The bride-to-be stands on a Bourbon Street balcony with a little veil pinned onto her head and a bright-red drink in her hand. She looks down and puts her fingers at the bottom of her tank top. Below, on the street, a growing crowd of guys yell and toss beads up to the balcony. She catches a cheap, puny string of beads -- one that locals wouldn't even pick up from the ground -- then cheers and raises her top. Down on the street, some teenagers look disappointed; her breasts aren't that great, they say, walking on. A balding man who drank hurricanes with the wedding party earlier says he has no problem with that. It's a second marriage, he says.
A few of the men stagger into a nearby bead shop for more ammunition. They holler at her and throw their new purchases up into the air. She takes a drink, then raises her top again and again -- hundreds of times. A 41-year-old financial advisor from California takes a long gulp from a plastic fluorescent green cup. For a few minutes, his eyes are closed, like he's sleeping on his feet. Then he comes alive. "Mardi Gras!" he screams, pumping his fist in the air.
"You would think that gentlemen coming down here would be looking for jazz and a place to eat," says New Orleans native John Banks, a doorman at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club. The packed club behind Banks suggests that music and cuisine may not be the No. 1 attraction.
Ask French Quarter resident Will Norris, who several years ago helped launch a Web site called naughtyneworleans.com. At first, they got 1,000 hits a month. Then Mardi Gras time rolled around, and they mounted shots of women flashing breasts on Bourbon Street. Suddenly, they found themselves with 100,000 hits, which overwhelmed their server. "We had to shut down the site," he says.
Locals like Norris don't find it surprising that many tourists gravitate to Bourbon Street -- America's party street -- to carry drinks on the street, act wild and do things they'd never do in front of their families. In fact, it's an historic tradition. By the early 1800s, workers up and down the river were already referring to New Orleans as the City of Sin, according to Herbert Asbury's book The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld. "Every flatboat man," wrote Asbury, "[wanted] to visit New Orleans for a spree of whole-hearted wallowing in the fleshpots, for which exercise the town offered infinitely more facilities than any other city west of the Allegheny Mountains."
Even today, Bourbon Street is democratic in its appeal. Last week, a valet and a dishwasher taking a break from a nearby restaurant watched as two Texas oilmen, one with a diamond pinky ring, strolled a few feet ahead of a gray-haired mother with her two daughters, who in turn flirted with two young medical students eating Lucky Dogs. An older jazz musician at a club down the street recalls a period of time during the 1950s when even the governor of Louisiana, Earl K. Long, couldn't stay away from Bourbon Street and his mistress, stripper Blaze Starr.
It's no wonder that people arrive here thinking that, in New Orleans, anything goes. So the businessman urinates on his hotel's front door, the grandma raises her skirt for a string of beads, the drunk thinks it's OK to climb onto a tethered New Orleans Police Department horse and ride off. Most likely, each one said the same thing as New Orleans' finest snapped on their handcuffs: "But it's New Orleans!" That's the line of the day, says longtime Eighth District Officer Dennis Gibliant, who suspects it's printed on incoming plane tickets.
For centuries, naive, half-drunk, cash-rich visitors have also been easy marks for criminal-minded locals. And so, as the million and a half tourists descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras 2005, they will be met in the French Quarter by an increased number of scam artists and hustlemen.
Crime on Bourbon Street itself has decreased sharply thanks to an enormous presence by the NOPD, which has officers stationed on every corner and more watching from horseback. But still, the longtime cat-and-mouse game continues -- often after tourists drift off in search of something extra, that "authentic" New Orleans experience.
This phenomenon is well-known among those who work the Bourbon Street strip -- the barkers, the bartenders, the Lucky Dog vendors. For six years, tourists in the 200 block of Bourbon have been warned by Lawrence Smith, who cuts a distinctive figure in front of the Blues Club with his trademark fedora and thigh-length plaid suit coat. "We tell people, 'Don't wander off with somebody you don't know,'" says Smith. "And we tell girls that if a guy says, 'We got a party somewhere,' don't go."
