I lived in the Memphis area for two years. When my sister and gourmand brother-in-law came for a visit, they asked to eat barbecue. We ate at every popular barbecue place including Germantown Commissary, Rendezvous, and Corky’s in a weekend for every lunch and dinner. I’ll be honest, I haven’t enjoyed barbecue since. During my same stint in Memphis, a cousin and his family stopped by for a visit in their RV. They were doing a music tour of Tennessee. You get where I’m going with this. Whenever I visit a city, I approach it from an artistic aesthetic. I want to see art galleries and museums, street art and buskers (a street performer who does his shtick for gratuities), the weirder the better.
I had the good fortune of spending this past week in New Orleans, in the French Quarter, with a quick trip out to Houma for a swamp tour. I love traveling to cities that have cool cultural scenes and New Orleans didn’t disappoint. It is a delicious, dirty, theatrical city with tons going on. For Chicagoans, it’s only a fourteen-hour drive. If you make stops at places like Two Sisters Kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi, the drive is almost fun!
Once I arrive in a new city, I have found that one of the best ways to see it is on the back of a bike. You cover a lot of ground but can easily stop to look at something or take photos. We went on an Esplanade bike tour with Bob of Big Easy Bike Tours. He was the first of many characters that we would meet in New Orleans. He was knowledgeable and interesting but did not appreciate stupid questions, which seemed to be how he viewed every query that came out of my mouth. There was one thing he said that stuck with me and that I found to be true: New Orleanians are into self-expression as exemplified by its colorful architecture. We told Bob we were going on a ghost and vampire tour later in the week and he rolled his eyes.
On our first afternoon, we walked around the French Market District with the kids. We looked at dried alligator heads and alligator foot back scratchers. We bought a flask for my eleven-year-old to use as a water bottle. We listened to musicians in Jackson Square and others tucked away in store entrances and on street corners. My daughter went into a swoon when one busker took off her shoe and hammered a nail into her nose. Another performer jumped on broken glass with his bare feet and swallowed two swords at once. We saw a workman, carrying a piece of wood climb a ladder to nowhere.
We traveled out to Houma for Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp Boat Tour. I imagined we’d be gliding through a swamp while alligators thrashed about and we’d see those cool fishing huts with a boat tied out front. It was quite different. We froze our butts off and did not see one alligator. The saving grace was Jimmy’s fabulous stories about his mom cracking alligators on the back of the heads with an axe handle and then skinning them. I would’ve paid to sit with him in the warm Bayou Delight or better yet, a dark bar in the French Quarter, drinking a cold Abita Beer, and listening to his tales of Annie in the swamp!
I’ll admit that I love vampire stories. I’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and seen a few Dracula movies. I’ve read the Twilight series and seen those movies as well. But my all-time favorite vampire stories are still The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, which I read back in the 80s. Walking around the French Quarter at night with gas lamps burning, gives you the eerie feeling that maybe vampires do exist.
My husband booked us on a Lord Chaz Ghost and Vampire Tour. We all met at Johnny White’s Hole in the Wall on Bourbon Street where I got a Kir Royale to go. If you’re a drinker, you can walk around the city of New Orleans with an open container of booze. Lord Chaz is a 6’7″ (with his black platform shoes), vampire-looking guy with pale eyes, long black hair and a flair for drama. He implied that he was a vampire, because of his eyes that never blink and the fact that he can stop his pulse. He had himself declared dead and has his death certificate is posted on the wall of the bar.
One of the things I love about all artists is that they make something out of nothing with just an idea and energy. I especially admire the tenacity and ingenuity of street performers. Lord Chaz has a love of the occult and New Orleans lends itself to that. Chaz has created a persona, which has apparently been successful for over twenty years.
The walking tour was fun and loosely based on folklore. The coup de grace of his lengthy story-telling tour was when he dug his own very long, painted fingernails into his arm and drew blood. He then wrapped his arm in a cloth, which he later removed and showed that he had completely healed, as vampires are wont to do.
The image that sticks in my mind as the evening ended is this: Lord Chaz walking off down a dark street, his top-hatted silhouette in the distance. It was that image that made me think that perhaps he is a vampire. As we headed back to our hotel, slightly spooked, a pale man in Victorian era clothes and a top hat strolled past us on the street. Busker or vampire…
Kathleen Thometz is an artist and writer. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com