I pitched this story when the NFL took over New Orleans. The article would cry out against the traffic, the Comish, and the changes in our sacred parade schedule. It would mourn the loss of a week for Mardi Gras krewes to build their floats. It would weave a sorrowful narrative over the money spent on hosting the Super Bowl while our crime rate soars.
But then I shook Drew Brees’s hand. In the life of a New Orleanian, this is what is known as heaven on earth, a moment where it seemed quite possible that I would spontaneously combust and burst in sparkling black-and-gold confetti, my last words being, “WHO DAT.”
If it wasn’t for New Orleans hosting the Super Bowl, I would have never shook Brees’s hand. That handshake was worth the NFL taking over our city.
Being a Saints fan highlights what it means to be from this sinking city, a city surrounded by swamp that never should have been, never should have lived, and whose spirit will never cease to be. A city founded by pirates and prostitutes, solidified and built by slaves, where the corruption never ends but neither does the music. A city that, when it was at its angriest with the NFL, threw a Super Bowl so good that the media begged for the Super Bowl to always be in New Orleans.
Maybe I sold out. Who knows. All I know is that I’m seriously considering never washing my right hand again.
* * *
I moved to New Orleans in 2007, back when you had to double-check every restaurant listing to see if the restaurant still existed. I remember looking out an airplane window on my first descent into New Orleans. The neighborhoods below were dotted with blue squares, where tarps had replaced roofs. On the ground, many houses were still decorated with spray-paint X’s. Rescue teams painted the X’s on the front of every flooded home, marking the date, the team’s name, any dangers in the house, and the number of dead.
Somehow, this weird little city, where cardinal directions don’t exist and the dead are buried above the ground wormed its way into my wayward heart. I’d never known a permanent home before - as the daughter of sailors, there was always that inkling that somehow, someday, my life would be uprooted and I would move on to the next place, the next adventure, leaving my old behind to disappear into a horizon. I signed up for college looking for a place to live for four years. After that, it would be on to the next place, and I didn’t know where that would be. A city recovering from a disaster appealed to my humanitarian side. I felt wanted, and so I came. The first two years were rough. New Orleans is a dirty place, a place unlike any other American city, with twisted accents and strangely shaped roads. I stayed in my University bubble until the Saints started winning.
I remember the exact night I fell in love. It was January 24, 2010, the night of the NFC championship game. The Vikings and the Saints played in the Superdome, where the noise level became so loud that many Vikings players stuffed purple earplugs in their ears. I watched the championship in my dorm with a friend. It was a rollercoaster game that went into overtime. We won by a field goal kick. This was about a year after Obama won the election, when, in our largely African-American city, people had taken to the streets and celebrated in the bars. But when Garrett Hartley kicked that ball and it football sailed through posts like it was propelled by the football angels, there was a noise like no other I’d heard. It was a hundred thousand people cheering.
Without a word, my roommate and I dashed outside. We piled into the car and headed down Saint Charles Avenue. Everyone else in the city was doing the same thing. Just imagine, stepping outside, and every citizen of a city heading in the same direction, without any planning, just to be together. Strangers hugged. We all shouted, “Who Dat!”
An old man grabbed my cheeks and kissed me, tears of joy streaming down his face. “We goin’ to the Super Bowl! We goin’ to the Super Bowl!”
More men cried that night than at a Cajun funeral. These were people who loved football, but never won; who loved their city and never left, even when it became synonymous with disaster. They’d cheered for a losing team for 43 years. When I saw the way the people here came together, who rooted for a team that lost because it was their team, who waited for their time to come - that kind of faith and love impressed me. I wanted a home like that. These were people who had waited on roofs to be rescued, who had languished in cities where the second-line never comes, waiting for the day to come home to New Orleans.
That night of the playoff game was even more important to me than the night we won the Super Bowl. It was the night we made it there.
* * *
Fast forward three years to the week before Super Bowl XLVII. I’ve graduated college and now have a steady 9-5 in the hospitality industry as well as a few freelance gigs at music magazines. People ask me why I stayed after graduation and I reel off my reasons: the food, the music, the people, the architecture. However, on this particular day, in this particular year, it’s not easy being from New Orleans.
It’s the Monday before the Super Bowl and the salesgirls at my hotel are angry.
Very, very angry, in fact. They congregate in the back hallway of the hotel, holding their cars keys and cursing. They cry the same thing: “The West Bank!”
Across the Central Business District, with the sun shining on the Superdome and a cool breeze flowing from the Mississippi River, the same furious howls ring out. “The West Bank! THE West Bank!” Fists shake. Car horns honk.
It has begun.
The crux of the problem, on this particular hour (for the problem will continue to unravel and fester and take over the lives of New Orleanians for another week), is that the Tchoupitoulas highway exit is closed. This is the main exit to get to the Central Business District, the heart of New Orleans businesses’ and ground zero for the Super Bowl, as well as Mardi Gras. That’s the first part of the issue. The second part of the issue is that this is the last exit before the Crescent City Connection, the bridge that crosses the Mississippi and links New Orleans to the West Bank. The West Bank has a culture that is completely distinct from the city across the river and most New Orleanians avoid going there. They speak of the West Bank in the same tone that one speaks of the dentist. The third part of the issue is that, this being New Orleans, there was no signage or warnings that this exit was closed, so there was no way to know that you were trapped in an unplanned, unwanted, and unnecessary voyage across the river into what some New Orleanians consider the ninth ring of Hell: the West Bank. On this particular morning, New Orleanians commuting to the business district had to cross the river, pay a toll and cross the river again, all in the nightmare of rush hour traffic.
