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Lost on Bourbon Street

Crowds along Bourbon Street hail fellow revelers in balconies above. Alison MacAdam, NPR hide caption

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Alison MacAdam, NPR

Crowds along Bourbon Street hail fellow revelers in balconies above.

Alison MacAdam, NPR

By rough mathematics, the French Quarter consists of about 100 square blocks. Six long streets intersect it. Bourbon Street is one of them.

You've heard of Bourbon Street, right? Me, too. It's the over-exposed, over-described sliver of Mardi Gras that the rest of the country hears about. Well, on Sunday afternoon, I was strolling peacefully down Royal Street, parallel to Bourbon. At each intersection, I could peek north to Bourbon and see throngs of people. I was struck by the need to ask them what may seem an obvious question. So I made my way from the calm chatter of Royal to the beery roar of Bourbon.

"Why are you here on Bourbon Street?" I asked two college-aged women meandering among the crowds. They were draped in Mardi Gras beads. "Why not on any of the other streets here in the French Quarter?"

"We've heard of Bourbon Street," one answered simply. The other said, "Bourbon Street is where you're supposed to go during Mardi Gras. That's all I know."

OK, there's answer #1: Abstract reputation. A street is known worldwide, even if people might not know anything about the street beyond its name.

I ask some middle-aged New Orleanian men. They answer, "This is where the action's at!"

Of course, I would sound like an idiot standing in the middle of Bourbon asking them, "To which action are you referring?" Crowds yell upwards, arms raised, calling out to people who stand smugly on balconies above them. Bars line the street. Everyone has an open drink in hand.

"We're locals!" they exclaim proudly. "We always come to Bourbon Street."

So, answer #2: All the action in New Orleans is on one street.

Silly me, I keep asking. A couple from Kentucky walks stiffly down the street, looking bemused. Their answer: "We're trying to find something to eat."

I ask them if Bourbon Street is turning out to be the right place for them. "Not for something to eat," one of them says dejectedly.

I will extrapolate, then, answer #3: If a street has an abstract reputation, tourists will look for all their needs to be filled on that particular street.

Finally, I come across the real expert. He's a big, chiseled guy with a big neck and a big beer. He leans down towards me and begins academically, "Every town needs a town square. Like a focal point. Like a union at a college. See, all the bars are here, the hotels want to open onto Bourbon. The city made it that way." He goes on about entrepreneurs and urban focal points.

I nod and thank him. As I walk away, he yells to me a less academic statement; one that —- most likely — I couldn't put on the radio. "The real reason is this is where the t—-ies are!"

So much for entrepreneurs and city planning. As long as women expose themselves on Bourbon Street, you'll always find a certain sort of crowd there.