The French Quarter is normally the hurly-burly heart of New Orleans tourism. Now it’s quiet, and clean, like a postcard vision of itself. Visitors are gone. Parking is easy, though parking tickets endure. And here and there, this strange time is revealing the French Quarter neighborhood that persists beyond tourism.
You can see it through the old corner stores, a handful of family businesses that were here when the French Quarter was a thriving neighborhood, and have somehow hung on.
Now though neighborhood life is just about all the French Quarter has left. Regulars still go to Verti Marte on Royal Street for po-boys from the deli, tall boys from the beer case and something less tangible but just as vital. Addressed by name when they walk in, they get a glimmer of humanity among their fellow neighbors in this bizarre time of separation.
Over on Dauphine Street, Matassa’s Market keeps its weekly schedule of red beans and rice on Monday and barbecue ribs on Thursday. Now it stocks face masks and hand sanitizer next to the other high-value items — the cigarettes, the liquor and the Dr. Tichenor's antiseptc.
The Matassa name is famous for the role the late, great Cosimo Matassa played in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. But in the French quarter his family's market goes back to the 1920s, when this neighborhood was the city's Little Italy.
Today, shop keeper Louis Matassa still has Milk-Bones behind the counter for his neighbors’ clockwork dog walks. And he keeps working the phone for grocery deliveries, dispatched as always on battered cruiser bikes to nearby homes.
In the pandemic these stores are permitted to operate because groceries are deemed “essential services.” They are barely doing any business at all right now. And yet, for those who visit, between overstuffed po-boys and small gestures of connectedness, these neighborhood touchstones define essential service.