A full month after returning from the SIBA Discovery tradeshow, I have yet to send Michael Murphy a thank you card for the infamous "three-hour tour" he gave my coworker, Lizzy, and myself in New Orleans in September. Last week, I opened a ShelfAwareness newsletter to find out it's too late to send him a thank you card now, forever.
When Lizzy and I were writing up our proposals to attend SIBA, I marveled at the idea of a SIBA Concierge. The notice in the trade show schedule read:
9 - 6 On Site Concierge Services - Grand Ballroom Foyer
Michael Murphy, former VP with Random House, then Publisher of William Morrow, has been a resident of and enthusiast for New Orleans the last 10 years. He is a licensed tour guide and has written five books about his beloved home. Michael is available to suggest and/or reserve restaurants, music venues, out-of-the-way, non-touristy spots to visit, as well as emergency needs like dry-cleaning, masseuse, child care, etc.
My understanding of concierge services comes from reading books about people who can afford a level of sophistication far above my budget. In my experience, one might "know a guy" who can fix your car for cheap or get you a discount cell phone, and though I'm a world traveler, the amenities at the places I stay usually begin and end with replacing a forgotten toothbrush. That said, it was my first trip to New Orleans, Lizzy and I had a free half-day on either end of our conference schedule, and perhaps it would be nice to get some suggestions from a "resident…and enthusiast." So we emailed for "any direction you can give us."
"First thing to embrace: the right attitude. Great Cajun Chef, Paul Prudhomme, whom died last fall, uttered the perfect quote, "New Orleans will nudge you in the direction you were meant to go." In other words, don't come with a bucket list. Don't over script your days here. Just let New Orleans wash over you."
Those were some of Michael's first words in response to our humble inquiry. At Michael's suggestion, we toured City Park, the Botanical Gardens, and the New Orleans Museum of Art (the last two being free for residents on Wednesdays, which we pretended to be). We briefly walked Bourbon Street one afternoon, but agreed with Michael's assessment, even during the day:
"P.S. DO NOT go to Bourbon Street. It smells awful. Most of the music is cover bands doing Journey and Foreigner decades old hits. People there act like they just turned 18 and can finally drink legally. Hope this helps."
Later, Michael told us that one of the reasons Bourbon Street smells so awful is that they started street renovation projects, only to realize that the entire pipe system beneath the French Quarter needed to be redone, as it was seeping sewage and rancid oil and everything else that had been poured down those pipes for generations. Due to a big upcoming event of some kind (sorry, Michael, I don't remember which), it was decided that the construction would hold until after that event, at which point the streets would be dug up, pipes replaced, and the smell would go back to its normal liquor, piss, and vomit, instead of the added pipe sewage stench. Now how else would Lizzy and I have found that out, if not to tour with Michael? Or about the house Johnny Depp almost purchased but was outbid by a Chinese bank owner, or the well-known haunted house where two evil scientists had performed horrible experiments on their slaves, or where the "real voodoo shops" in town were?
We heard all of this and more during the private tour we had with Michael before we left New Orleans on Monday. Catching a ride from the airport to the hotel when we had arrived had cost us almost $40. As Michael informed us, "Generally, tour guides cost $10 per hour per person but I operate under the guideline that you pay whatever you want. Seriously." After a quick cost-benefit analysis, Lizzy and I determined that if Michael didn't mind dropping us off at the airport at the end of the tour, we would rather splurge and pay a few dollars more than a Lyft ride for the added benefit of local history and insider knowledge. We have no regrets.
In an email with the subject line, "Monday Monday, Don't Trust That Day," Michael confirmed he would pick us up at our AirBnB –
"How'd you choose that location? You are perfectly safe…don't worry at all…but it's kind of funky…Aren't you staring at a warehouse out the front window? I'll be there at 11:30."
– and would take us on a whirlwind tour before dropping us at the airport.
When we queried about lunch options: "We have 1,420 restaurants," he informed us. "You have (too) many choices."
We decided on Bacchanal ("Bywater. You sit outdoors, a block from the Mississippi, with live music."), a restaurant that had been on an extensive and frankly overwhelming list of suggestions Lizzy and I had compiled from friends' recommendations prior to going. Michael had mentioned it in a helpful email of "relatively inexpensive" places open for lunch on Mondays, and after we chose it, I was impressed when he wrote,
"I just checked the schedule. On Monday, the Tangier's Combo (they play gypsy jazz), perform while you eat from noon to three. I can pick you up at 11:30, get there by 12:00, eat an un-rushed lunch (their bacon wrapped dates are fairly awesome) and get touring around 1:00."
Even knowing the budget Lizzy and I were on, knowing we wouldn't be among the high-rollers he'd mentioned he'd guided around New Orleans (*cough*Sofia-Vergara-and-Joe-Manganiello*cough*), he still did his due diligence in terms of who would be playing Monday lunch at Bacchanal.
He picked us up that Monday ("I look like an overweight Confederate general. White beard. White-ish hair. 5'10" tall and let's never talk about my weight.") and from the Garden District to Lafayette Cemetery, Michael gave us what was truly the most charming, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable tour I've ever experienced in any part of the world (which includes places like Japan and New Zealand). The day before he had "bang(ed) out Garden District tours at 11:00, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00…Not my preference… by the 5th tour I feel like Tom Jones singing What's New Pussycat... one....more.... time," yet sitting in the back seat while listening to his stories, it felt like he was relating them for the very first time. Michael shook the hands of other tour guides we ran across, regaled us with tales from his publishing days, and gave us a sneak preview of what travel guide he was working on next. His smile when he dropped us off at the airport – with a reminder that a second Dooky Chase was located there ("Dooky Chase in Treme has great history and a great 93-year-old owner/chef, Leah Chase. She remains sharp as a tack and famously chastised President Obama a few years back because he started to put hot sauce in her gumbo. Don't mess with her recipes.") – was as warm as if he'd enveloped us in a hug.
Lizzy and I ate po'boys at Dooky Chase and remarked that the half day spent with Michael was the perfect ending to our time in New Orleans. We went home, and I starred his last email in my inbox to remind myself to send him a thank you card. Now, I'm wrapping myself in that smile again while listening to the Tangier's Combo CD I bought that Monday with Michael, after we licked our fingers from enjoying those bacon-wrapped dates. New Orleans, SIBA, and the entire book industry lost one of its brightest characters on October 19th, and Michael, I hope it's not too late to reiterate, thank you.