The Shilling Fields
Written by Amanda Anderson
Thursday, 26 April 2007 18:40
You’ve become a local when you see Jazz Fest for the cash cow that it is. The Fest can be entertaining, sure, but entertainment is secondary. Hell, you can be entertained any day of the year in this town, for a whole lot cheaper than $45 at the door.
To take full advantage of the Fest’s rich, sunburned market, it’s best to be unemployed. That way, you can catch people at 10 a.m. waiting in line to get into the gates, as well as the drunks stumbling out the gates in the evening. Get a good nap during the day so you can work the night crowd at Liuzza’s. Not only do kids on drugs have lots of energy, but they will buy anything, so you’ll want to keep up.
I used this strategy last year, and I could have become rich if it hadn’t been for the learning curve. I’d ordered hats wholesale on the internet – gambler hats, ball caps, and floppies – and decorated them for Jazz Fest tastes. As the city was still piled with the fresh remains of Katrina, I used lots of blue tarp and fleur-de-lis. Police tape from the Lower 9, that sort of shit. I set up a display at the Fair Grinds, the coffee shop closest to the action, and got ready to collect the cash.
But the cash came slow, when it came at all. For one thing, hat people on their way to the Fest are already wearing a hat; if someone’s bare-headed, that someone probably likes it that way. For another thing, if you want to sell hats, don’t invite one of the most popular hat/costume ladies in town to set up with you. Cree McCree, of the Kingpin flea market and the Café Brasil fashion sales, brought her hats to the Fair Grinds, and they flew onto people’s heads. But I learned something important from Cree: for Jazz Fest, do cowboy hats. Leave the rest at home.
Another thing I learned: being a block away from Liuzza’s is not the same as being at Liuzza’s. People rushed by my little display to get to the action and drink Bloody Marys in the street. Cree got bored and left, but I, being an unemployed and versatile entrepreneur, had a plan.
* * * *
Although New Orleans is rightly known as the Big Easy, its City Council can make some funny rules sometimes. No surprise that these times tend to involve lots of cash. And if you were to take a gander through the city codes and stumble upon Division 2, Section 110-81, you’d guess that some big money was behind this ordinance:
Code 1956, 46-1.1.1: Permits not valid in certain areas during Annual Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival Season.
(a) Permits are not valid within the area bounded by Florida Avenue on the north, North Broad Avenue on the east, Esplanade Avenue on the south, and Bayou St. John on the west (excluding the portion of that area contained within the exterior boundaries of the New Orleans Fair Grounds Racetrack) during the Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Season.
(b) The “Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Season” is defined as that period occurring annually commencing at 7:00 a.m. on the first day of live music performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival conducted annually at the fair grounds racetrack by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Inc. and continuing through and until midnight on the concluding day of live music performances at such location during such festival.
At least pre-Katrina, this was one of the few ordinances actually enforced by the New Orleans Police Department. Robert, the Fair Grinds coffee patriarch, tells many a story of artists having their work confiscated, tie-dyeing hippies paying off the cops, and even children being forced to close up lemonade stands. So if you’ve ever wondered why the kids selling glass marijuana pipes and T-shirts and hemp necklaces outside of Liuzza’s seem so shifty-eyed, this is probably why.
On the Fair Grinds premises, I was legal, somewhat speciously covered under their business license. Many a roughed-up vendor had found harbor at the Fair Grinds in the past, so I wasn’t worried. If I were to move my hats out to the Liuzza’s corner, however, I would be on my own. But in the new post-Katrina era, who knew what to expect? I only knew that no one was buying my hats.
* * * *
“Would you like to look inside my box?” I asked as soon as I saw the raised eyebrows. The line worked best on men. It also worked on the party of lesbians sitting in their lawn chairs catty-corner from Liuzza’s entrance. It wasn’t long before I’d sold most of the guys’ hats, just by wandering through crowd carrying a giant box. Who didn’t want to peek into the mystery box?
“I don’t need a hat, but they do,” one drunk told me before purchasing hats for the two girls he just met. At only $20 each, why not? Another guy told me that the girl who would buy my “Drunk Diva” hat –replete with bottlecaps and an empty Marlboro box – would be his next girlfriend. So when an inebriated sorority sister forked over $25 for that masterpiece, I steered him in her direction.
The lesbians were proud of me. On each of my rounds, they asked about my sales. One of them kept trying to dicker me down on one of the gamblers, the one with the pinup girls glued over fake hundred-dollar bills. Meanwhile, her buddies barked at passers-by to look inside my box, which brought in more cash. By the end of the night, I’d even sold one of my Styrofoam display heads for $10 to a hippie chick on acid.
Even if people didn’t buy a hat, they still enjoyed the peek and often tossed stuff inside. I got some sunscreen, a couple of unsold T-shirts, and plenty of stickers. No cops bothered me, but even if they did, it would have been easy to convince them that my box contained no sort of business.
In the end, I didn’t get rich, but then again, I hadn’t stocked cowboy hats. I did make a couple hundred bucks, get a box full of random shit, and drink my weight in the free iced coffee offered by neworleans.com, who also used the Fair Grinds for promotional purposes. I have no idea how much neworleans.com benefited from their Jazz Fest duty, but I can tell you that cleverer, more stable New Orleanians than I use the internet to profit from New Orleans’s reinvigorated mystique. Not only do you reach a much broader audience, but you get to stay in the air conditioning.
To get a better grasp of this phenomenon, I recently spoke with Marigny Pecot of www.b-native.com. Swilling High Lifes at Pal’s in Mid-City, she and I soaked in the pre-Jazz Fest energy while she told me her story. Like most of us, Ms. Pecot thought her life was pretty well settled; she worked at a brokerage firm and raised her daughter by herself. Then Katrina came to town, and her firm permanently relocated to Birmingham, AL. A local girl, Pecot had no intention of staying in Alabama, but financial work in the New Orleans of fall 2005 was scarce. So she hopped online to help her fellow NOLA natives get through the dead zone.
When your mother is local author Christine Wiltz, you tend to have a soft spot for artists and other creative types. Plus, Pecot is friends with many of them, such as jewelry artist Olivia Gallander and NOLAFugees favorite Chris Rose. All of these artists showcase their work on b-native, an “online art market,” as well as stationer Alexa Pulitzer, glass blowers James Vella and Studio Inferno, and the Dirty Coast T-shirt guys. I remembered the Dirty Coast guys outside the Fest last year, shilling shirts, and asked Pecot if they would be there again. “They’ve been doing pretty well ever since their write-up on dailycandy.com, so they might not go renegade,” she predicted.
Even if you’ve got to go online for Dirty Coast merch, there will still be plenty of folks angling for your money as you walk to the Grounds. No doubt the sarong lady will be set up on the corner of Lopez and Ponce de Leon, as she does every year. Kids will have glass pipes for sale, and T-shirts, and beads. Younger kids will have water, and pickles, and their folks might sell you some BBQ. The Fair Grinds will be hosting the Kid Camera Project again this year, so you can buy photos there, along with flowerpots painted by the kids from Small Axe Urban Farms. The free iced coffee is gone, though, along with Miss Amanda Costumier’s fancy hats. But if I get drunk enough, the Mystery Box may reappear in the crowd.
While you’re out, go ahead and stop at Porch Fest on Maurepas Street, Jazz Fest headquarters of the NOLAFugees crew. For certain, they’ll be pimping their books, so look for the NOLAFugees flag.
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