My trip to New Orleans, or 'that time I sat on a dead body'

Recounting a literal near-death experience

Sitting by a table at an indoor courtyard in New Orleans, an older woman with wispy gray hair and a slight hunch approached me.

“There’s a dead body under that tree, you know,” she said, gesturing to the pot next to me.

I did not know. Historically, the existence of potentially unmarked graves has not factored into my seating decisions — an egregious lapse in judgment, I now realize. Over the course of my life, it’s likely I’ve unwittingly sat on 13 John’s, 10 Sarah’s, nine Michael’s, seven Michael’s who have told you three times now they go by “Mike,” two Lisa’s and one Candace. And now this person who is apparently lying deceased under a gelateria.

Fearing divine retribution, I quickly muttered the Shema — and then did a Hail Mary, promised to strive for nirvana and whispered, “I’m sorry, Tom Cruise/Madonna” in case celebrity fringe faiths ever pan out. I figured the sin of eating gelato next to a corpse was bad enough not to risk putting all my eggs in one basket. Potential damning bases covered, I timidly bid the necromancer to tell me her sordid tale.

She jumped into her story of horrors with an enthusiasm typically reserved for boy bands of the 90s. This was clearly not a dress rehearsal. Allegedly, the remains of a young woman were pulled up when the house — located in an old part of the French Quarter — was remodeled a few years back. A group of Tulane students was called in to run tests on the body, but they were ultimately unable to identify it (here, my narrator’s eyes twinkled with conspiracy — potential link to the Kennedy assassination?). Mystery unsolved, the bones were buried back in the spot where they were found, and construction resumed.

I was told the only thing proving this woman once walked the earth was the potted coniferous tree sitting atop her makeshift grave. I refrained from pointing out an equally effective tool of remembrance is to plant a hired hand who can stir up rumors of a mysterious past during any lulls / on slow service days. I did not think she would appreciate being labeled a Brontë stock character.

Leaving the delightful mix of dairy and death behind me — mixed right there in house! — I pondered my two takeaways from this encounter. First, I vowed never to underestimate the power of a supporting gothic figure in maintaining an eventful, preferably haunted household. When I grow up, my manor will have no less than six maids to tell “dead body” stories to visitors when things get dull, and — if I’m lucky — an abundance of cobwebs in the corners of my five attics to capture whispers of a shady character named Bertha. Also, New Orleans is weird.

I wish I could say this was the strangest situation I came across in the Crescent City, but sadly, this was not the case. The scares got worse.

A tattooed middle-aged couple skillfully combined slow dancing with making out as a jazz band played a breakup song on a street corner. Nobody clued them in. They were using a lot of tongue. Cue “Psycho” soundtrack.

After pulling out a switchblade and calling it a “New Jersey credit card,” “Illusio the Illusionist” — ever the showman — told an overweight blonde mother he had something very large in his pocket and asked if she wanted to see it. She did. Overall, it was a confusing show — probably for her kids as well.

And in the most spectacular show of parenting yet, two elementary-age sisters followed their dad around Café Du Monde in shirts that read “Bitch 1” and “Bitch 2.”

It was all quite haunting, to say the least. If I ever work a mid-level job in the Louisiana tourism department, I plan to personally ensure all travel literature reads: “New Orleans: world’s best natives, world’s worst visitors.”

Either that, or “Friends don’t let friends Bourbon sober.”

Overall, my trip taught me there are some frightening things you just can’t un-see. Also, there are some things you can’t see at all. Like dead bodies in a gelateria.

It was an enlightening experience.

Julia’s column runs biweekly Thursdays. She can be reached at

Published March 19, 2014 in Life

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