The Art of Getting By in Pandemic Times

By Magali McMurry

Ricco Rideaux at his artist post in front of Jackson Square

A little after 3:00 P.M. in the French Quarter of New Orleans, artist Ricco Rideaux proudly displays his artwork to the unusually empty streets of Jackson Square. His artwork frames him, taking up far more space than is usually allowed on the iron fencing surrounding Jackson Square’s historic park. His specialty is bright, unique paintings on everything from homemade canvas to recycled planks of wood; their bold colors capture the attention of a few passersby, but not many. After all, there are very few tourists on Decatur Street on a weekday afternoon in the middle of a global pandemic.

            There are, comparatively, very few tourists in New Orleans at all actually. According to the Louisiana Office of Tourism, the state’s travel and tourism economy saw a decline of 3.2 billion dollars in 2020. Since New Orleans is the state’s most popular city to visit, a good percentage of that loss in revenue directly affects New Orleanians, especially those who work in the tourism and hospitality industries. The artists of Jackson Square specifically rely on New Orleans’ curious and starry-eyed visitors who hope to take a piece of the city home with them and hang it on their walls.

“Café du Monde is like the leader for everything that happens on Decatur Street.” says Rideaux. “In the morning, after grabbing your coffee and getting your supplies, you can gauge how busy the day is going to be based on the line outside of Café du Monde.” On a typical day, after securing his spot outside of Jackson Square directly across from the café (Jackson Square artists are notoriously territorial over space on the park’s iron fencing according to Rideaux) and approximating how busy the day will be for him, Ricco Rideaux sets up and waits for the familiar brassy sounds of a New Orleans jazz band. “Once the band starts playing, you know you have a crowd, you know you’ll start selling very soon.”

Across the street from our conversation, Café du Monde boasts no long line, only a smattering of people with their heads down and masks up walking past the café Rideaux describes as a “landmark.” Rideaux is one of two artists selling on the Decatur front, his work spread all around him in a way that he assures me would not be the case if the usual crowd of artists were still showing up. The entire day I am in the New Orleans’ French Quarter, I hear no music.

“Pre-COVID and Post-COVID are like night and day,” Rideaux tells me, “there are no horses, no break-dancers, everyone is staying cautious and safe but they stay far away from each other and from me.” He assures me that he supports the COVID-19 safety measures put in place by the city, and in some instances doesn’t believe they go far enough, he just misses the liveliness of the city. “And the money, a lot of money.”

I ask Rideaux what else he misses about New Orleans pre-COVID and he reminds me of those horses he mentioned previously, the ones that typically loiter around Jackson Square: their owners offering romantic carriage rides through the city’s streets for the right price. He says he misses them, he misses the lane of colorful psychics on the other side of Jackson Square’s iron fence whom he would sometimes share coffee with in the morning. He misses the other Jackson Square artists, the camaraderie and competition they shared.

My conversation with Rideaux is interrupted only once, and not by a potential customer. An older gentleman excuses himself and excitedly tells Rideaux that he’s received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. When he leaves, Rideaux informs me that the man is actually rather famous around Jackson Square for being nearly unbeatable in chess. He plays for money down the street from Rideaux’s usual post, though he has been hit particularly hard by the lack of tourists willing to sit in close proximity to a stranger. Rideaux informs me that the man is over 80 years old.  After saying goodbye to Ricco Rideaux and thanking him for his time, I walk up Decatur Street to meet my ride home. My eye catches on a wooden feeding station left behind on the sidewalk, the type usually filled with hay for the Jackson Square horses that Rideaux expressed such fondness for. It’s empty.

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