Just today, I was walking on the sunny side of Royal waiting for Ume to open her shop. I walked down to the next corner to see if I could get a cup of tea and a good seat at CC’s while I waited. At McDonogh 15, I sensed that the guy standing on the corner was going to ask me for something. I turned to look fully at him (always a good idea in the FQ) and realized with a start it was someone I knew from an earlier life.
He was startled but happy to see me as I was to see him. But it was clear, I had just avoided a quick hustle or at least an “ask”. Actually, he did finally ask me for a cigarette right before I left.
I told him that his family had been looking for him and he seemed oddly unconcerned. He told me he was “between apartments” and gave me no indication he was working. He looked tired, older and much more watchful than the K I had known before. I came back out and saw he had scored a smoke and was squatting in the sun, waiting. I went the other way so that we could keep our serendipitous relationship intact.
I had always recognized him as a hustler of some kind. The hustler styles differ from time to time in the FQ, but there are a few kinds that seem to stay. And let be clear: hustle in my definition is anyone who uses their wits first and foremost in situations they find, nothing planned. Nothing derogatory is meant.
1. The gay hustler. They can be seen walking a lot on Dauphine and Burgundy in the late evenings, and if you go to the bars, you can watch them enter and see the recognition on the faces of the regulars and bartenders. They are young and very blond and slight usually. Back in the days when my best friend chatted them up, they were invariably from Mississippi or Alabama. Sweet tempered and attentive to anyone who encounters them. They make many of their transactions in the “illegal economy”, but not always: sometimes they become connected to a wealthy man who has them walk the dogs, then maybe do the shopping and then sometimes they have become full-fledged partners, doing well in their own right.
2. The work hustler: We have these everywhere in the city, and really they have almost disappeared from the FQ, sadly. They would be seen washing the sidewalks in the early am, painting shutters, cutting down limbs of old trees, delivering. They were strong, capable men and women who are almost completely in the underground economy (cash only). Actually, the most visible example is the guy shining shoes on sunny days in the Square.
3. The tourist hustler: They work in any and all of the ways that tourists pay or hand over cash. Some do tours, some hawk maps, some are on the street engaging in any sort of short hustle (“I bet you I can tell you where you got your shoes”). In the informal economy (casual labor), the underground economy (a barter or a gamble) and some of the bad ones work in the illegal economy (in other words, watch your iPhones).
4. The real estate hustler: These folks always think they have come up with a new hustle and therefore often fail in the long run. They start with one building that they got in inheritance or through some amazing deal, they do okay with it. They start buying up properties and sooner or later, drugs or a corrupt contractor or a bad retail idea do them in. Or they think their connections to City Hall will allow them any coverage; unless they are the mob or the church or a university’s real estate arm, they will be wrong. They make their money in the formal economy, and are usually undone by the same.
5. The service industry hustler: man, they make the rounds from store to store to restaurant to restaurant. If you tracked their movement, you could probably see retail trends months or years before the experts do. They have a sixth sense about the places they work and what the future is. WE know that a place is okay when we walk in and find those masters working there, and we avoid the place when they leave. They make their money in the formal and informal economies (wages and tips).
6. The creative sector hustler: Jackson Square painters, French market vendors, sidewalk sales from under the coat, musicians using the acoustics on a corner to amplify for tips. These are the 20th century saviors of the area, literally as their forefathers began the Arts and Crafts Club to save the artistic culture of the area after the Opera House burned, They began the artist as resident movement back then when the FQ was only ghetto and allowed it to have a new life after the antebellum FQ had decayed almost to forgetfulness. They are the indicators of the healthy Quarter (well all of the hustlers are, but the skilled artist chief among them). They work in the formal and informal economy and sometimes might have some time in the underground economy (consignment or direct sales to the shops, cash sales, side trade work from bosses or wealthy friends).
I encourage all of these. I see all of these at work, hard at work. I expect to see more in the uncertain future.