OTIS Miscellany VI: New Orleans Edition

Watching this thing walk down Bourbon Street will stick with me forever.

April 20, 2016 — It’s been more than a decade since I’d been to New Orleans. That’s pre-Katrina. Pre-social media. Pre-OTIS. Pre-tty shameful. I mean, here I am, a guy who searches out oddity, and I hadn’t been to one of the oddest cities in the country since I started the site. My only memento of that previous trip was a small ceramic skeleton playing the accordion, the homemade price tag on which labeled it a Peruvian Day of the Dead offering. He has leered at me from his shelf ever since that day.

Well, not anymore. Finally, about two months ago, I returned to New Orleans for a few days. I had a semi-full itinerary for Lindsey and I—a couple of museums, Madame Laveau sites, some cemeteries, and we hit ’em all, which I’ll get to writing about soon. Until then, here’s the random stuff in between that we incidentally passed or couldn’t do much more with other than just pass.

1. Banksy’s Umbrella Girl — We Airbnb’d a place in Treme, which meant a half mile walk to downtown. Every time we took that walk, we passed the graffiti of a girl under an umbrella on the side of an abandoned building at the intersection of Kerlerec Street and N. Rampart Street. I’m definitely that guy that calls every stencil graffiti a Banksy just because, but in this case it was a Banksy. The big tip-off was the protective Plexiglas sheet that was bolted over the paint. That thing that probably took 10 minutes to put up is worth six figures if it can ever be separated from the building. Turns out, it’s the only Banksy left from when the mysterious guerilla artist toured the city after Katrina. The rest were removed to cash in on or painted over by a local anti-graffitist called the Gray Ghost. You live by the spray can, you die by the spray can.

2. Lalaurie Mansion — This three-story mansion in the French Quarter once held remorseless evil. Her name was Madame Delphine Lalaurie. In this house at 1140 Royal Street that today does whatever the architectural equivalent of humming innocently is, the wealthy 19th century socialite tortured and murdered slaves. Nobody knew what went on in her attic until a fire, set by a slave cook chained to a stove in an attempt to kill herself, opened the depravity to light. Lalaurie escaped the mob and took off to France, never to be heard from again. Until American Horror Story: Coven when Kathy Bates played her. This mansion certainly deserves its own entry, but because it’s a private house, all you can do is stare at the exterior and imagine all the horrors that went down inside. Bonus: Between 2007 and 2009, it was owned by actor Nicholas Cage.

3. Nicholas Cage Tomb — Oh look, Nic Cage again. I visited St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 for a few reasons, and for sure one of them was that it contains the future tomb of Nicholas Cage. He’s reserved a nice big, white pyramid for his dust. Which, you know, could be chalked up to an outsized actor ego, but I like to think Cage just has style. Because the guy who did Leaving Las Vegas and Vampire’s Kiss could only have that.

4. Upstairs Lounge Arson Site — We’d been doing some cemetery explorations with a friend of OTIS we’d just met named Diane. We were walking her back to her car, when she pointed down at the sidewalk to a bronze plaque at 141 Chartres Street. “You might be interested in this,” she said. The story it hinted at was a terrible one. So, yeah, I was. On June 24, 1973, 32 people died in a fire in a gay club called the Upstairs Lounge. It was located on the second floor of the building looming above us as we bent over the plaque. Officially unsolved, most experts believe the fire was set by Rodger Dale Nunez, a gay man who had been kicked out of the party earlier that day. Still, the reactions by the churches that refused funerals and the families too ashamed to claim remains and the general apathy of the city and media toward the mass murder galvanized the local LGBT movement in New Orleans. Nunez committed suicide a year later.

5. Bourbon Street — We visited the week after Mardi Gras, so if there’s ever a time Bourbon Street should be sick of being Bourbon Street, it’s then. But, nope, it was still Bourbon Street. a wretched hive of scum and villainy...that's way too much fun. We saw brazen nudity and extravagant costumes, performers and musicians, people passed out on the sidewalks. But, despite all that, and a little because of it, I have to say that I think more cities should allow walking drinks.

6. Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop — The ancient-looking building at 941 Bourbon Street was once a 18th century blacksmith shop run as a front for a smuggling operation by the pirate name Jean Lafitte. Today, it’s a bar that serves voodoo daiquiris. There’s nothing like getting drunk on purple Slurpees at a National Historic Landmark.