NEW ORLEANS — It is Saturday night on Bourbon Street, and the witching hour is near. A calliope of sound -- swing, zydeco, bad cover bands -- bounces off the brick facades. Couples are making out. Revelers are massing in the street, almost all holding an adult beverage, and often two.
Civic activist Leo Watermeier stands alone, one eyebrow arched in anticipation, an island of sobriety in a sea of inebriation. He watches a young man approach a bar the size of a closet -- a to-go-only operation, with no interior, big enough only for a lone bartender hawking booze to pedestrians.
The man toddles down the block carrying a green concoction. Drinking in public is legal here. It's what happens next that isn't. Eventually, nature will call, and the man will have trouble finding a restroom. He will go, Watermeier fears, where many seem to be going these days: outside, in the street or in an alley.
Lately, a surge in public urination, and an accompanying morning-after stench, has created headaches for cities and communities that market themselves as adult playgrounds.
The problem appears most acute in New Orleans and Las Vegas, two cities that sell themselves, more than any others, as anything-goes destinations.
In Las Vegas, workers descend on downtown alleys once a week to spray odor-eating bacteria. In New Orleans, a similar steam-cleaning mechanism is used to combat the stench. And last month, the City Council approved a law dubbed the "potty ordinance," designed to stop public urination by increasing the number of restrooms available to drinkers.
The Big Easy ordinance was passed after Watermeier, a New Orleans native and a real estate agent, began taking regular counts of bathrooms along the Bourbon Street corridor. His work showed that the French Quarter has a plethora of bars and a dearth of restrooms.
Watermeier said there were nearly 60 Bourbon Street-area businesses on busy weekends that either did not have restrooms or denied the public use of their facilities.
The number fluctuates here more than in most cities, because when larger crowds arrive, additional bars open and more restaurants open side windows to peddle beers and alcoholic drinks to pedestrians.
Each year, about 15 million people visit the French Quarter, the six- by 13-block neighborhood that includes Bourbon Street. The few public restrooms in the Quarter are mostly on its southern edge, near Jackson Square.
"A friend of mine told me that she sees people just walking down the street peeing," Watermeier said. "I told her, 'Get out of here.' And then last night I saw it myself. A guy just unzipped his pants and went while he was walking down the street."
As many as a dozen metropolitan areas have banned public urination in recent months or years. It was something that seemed so obvious that they hadn't bothered before.
In Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood, officials cracked down in 2002 on Cub fans after a homeowner videotaped men and women who routinely used his backyard as a urinal. The city backed the ban with a $500 fine for those convicted of illegal urination.
In Newport, R.I., city officials became so fed up that they threatened to publish in newspapers the names of those convicted of urinating in public.
In downtown Minneapolis, a neighborhood association introduced an awareness campaign in January aimed at fun lovers who emerge from bars with a full bladder. Campaign slogans included "Go Before You Go."
Problems associated with public urination are typically ascribed to the homeless. The recent increase is different. Many offenders, civic leaders said, appear to be well-off people who have no particular reason to go in the street, except that they have simply lost sight of the boundaries of fun.
"We even have a problem around St. Louis Cathedral, which is a national landmark," said Jane Jurik, a legislative aide to New Orleans City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson. The cathedral is in the heart of the French Quarter.
"Things are just getting more and more out of hand," Jurik said. "Why? Why are people more apt to do it now? I don't know. I think that's a question for the sociologists. People just seem to take more and more license."
Some observers blame the problem on a lack of public facilities. Others contend that many tourists today get so engaged that they forget to stop for restroom breaks.
Sociologists say the root of the problem is not terribly complicated.
"Why do people do this? Because they drink," said David Allen, chairman of the sociology department at the University of New Orleans.
Clarkson, whose district includes the French Quarter, teamed with another member of the City Council last month to push through the potty ordinance, which requires any business that sells alcoholic beverages -- including grocery stores and tiny bars -- to provide restrooms for customers.