The Buskers of New Orleans

People busk all over the place “cruising as pirates” in nearly every nook and cranny of the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Marigny. Although much of this area now resembles a Disney-themed park, outsiders reclaim space for their own individualized uses while taking full advantage of the sustainable habitat the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Marigny provides for buskers and street entertainers of all sorts. Some people busk to survive, while others do it to supplement their meager poverty wages earned working in the New Orleans tourist industry. Still others busk to avoid the bore of mainstream, nine-to-five jobs. Interestingly, many of the hipsters from white middle class families moving to New Orleans rely on welfare-for-the-poor programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, while busking to avoid working jobs in the legal economy. Some people busk, as in the case of many brass bands in New Orleans, as a starting point to launch their careers in the local, and if they’re lucky, international music industry. Buskers develop a particular skill to take to the streets. Buskers busk poetry, music of almost every possible genre, art, tarot cards and palm reading, miming, juggling, freeze posing, politics, tap-dancing, shticks such as “dog in the coffin,” comedy, and so on. Let’s stroll New Orleans streets to peek into busker life:

Walking west towards Rue Canal on French Market Place near the corner of Rue Ursulines where the sun hits almost directly upon hundreds of flâneurs, an old man and middle-aged black woman with a genteel smile play simple classic folk tunes under an umbrella behind the French Market next to a sign that says, “If you like the sound stick around, if ya gotta split leave a bit.” She yells to one man taking a picture, “How about a tip? You got more money than me, sir.” Political activist Michael “conspiracy theorist” DiBari sits next to his Roving Info Wagon with an American flag cowboy hat busking radical politics and arguing with “uninformed” tourists. A board sitting on his cart reads, “If you can change one thing in government, what would it be?” DiBari uses his graphic-design skills to create political postcards and posters with pictures like President Obama as a vampire cutting the throat of the statue of liberty while taking its torch. Another cartoon depicts a “corporate owned news network” image that reads “Con news today: More shit we made up to socially-engineer you fuckers.” He hopes to further develop his mobile political cart with a glass case and enhanced video equipment to interview city officials and others about local and national politics.

Further down the road heading east towards Esplanade Avenue, a young black kid on Governor Nicholls and the French Market beats on plastic drums while another even younger kid watches in boredom while sitting on his bike. A few yards down, eight young black kids, middle- to high-school age, blow brass to a large audience next to the flea market behind the restaurant El Gato Negro. They play horn, trumpet, tuba, sax, and drums – the usual musical suspects to this thing called funk brass jazz in the down and dirty bayou of New Orleans. The tourists clamor for more as these youths from the surrounding historic black and poor neighborhoods just might one day find themselves playing at New Orleans famous music venue Tipitina’s uptown on the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street.

Heading north toward Rampart on the corner of Rue Decatur and Rue Governor Nicholls in front of the store Wicked Orleans, a man with long brown hair tucked under a cowboy hat sits in front of his Harley with money spilling out of his open guitar case. He’s singing old school country music and tapping on a foot pedal that beats on a drum. One amp hangs on his motorcycle while the other amp is connected to his microphone.

On Rues Ursulines and Decatur just past Molly’s on the Market across the street from Margaritaville and the Pepper Palace the “Slick Skillet Serenaders” play on the corner as some people pass by dropping dollar bills in their bucket. Two down-and-out gutter punks sleep next to their sign that says, “Got a dollar? Beer now and pop tarts in the morning.” Another sign reads, “Gotta dime for some slime?” Their dog seems bored. Next to them a middle-aged black woman sells water for a dollar, and another gutter punk sits in his filth wearing a jester hat petting his two dogs. Heading towards the Café du Monde on Rue Decatur in front of the Artists Co-op seven youths take a break in the shade from busking. Most of them wear long white t-shirts and pants sagging below the waist. They smoke next to their instruments, tell stories, and prepare for another round. One of these young musicians performs at various music venues in Faubourg Marigny, venues that often require cover charges and attract huge crowds. Heading west towards Rue Canal on the corner of Rues Decatur and St. Ann, two dirty gutter punks in rags sit with a cat and dog on a leash. One of them rubs his tattooed face all over the dog while tourists stare at the horrid spectacle while awkwardly standing in a long line for beignets in front of the Café du Monde.

Across the street, a young black kid no more than six years of age with tacks hammered into the soles of his Nike Air Jordans tap dances for the fascinated tourists strolling the sidewalk. He claims to make three hundred dollars a day and says he buys his own shoes, of which he says he has many. After a few minutes, it becomes obvious that the young lad averages six to seven dollars for each thirty-second tap-dancing performance – well above the average wages of many Americans. His pockets can barely hold the money. Little white child tourists stare confused at the tap-dancer probably wondering what a kid their age is doing performing on the streets. Perhaps they have never seen poor people begging and entertaining for money on city streets. Some white male tourist with a thick country accent condescendingly orders the boy to tap dance faster while pointing with a smirk to his wife. He drops another five bucks into the bucket and walks away.