Often, he's wasting his breath, he says. "Because they're gonna do it anyway. When they get that liquor in them, they're not thinking."
LOYOLA UNIVERSITY SOCIOLOGIST Dee Wood Harper knew this city's reputation long before he moved here in 1973. Harper recalls sitting with his high school buddies in Tennessee, dreaming about a Mardi Gras road trip. "We wanted to go down to New Orleans because that was where they took the 'not' out of the Ten Commandments," he says.
One of Harper's specialties is urban crime, especially crime on tourists. He's studied tourist victims in the French Quarter and his students have interviewed perpetrators who prey on tourists. The most common crime against tourists in any city is theft, he says. That holds true for New Orleans, too.
Sometimes it's sheer stupidity -- people leaving their cameras and pocketbooks on the tables while they get up to dance or go to the bathroom. Or so says shoeshine man Elba B, who's been working with his brushes and cans of polish for 14 years at the corner of Bienville and Bourbon.
He runs down the list of scams he sees. There are the shoeshine con artists, who squirt water or shoe cream on people's shoes, then polish it off and browbeat tourists for a big tip. Then there are the pickpockets, who operate in teams, with one carrying a grocery bag or a newspaper. One grabs pocketbooks and wallets, the other hides them.
Harper has concentrated his studies on armed robberies, which compared to thefts are relatively rare, roughly one a day on average for the two years scrutinized in his most recent study. Most happen between midnight and 6 a.m., when tipsy tourists are walking back to their hotels and get lost. "Tourists often remark how easy it is to get turned around in the Vieux Carre," he says.
In his studies, Harper has also found the same phenomenon long noticed by Bourbon Street workers: A good share of tourists get robbed because they go outside the Quarter looking for something illicit -- usually prostitutes or drugs. Unwittingly, says Harper, the tourists have "collaborated" in their own robbery. "I'm not blaming the victim," Harper emphasizes. "But I do know that in many instances, tourists put themselves at risk and then there's someone there to take advantage of them."
In the French Quarter's Eighth District, when a visitor makes a police report, detectives have to give it special scrutiny. "Because there are a lot of crimes that don't actually occur," says Officer Gibliant. Maybe, for instance, someone handed over $500 or some jewelry to someone for drugs or sex but then wants to file an insurance claim saying they were robbed. Or maybe they want to report a robbery so that they have something to show their wife or boss when they get home.
In his research, Harper discovered that nearly three-quarters of the tourist robberies happened outside the Quarter -- on North Rampart Street and areas beyond. As a result, a squad car from the NOPD's First District routinely goes up and down Rampart on what officers call "border patrol" -- keeping tourists in the French Quarter, says Harper.
He explains that in tourist cities like New Orleans, there's plenty of "staged authenticity" -- mule-drawn carriages, Voodoo shops and haunted tours. When a local person offers them drugs or a prostitute, visitors accept it as part of the quest for the "backstage" New Orleans.
Some tourists are pretty focused on that backstage experience, says J.C. White, a doorman at the Royal Sonesta, the only major hotel that faces Bourbon Street. He spends most of a typical eight-hour shift standing on the sidewalk in front of the door, top hat on his head, whistle around his neck. "Working here, I see it all," he says.
He also hears it all. Like requests for prostitutes, which are frequent. He usually points them toward gentleman's clubs, since he guesses that there must be some women hanging around there. "Myself, I don't really know how to pick up prostitutes, but they've been around since the beginning of time, so I know they're out there," says White.
He's even less help when people ask him about drugs, since he hasn't had a drink or anything else for years now.
He also gets one other big question, he says. Men want to know, if they show a woman some beads, will she flash them?
ONE OF THE DOWNSIDES of patrolling Bourbon Street is the odor. "I call it the land of a thousand smells," says NOPD Officer Dennis Gibliant. Once he had suggested that all the businesses use the same disinfectant. "That way we'd at least have one constant smell, whether it was oranges or Mr. Clean."
