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TAKING A SPIN // ON BOURBON STREET

WARNING TO PARENTS: If your children are in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, please turn to another portion of this newspaper.

The bars might be crowded with Gators and Seminoles, but here on Bourbon Street, Hurricanes rule.

"They have a kick," said Joey Vitale as he held up a quart-size cup of the rose-colored cocktail. "Ask for the five star, an eight-shot double. Two of these is all you need."

Saloonkeeper Pat O'Brien probably had no idea what he started in 1937 when he overbought a shipment of rum and fancy glasses, mixed in a little fruit juice and grenadine, and coined the name that now echoes through the street any time a big game is in town.

The Hurricane, O'Brien's signature drink, will hit you harder then a Category 5 storm rolling in off the Gulf of Mexico. Drink a few of these, and as on the morning after a tropical storm makes landfall, you'll consider yourself lucky if all you lost were your house keys.

"Give me two _ no, make that four, please," said a red-faced Florida State fan to a street-side vendor. "That way I won't have to come back."

The consumption of alcohol, be it rum, whiskey or cheap draft beer, is as much a sport in New Orleans as the game that brought everybody here.

"It is part of our cultural heritage," said Joe Fein, who sells drinks to go from a shop at the back of his restaurant on Bourbon Street. "Our ancestors are French, Irish and Italian, so we don't have that Protestant, Puritan attitude toward alcohol."

The police don't mind that you're drinking on the street, as long as you keep your beverage in a paper or plastic cup.

Stroll through the French Quarter after midnight and you'll be hard pressed to find anybody, unless he's in uniform, who isn't sipping something.

And you can always spot a rookie a block away. You'll see him stumbling, cup in hand, a big red stain on his college T-shirt crying out, "Keep your distance. It's just a matter of time before I become physically ill."

In most places, you try to give inebriates wide berth. But here on this seven-block stretch of Sodom and Gomorrah, you'll find no easy escape.

It's as if someone picked up the Superdome and shook it, like a child playing with an ant farm, and all of the drunks tumbled out onto Bourbon Street. Spend a few hours here and you'll swear the street must have been named for the Kentucky whiskey and not the Frenchman who founded it.

Nowhere else in the world will you find a tourist-trap T-shirt shop next to an establishment offering live sex shows: "Bottomless and topless men and women. Take your pick!"

People crowd the balconies above these bars and swing cheap plastic beads in the air, yelling to young women below to show them their wares.

The women climb atop their boyfriends' shoulders, then lift their shirts, not bashful but proud.

The Louisiana State Troopers guarding the corner don't seem to notice. They are there to keep the peace, not chaperon young women, they said.

The only sure way to get arrested is to get caught fighting or be discovered answering nature's call in some back alley. That's why beer drinkers find themselves outnumbered by fans of the hard stuff. Public restrooms are rarer than sobriety.

By 4 a.m., the crowd starts to thin; then diehards find their way to one of the 24-hour bars.

"All in all, this is a pretty well-behaved crowd," said Ray Jackson, who arrived at 6 a.m. Wednesday to man his post behind the bar at Johnny White's on the corner of Bourbon and Orleans. "They are mostly college kids, here to have a good time."

Jackson, who has worked the Bourbon Street bars for more than 50 years, said he has seen it all.

"This is nothing," he said. "This place goes, goes, goes. It never slows down."

One by one, customers, eyes half-closed and red from the night's revelry, filed in through the door. They ordered their drinks and waited for the first football game of New Year's Day.

"Sure I can't get you anything? A Bloody Mary or nice, fresh screwdriver?" Jackson asked a woman who sat with her boyfriend, who was nursing a beer.

The woman thought for a moment.

"Maybe," she said. "Just not a Hurricane."

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