On the same street just a few feet away, a young, black, and seemingly double-jointed kid in his early twenties covered in grey body spray and hair painted gold makes his body act like a moving escalator as he mimes to hip-hop electronic science fiction music in front of a large attentive crowd of about sixty tourists. His skit lasts about three minutes. Tourists give him a hearty ovation as they drop money into his can; at least one man drops a ten. He does this all day and easily makes three or four hundred dollars for his day’s efforts.

A middle-aged black guy with a Louis Armstrong type smile sits in front of the Café du Monde directly facing the tourists eating beignets while playing “Hello, Dolly” Satchmo jazz style. His trumpet case displays four dollars in tips received from passing tourists.

Crossing Rue Decatur heading north towards Rampart on Rue St. Ann on the other side of the French colonial Place d’Armes, now called Jackson Square, a man paints caricatures of musicians leaning on the street signs of New Orleans blowing saxophones and trumpets under bright orange sunlight. Dozens of artists display their work on the front and sides of the gates of Jackson Square. Tarot card and palm readers line the pedestrian walkways at the front and sides of Jackson Square sitting next to tables ready to service curious customers.

Further back, in front of the St. Louis Cathedral, yet another funky brass band comprised of about eight black youths attract a huge crowd of tourists. The crowd remains standing for over an hour as these eight young men perform their hearts out: four men blow their horns, trombones, and saxophones in the front while the others compose the rhythm section with a tuba and several drums. This is how the brass bands of New Orleans get their start. One kid walks around with a big brown cardboard tip jar for tourists to deposit money. Tourists tip these musicians well.

Heading up Rue Royal towards Rue Canal, the street shuts off vehicles starting at Orleans Avenue providing a sustainable habitat for buskers and street performances to make money from wide-eyed tourists leisurely strolling the pedestrian streets of the historic Vieux Carré. In front of the former A&P, now called Rouses Supermarket, four buskers with a trombone, trumpet, tuba, and saxophone play old New Orleans tunes at this popular busker spot. It’s where the now renowned New Orleans musician Trombone Shorty started. One guy puffs into a tuba while maintaining a rhythm with symbols. They display six white buckets with black money signs painted on them encouraging all to tip. A half naked man walks past with a crawfish on a leash.

Further west towards Rue Canal on Rues Royal and Toulouse, a black couple plays Caribbean influenced music with a sign stating, “Quit our corporate jobs to do this full time.” The man sings and plays guitar while the woman concentrates on vocals. Their unimpressed dog sits with them. Further up the road, men dressed as Rastafarians with a television camera pack up their equipment on Rues St. Louis and Royal after busking. An older man with balding grey hair in a ponytail plays acoustic guitar in front of Café Beignet on Rue Royal. He wears sunglasses, cargo shorts, and a short sleeve button down shirt while performing in front of his blue tip bucket. Nearby and closer to Rue Canal, a man makes flowers shaped from large green weeds across the street from Hotel Monteleone next to Mr. B’s Bar serving New Orleans bread pudding and Ramos gin fizz. A dog named Galen wearing a New Orleans tuxedo and holding a tennis ball under his left arm “playing dead” lays in a coffin next to a sign that reads “Need money for a proper burial: If it’s worth a picture, it’s worth a dollar” attracting the attention of a cooing audience.

Rue Royal between Rues Iberville and Canal serve as skid row with face and body tattooed derelicts drunkenly stumbling all over the place while shirtless, barefoot and drinking beer. These men are out of sorts, down and out to the bone. Some black guy plays the harmonica directed at a group of young professional black female tourists. Eight gutter punk squatters sit and beg on Rue Royal on the side of McDonalds. A young thin gutter punk chick suddenly drops her pants, squats, and takes a shit in plain view while walking with two other men.

Heading east on Rue Bourbon from Rue Canal towards Esplanade Avenue, the strip joint called the Hustler Club welcomes you to the notorious street of unapologetic sin and debauchery. Thin nearly naked black and Hispanic women in their britches and exotic lingerie stand at club thresholds luring randy and leering tourists. On Rue Bourbon near Rue Iberville, a middle-aged white man with a beard plays a saxophone wearing a blue artist hat, shorts, and t-shirt, while money spills out of his sax case. A strip club bouncer says out loud, “Don’t be shy, get a titty in your eye” to entice wide-eyed tourists staring at nearly naked strippers while strolling Bourbon. Two hustlers approach a white couple and point to the man’s shoes asking, “Twenty dollars I can tell you where you got dem shoes at.” The man replies, “Man, I’m too old for that shit.” One of the hustlers asks me the same thing, to which I reply, “I’m from Gentilly.” They respectfully nod and find another sucker. A man approaches me to tell his story of homeless shelters and the problems of theft and homosexuality in them. He asks to use my phone.

