In late September 2005 I found myself, like many New Orleanians in a Houston bar. I had managed to get out of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina and was waiting on a small collective of other tour guides to commiserate over a few drinks before we all parted ways, some back to the city, others to parts unknown to stay with family or friends. I got bored waiting on my friends and decided to step outside for some air; carrying my plastic cup of beer I headed for the door only to be stopped by the doorman who looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.
“You can’t take that outside,” he said gesturing towards my beer.
For many people making their first trip to New Orleans the go-cup is a pleasantly jarring experience, an exotic foreign custom that permits them to promenade with their favorite adult beverage through the colonial vistas of the French Quarter, enjoying the sounds of street musicians, and artists selling their work in Jackson Square. But to the locals it’s a way of life. No need to hastily finish that beer, or freeze your brain on that last half of a frozen daiquiri just so you can be there on time to catch the first song of the band’s set, just throw it in a go-cup. We think the rest of the country is weird, and you know what… we are right.
Were we to take as trip back in time to the early 20th century the average American would find the idea of banning drinking a beer in public absurd. There were of course laws against public drunkenness, but in the 1960s they started being declared unconstitutional on the basis of inconsistent enforcement. Local municipalities responded by passing “open container laws” and the general prohibition on public drinking began.
Around this same time New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison turned his attention to the illicit side businesses of Bourbon Street nightclubs and burlesque halls. Vice raids dismantled the criminal infrastructure of Bourbon Street and the gilded nightclubs of days gone by degenerated to dive bars and seedy strip clubs. The attempt to “clean up” Bourbon Street backfired. Street barkers enticed pedestrians into bars that had lost their shine, and the clientele changed from middle class couples out for a night on the town to a younger, rowdier, crowd with less cash to burn, but the same desire for a good time. In 1967 one enterprising barman whose name has unfortunately been lost to history came up with the ten million dollar idea when, despairing of enticing the customers inside, he threw open the window at the end of the bar and started hawking his drinks right onto the street. This was the game changer.
The line between the party indoors and the party in the street blurred, and the gradual transformation into the Bourbon Street of today began. Later ordinances would codify the practice, allowing the public consumption of alcohol in the French Quarter alone, and only from plastic containers for safety reasons. In 2001 the city expanded the go-cup to the entire city, although in practice that had been happening for a long time, and over the last 40 years the ability to enjoy your drink outside and on the move has become inextricably linked to the culture of New Orleans. Just remember that open containers are not allowed in a vehicle, even for the people who are not driving, and it’s generally considered polite to finish your drink before entering a new establishment, but this is the Big Easy- Take it easy, and take it to go.