Posts Tagged With: french quarter

Drugs & ghosts: eclectic history in the French Quarter

The inside of the Pharmacy Museum offers a myriad of canned cures.

Though the buildings in New Orleans’ French Quarter retain the look of their historic times, they have been put to new uses as bars, restaurants, stores, and homes. At 514 Chartres Street, however, one façade retains an interior much like its historic one.

The front windows of the Pharmacy Museum display clear glass jars filled with colored water that pharmacists used to use to indicate their place of business. Inside, both walls are lined top to bottom with shelves holding countless containers filled with liquids, powders, and herbs historically employed to treat illnesses. The blues, ambers, and yellows within them brighten the dark wooden walls and the charcoal gray stone floor—the latter apparently the original made from what was once ship ballast.

In front of the shelved walls are display cases containing artifacts of historical medicinal practices: pills and powders with their original packaging, the first (cringe-worthy) hypodermic needles, tools for therapeutic bloodletting (including a jar labeled “Leeches”). Except for stopping to pay the attendant for entrance (a mere $5), I felt as if I’d walked into a business simply abandoned by its owner.

A hauntingly real pair of eyes in the ophthalmology collection.

Upstairs, where the pharmacist had made his living quarters, there is a more museological feel. A collection of eyeglasses explains treatments of vision problems and displays a pair of fake eyes that appeared uncannily animated. The other exhibit highlights medicinal and experimental uses of liquor (in case reveling tourists need an excuse for excessive imbibing).

Back outside, dusk was beginning to fall, so I headed over to the voodoo store to meet up with a haunted history tour. The guide promised a mixture of history and horror simply in his attire. He wore a blue collared shirt with sleeves rolled to just below his elbows and, over it, a beige suit vest with silk back. With a canvas messenger bag swung across his body, he looked like a Depression-era newsboy—save for the bright blue sneakers that stuck out beneath the cuffs of his baggy brown pants. Though he showed no apparent limp, he walked with a wooden cane that was tipped at the base with brass, and with which he seemed to deliberately beat out a tempo as we walked.

The guide told of ghost encounters in several buildings. People have been known, he said, to feel a child’s touch when walking past a burned-down orphanage. Others feel a chill at an intersection where dead bodies were once piled waist-high during an epidemic. On the balcony of a building once owned by Nicolas Cage (who refused to spend the night inside), he told us that some people have reported seeing a French woman chasing a child slave. His apparent cynicism seemed to disparage those who would believe in ghosts, even as he admitted to having taken part in paranormal investigations.

A haunted balcony in the French Quarter.

Though he was clearly trying to fit the role of “New Orleans haunted history guide,” he came off as rather ridiculous. Sure, I imagine a ghost guide to be a bit quirky, but I did not anticipate pretention. In addition to his outfit’s bid for some sort of historically-inspired hipness, his narration was a mélange of historical details, reported ghost encounters, and measured skepticism. He mentioned several times his research in “the archives” and derided the city’s requirement for tour guide certification, implying he never learned much from their “required books.” His talk seemed inappropriate for a tour guide; he spent more time trying to impress us with his critical perspective than in bringing the past vividly to life.

As a historian myself, I felt put out by his cynicism. If you are going to give a ghost tour, the least you can do is believe in ghosts! His skepticism was akin to giving a history tour and constantly questioning whether the events you’re interpreting even happened. When asked directly, the guide would not admit to ever encountering a ghost himself. Which is fine; I don’t expect ghost encounters to be a requirement for all haunted history guides. But don’t break the spell in which tourists are wrapped. Even practical-minded historians are looking for a little magic in New Orleans.

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The mystical atonality of New Orleans

Last time I attended New Orlean’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, more commonly known as “Jazzfest,” I heard an interview with a local musician, Clint Maedgen, who described riding his bike through the New Orleans streets. The jumble of noises began harmonically, he explained, then became a mystically atonal mixture of the calliope, the bands on Bourbon Street, and the hollers of revelers. The musician painted a surreal picture and, after a few days and nights wandering the French Quarter myself, I could think of no better way to describe it.

Street musicians bring a jumble of sounds to the French Quarter.

Bourbon Street, for all its notoriety, is compartmentalized. Those who wish to adorn their bars with neon lights and sell ridiculously large alcoholic concoctions are confined to one strip that, for the most part, keeps such vulgarities from spreading to other streets in the French Quarter. Walk one block over to Royal Street and it’s a different city, lined with dimly lit homes and eclectic antique stores. The French Quarter is, after all, an historic district.

Looking for the flavor of that history, last night I wandered to the end of the Bourbon chaos to an establishment said to be the oldest continually operating bar in the city—Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.

A gas lamp and old-timey sign promise historical charm at Lafitte’s.

The eighteenth-century brick and mortar building is isolated about two blocks from any flashing lights, on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip streets. The gas lamps dangling outside and its open doors framed by cream-colored shutters were inviting. As I stepped inside the L-shaped interior, a fire burned warmly in the double-sided fireplace at the center of the room, a welcome sight on this unusually chilled evening. All around were bare wooden tables and chairs with dim white candles burning and, in the back, a piano sat silent, begging to fill the room with blues. Hard wooden stools lined the bar that was warped with age.

The building dates to the 1700s and is said to have been owned by the pirate Jean Lafitte.

As the bartender poured hurricanes into plastic souvenir glasses, marking our proximity to Bourbon, I was disappointed at Lafitte’s modern allowances. Atop the bar, a bright video game screen distracted from the atmosphere with constantly moving shades of pink and blue and, behind the bar, a flat screen TV flashed its technology mockingly. Yet, Lafitte’s fits well within the French Quarter’s atonal performance. Its juxtaposition of new and old, of reverent and irreverent is what intrigues me about this town. It is what makes is simultaneously real and surreal.

On my last trip to New Orleans, my aimless wanderings led me to a storefront advertising healing goods and a voodoo museum. I was studying ethnobotany at the time so was thrilled to find an actual herbal practitioner. For about twenty minutes, I chatted with the owner—a tall lanky dark-haired Evan Dando whose girlfriend, claimed a news clipping on the wall, was the “Courtney Love of Voodoo Priestesses.” The walls were lined with books and glass jars of plant and animal specimens promising various “cures.” But the oddest thing about this shop was that I never saw it again. At first, I wasn’t looking. Then, when it seemed strange I hadn’t come across it, I began to look in earnest. I walked down what felt like every street in the neighborhood until it all became familiar. But the voodoo shop was absolutely gone.

I’ve been haunted by this ghost of New Orleans ever since.

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