When I got my tour guide license, Billy was as good to his word. Here I was, totally green; an outsider, a non-native, finding myself as an ambassador for one of the city’s most vaunted storytellers. At the same time, Dave had been working here and there, and a couple of older guides told him to go meet Billy, too. He gave Dave a thick binder with 100 pages of notes:
Billy’s just a wealth of information. You think you know something and say you learned some little nugget of information and some little facet of history, and then Billy’s response would go for 30 minutes or two hours. I’d have to say that Billy’s one of, if not the premiere, authority on the Irish history in New Orleans, and St. Alphonsus’s Church. Getting to know Billy, and working for Anne Rice Tours, would be one of the highlights of my beginning as a tour guide.
Billy once told me he was at a funeral at Metairie Cemetery and someone smashed the rear window of his station wagon–they left a big brick or a cinder block inside. He called the police, and they found that a crazy, homeless man in the area had done it. When they asked him why, the man got all agitated and growled, “I’m possessed by 17 demons.” Without missing a beat, the police officer opened his notepad and said, “I’m gonna need a name and address of all 17 of your demons.” Billy said the police officer was having so much fun, and laughing so hard, it took over two hours.
Billy’s larger point is a story is only as good as its source material. The closer one is to the facts, or as Dave says, “the facts as you think you know them,” all the better. The old newspapers are a good starting point. For that I prefer the Williams Research Center on Chartres Street next to K-Pauls’ restaurant in the old French Quarter police station. Their resources are nothing short of amazing, and it’s free. I’ve read Marie Laveau’s obituary, seen native born unofficial world chess champion Paul Morphy’s chess board, and once asked for a book of poetry on the Frenchman Allard whose plantation was located in City Park. They brought out a book on a pillow, and I could only touch it with special gloves. I translated it to my pal Pamela at the Center, and she nearly wept at its beautiful, romantic prose.
Dave constantly leafs through books on history while waiting for his tours at the Garden District Book Shop. He’s taken a tour guide training class at the Friends of the Cabildo, which emphasizes the original history of the French Quarter around Jackson Square. Next door, there’s the Presbytere, which has an amazing Katrina exhibit that most locals never go to. The list goes on. Tulane Univesity’s Hogan Jazz Archives and the College of Architecture. City Hall’s real estate and vital records. UNO’s Louisiana Collection. History professor Stephen Ambrose’s work on the National WWII Museum. Xavier University and Dillard for early Black historical records. As Dave says, “There’s really no end to the resources if you have an interest in a topic.”
So why is the image of the tourist and the tour guide so often negative?
Well, yes, we’ve all heard a tour guide tell a story that wasn’t true. Did they know it wasn’t true, or are they misinformed? Possibly both? Not all tour guides take the reputable training courses. Some aren’t in it so much for the love of New Orleans as they are the money. It’s not just a concern of the tour industry. Every profession—doctors, educators, mechanics, politicians, police, firemen—all have their participants that are underqualified and should probably be doing something else, but they need the money. And it is a problem that probably can’t be solved.
Thousands of people take the night time ghost tours. There’s a lot of money to be had there. The ghosty-toasty guides at night probably have it the worst. No one takes them seriously. Huge crowds take these tours and moving a group of +/-25 through so many other large groups is like trying to get off the interstate downtown during a Mardi Gras parade. Most of the visitors just want the basic layout out of the city: the bars, bathrooms, maybe listen to a story or two, pick up some general history or architecture knowledge.
About 15 years ago, I used to give French Quarter night tours for an independent, very small company that’s no longer in business. The owner and I were the only regular guides. One night, I was starting a FQ tour and one lady was animatedly proclaiming at every stop how she could, “See the ghosts!” To test her claim, I surreptitiously took the route by a couple of known hot spots between story locations and not a peep out of her. She eventually wandered away from the tour before the end. As I was walking to another stop, one of the other girls; a quieter, shy young lady, pointed to a third-floor window and tenuously asked me, “Who is that person up there staring at me?
I said that if she noticed, the window was open, the lights were off, and she could just see some yellow police tape draped on the sill. I explained that there was no one there but a violent murder had taken place in that very apartment three days before. A man had been beaten to death with a baseball bat. The young lady got pale. Looking back all these years, I never recall the crime being solved.
Working as tour guides for Anne Rice, Dave and I didn’t have to do a haunted night tour by dressing up like vampires and acting out dramatic roles. At St. Elizabeth’s Asylum on Napoleon Avenue, a property that Anne owned, renovated, and turned into a doll and antique museum, the men wore blue blazers and gray slacks. Anne wanted us to share our love and interest for New Orleans. We got to show people through her homes on First and Third Streets, which did not go over well with her Garden District neighbors. She also put up Gore/Lieberman placards in her yard while her neighbors were predominantly pro-Bush/Cheney, but that’s another story… tour guides do that a lot, drift from one story to the next.