N’Gai Smith is a popular guy. As we walk the grounds of the French Market, where he serves as maintenance superintendent, it seems like we can’t go 10 steps without someone waving, calling out, or stopping to shake one of his big hands. A woman on a cellphone standing over a table of pastel-colored bath beads flashes a huge smile and waves. An electrician in head-to-toe khaki buttonholes him on the sidewalk to shake and say hello. We “just happen” to run into one of his top lieutenants near Latrobe Park.
I’d suspect it being stage-managed, if everyone didn’t seem so genuinely overjoyed to see Smith. It’s like walking through the French Market with Santa Claus.
“There’s seven buildings which I am responsible for from the ground to the roof,” Smith says. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of problem-solving on the spot. You really have to be on your toes, managing the staff, managing the contractors [who are] working. And people want things done, like, yesterday.”
Smith describes his main job as maintaining the grounds to help attract business — “the customers that shop at French Market are how we generate our income, our revenue” — but in practice, what that means is a crushingly long list of duties both grand and pedestrian. He’s available day and night to oversee response to all sorts of emergencies; when a drunk driver runs into the columns near the Joan of Arc statue or someone vandalizes the front of a French Market retail space, Smith’s cellphone rings. If a fire alarm goes off in one of the 50 apartments in the historic Upper Pontalba Building on Jackson Square, Smith hears about it. He coordinates the contractors who work on property renovations and directs the employees who collect the massive amounts of garbage that ends up in the 30-yard trash compactor on the market grounds (amazingly, it only needs to be picked up once per week, except during special events like Mardi Gras). And it’s Smith who meets with the city’s pest control operation, which makes monthly visits to the market to spray for termites and trap rats and other zoological phenomena driven in from the rising river, including the occasional (harmless) snake and, once, a coyote. When the French Market throws annual festivals such as its Creole Tomato Festival, Smith calls all hands on deck to assemble stages, tables and signs.
“Nobody’s off that weekend … the only thing we don’t do is play the music,” Smith says, laughing.
In Smith's office, a utilitarian, Office-Max-in-the-'90s style desk is littered with papers, manila folders and the occasional stray coffee cup — the desk of a man with a lot on his mind. (Later, he’ll tell me that he’s hardly ever in there, unless he’s making purchase orders or working on a schedule; he spends most of his time out the grounds.) He tells me about his history. As a younger man, he worked in restaurants, serving as a backwaiter at Commander’s Palace and a cocktail waiter at Pat O’Brien’s. But he saw how tired his mom, who had also been a server, became after many years of restaurant work. So he got a job as maintenance worker in the French Market.
“[At that time], I didn’t know a flathead [screwdriver] from a Phillips,” Smith says. He credits another maintenance employee, Joseph Kimble, with mentoring him. Kimble taught him about tools, working with electricity, HVAC and more working in the Upper Pontalba Building while Smith earned a general studies bachelor’s from Southern University of New Orleans. (More recently, he’s worked toward a post-bacc degree in forensic science.)
When we leave Smith's office, we step out into the still-too-bright September sunshine, passing by the new restaurant Marche and a candy store. In one of the archways that leads to Dutch Alley — his express route when the market is crowded — we stop to say hi to a maintenance worker checking a lightbulb, and Smith points out a pair of long-tailed, gossamer-winged mayflies resting on the wall. He says they appear in the market every year during their migration pattern, and gently picks one up to show me. It's dwarfed by his palm.
“[There are so many], you won’t even see the color of the wall,” he says.
We walk further down the street past the usual hubbub outside Cafe du Monde, the white-aproned waiters and pairs of pasty tourists in cargo shorts wearing oversized cameras around their necks, and stand on the sidewalk in front of Washington Artillery Park to look at the behemoth Upper Pontalba Building across the street. “This is where I made my bones,” he says, remembering when he started working in the building. “It was a prestigious job at the time. [Because you have keys to every apartment], they have to really trust you.” The Pontalba apartments are nice, multi-room units, but they share some of the same challenges as most apartments in older buildings. For example, in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, Smith and two other employees spent days lugging 50 refrigerators — one for each apartment — down the building’s spiral staircase.
As we walk back toward the flea market space in the French Market, we run into the electrician at the market’s sites. Smith tells me that electricity is one of the most challenging issues at the properties, because of the highly trafficked area. For major electric jobs, staff can arrive as early as 2 a.m. This is just one many off-hours tasks Smith sees that the rest of us don’t; he knows that staff doesn’t just pressure-wash the floors in the flea market, but also the ceilings (look up; they’re disturbingly clean). The lightbulbs and fans are regularly checked and changed; on our visit, all the fan blades spin merrily in unison over the vendors. Even the benches in quaint Latrobe Park, which are favorites of tourists and Quarter ne’er-do-wells alike, are painted every two weeks, and the fountain is regularly drained and refilled. It dawns on me that the market is better-maintained than some nice restaurants I’ve worked in, where you’d patch a hole in the wall by pushing a sack of potatoes in front of it.
For the last stop on our rounds, Smith and I ride a golf cart down Chartres Street, whizzing past the Marigny-Bywater 5 bus and the iron rainbow that crosses into Crescent Park. The French Market Corporation manages the park, which is finally open in its entirety after a few years of renovations. As we trundle through on our cart, stopping to say hello (of course) to the park’s maintenance supervisor on a cart going the other direction. Smith points out landmarks: a crumbling, buckled place in the wharf where a barge ran aground a few months back — the maintenance staff member on duty felt the ground shake — and the shady, covered area that now plays host to regular markets and special events. Smith also says the park is the optimal place to take city skyline pics or to view New Year’s or Fourth of July fireworks; one year he climbed on top of the covered area, which is easily three stories high, to check them out.
We climb the steps to the pedestrian bridge over the overpass, Smith taking the stairs two at a time, and survey the Quarter. It’s a gorgeous, clear day with lamb's tail-puffy clouds, and a sliver of the bustling flea market is just visible in the middle distance.
“I feel like I’m doing a great deed, helping people who come through the market,” Smith told me, earlier. “I love my job, I really, really do.”
Gambit's new "On the Clock" series takes a look at the workday of a New Orleanian with an unconventional job. Have an interesting job, or know someone who does? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with tips.