John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 5, 2007

Visit to the Quarter best since Katrina

“Hey Senior,” Billy Davis greeted me when I answered my cell phone Saturday.  “I’m at Wal-Mart and I wish I had a camera,” he said.

“The heart association is here having some kind of a fund raiser,” Davis continued. “And they’re selling smoked sausage!”

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I was slow uptaking the irony, walking among many distractions with my wife and a granddaughter through Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Most distracting during Billy’s brief call was a fetching young woman walking through the square. She seemed to be floating along in a flowing, billowing dress so short that it suggested a certain profession not normally plied in morning daylight. Her eyes caught and held the gaze of those she met.

Colorful art hung from the wrought iron fence surrounding Jackson Square. The artists themselves sat nearby waiting for sales. Among them were the ever-present fortune tellers. On the Decatur Street side of Jackson Square, the buggy drivers hustled riders for their mule-drawn conveyances.

Crowds were out. LSU and Tulane were playing in the dome, the weather was beautiful, traffic barricades freed the streets for us walkers whose strolls were stalled as we gathered around one street performer before wandering on to the next.

It was our best visit in the Quarter since Katrina.

Three street musicians played at a barricade that freed the streets for pedestrians. A one-lady washboard, cymbals and tambourine section, a guy on bongos and another with guitar made the music of thrice their number.

Half a block away in the middle of the street was a man frozen mid-step on a ladder propped against — nothing. He was a mime. The first passing glance recorded a visual that caused a double-take. Dressed in jeans and hardhat, the mime held his pose with one foot placed on the ladder’s bottom rung, the other on its second. A closer look revealed that the ladder’s base was slightly triangular, allowing it to balance at an angle, its top end about eight feet above the street.

Balanced on the mime’s shoulder was a 2’ by 4’ stud. The only visible movement was the stud that shifted slightly in the light breeze that day.  As long as we looked there was no other hint of that the figure was not a statue. The longer he stood there motionless, the more tourists stopped to look at him and the more who put dollar bills into the small box at his feet.

Further along, young black men with taps on their tennis shoes tapped out driving rhythums punctuated by sharp hand-clapping and blending in to street sounds both cacophonic and symphonic.

Fall is great for visiting New Orleans. Go. Walk. Listen, look and smell.

And keep a few loose dollars in your pocket to drop in the boxes of the street performers.