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.
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.
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.
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.