This time of year, Debra Johnson stays awake all night long, baking and packaging bread pudding and pecan and sweet potato pies to sell in front of her house, a block from the main gate of the Fair Grounds. Her family has sold homemade baked goods during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for 39 years, from the early days when the event drew a few thousand people. Her mother started with “Shirley’s Famous Hot Tamales” — always a sellout.
Around the corner on Fortin Street, Blain Washington peddles straw hats and baseball caps, “$25 for two,” to festgoers who underestimated the intensity of the sun.
Activity outside the festival gates is almost as brisk as inside. Eager entrepreneurs seize the opportunity to hawk sunglasses, T-shirts, water and snacks along highly trafficked routes from public transit buses and the Carrollton streetcar through residential streets.
At the intersection of Esplanade Avenue and Maurepas Street, “Wilson the Waterman” sells at least 10 cases of bottled water and juice boxes every weekend, leisurely sitting under a tree beside an ice chest. He calls out attention-getting slogans like “Coldest water in town — so cold you can’t drink it straight down,” which really seem to boost sales, he said.
On the higher end, Bryn Morgan mans a kiosk on Esplanade Avenue displaying designer sunglasses priced at $145 a pop. Morgan tempted a recent New Orleans transplant, Bart Buckelew, with her Krewe de Optic designs named for familiar local landmarks like “The Fly,” “LGD” and “Calliope.”
Even with the festival’s roar a constant reminder of musical acts missed, many nearby residents prefer to relax on their front porches enjoying the parade of passers-by.
When Addie and Jeremy Martin rented their apartment in 2006, the young couple were aware of its proximity to Jazz Fest and used to purchase Brass Passes. But now they have decided it is so much more comfortable just to stay home.
“It’s too much fun to have a party here all day long,” Jeremy Martin said.
With a speaker hooked up on the front porch, the Martins can listen to the live broadcast on WWOZ-FM while visiting with friends, preparing food and enjoying the scene.
“We open the house at 9, have a keg, cook food, hang out and drink,” Addie Martin said.
Around the corner, Les Yoakum, Gary Morgan and Leslie Knowles perch on a balcony overlooking Mystery Street. A bubble machine spews magical puffs over the roadway while they toss beads and other trinkets and treats.
Picking a theme, they annually paint a poster with cutouts so folks can poke their heads through to pose for a silly photo. This year, it’s an Old-West-style “Wanted” poster.
Yoakum and Morgan sometimes buy festival tickets, but believe they’ve already got the best seat in the house, sitting in the shade within earshot of the Acura Main Stage.
“The best time is when everybody’s leaving. We turn up the music and everybody’s dancing,” Knowles said.