How Working in the French Quarter Showed Me a Different Side of New Orleans
In an excerpt from her debut memoir “The Yellow House,” NOLA native Sarah M. Broom reflects on a summer job she took in the heavily touristed French Quarter while home from college.
When I began my barista job at CC’s Coffee House, my brother Michael, a veteran employee of the French Quarter, explained which streets I was to avoid on the way to the bus stop at night and demonstrated the forward posture in which I was to hold myself in order to appear most threatening. Every day, Michael broke from his own work at K-Paul’s Restaurant on Chartres to walk the few blocks to where I worked on Royal Street. I fed him dark chocolate–covered espresso beans and a frozen drink called the Mochasippi.
From time to time, he’d look to me and say: “What, you don’t like to do nothing to your hair?” My brothers were always asking me this about my hair, an unregulated mass standing up and pointing whichever way. I was not interested in hair, especially not in taming it. I wanted my hair to project a freedom I did not feel. My brothers were vain men, all of them, starched like my grandmother and her offspring: Joseph, Elaine, and Ivory. “Have you seen Einstein’s hair?” I had the nerve to say back.
Coffee orders at CC’s generally came with a question, most reliably: “Where is Bourbon Street?” On 15-minute breaks, I sat staring through the window at passersby. During lunch breaks, I wandered the streets with my camera, a good excuse to look. I froze the following scenes: a man playing horn along the Mississippi; a man wearing tight burgundy pants, twirling and dancing and Bible-toting on Canal Street, an umbrella affixed to his hat; random street signs and a crooked lamp in front of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the symbolism of which eludes me. I took photographs of Café du Monde and of a juggler on stilts leaning against the street sign at the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets. These signs and symbols were taken back to Texas with me as representations of the place from where I had come. Also photographed, but not shown: me in my barista uniform sweaty and gross, posing at the back of my brother Carl’s pickup truck, his arm around my shoulder; my cousin Edward, Auntie Elaine’s son, there, too, cheesing to show all of his teeth.
My summer at CC’s was the first time in my life that I spent consecutive days in the French Quarter. The experience took on the boundlessness of all discoveries. After that one summer I based entire narratives about my growing-up years in New Orleans that played to the nonnatives’ imagination. I wrote scholarship essays and told stories about boys tap-dancing with Coca-Cola bottle tops on bottoms of sneakers and about how my mother shopped at the French Market, which was a tourist market filled with baubles and very little food.
By evening, all of us who had traveled to the French Quarter for work from elsewhere wore the day’s labor on our bodies. We could place each other instantly by our uniforms: Napoleon House workers wore all black with white lettering on the breast pocket; women in black dresses with white aprons and scalloped hats were cleaning women at one of the hotels. If you wore a grass-green outfit, the ugliest of them all, you worked at the Monteleone Hotel. Black-and-white-checkered pants like Michael wore with clog shoes meant you belonged to the kitchen of any one of the restaurants. My uniform was khaki pants, a burgundy cap, and a matching polo shirt with a CC’s emblem.
The malicious New Orleans heat could seem to crawl inside, affecting your brain so that walking felt like fighting air. New Orleans humidity is a mood. To say to someone “it’s humid today” is to comment on the mindset. The air worsened the closer you came to the Mississippi River and wet you entirely so that by day’s end my hair was zapped of all its sheen and my clothes stuck to my body in all the wrong places. I needed a bathtub by the time I made it to work, so imagine how I looked at the end of day, for the travel home.
We workers collected together on the bus ride home, our facial expressions daring anyone to disturb our tranquility, returning to where we lived and belonged. I was deposited at the corner of Downman and Chef Menteur where I waited to transfer to another bus. The stop, an uncovered bench the size of a love seat, was just in front of Banner Chevrolet car dealership’s lot full of buffed to shining cars, prices on yellow bubble numbers plastered to windshields, deals none of us could afford. We who were waiting for the always-late bus stood still in our places while others flew by—off the Danziger Bridge, off the interstate onto Chef Menteur, heightening the reality of our immobility.
Sometimes I traveled to the French Quarter not for work, but because the lights in our house had been turned off for nonpayment and I needed to escape that scene for another well-lit one. On one of these occasions, I wrote in my notebook: “I am home, this is my home, there is nowhere else for me to go if I want to see Mom. My times in New Orleans are loneliest and saddest maybe because I actually have to face reality, it’s more difficult to hide without the 15-pound textbooks.”
I took no photos of New Orleans East, whose landscape I told myself was not what my college friend D-Y had imagined when he asked to see “New Orleans.” Nothing in the landscape of New Orleans East signaled the New Orleans of most people’s imaginations. No iconic street lamps lighting blocks of brightly painted shotgun houses. No street musicians playing on the flat industrial landscape that contains very little arresting detail, being littered with motels, RV camps, and auto shops. No streetcars running, no joggers alongside them. Walkers here did not stroll. They walked out of necessity. There were few restaurants, no cafés to pass by or stop in. But none of those details made New Orleans East any less of a place.
For the me of then, the City of New Orleans consisted of the French Quarter as its nucleus and then all else. It was clear that the French Quarter and its surrounds was the epicenter. In a city that care supposedly forgot, it was one of the spots where care had been taken, where the money was spent. Those tourists passing through were the people and the stories deemed to matter. Those of us who worked in the service industry all converged on this one place, parts of the machinery that maintained the city’s facade, which did not seem like a ruse to me then. I found the French Quarter beautiful, its performed liveliness an escape from the East and where I lived on the short end of Wilson Avenue.
Still. I came to lay much of what was wayward and backward about myself on New Orleans: I can cook and hold my liquor because . . . I love jazz because . . . I am therefore interesting, because . . . Defining myself almost exclusively by a mythology, allowing the city to do what it does best and for so many: act as a cipher, transfiguring into whatever I needed it to be. I did not yet understand the psychic cost of defining oneself by the place where you are from.
Excerpted from The Yellow House (Grove Press, August 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Sarah M. Broom.>>Next: Beyond the French Quarter: Discovering New Orleans’s Downriver Delights