Buskers on Rues Bourbon and Conti next to the Royal Sonesta Hotel play horn, trombone, trumpet, sax, and tuba. Silly and drunk tourists dance on the street. This was the same band that earlier took a break to eat and smoke in front of the Artist’s Co-op. A black man with a worn wrinkled face full of character wearing a pinkish red brassier pretends to climb a well balanced ladder while simultaneously yelling at people to give him a dollar for the pictures of him just taken. Steve, a former certified welder and current squatter in a vacant house, stands next to his dog Eugene who is laying on his back with two New Orleans specialty cocktail “Hand Grenades” tucked under his front legs pretending to be passed out on Rue Bourbon. Steve says, “He’s my best friend. We both rescued each other” while an amused tourist asks, “Does he move if you tickle his balls?” A man dressed as Sponge Bob waving to tourists on Rues Bourbon and Toulouse says he wants to kick Minion’s ass, another man in a cartoon costume who sometimes stands on that very same corner.

Three black kids younger than ten years old, tap dance in front of cardboard boxes on Rue Bourbon in front of Pat O’Brians and their famous Hurricanes. One screams out “tip, tip” to people taking their pictures. At six-years of age, they have developed the art of the hustle. They have learned how to make money from nothing, just a thrown away pin and nail placed underneath tennis shoes.

Wait.

Pondering how these kids from the ghettos of New Orleans make a living off the streets, something common in many third world countries that experience extreme poverty, requires a pause from the busker stroll.

I reflect on how these tap-dancing poverty kids find creative ways to survive on the beaten streets using only their wit and intellect, improvising life as they go along. I compare this to how some university students today demand strict guidelines and detailed instructions on assignments and papers – “rubrics” as they painstakingly call it – and prefer “being told what to do and when.” It forces one to wonder who really deserves access to our privileged universities, access that eventually offers institutional power – the rubric dependent, uncritical and privileged, standard middle-class kid or the poor kid possessing of a quick wit, fast improvisation, creativity, and a drive to survive.

Lazy and dull? Lacking in industry or creativity? Pathological and undisciplined? Welfare dependent? Those are the words used to describe the poor.  I say, “No way.”

How many milksops from conventional mollycoddling middle-class families could find creative ways to make something out of such dire straights? The poor do it every day in these New Orleans streets. They hustle and they tap-dance. They find a way.

Here in New Orleans, one way or the other, everybody is gonna get paid, or someone will pay. These kids from the ghetto with nothing, make money from exactly that – nothing. That’s pure capitalism, except without the social injury or ecological destruction.

In a late-modern world where state-sponsored capitalism practically ends competition for all but the elites, a more democratic “equal opportunity” capitalism flourishes on the informal streets of most major cities like New Orleans.

While some university students of the pampered middle class become increasingly dependent upon rubrics and guidelines to show them what to do, kids from the ghetto have always been forced to figure it out on their own usually at a very young age – and they do it without any access to institutional resources or being told what to do.

On Rues Bourbon and St. Peter, a guy “freeze poses” in a New Orleans “Who Dat” Saints jersey and football in hand hoping for tips. A block up the road further east, more young kids of about seven years of age tap-dance for money. A kid that must be about four-years old runs up to tourists demanding money for the entertainment provided. A lonely tarot card reader with sad eyes sitting under a big yellow umbrella waits for customers on Rue Bourbon and Orleans Avenue.

After taking a right on Rue Bourbon heading towards the Mississippi River, one runs into Rue Royal where artists quietly paint in the shade while hoping to sell their paintings on display between Pere Antoine Alley and Pirate’s Ally directly behind the St. Louis Cathedral. Closer to the river on Rue Decatur, a musician performs on Rue St. Peter near Jackson Square. A mime with a gold Mardi Gras mask sits on a stoop near a black bucket collecting tips. Drunks and homeless men smelling of piss and stale beer sit on a bench, animatedly telling stories and laughing heartily, taking turns giving their best jokes. An over-grown black man with a tired face tap-dances for tourists just as he once did as a young kid.

Going past Rue Decatur and Esplanade Avenue toward Frenchmen Street, gutter punks sit with their dogs drinking and begging in front of Checkpoint Charlie’s where one can catch a live band while doing laundry over a beer. Buskers line Frenchmen Street playing Indie and folk music in the available cracks and crevices of the street near the many music venues. On Frenchmen and Charters, a second line ends while a brass band plays in front of about a hundred fascinated tourists dancing wild on the street.

Denuded transvestite polar bears in bright pink string bikinis humping plump stiletto-heeled spinning pandas drinking rye whiskey would barely catch the attention of a native New Orleanean – to hell with Simmel’s Berlin blasé. To the tourists, second lining and street dancing excites their senses and allows them to relax “their sphincters” for once, maybe for the very first time in their lives. One block away just past DBA, writers in fancy fedoras and John Lennon style glasses busk poetry on their old-school typewriters for tourists requesting a little inspiration. Shannon writes about a French orgasmic “petit mort” Absinthe and the “middle of the Earth” while thinking about a world she longs to fully discover.

 

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