I met Billy Murphy at the Superdome where he was parking to go to City Hall to license a tour company for his cousin, Anne Rice. I asked Billy about being a tour guide. I was a mere parking lot attendant for the Superdome. I imagined being a tour guide was more of the same–giving people directions and trying my best to answer them.
Billy was a rotund, middle-aged man with a nice bristly salt and pepper beard. He had impish brown eyes that twinkled and crinkled in the corners, a ready and friendly smile, a spry wit, and that slow and easy gravelly delivery of an Irish Channel boy. He told me to go to Delgado [Dell GAD O] Community College and take the “Professional Tour Guide” course from Mary Helen Schaeffer, which would prepare me to pass the city’s tour guide permit test, and he would give me a job.
Mary Helen’s class was full of hopefuls. A tour operator was there to scout for new talent. Over the next eight weeks, Mary Helen emphasized that we were not only historians, but also entertainers, and, “Not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.” That resonated with me.
She took us on numerous field trips: day long tours through the French Quarter, St. Louis Cemetery #1, the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery #1. She took us on a day-long bus tour through three plantations with lunch included. That was the first time I’d ever had Shrimp Creole. Dave describes Mary Helen as “an experience:”
She was a very likeable, knowledgeable, and personable. She introduced us to a lot of people, including Norman Marmillion [Mar Me Yon], the owner of Laura Plantation. Norman inspired me and you and a number of other people. If you see someone sharing history and becoming a storyteller, you think, ‘If I can do just an inkling of what Norman does, then that’s not only a lot of fun but very satisfying.’
Norman was the catalyst that took a run down, threadbare plantation, and through his gift of storytelling was able to shape it into one of the premiere tourist destinations in the entire state.
I have at least one story from each place I visited during the Delgado class. From Nottoway, I learned that in the Antebellum era a woman’s ankles were so seductive that they must always be kept covered by giant, floor length hoop skirts so as not to lead men to impure thoughts; however, a dress with a severe decollete, a plunging breast-line showing copious cleavage, was perfectly acceptable. From Tezcuco (which has since burned to the ground), the guide described two types of Louisiana mosquitos. One is so small that it can fly through the protective screen windows, and the other is so large it just removes the screen and walks right in. Entertaining and informative.
I’ve been a licensed city tour guide for 20 years and every time I go by one of those original facilities, I mention I got my tour guide training there, and remind them of the story I tell. On more than one instance, I’ve mentioned how their historic museum, building, or tour, changed my life. Mary Helen is gone two years now, and Billy is in ill health, but I was recently able to tell Billy how thankful I am for what he did for me.
At that time, tour guide hopefuls took the test in the basement of City Hall. It was full of questions on historical events, people, and places located throughout time in the city. Quite a bit of architecture was on the test, too. We had to identify the capitals on the top of the columns as Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian. That’s easy; Doric is plain, Ionic are the scrolls that look like “eyes,” and Corinthian resemble fancy flowers. I had to wait two agonizing weeks for the results. I still clearly remember calling city hall to see if I passed, and when the nice young lady told me I did, I told her I loved her. She giggled and congratulated me.
Part of the licensing procedure is getting a drug test. Only the Lord can count all the alkies, pill-poppers, heroin, and other substance abusers in this party all-hours town. On the day I went to the drug test facility on Jackson Avenue, just past the Uptown Lakeside of St. Charles Avenue, I recall a guy wanted to sell me a joint on the way in. Really? You think he’d have waited to pitch me on the way out. I took the urinalysis, and the mean-streaked older woman who had to deal with junkies and alkies all day told me I was done.
“With what?” I innocently asked.
“Your drug test.”
“Drug test? No multiple choice? No fill in the blank? No essay?”
She made one of those New Orleans faces that let me know she didn’t think that was funny.
With these negative results, my life was about to change measurably for the better. I was on the track to my truest self.