by Roy Carew
About the year 1907 my sister came to visit us in New Orleans, bringing her son of about seven years. Of course we carried them all around the town, showing them as many points of interest as possible. After a few days of sightseeing, someone asked the boy “Well, Loren, how do you like New Orleans?” “It’s all right,” he answered, “and it’s a good place to die, with so many cemeteries.” He wasn’t so far wrong, at that, since New Orleans had a choice assortment of cemeteries, from the Potter’s Fields up to some very high class burying grounds. Before that, however, I had found out that the town was a very good place to live in, as well. Rentals were very reasonable and food was abundant and cheap. The ordinary citizen usually lived in one side of a double frame dwelling, which might be of three general types — single story “shotgun” houses, houses with two stories front and back, and “camel-backs” which had a single story in front and two stories in back. The “shotgun” house had four rooms, one after the other, and a person standing at the front door could look straight through the house if all the doors were open.
As to food, I believe that New Orleans was unique; not only were most foods cheap, but the smallness of the quantities which could be bought was astonishing. They used to tell the story of the little girl that was sent to the grocery, who, to the grocer’s question “What do you want?” replied[:]
“Half a nickel of red beans,
Half a nickel of rice,
Lagniappe of pepper,
Let me read your paper,
Ma says, ‘What time is it?’
She’ll pay you when my
father gets home.”
There, for a nickel, was a meal with seasoning, the news, the time of day, with credit until father came home. A half nickel of red beans and a half nickel of rice doesn’t sound like much, but in my early days in New Orleans it furnished the basis of a good meal. The office boy used to call the dish “New Orleans turkey.” Lagniappe was a little gift that store keepers used to pass out to customers when they paid the bills on pay day. The grocers handled dry groceries, wines, beer and liquors usually, green groceries being sold at the markets, large and small, which were scattered all about town. Each neighbourhood would have its little market, with a larger one not too far away. The butchers were all located at the markets, which were ready for business at about five o’clock in the morning. The old order has changed in this respect I believe, and there are now butcher shops at independent locations. In the front of the grocery stores were the groceries, while at the back was the bar. When I arrived in New Orleans the whites and blacks could lean against the same bar, but before long a city ordinance required a separating screen. Also in those ealry days a thirsty citizen could send his little daughter to the corner barroom with a dime and a tin bucket or a pitcher for beer. A friend of mine was fond of quoting some disgruntled customer, “Dat barroom at the corner is sure stingy, he cert’n’y gives a little beer fo’ a dime!” Sending children to rush the growler also was prohibited before long.
Among the larger markets that I remember with interest were the French Market, Poydras Market, where Sir Thomas Lipton once worked, Dryades Market and Magazine Market. During the winter of 1905-1906 I passed through the Magazine Market nearly every morning on my way to the Jackson Avenue Ferry, and for a time I got my breakfasts at a little restaurant just across the street, which was run by one Prosper Balles. Prosper informed me that he would teach me French, and started me off with “deux oeufs frits,” which I recall meant the two fried eggs I usually had for breakfast; but my pronunciation was poor, and Prosper very often understood me to say, “des oeufs frits” (some fried eggs), and thereupon would serve me three fried eggs with a corresponding increase in price, possibly to apply on my tuition. . . . There was another little French restaurant on Chartres Street near Toulouse which, as late as 1916, was serving a 20 cent lunch which included soup, salad, meat entree, vegetable, a wedge of French bread, coffee and a very small bottle of cheap red wine. The waiter was a lanky garcon named Raoul, who took no foolishness from the customers, and returned a tart reply to any complaint or request for speedy service. . . . I remember with pleasure the Mexican restaurant[,] which operated for a while on Bourbon Street two or three blocks below Canal Street, run by an American and his Mexican wife. The chicken tamales cooked in big corn husks, the bubbling hot chili con carne in little earthen pots, and the hot chocolate were all delicious. . . . There was another little chili restaurant where my cousin and I used to eat during the winter of 1906. The chili con carne was good, and chili and eggs or beans made it a very satisfying dish. One day as spring was coming on with a little spell of warm weather, we went in for lunch and found an unusual number of flies in the place. The front door and windows being open I suggested to the fat Mexican proprietor that he needed screens to keep out the flies from the street. “Oh, they don’t come from the street,” he replied, “They come in from the stable in back.” He lost two customers that day.
My cousin was very thoughtless about money matters. Neither of us received much money, but I always was careful to make my pay last from one pay day to the next. Cousin, however, being paid on Saturday, would live right well on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and probably Wednesday; by that time his money would be about gone, and he would have to pull in his belt for Thursday and Friday. Once I dropped into his room about the middle of the week and found part of a bunch of bananas hanging there; his money had run out and he was living the last part of the week on bananas, which he had bought for almost nothing at the banana wharf. In the early days it was an interesting sight to watch the seemingly endless string of Negroes passing back and forth from the fruit company’s boat to the wharf, each with a bunch of bananas on his shoulder. Later conveyors were put into operation, and the interest wasn’t as great.
I was never at a loss during my time in New Orleans to find something of interest; merely strolling about through the old parts of the town would usually bring forth something. One evening while passing through a poor section where many Negroes were living, I was startled by a young Negro girl running up to me with the appeal “Please, Mister, please spare a dime to help bury the dead!” A glance into the living room with its scant furnishings revealed the corpse reclining on what appeared to be a couple of boards mounted on a cheap trestle, with mosquito bar netting thrown over it. The flickering light from a few candles gave the departed a weird look, there being a bluish tinge cast over the bier.
