The French Quarter has a way of sucking you in…even when you plan a simple day, new stops keep adding themselves to your itinerary. We had breakfast at Mena’s again and then made one last try to visit Sword and Pen, a store specializing in hand-painted miniatures from military history. Yes, toy soldiers. Every time we’d passed it before, it was closed, so it was nice to see that it actually opens occasionally. They also have some antique weapons and a few replicas, none that we were interested in, but fun to look at. For a moment we thought we would buy a 1950s Marine dress saber for our military-mad son, but we don’t love him $500 worth. The store also had an unusual number of Nazi relics and a lot of much older pieces, Roman and Bronze Age.
After this we set out to capture the last two bookstores on our list. I had taken Jacob in to Crescent City Books so he could see what a lovely place it is, despite its near total lack of romance or SF books. The second store we walked right past because it hadn’t opened yet. We had just turned around and started checking house numbers when a man pedaled past, balancing a box of books on his handlebars, and asked if we were looking for the Dauphine Street bookstore. Sure enough, there it was—all the signage was on the inside of the giant green shutters, and he took in the store sign at night for some reason. It was far narrower and less friendly a place than my other favorites, but
had the best overall selection by far. Also, it had a half-grown black cat who was moderately friendly to strangers. I got the feeling that this was one of those owners who has a bookshop just as a place to store his overflow, especially given the conversation I overheard him having with a customer who was clearly more of a fellow book-buyer and seller.
Next we ambled in the direction of the Cathedral (ambling being the preferred method of travel when it is so hot and humid) toward the last bookstore, but New Orleans being what she is, we got sidetracked by Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. This is on the corner of Bourbon Street and has an altar set up to Marie herself. It’s interesting to wonder how many of the coins left there are from real believers and how many from amused tourists. I still haven’t found any shrunken heads, real or fake.
When we found Arcadian Books after one wrong turn, in the streets behind the cathedral, I almost wished we hadn’t. At first it looked merely crowded, like the Dauphine. Then you realized that two-thirds of the books were shoved onto shelves sideways so you could see neither spine nor cover. Plastic Coke crates were turned on their end and used as mobile shelving units on the floor under the overloaded wooden shelves, which might have been clever if pulling out one unit did not overbalance the loose books which had been piled on top. A row of young adult novels were arranged spine-up directly on the floor, with dust and dirt collecting against the pages where someone had cursorily pushed a broom across the still very dirty floor. This was the ultimate in book buying gone to a horrible, nauseating extreme. And it wasn’t even as if the collection was any good; probably half the hardcover books were book club editions, and his remarkable little collection of foreign language texts were impossible to navigate. I’m surprised he even bothered with the rudimentary alphabetization he’d achieved.
It made me sick. I personally would love to have what he has: a bookstore in the heart of the French Quarter, located in a beautiful old building in a quiet side street, part of a thriving used-bookstore network. He might as well have been selling meat, or boxes of lightbulbs, or any other commodity that can be stacked together any old way. (Though if he were selling meat in those conditions, the FDA would be on him faster than you can say Emeril Lagasse.)
Fortunately, our next stop was the Cafe du Monde company store, where I bought a much-desired T-shirt for myself and a <something cool not food-related> for <censored>. We also bought a couple of bottles of the elixir of life and went to sit on a bench outside the Jackson Square park, enjoying a break and the artist’s displays.
The French Quarter is different on the weekend, or maybe it’s just different when there’s a festival going on (the aforementioned Creole Tomato Festival). All week, the streets have been busy but peaceful—you feel as if anyone you meet might have a story to tell, and everyone is friendly and aware of everyone else, stepping out of the way on the sidewalk or holding a door, things like that. Today the streets were full of strangers. We are tourists too, but this was very different. The newcomers were consciously alien and apart. We passed a trio of street performers who were fairly outrageously dressed but playing good music, and not a moment later I heard a loud woman saying “Did you see that? There’s a man in a dress!” just as if he were a mannequin in a store window. It felt very strange to us for these friendly streets to be so much less welcoming.
After our rest, we went just a little way west on St. Ann to see Maskarade, which was on my tourist’s map and supposedly had a display of historical masks as well as modern ones. A lot of stores here specialize in masks, and you can buy them at pretty much any souvenir shop (all of which tell you DO NOT TAKE PICTURES!!! although we’re not totally sure why; is there a thriving black market in reproducing cheap Carnival masks?). Maskarade is different. For one thing, it sells the real deal—not the commercially produced masks, but handmade and individually designed pieces of real papier-mache, feathers, rhinestones and velvet. For another, the woman at the counter invited us to take pictures and even handle the masks. Everywhere I looked I saw something beautiful.
My favorites are the metal masks, delicate traceries of curved and diecut designs studded with jewels and…I don’t know what process they use to make the color stay on, though I’ve seen it before, but you almost can’t believe something as strong as metal could produce something so ethereal. Those masks were behind glass, and a good thing too—who knows how much handling they could actually take? The picture doesn’t do them justice.
They were all for sale, too, starting at $40 and going up from there. They are not so expensive that a person who wanted the perfect costume could not afford one. I’m so glad we made the effort to go over there.
After that, it really was time to head home. The weather here really is draining in the summer. We try to walk back to the hotel by a different route every time so we can see new buildings and things. After cooling off for a couple of hours, we went to dinner down near Bourbon Street. I say “near” because by this time, it was 8:00 and the tourists were out in droves. You can always tell which restaurants have been talked up in the tourist guides because there are huge lines out the door. Jacob’s loathing for seafood in almost any form kept us from even thinking about joining the throng at the Oyster House. Instead, we went to a place we’d noticed on the way to the first bookstore, the Storyville Restaurant. It’s part seafood place, part sports bar, and part bowling alley—not kidding! The first think you notice when you enter is the giant statue of a mermaid. Then you come around the corner and see the two lanes of miniature bowling, right there parallel to the window. We sat right next to them, but no one did any bowling, sadly. Jacob ordered a BBQ pork quesadilla and I asked for a soft-shell crab po-boy (I had decided on the way to dinner that I needed to try as many different local recipes as I could.)
I’ve never had soft-shell crab, so what came out was a total surprise: a po-boy roll laid out flat, with tomato and lettuce on one side and two batter-fried crabs, still with all their legs on and recognizably crablike, on the other. Soft-shell crabs, it turns out, are cooked in their shell because the shell is edible, so dipping them in batter and frying them up is no problem. It took me a while to saw the roll apart so I could turn the thing into a sandwich, but it was delicious, as always.
(That’s an exaggeration. I forgot to mention that we had lunch at a cafe near the hotel and had the first substandard food of the trip; they failed to mention that their gumbo has shrimp in it, which gave Jacob a nasty surprise, and their jambalaya was the first I’ve had that mixed the rice in rather than scooping it onto the liquid base. And the flavor wasn’t much—just heat and nothing else. It wasn’t awful, just not good.)
Having eaten, we proceeded to the most exciting part of the day: doing laundry. Changing underclothes twice a day will tend to make that necessary. Public laundries really bug me. They’re one of the few places in contemporary America that are aggressively anti-consumer (the others being cable companies and the DMV). Everything is in their favor. The people who need their service generally don’t have any other options, so the owners can set their rates high, install small machines to force you to do extra loads, and mandate the form of currency you must use. Good thing I had a book to read.
Tomorrow, we hope to go to the World War II museum. Tonight, I hope to sleep better than I did last night.