Monday, June 08, 2009
daily bliss: skepticism and stereotypes
It's a dark and balmy night in New Orleans, as we thread our way through the crowds of tourists into Jackson Square, in front of the St. Louis Cathedral, all illuminated and imposing on an evening during Holy Week.
I gather sixty dollars and join the line of (mostly) women waiting to pay the tour guides.
I step up to a Fabio-wannabe pirate dude wearing a puffy, turquoise shirt that laces up the front and wraps around his fingers.
"Three tickets, please."
He casts a sneering gaze. "You from the Midwest?"
"Yep. Wisconsin!" I offer, all cheeriness.
"I thought so."
I turn and gesture "Whatever" to my friends as I hand them their stickers identifying them as tour participants. "That dude's totally harassing me for being from the Midwest! WTF?"
We take turns listening to our favorite songs from the Twilight soundtrack ("SuperMassive Black Hole" by Muse, and "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" by Iron & Wine) on S's iPod, sharing the ear buds, as we watch a group of drunk women make fools of themselves.
The tour guide who looks most vampy--long black trench, long ponytail of dreads, sharpened eye teeth, and dagger fingernails--divides the masses into three groups.
He motions us into the group with the drunk women AND Fabio Pirate Dude (heretofore shortened to FPD). Lucky!
We begin the tour by walking down Pirate's Alley, so picturesque during the day, home of Faulkner Books, and a cute little corner bistro. Now, the shadow that the Jesus statue kicks up on the back of the Cathedral is creepy.
We stop as FPD gestures us in closer, winding his hands around the wrought iron fence and launching his body forward in some kind of Leonardo di Caprio at the Prow of a ship move.
"Everything you know about vampires...[dramatic pause]...is WRONG."
The girls and I exchange looks. Academic skeptic looks.
"Tell me, tell me, what do you *know* about vampires?"
The drunk women laugh, come on to him, and blurt out some stereotypes involving garlic and stakes and silver.
FPD admonishes their less than decorous state, and then proceeds to debunk all said myths about vampires. He explains the New Orleans system of burial, the connection with vampires, and the rules for his tour (which are all versions of "don't upstage me.")
He sweeps his hand through his long, rakish, reddish locks for emphasis (a move he will repeat ad nauseum), and begins strutting down the street.
We walk a few blocks and pause in front of a building, setting the pattern for the remainder of the tour. Walk. Stop. Talk of gruesome and grisly events involving vampires in twentieth-century NOLA.
My academic skeptic shield is firmly in place, my protection against the gore and horror of the stories that I don't really want to hear. S, K, and I exchange raised eyebrows and silent giggles as FPD punctuates his narrative with self-inflating asides, "No one else in the tour company will share this story. I did my own research. You can ask around, but you won't hear the true story."
The drunk women and a few others disappear. (not, we hope, carried off by thirsty vamps...)
Our next stop is the infamous Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop and Bar, one of the oldest bars in the United States. Ahh, another way for the tour to make money! Needing a little liquid courage to keep my skepticism in place, I order a Bombay G & T, and sip it as I stroll the streets for the rest of the tour.
As we make our way to the centerpiece of the tour, the Old Ursuline Convent, FPD stops in front of a little bakery.
"Do you see this?" sweeping of arms, fluffing of hair. "This, this, is where the locals come for their cafe au lait and their croissant...*not* Cafe du Mond."
Hmmm. I glance around at the street signs, and try to remember how to reach this corner of the Quarter.
He's still talking. "We come here after staying up all night...or, if we do go to bed, waking up in beds other than our own...[dramatic pause, pointed gaze]...I *know* how you MIDWESTERNERS are."
S, K, and I giggle.
FPD strolls us towards the convent and launches into a series of increasingly improbable tales, some of which overlap K's research interests, so we know just how outlandish they are. My G &T is gone. I'm starting to feel bored.
One more stop--another bar. As we walk in, one of the women from our tour group, wearing a black tube top, second-skin skinny jeans, and hooker boots, turns to me and gushes, "Oh, isn't FPD the *best* tour guide? This is my *third* time with him."
We sit in plastic chairs in a dark, lush courtyard, and FPD takes the stage--yes, a literal stage--for this, his last, dramatic tale, meant to invoke feelings of fear and doubt in the minds of skeptics. He ends quietly, with a plug for tips. The girls and I make a break for the door. FPD gazes into our eyes and brushes our arms as we leave.
Out on the street, we burst into giggles, and begin mimicking FPD.
We're only a block or two away from the French market, but suddenly, the city seems a little more sinister.
We walk K back to her supposedly haunted hotel and wish her a good night's sleep.
S and I walk back to our antiseptic conference hotel, glad we're not staying alone. In a haunted hotel. We sit up talking about the tour. We turn on the TV and watch purified episodes of Sex and the City to replace the theatrical, bloody images planted in our minds by FPD.
We discuss the stereotypes of Midwesterners, and decide that these supposedly staid, virtuous types, are likely those who go craziest when traipsing through the French Quarter, their Hurricane glasses never empty, their beads strung around their necks with pride.
As for this midwestern girl, I stuck to Abita beers (mmm, strawberry lager), fleur de lis, and Bombay G & T. I bought my beads. And, I wore a cardigan on Bourbon Street:)