I'm not a big fan of guided tours. If I really want to see and experience a place, I much prefer to get myself a decent guidebook or a self-paced recorded commentary. That way, I can proceed at my own pace, observe details, and just get to know a location by just being there. Call it a Zen Tour, if you like.
My dear Greg, on the other hand, needs to be a Man With a Plan. He admitted to feeling at a loss about our trip to New Orleans until he got online, saw all that there was to do in the city, and started formulating an itinerary for himself. He saw that there was a literary tour of New Orleans available, and jumped on that right away. He planned to fit that tour in between trips to the Louisiana Music Factory and a trip uptown on the streetcar, a quick lunch break, and evenings out at a jazz club.
You can't really blame him for that. This was his first trip to New Orleans and my fourth, and one thing my traveling buddy Jody and I discovered about New Orleans is that you just can't get too ambitious when you're down there. The city quickly works its voodoo magic on us hyper Northern types, and before we know it, we're blissfully sipping coffee at Community Coffee, munching our slices of King Cake, and not caring whether we rise from our chairs at all that day because we're just so content to be where we are. Greg hadn't fallen under the city's spell yet, and he was rarin' to go.
Anyway, Greg wanted to take that literary tour in the worst way. The minimum number of people who could take one happened to be three, so Jody and I both agreed that we'd accompany Greg on this adventure.
You probably know that New Orleans has a rich literary history; it was and is a magnet for literary and artistic types who go there to live and work, and drink, and socialize, and get into trouble, and... Some of the authors who called the place home at one time or another were Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, and on, and on, and on. Truman Capote was born there, though he left at a young age when he was orphaned and sent to live with relatives. Anne Rice still lives there, as does Richard Ford.
So Greg called the number for the tour. It turned out that the historian who usually gives the tour was recovering from knee surgery, but he was happy to recommend another guide. Greg called that guide, and she agreed to meet us at the Cafe du Monde the next morning.
The morning started out nicely enough, with more cafe au lait and more fresh hot beignets beneath powdered-sugar snowdrifts. The guide, an older lady named Inez, met us there and took us on a tour we'll be talking about forever.
To her credit, she did show us some real points of interest, such as the attic flat where Tennessee Williams wrote "A Streetcar Named Desire," and the balcony where the annual "Stella!"-screaming contest takes place. All of these interesting and picturesque locations would have fit neatly into a nice little hour-long tour around the Quarter.
However, that was not to be. Inez, determined to give these Yankee tourists their money's worth and to impress us with her very special "localness," marched us all mercilessly around the French Quarter for three solid hours while talking mostly about herself (and occasionally, on her cell phone). In between the actual points of interest, she entertained us by stomping into Galatoire's in search of a first-edition book ("Of course, I get all of my books wholesale"). When the poor hapless waiter there didn't produce the requested volume immediately and the maitre d' attempted to explain that the book had undergone additional printings and they no longer had first editions, she proceeded to tongue-lash them both and forgot completely about her primary objective for having led us in there, which was to show us Tennessee Williams' favorite table. We never did see it.
At least Jody and I had a chance to do a little window-shopping while Inez stomped on, muttering to us about having to find out the poor waiter's name so she could Get Him Fired ("Though of course Michael, my personal waiter, always takes good care of me. You can dine at Galatoire's without a personal waiter if you must, but yada yada yada, blah blah blah...") She blathered on about the hapless waiter's impending doom as she dragged us into the Haagen-Dazs store to admire the cartoon mural of famous authors on one wall, and to explain to us how she buys and consumes frozen yogurt there once a month only out of obligation after walking through there so often. Yeah, right.
(I hope this old harridan doesn't spend all her waking hours giving locals a bad name. A high school classmate of mine married a man from a wealthy New Orleans family, and Steve is about the nicest, kindest, least pretentious person you'd ever want to meet. I have never seen him abuse waiters or anyone else, and especially not for the sake of entertainment.)
There are some actual literary landmarks on Bourbon Street, if you can stand the racket long enough to go see them. We did go up to see the Old Absinthe House and read the plaque outside mentioning its most famous patrons (too many to list, but I was impressed that Jenny Lind was one of them). After passing Antoine's and Arnaud's ("where we all have simply the best parties on Mardi Gras, and then we all dance in the streets"), we inexplicably ended up at Pat O'Brien's, which is definitely a city landmark, but not really a literary one. (Remember, this was supposed to be a literary tour.) Once inside Pat O'Brien's, Inez marched up to the bowl of after-dinner mints, grabbed herself a double handful, stuffed them in her pockets, and proceeded to grab fistfuls of Pat O's postcards and matchbooks and thrust them at us. Although the waitstaff would have been delighted to have offered us these things for free themselves, it was a tad embarrassing to have to accept them as the waitstaff looked on, as embarrassed as we were and too genteel to say anything about it.
The rest passes pretty much as a blur, though we did get to spend some time outside the William Faulkner House (now a very nice little bookstore) and listen to a laundry list of all the exclusive places that Inez could get her oh-so-influential self into and yak yak yak. We finally ended up on Royal Street and said our goodbyes, and each paid her for the tour. I'd have paid her three times as much to have kept it shorter and kept to the subject of literature, thankyouverymuch. I would have tipped the poor waiter at Galatoire's, too.
By the end of our three-hour tour, our dogs were realllly barkin', and Jody and I were seriously starting to resent having lost valuable vacation time listening to all that blather without so much as a biology break. Greg, though happy to have learned a few literary tidbits, apologized profusely for having dragged us on such a forced march. He didn't know and thus had no need to apologize, but we did agree on one thing: No More Freakin' Tours.