New Orleans: the only Bourbon Street guide you’ll ever need

The Big Easy is back, baby, and Bourbon Street is open for business!

I’ve read about all kinds of incentives to get vaccinated, but New Orleans beats them all. Vaxed visitors can toss away their masks like yesterday’s Mardi Gras beads and skip the social distancing, all whilst enjoying the return of the 24/7 bar, music and adult entertainment scene. Indoor gatherings are restricted to a cozy 250 souls, and outdoor events are limited to 500. One assumes that each of the dozen blocks of Bourbon Street is considered a separate outdoor event. How the hell does the city plan to enforce the rules? Not my problem!

A quick history of the booziest street on the planet that ISN’T named after booze

New Orleans locals love to hate Bourbon Street. Or at least the first first 12 blocks of it, which provide a relatively safe zone for tourists of all or no persuasions to act the fool and empty their pockets, all night long. But BRR-bun (if tempted to correct my pronunciation of a street I lived on for 5 years, I suggest you read New Orleans: fast facts, travel tips and a pronunciation guide) is fun for newbies!

Louis, not Pappy

Named after Bourbons (as in French Kings, not Jim Beam or Pappy van Winkle, go ahead and pronounce that in the French way) in 1718, the street remained residential (and still is, at the lower end) until around the 1880s, when spillover from the city’s legal red-light district changed the fate of the French Quarter forever. Even though the US government officially shut down Storyville’s scarlet centres of commerce just before WWI, crepuscular  jazz musicians and entertainers of the adult variety merely migrated a few blocks over.

Armstrong, not van Winkle

As jazz grew, so did the performers who regularly gigged on Bourbon. One New Orleans  version of ‘Hello, how are you?’ is ‘Where y’at?’ This comes directly from musicians asking about where people had gigs. Translation: where y’at, old school, meant ‘where are you working at the moment?’ Today, it means ‘How are you?’

Tip: Respond to ‘Where y’at?’ in the same way one might respond to ‘How are you?’ (‘Fine, thanks, and you?’)

In the 1970s, when everything was beige, including the New Orleans economy, a mayor hit upon the brilliant idea of making Bourbon Street a place where tourists could feel as if they were doing something shocking and scandalous, but within a tightly-restricted area easy to monitor (and monetise)

The 80s and 90s saw Bourbon transform again, from a place where legit jazz musicians played, to a place where cocktailed conventioneers could sing ABBA karaoke to their colleagues all night long. Low-rent strip joints and happy-ending massage parlours got bought out and replaced with ‘gentleman’s clubs.’

Appealing to the risk-averse didn’t stop with just sanitised music and stripper poles. The money was so good that most of the little guys got squeezed out, because landlords could charge crazy rent. Movie tie-ins. Celebrity connections. More ways to squeeze a buck out of visitors, plus get that guy to buy branded souvenirs for the kids.

Bourbon Street: the 10-block cruise ship?

Bourbon Street isn’t completely fake. Bartenders, emcees, musicians, servers and pole-dancers are hard-working professionals, with mad skills, and it’s their job to make you happy enough to pay 18 bucks for a g&t.

Like the illusion? Enjoy it! You’ll mostly be safe in one place. But that’s not how Bourbon works. The whole idea is to get out and mix with everyone else! (up to 500 people, which we’ll assume is per block, see above)

There are some hustles on Bourbon that are fun and funny. Some? Not so much.

Read on for how hustlers can target you on Bourbon Street.

1. How y’all doin’! Where y’all from?

This is a friendly overture just about anywhere in New Orleans, without any expectation of monetisation.

But on Bourbon Street, everything has a price.

Targeting non-native speakers, those who have overindulged, or both, the crafty scammer sidles up to those understandably dazzled by the wonders of the city’s restaurant and music culture. The friendly stranger will ask, then begin rapping about your native country/home town. Charmed, tourist phones come out and begin recording. At the end, the rapper asks for a tip. (Fair enough!)

Tip: Don’t record street performers unless you plan to pay them. Keep an eye on your valuables whilst recording. Some of these guys have partners who pickpocket enraptured fellow-tourists during the performance, or target them for later.

2. Knock down this wall

The hustle: ‘Bet I can knock down this wall with one hand.’

The bet: If the conniving demolitionist can’t perform, the user must pony up a certain amount.

The scammer then literally knocks from a high to low point on the wall. Ok, you deserved it.

Tip: keep walking. The finagler may keep after you; keep going. Eventually, he’ll give up.

3. The Shoe Shakedown

This one goes back to the 19th Century. Another word-play scam, the hustler offers to give the city, state and time regarding the target’s shoes.

The hustle: ‘I can tell you when and where you got your shoes. City, state and street.’

The reveal: ‘You got your shoes right now on your feet, in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Bourbon Street!

This scam targets the overconfident and is mostly harmless, plus or minus a 20-dollar shoeshine/ the purchase of a baggie of what’s probably oregano.

Tip: be aware of hubris. Do you really think you can outsmart a street hustler?

4. Spell your last name

A sneaky one, as most native speakers outside the US use ‘surname’ instead of ‘last name.’

Now that you’re in the know, and if the stakes are low (negotiate ahead of time) a fun prank to play on a newbie in the group who can take a joke.

Y. O. U. R.  L. A. S. T.  N. A. M. E.

Tip: brush up on Dad jokes before hitting Bourbon Street.

5. Loose women and ‘live’ sex acts

Punctuation plays a role here.

There’s nothing live about ‘live’ sex acts, (illegal in N.O.) in the same way that there’s probably no cheese in something advertised as ‘cheese’ pizza. Expect a disappointing vegan variant for both.

What can be scary about these joints that they’re breeding grounds for viruses digital rather than biological, tab-padding, and good old-fashioned pick-pocketing when one is distracted by what’s happening onstage.

If you must go, use only cash and do NOT use the house WiFi.

Tip: keep expectations realistic, pay cash, and shut down your mobile.

6. Pick-pockets

A (reformed) pickpocket I know told me about a time when he lifted goods on a streetcar packed with tourists. The cops were looking for him and stopped the streetcar. On his way out, he clandestinely returned each item to the right passenger. Genius.

Bourbon Street pickpockets are pros. They can just about remove your contact lenses without you noticing. Do you need your passport, driver’s license, pix of the kids, your supermarket rewards card? No! Slim down to cash, ID, and your phone, and make sure you can keep all these in a safe place if/when you’re looking up and shouting something like ‘Show your…’

Tip: carry just the essentials, and keep them secured. Flashy jewellery is fine for an elegant dinner, but it could make you a target. The only people on Bourbon who care about your bling are the people who want to take it off you.

7. Tickets to Mardi Gras

Hustlers regularly convince visitors to buy tickets to Carnival events.

Good to know: In New Orleans, Carnival begins on 6 Jan and ends the day before Ash Wednesday: Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, usually in February or March.

Tip: Mardi Gras parades are always free 

It’s not all Bourbon Street

Visiting New Orleans? It’s not just 24-hour bars and non-stop beads. The food is terrific and the music is incredible. New Orleans is older than the USA by almost 50 years. People still bury the dead above-ground. It’s disappearing: sinking due to subsidence and very low on the FEMA list post-Katrina. See New Orleans before it’s gone.


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battleface magazine editor Sasha is a writer and amateur palaeontologist from New Orleans. When not writing or digging dinosaurs, she teaches English.