That distinctive odor mostly comes from alcohol that goes down the drains and ferments in the New Orleans heat. Around Mardi Gras, more beer flows and more ferments. "The bigger the crowd, the louder the stench," he says. "But after you've been there for awhile, you don't notice it -- it's just part of the ambience."
Every night at 8, Bourbon Street closes to automotive traffic. It reopens at 4 a.m. (Those times may expand when the streets become crowded for Carnival.) As the foot traffic grows, so does the size of the police force. During the big weekend before Mardi Gras, there will be 300 to 350 officers patrolling the Quarter, 20 to 25 of them on horseback and a sizeable number undercover. That total doesn't include imported help -- about 100 state police and two dozen officers from the state Department of Corrections, most of them from the Hunt and Angola prisons.
This is the busiest time of the year, without a doubt, but conventioneers and tourists keep Bourbon Street hopping all year 'round. "Every weekend is like a mini-Mardi Gras for us," says Lt. Paul Noel, who also works out of the Eighth District station on upper Royal Street, within earshot of Bourbon Street's nightly roar.
During Carnival time, Noel emphasizes les bon temps rouler only goes so far. "We make a lot of arrests on Mardi Gras," he says. Most of them are for public drunkenness, fighting and lewd conduct. Arrests are so common that perpetrators are handcuffed with plastic cuffs and led into a roped-off area on certain corners, where they await an NOPD van that will transport them to Orleans Parish Prison.
Officially the NOPD has zero tolerance for raised shirts, skirts and open pants, Noel emphasizes. "The expectations about flashing have gotten out of hand," he says, as visitors have been encouraged by videos like Girls Gone Wild and by publicity like the March 2000 Playboy magazine, which featured eight pages of Mardi Gras skin shots. From an NOPD standpoint, most such conduct is lumped under municipal ordinance 54-260, which basically makes it illegal for anyone to arouse a crowd through anything deemed "live obscene conduct."
But no one has any illusions that they can arrest every flasher on Bourbon Street. "Discretion -- it's basically discretion," says Gibliant, who's taken calls from the Seattle and Philadelphia police forces after riots in those cities. He advised them that if there is a problem -- a fight or a scuffle -- NOPD officers move in and immediately get that problem away from the crowd. During Mardi Gras, if someone is flashing or waving beads from a balcony and a big crowd gathers, officers will move in and shut down the balcony, usually for 15 minutes or so.
But basically, they focus on being laidback. "Our success lies in letting the crowd meander, have a good time," says Gibliant.
SEVERAL CLUBS ON BOURBON STREET cater to a gay clientele, but they get all kinds walking through the door. "I had a guy come in here and ask, 'Where is the red-light district?'" The bartender said, "Well, this is the pink-light district," a comment that went over the man's head.
So the man asked his question more directly. "Where can I get lucky?" There isn't an easy answer to that question anymore, says the barkeep, who didn't want his name used. "Years ago, Decatur Street used to be the red-light district. There were hookers and hustlers in groups," he says.
Now a lot of those corners have been cleaned up. Not that people still can't find trouble if they want it, he emphasizes. But the cleaned-up Quarter seems like Disneyland to too many visitors. So tourists don't realize that they shouldn't walk alone at night or leave their possessions unwatched on the bar. Usually, he gently warns them. "I find that if you try to give them too much information, it seems to scare them."
He's less gentle about another effect of the Disneyland mentality: parents bringing their kids onto the strip on Mardi Gras Day. Parents who stumble into nudity or naughty behavior with children in tow can cause a domino effect. They complain to the media, forcing the NOPD to crack down on things like flashing, which used to be a lot more "carefree," he says. So, for his part, he has a piece of advice for parents -- leave the little ones at home when heading to world-famous Bourbon Street. "This is not a family place," he says. "It may be Disneyland -- but it's an adult Disneyland. Everyone knows that."