The names of the New Orleans streets might be made the subject of a very interesting article I imagine. They were taken from many sources — history, mythology, religion, nature, royalty, famous people, battles, generals, Indian tribes, etc. There was at one time “The Street of the Good Children,” which was changed to St. Roch Avenue, perhaps because of the difficulty in making such a long street sign. As a sort of a riddle there used to be asked the question “Which was the holiest place in New Orleans?” The answer was “The corner where St. Joseph met Delord.” A fellow who used to work where I did had a joke about his own address. If asked where he lived he used to say, with a pretense of embarrassment, that he lived “on Louisa, between Desire and Piety.” This, however, was an impossibility, since the three ran parallel. Iberville Street seemed to be able to carry also the name Customhouse Street without causing any great confusion. Downtown streets, crossing Canal Street, carried one name above Canal Street and a different name below.
The town was full of musicians and entertainers, from amateur to professional. The musicians have been written about considerably of late years, but there were many interesting characters in the entertainment field. Among the professional entertainers during my early years there was a young man who was known as the “Man with the double voice.” He could sing two tones harmoniously at the same time, and appeared many times in local shows. He was considered quite an attraction, although I never happened to hear him myself. However, one day Nature, which had endowed him with his peculiar talent, suddenly took it away; with only one tone to his voice, he was no particular attraction and he dropped out of sight. Sometime in 1912, while on the road for the Remington Typewriter Company, I found myself in a little town in Mississippi, where in the course of my calls I dropped into a small shoe repair shop. Noticing a few professional copies of songs on the counter, I asked the proprietor if he was interested in popular music. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “I used to sing a great deal; I used to be known as ‘the man with the double voice’ in New Orleans. When I lost my voice I came up here.” I picked up one of the songs, and commented[,] “Here’s a good song, but there’s a funny thing about it. I used to hear it sung in New Orleans before I saw the music, and when I got the sheet music it didn’t sound just the same.” He smiled and said, “I’ll tell you why — the reason is that I wrote the song and sent it to these publishers, that I used to represent in New Orleans. They fixed it up a bit and published it, but without my name on it.”
There was another entertainer, also quite popular in the early days, that used to be billed as “the man with naughty eyes,” which may sound a little strange for a man, but it was not at all inappropriate when his act was seen. He was a very good singer of popular coon songs, and at certain times in singing a number he would open and shut his eyes very rapidly, in time to the music, and each time that he opened his eyes they would be rolled in a different direction — up, down, right, left and points in between. The effect was very novel. He made the mistake, however, of rolling his eyes once too often in a non-professional manner, and I believe the lady in the case shot him, although I can’t remember all the details.
Another Mardi Gras has come and gone, and as usual a great deal of publicity was given to it. Although they were not prepared to present the parades and balls in the usual lavish manner, the celebration was well worth while I hear. I never failed to enjoy those I had the pleasure of seeing, and I hope that I will be able to begin all over pretty soon now. I am very thankful that some of the so-called progressives in the city didn’t try to have the carnival abolished as they did in 1919, after the close of World War I. That war ended on November 11th, 1918, and immediately certain interests, along with at least one newspaper, began a campaign to abandon Mardi Gras celebrations. They claimed the affair got the folks’ minds away from their work, and that it took them several days to get back to efficiency. It was also claimed that the visitors from outside did most of their spending in restaurants and barrooms, and the other business interests received no benefits; further it was claimed that a large portion of the outside crowd that came to town were undesirable elements at any time. Finally they succeeded in getting the business interests to declare for no carnival, and the slogan “Business as Usual” was adopted; stores and offices would remain open and factories would operate. Well, Mardi Gras day 1919 arrived and business as usual was the word all over town, stores, shops and offices opened up, factories were in operation and from a business point of view, it was just another Tuesday. At that time I was working in the Custom House, and we got all holidays, whether or no, so I got the day off. Having nothing else to do I decided to stroll about down town, and shortly after nine o’clock I was ambling about Canal Street; all the stores were open and things were just about as humdrum as on any ordinary morning. Looking about the streets, I bemoaned the fact that there were no crowds beginning to congregate, and that there were no maskers beginning a day of pleasure and festive hilarity. Ten o’clock came and there began to be an undercurrent of restiveness in the business places. The employees began to wonder why they were at work on Mardi Gras day — a day that they had celebrated all their lives. Soon they couldn’t stand the pressure, habit was too strong, and they began to put away goods, close up their desks and to lay aside their tasks and tools. Between ten and eleven there was a spontaneous outpouring into the streets, and the slogan “Business as Usual” was banished for “Mardi Gras as Usual.” By noon the streets were thronged with a turbulent mob of happy people, and the New Orleans spirit had won another victory.
Some one should take time off some day and write a long chapter on the spirit of New Orleans, and the part it played in the development of genuine American music. It wouldn’t be surprising if such a writing would disclose that the benign influence of the essential character of the people had more to with such development than the influence of some remote ancestor.
The above article was published in the Jazz Forum magazine, dated January 1947, No. 3, pages 1—2 and 32.