I’ve lived in London and visited New York enough times to know that these places just effortlessly relieve you of cash. They’re like a wily, sleight-of-hand pickpocket. “Oops! Look at that monument! And I’ll just slip this five pound/dollar note out of your wallet…WHAT? It’s a breathing tax!”
I think it’s to do with pace and scale – the size of those cities and the speed at which things happen mean that if you’re going to participate in any kind of social life there, on-the-fly decisions constantly have to be made. Cabs suddenly need to be caught, that exhibition looks like a good idea, meals need to be eaten and what am I going to do – NOT order wine, like a CHUMP?
New Orleans, though – with its manageable size and lolling pace of life – is the perfect breeding ground for free stuff.
Our main currency is, of course, music. Post-Jazz Fest, those local bands return to their free gigs on Frenchmen Street, and chances are you can buy that upright bass player a beer instead of squinting at them from the depths of the khaki sea.
The scale of free music is astonishing, from the sweaty dance crevices of BJs Lounge as you haul Monday night ass to King James and the Special Men, to the refined air of the Davenport Lounge as you sip a Martini with an ear cocked to Jeremy Davenport’s beguiling trumpet. Or just walk down Royal Street, where even picking up detergent at Rouses has a street-provided soundtrack.
Eating is the other constant backdrop to life here, and plates regularly spill over with free food, from the Friday crawfish boils at R Bar to game day buffets at pretty much every neighbourhood pub, locals scooping up the kind of comfort food that the stress of following the Saints usually requires.
New Orleans isn’t even satisfied with trumping the world’s free parties with Mardi Gras (hush now, Rio, it goes on for weeks here). Festivals push out into the streets every week, celebrating everything from the French Quarter to gumbo, ‘bull’ running to zydeco. Jazz in the Park. Wednesdays at the Square. Every night a dozen places.
Don’t have money to impress a date? Whisk them around the sculpture park and picnic in the shadow of a Henry Moore, or have Chris Hannah mix you something dynamite at the French 75 Bar (yes, the drinks cost money) and then wander up to the secret Germaine Cazanave Wells Museum. You’re welcome.
How many free gigs do you think Louis CK – arguably the world’s best comedian– played last year? I suspect that all of them happened in New Orleans over a four-week flurry of excitement that energised the city’s comedy scene. Local comics tear it up for free every single night of the week.
Parks, mass work-outs, erotic fiction, dance lessons, poetry, yoga, karaoke, swimming, battle re-enactments, brewery tours, social bike rides, horse racing, art, libraries and solid advice from any local you care to ask. You can find it all for free in New Orleans. Save your breathing tax money for a cocktail. They’re usually worth paying for here.