My best guess is that, after bartenders and waiters and hotel staff, the number-one occupation in New Orleans is tour guide.
The city has ghost tours, vampire tours, cemetery tours, and voodoo tours, but consider a tour of the Garden District. That area is home to the city's Big Rich, where the mansions lining St. Charles Avenue make the homes in Chickasaw Gardens look like shotgun shacks.
Along with a few family members, I once signed up for a Garden District tour, which was led by a woman who, at first glance, didn't appear able to complete the tour herself. She shuffled along on a cane, stopping occasionally to adjust her balance and reset her red scarf across her shoulder with a dramatic swoop and a side-of-the-mouth remark. She looked as if today's walk would be her only venture outside the house.
We wandered into the world of the ridiculously wealthy -- and I choose that word for a reason. There is simply no reason to have as much money as some of these people do, much less to spend it in the way they spend it, which is purely and simply to impress themselves and others. The Garden District is a monument to Americans' tendency toward royalism, and to tour it is to act, for a time, like members of the court, pointing out this or that trapping of wealth and power and gossiping all the way. After all, what is a tour of a residential neighborhood if not a gossipfest?
One of the highlights was a home being remodeled. Our guide informed us of all the critical facts -- several thousand square feet, gold trimmings, $1.4 million for the place, putting more than that into it -- and then informed us that the couple who bought it had no kids still living at home. Before I could get out the question "What on God's earth do they need this house for?," she told us that the couple would be living in the carriage house out back and using the main house for who knows what -- very impressive parties, presumably. She said the husband, an oil man, bought the house "because his wife always wanted one."
At another house, we were told that when the couple split up, the wife couldn't leave the neighborhood, so she bought a house around the corner. At another, she told us, startlingly, that Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails owned the place. The neighborhood was quite concerned about this, but he's turned out to be "a very nice young man." However, when Courtney Love tried to move in around the corner, this was too much, and the neighborhood put a stop to it.
There was a house owned by a couple described as "gay but just lovely." Another one where a body was found in the attic a few years ago. Another one where the wrought-iron fence that looks like a row of cornstalks is apparently worth more than the house itself. We saw the home of Anne Rice, the novelist, who has, shockingly, decided, since the death of her husband, to move to -- gasp -- the suburbs. "We just can't imagine her in the suburbs," our guide said. There was also the house of the Manning family, where, our guide told us, "We hear that Eli is actually better than Peyton, but they're both such wonderful boys -- and oh, do they love their mother!"
You might be thinking, at this point, what I was thinking: With all this "we" talk, this woman must be a denizen of the Garden District, privy to all the chatter among the socialites. But she isn't! She lives in another part of town and is simply a dealer in that most basic New Orleans commodity: gossip. It is currency on the open market, to be traded for and doled out in portions just large enough to leave the user wanting more. This woman would say things like, "And this house here Oh, my goodness, some of the things we see going on over there! But that's another story."
She even gossiped about tour guides. We saw another group at one point, and she smiled and waved at the guide, then said to us under her breath, "That young man needs to get out of this business; he knows nothing about this neighborhood! He's not even licensed!"
I was tempted to comment that being a licensed tour guide in New Orleans was like being a licensed watch salesman in New York, but by then we were already off to see the $2 million home of a man who moved from New York, which made everybody nervous, because you know how those New York people are, but he's turned out to be okay, and now he's dating a local woman, which means he's a lifer. "You can't take a New Orleans girl out of New Orleans," our guide said, as she shuffled along the street.