Arts & Culture

Roy Blount Jr. Walks on the Wild Side

A local’s daily observations—and exotic animal encounters—in New Orleans’ French Quarter

Illustration: BARRY BLITT

When I say I have a home in the French Quarter of New Orleans, some people look at me askance. What is it like, they wonder, to live and walk around in such a place? These people need some perspective, if you ask me, on living and walking around anywhere. 

In Charles Portis’s novel The Dog of the South, a Mrs. Symes asks the narrator:

“What about Heaven and Hell. Do you believe those places exist?”

“Well, I don’t know,” replies the narrator. “It’s just so odd to think that people are walking around in Heaven and Hell.”

“Yes, but it’s odd to find ourselves walking around here too, isn’t it?”

“That’s true, Mrs. Symes.”

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We live in a quiet corner of the Quarter. Our neighbors come out on their stoops to sit and socialize. That in itself is unusual anywhere these days. But I do a lot of free-range walking in the Quarter, where—

Okay, maybe you read that a New Orleans lady tried to hold up a bank the other day while she was on a walker. But that was in another part of town. And she didn’t get away with it. I have never come upon anything like that in the Quarter.

In the Quarter, someone you don’t know from Adam may well—less often now, but still—address you as “hon” or “baby,” without meaning anything by it except that neither of you is stranger than the other.

Even if you are a tourist. French Quarter tourists are not the White Lotus crowd. Sometimes I think they have gotten tattooed, extensively, just for the sake of this vacation.

Tourists may be in evidence as they are borne along by mule-drawn carriages operated by freewheeling local narrators. I hear snatches of the often highly personalized historical notes that the carriage drivers toss off as they pass, and I fill in the gaps.

“Where you lay your head tonight may be…” fades away, and I add: “…where Tennessee Williams tossed and turned and dreamed The Rose Tattoo.”

Which could be true.

“When you think about all the excuses for being late to work, ‘I was dancing in the street…’”

“…will get you a lot further here than it would back home.” 

Which is certainly true.

“Look to your left—what you see is nothing more, and nothing less…”

“…than the other obscene-T-shirt store you’d see if you looked to your right.”

“Hold on to your liquor, folks, we trust you not to…”

“…slosh any of it onto what persists of the ashes of the saints.”

I don’t even know what I mean by that last one, except to evoke the party-time/religious underpinnings of New Orleans culture, and it flows.

Once I heard a passing carriage driver make the following statement, including directions to the mule:

“Ironically [kk, whoa, whuh], Homer was an octoroon.”

Nothing to add to that.

Pets. In the Quarter it is not unusual to run into a python being lugged around; or a pair of cockatoos; or a baby possum clinging to the back of a big brown rabbit. But far more common, like anywhere else: dogs. The other day I saw a conservatively dressed gray-haired couple, each of whom was walking a miniature collie with strikingly round, dark eyes.

“Oh!” I said to the couple. “Are your dogs wearing sunglasses?”

“Yes,” said the lady of the people. And the dogs went coolly on along.

Do you know what a capybara is? The largest rodent on earth, native to the Amazon rainforest. (Where I have been.) Walking up Royal Street, I saw a woman walking a huge round dog that looked remarkably like a capybara. She, the woman, had garters and stockings tattooed on her legs all the way up to extremely short shorts. The capybara-looking dog veered off toward me, not necessarily in a threatening way—though I grant the animal could have inferred grounds for being protective, and since its face was so furry, it was hard to tell—and the woman tugged it, with some effort, back into the straightaway. Meanwhile she gave me the sort of look that an utterly untattooed woman in a suburban supermarket (where I have been) might give to a fellow shopper when her toddler has similarly strayed. It was the sort of look that comes accompanied by a roll of the eyes, close to a wink but not flirty, as if to say, “We all know how a capybara-looking dog can be sometimes.”