As a former New York publisher and literary agent, Michael Murphy knows a good story. And as a local tour guide and former concierge, he knows New Orleans as well. That dual knowledge is evident in his fun and informative series of local guidebooks from The Countryman Press: the food-focused “Eat Dat” and “Eat Dat Updat’d,” the music-minded “Hear Dat,” “Fear Dat,” an exploration of the city’s spooky side, Drink Dat, a celebration of the city's liquid lore (penned by fellow tour guide Elizabeth Pearce, with a forward by Murphy) and All Dat, the series’ final installation that brings them all together. You’ll find Murphy’s works on bookstore shelves all over town; grab one and follow in his footsteps.
You lived in Manhattan for 27 years. What brought you here?
I came to New Orleans in 1983 to work with Anne Rice on the paperback version of “The Witching Hour,” and by day two it was like, I’m home. This city will seduce you. Beyond just the look of it, the people, music and food are unparalleled. The way of the people here is not an act. They’re amazingly welcoming and friendly, and when you actually live here, resilient. We get knocked on our ass every three years, and just get right back up; it’s part of our culture. And the history is so bizarre and alternative to everywhere else in the United States. When my publisher was bought out, that allowed me to move here in 2009.
What’s the scariest thing about the city?
The line we straddle between keeping what makes New Orleans New Orleans and making it relevant. You want to keep the core—be it Creole cooking or jazz—to keep those 9 million visitors coming here each year, but at the same time, you have to evolve as well. My greatest fear is that we tip toward Tampa.
Name the one cemetery visitors should seek out.
St. Roch, which is in one of the funkiest neighborhoods. But that healing altar is so stunning. It’s a room filled with leg braces and cement tributes to parts of the body that need healing—hearts, brains, hands, feet. To me, that’s the one that sticks out. But the statue St. Expedite at the back of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is a wonderful story, too. The statuary for churches came from either Italy or Spain, and they would stamp the outside of the crate with the name of the saint, be it St. Mary, St. Joseph, whatever. But this one was stamped “Expedite: Open Immediately.” And they thought, “Oh, it’s St. Expedite—the saint of quick results!” You’re supposed to give him pound cake, though I don’t yet know why. This city is filled with that kind of stuff.
What’s the weirdest thing you unearthed researching “Fear Dat”?
I was looking for a gravedigger, but instead I was led to a grave decorator! He’s wonderful, eccentric old man. He collects junk and decorates his mother and grandmother’s tombs and other graves. His whole life revolves around paying the bills and decorating graves.
Describe your most frightening New Orleans dining experience.
I went to The Joint one night, and they were out of both chicken and pork. That’s pretty scary for a barbecue spot. And the closing of Uglesich’s, which continues to haunt me—and it closed like five years ago.
In addition to the “Dat” series, you also recently cowrote “111 Things in New Orleans That You Must Not Miss” for another publisher. What’s your No. 1 can’t-miss?
When people ask me as a concierge, “What’s the one thing I shouldn’t miss?” I say, I know this is going to sound odd, but … talk to people. Everybody has a story to tell here—and they’re really good at telling it. But as far as the book, the one that brought me to my knees was the Dew Drop Dance Hall, across the lake in Mandeville. It’s from 1892. It looks like an old country church, unpainted, and you sit on old pews with no backs. They throw open the windows and doors, and its strung with Christmas lights—and it’s perfect. You buy your dinner next door at the Baptist church for, like, $5, and sit outside. The night I went [cellist] Helen Gillet performed, and it moved me to tears. She was magnificent, the whole setting was wonderful. The thing that put it over the top was this 80-year-old Cajun couple—real-deal people—that was doing perfect waltzes down the isles. What a spot!
How has being a concierge influenced your writing?
It’s given me a wider knowledge of places people may want to go, and sometimes I discover things through them. I just love sharing with people. Mostly what you do at the concierge desk is tell people where the ATM or bathroom is. That’s your job. But occasionally you get that three-day best friend, people who have never been here but really want to grasp what the city is all about. You send them to places like Bacchanal or House of Dance and Feathers, and they come back hungry for more. I love sharing New Orleans with people like that.