffee shop in the Marigny (2602 Royal Street). The glamour of New Orleans is communicated through the glitzy debutante ball; the grit of New Orleans is displayed by crumbling streets and decaying public schools.
But regardless of whether you stay a week or a year, New Orleans and Southern Louisiana won’t disappoint you. Go on the swamp tours and bus tours, and ride that donkey carriage through the French Quarter drunk on Hurricanes. See the flaming fountain at Pat O’Brien’s, but also call up Habitat for Humanity and help them build a house with local students, volunteers and community activists.
Give homage to Emeril Lagosse and Chef K. Paul, but also go to a Friday night fish fry at St. Augustine’s in Treme, talking about New Orleans and wherever it is you are from over a plate of fried catfish and cold Coors Lite ($5 buys all that and potato salad). Do the tourist thing, but also do the New Orleans thing; you won’t be disappointed.
I know I wasn’t.