I always considered New Orleans' French Quarter to be synonymous with sordidness. Even on a crisp November day, when the pastel colors of historic 19th century homes appear more vibrant against dull gray skies, there's an unmistakable energy about this town, a sense that maybe there's something going on that you just don't know about. For whatever reason -- perhaps it's simply historical -- people come to the Quarter to have fun.
What kind of fun, though? Think New Orleans and a few images come to mind: Blanche DuBois, overground mausoleums, maybe Anne Rice. But I came to New Orleans -- and more specifically, the Quarter -- in search of the seamy sexual underbelly I'd heard so much about. Indeed, walk along the disturbingly tidy Bourbon Street and you will find a modern paean to the Seven Deadly Sins; greed, gluttony, envy ... They're all there in varying degrees. Closet-sized bars serve rum-packed Hurricanes in to-go cups. Tired mules draw carriages full of goggle-eyed tourists listening to the ever-changing stories of their driver. New Orleans doesn't even need barkers to lure customers into the strip clubs. Men and women -- mostly in their 30s and sweatshirt-clad, tennis shoe-shod, slightly overweight -- happily toddle in with plastic beer cup in hand, view an act or two, and toddle out.
But where is sordid New Orleans?
My first clue may have been a question I'd unwittingly posed the first day of my stay. "How come this place looks so, so different from other parts of the city?" I couldn't put my finger on it. It wasn't just the wrap-around verandas with their lacy ironwork on the two-story houses (` la "Streetcar Named Desire"), or the Spanish moss hanging from trees, or the distinctively 19th century architecture, or even the "slave houses" -- long, narrow quarters behind the houses with few windows that were now offered as apartments. Finally I figured it out: There was no tangle of phone, electrical or bus cables overhead. In the interest of keeping the Quarter historically preserved, all signs of technology are safely and neatly wired underground.
Sure, it looks great. But as I toured the area in search of the dirtier, nastier New Orleans, it seemed metaphorical. The sex industry is there, but somewhat sadly, New Orleans isn't immune to the sanitizing '90s, the era that's transformed Times Square into Disneyland East and San Francisco's North Beach into an upscale dining mecca for yuppies.
On Bourbon Street -- the long promenade with wide sidewalks and blinking neon that is the linchpin of the Quarter -- I found strip clubs and theaters proclaiming live male/female love acts sandwiched up against everything else touristy: tiny museums, corner cafes, karaoke bars and jazz clubs. I pondered: a Jello-Shot or Big Daddy's strip club? Me being me, I chose the latter and found myself cantering into the dark (but clean!) club that seemed to have as many staff standing around as patrons. My friends and I commandeered a table and ordered a Heineken for the princely sum of $6.50 a bottle.
As far as these things go, it was nothing out of the ordinary: skinny women with big breasts, probably dancers by trade, shimmying up and down a brass pole and writhing around on a circular rotating platform to the strains of everything from zydeco ditties to Portishead. Where are the Mitchell Brothers when you need them? A shot of obscenity would do this place a world of good. I was oddly intrigued by the token triangle of cloth each stripper wore around her pubic area, suspended by invisible strings around the hips and butt -- a nod to the crazy law that apparently finds the sight of a clitoris obscene but an anus not.
One of my friends whispered in my ear a study he'd read about how strippers pass their yeast infections around like a bad cold due to that obligatory gyroscope move around the brass pole. "That's gross," I said loudly, and I grew tired of watching the strippers, who seemed a little distracted to me anyway. We began watching the audience instead. It was a motley mixture of young men and women, seemingly tourists, students and conventioneers. Occasionally two of the working girls would mysteriously bring out a small wooden platform and set it in front of a man to perform a "private" dance. It was of course hardly private, since half the audience would turn their attention away from the stage and instead watch the naked women cavort inches away from their customer's face. I wondered what the men were thinking. Was this really sexy for them? Would they come in their pants? Did they think the girls were turned on by their fat stomachs and blinking eyes behind their glasses?
Earlier that day, I'd learned it was the 100th anniversary
of Storyville, the former 25-square-block district of New Orleans
renowned for its prostitution trade and erroneously regarded as
the birthplace of jazz. I'd discovered some interesting facts: The
going rate had been $10 a customer -- quite a sum in those days, and a steep
climb from the era of the Louisiana Purchase, when girls would walk the
street with a roll of carpet under their arm, ready to perform their trade
right there and then for 10 to 50 cents. Before Storyville, the port city
of New Orleans hosted many Tenderloin districts where for a "picayune," or
6-and-a-half cents, one could acquire whiskey, a bed and a woman.
Storyville, like the sex industry today, was strictly controlled. But
there was a nasty side to it, too. Pregnancy was common -- daughters were
often brought into the fold and auctioned off at rates of $800 for the
deflowering. There was more to this lure of the virgin than the plain novelty of it: Popular lore had it
that sex with a virgin was a cure for the sexually transmitted diseases of
the day, which were rampant.
I wondered if there couldn't be a happy medium between the dark side of
Storyville and the tepid Big Daddy's. The next day, I ventured to the
Artist's Cafe -- a sad, shadowy little bar located on Iberville Street, in the outskirts of the
Quarter. The bar was mostly empty (admittedly, it was
5 o'clock in the afternoon) and I somewhat guiltily lurked by the door,
feeling, oddly, like a horny married man. I'd been told that the Artist's
Cafe was known for its adolescent strippers, and short of carding the girls
who eyed me languidly, I couldn't possibly tell if that were true or not. I
was by myself and it was cold outside, with darkness falling quickly in the
gray skies. I considered ordering a drink and watching the scene,
but I felt too much like I was onstage myself, so I left.
As in most cities, the district catering to gay sex seems to have it all
figured out. I could go to the Rawhide, for example, even though I'm not
gay or a man. Or, in the up-and-coming-yet-still-shabby Marigny district
(whose skies are a tangle of black electrical cables and phone lines),
which sidles along the French Quarter, I was told to go to The Phoenix.
"Actually, I take that back," said my friend, a recent transplant to New
Orleans. "Don't go to The Phoenix." It wasn't just that I wouldn't be
welcome; I plain wouldn't be allowed to enter.
"What happens there?" I
asked, feeling like the innocent more than ever.
"Everything!" he answered,
with a gleam in his eye. He went on to tell me about the glory holes and
lightless upstairs room and the anonymous encounters that sounded like nothing
so much as the San Francisco bathhouses in the pre-AIDS days. "You can
console yourself with Mother Bob's on Monday night, the Amateur Strip
Night. It's like Tod Browning's 'Freaks,'" he said.
New Orleans is a big city, and I'm certain there are aspects of the sex
industry that I just couldn't uncover in my time there. I wondered if the
prostitutes plain didn't want to compete with the $2 rum punch offered on
every street corner, catering to a tourist crowd that largely seemed
hell-bent on getting hammered as quickly and as cheaply as possible. There
is, admittedly, something refreshing about a city that offers strip clubs
smack in the middle of its most profitable district. And I'm not sure what
I had been expecting -- possibly a nod-and-wink attitude toward the sex
industry, or an American version of Amsterdam? But in a country where
political correctness reigns supreme, that may be too much to hope for.
"There is no red light district anymore," a local historian said to
me. "But the sex industry is like Prohibition. You can make it illegal, but
you can't make it unpopular."