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Best Vindication of Petula Clark: Go Downtown 

I have dined on jambalaya atop a trashcan on Gov. Nicholls Street and been ambushed by John C. Reilly walking hard down Ursulines Avenue. Once, on Royal Street, I witnessed a gutter-punk couple loudly debate the meaning of marriage. (It had something to do with listening.) Weeks later, on Chartres Street, I happened upon the unhappily wedded pair again. They were still having the conversation.

The French Quarter has become my new playpen — or, more literally, my new front yard. Following an itinerant six-month stretch that somehow included four moves, my studio windows now open onto the gnarled live-oak limbs of the Esplanade Avenue neutral ground. From this perch I am afforded a front-row seat to all sorts of priceless street theater: lost tourists walking away from their intended destinations, drunken loons making late-night passes from the Sixth Ward to the Seventh and Port of Call patrons following plumes of charcoal smoke to sate their burger-and-baked-potato joneses.

Best about this new location is the perfectly decrepit borough that lies an actual stone's throw from my door, just across Esplanade's vertical, 17-block dog park. Aimless walks in the Vieux Carré have become my nonvirtual TiVo — a realm where time stands still and entertainment abounds. If the programming ever lapses, ghost tours are always a safe bet. Sidle up to the rear of one and you can partake in some histrionic history for free. Stop by the Verti Marte beforehand and the party becomes a catered one. Go ahead and brown-bag your adult beverage of choice; there's never a corkage fee.

After strolling every street and ambling all the avenues, I began to consider which route — and, more specifically, which road — was the fairest of them all. Royal was an early flame: she's arguably the finest, always active and, not least, home to my caterer of choice. But I've since grown bored with all the culture vultures and window-shopping cronies. (Royal's gallery groupies and professional antiquers make Magazine Street look like skid row.) My new paramour is Chartres: quiet, unassuming, but with a wealth of depth just waiting to be discovered.

Ah, Chartres: je t'aime, mon amie. Perhaps the greatest feature of the lower Quarter is all the nooks and crannies, the slivers between buildings that guard hidden springs or secret gardens, and the stretch of Chartres between Jackson Square and Esplanade Avenue has more of these finds, per capita, than any other thoroughfare. I will go blocks out of my way to make this path. Some treasures are right out in the open, like the veritable curbside Eden at the corner of Gov. Nicholls: trellised, hot-pink Mandevillas that climb out of an assortment of flowering potted plants to curl in living paisley patterns around a second-floor window. More commonly, they require some work to spot: the grounds of the walled Old Ursuline Convent, visible only via precarious perch and when a vehicle pulls out to exit, or the marshaled, Japanese-style private garden across the street, whose view is framed by tiny, brick apertures.

Move closer to St. Louis Cathedral and Chartres begins to rustle, if only a bit. Crossing Ursulines, the changing aromas signal the start of a mini restaurant row, with two of the city's finest dining destinations, Stella! and Irene's, emitting the sweet perfumes of red meat grilling and garlic roasting. The corner of Dumaine offers a different kind of comfort — that would be Harry's Corner, neighborhood bar par exemplar, at which the prime sidewalk table encircles a fire hydrant. (It's available so long as nothing nearby is ablaze.) On the final block before you meet General Jackson and steed, be sure to say hello to the residents sipping cocktails on lushly landscaped balconies, peering down at you from the box seats where they gather like clockwork every evening to watch the sun set over the Hotel Monteleone's marquee.

When you hit the mob of camera-dangling tourists, palms all spread and faux fortunes being read, you know you've gone too far. But then, that's the best part of an aimless walk in the Vieux Carré: do an about-face and Chartres' free street theater becomes a double feature. Wave goodbye to the balcony birds, order a second round at the fire hydrant, sniff once more at the five-star fare, sneak another peek at the secret gardens, spook a different tour with your phony ghost noises and suggest counseling for the nuptially challenged gutter punks. Chances are, they're still working it out.


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