This little frustration is the first of many, many more that the people of this city will endure. We’re hosting the Super Bowl, which is possibly the most inconvenient thing a city can do for itself. And the Saints? Well, it was not our happiest season.
Our hotel lobby will be turned into a merchandising center for the NFL. The venue across the street will be taken over by a major television network, where aging rockstars will play hits that were once popular and now people pretend that they’re legendary. The venue next door will host star-studded parties. Before Sunday night’s party, our GM tells us, the 49ers will charge through our lobby on their way to the venue.
Hosting the Super Bowl feels strangely akin to being under siege by the NFL.
When it comes to hosting the Super Bowl, New Orleanians have sacrificed dearly to host the NFL’s biggest event. We accepted the strong possibility of a soft Mardi Gras, where the Super Bowl actually takes business away from Carnival weekends. We even moved the first week of Carnival to accommodate the event. Cab drivers spent thousands of dollars upgrading their taxis - if they were lucky enough to get into the over-scheduled shops by the Super Bowl. Drivers tolerated traffic bottlenecks caused by painfully slow construction in the heart of the city, while residential streets are riddled with holes. I’ve seen holes here that are so big, a shopping cart falls into it and disappears.
“Many of New Orleans’s streets and sidewalks are so broken that we must resort to accepting our crumbling infrastructure as ‘charming,’” writes New Orleans journalist Michael Patrick Welch in his recent Vice essay. “Yeah, it’s très cute how since Katrina, my Ninth Ward street fills up with ankle-deep water during even small storms. It’s adorably quaint the way money from the federal Road Home program meant for public renovations obviously hasn’t made it to many African-American neighborhoods seven years after the flood.”
Perhaps the most ridiculous accommodation for the Super Bowl was the Clean Zone, a temporary set of laws that enforces strict regulations on signage and commerce in several of the city’s neighborhoods. The regulations require the majority of commercial signage to advertise the NFL and Super Bowl. Restaurant workers scribble “NFL SPECIAL” on their sidewalk signs, crunching the shout-out in between descriptions of po’boys and sugary cocktails. Visually, the NFL takes over the city. TV stages crowd into the city’s most recognizable landmark, Jackson Square, and surround the statue of Andrew Jackson and his stallion.
* * *
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints and their fans have been through the wringer. I woke up one day last March and the unthinkable had happened. The word “bounty,” a word I always liked because of its association with pirates, darkened our season. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran a bounty program where financial rewards were given to defensive players who injured targeted players of opposing teams. Audio of Williams’ speeches surfaced, which included gems like “Every single one of your before you get off the pile, affect the head ... early, affect the head, continue (to) touch and hit the head.”
Our season was over before it began.
Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season. Other suspensions included Mickey Loomis, linebackers coach Joe Vitt, and a few players. Our second round draft pick was forfeited. The Saints, heralded by the media as saintly three years before, now starred in headlines like “Bountygate Gets Uglier By The Minute,” “Saints, Team Officials Involved in Bounty Program Should Pay Dearly,” and “Goodell Talks Punishments.”
New Orleanians endured the disappointment of 2012 like the champions of neglect and suffering that we are. We glued cardboard cut-outs of Payton’s face on popsicle sticks and held his face in front of ours during home games. We directed much of our anger towards the NFL Commissioner Roger “the Comish” Goodell, who we felt doled out excessive punishment. We put signs of the Comish up in restaurant kitchens and behind bars with strict instructions: “DO NOT SERVE THIS MAN.” We made sure to end the winning streak of the Atlanta Falcons, and we breathed a sigh of relief when they lost to the 49ers, not because we really like the 49ers, but because we’d rather not host our division adversary for the Super Bowl. That’s a comforting thought this week, as we sit in miserable traffic and watch construction companies build things for tourists that will never come to the streets by our homes.
By Super Bowl Saturday, I’m not looking forward to the Super Bowl events. But these events are worth covering, however annoying the Super Bowl is.
I’m attending two red carpet events for PopMatters: the NFL Honors awards show and Leather & Laces. The latter is a night affair, a party with Cirque de Soleil acrobats pouring Belvedere into glasses and a red carpet featuring supermodel Brooklyn Decker, actress Rachel Leigh Cook, and reality star turned actress Jamie Chung. While that’s a fun night, the red carpet of the NFL Honors show convinces me the Super Bowl isn’t the evil takeover that I dreaded. In fact, it’s the reason I (briefly) meet Drew Brees.
The NFL Honors awards show is in the Mahalia Jackson Theater, which is in Louis Armstrong Park. This park, formerly known as Congo Square, is where free people of color and slaves used to have drum circles and celebrations. While historians argue about the park’s exact role in the birth of jazz, it’s undeniable that this park preserved African and Caribbean music in New Orleans.
Today, red carpet covers the park’s main entryway on Rampart Street. The carpet is much thicker than I expect. It’s much bigger than it looks on TV, stretching from Rampart Street nearly to the theater and wide enough to contain a line of reporters, a two-lane broadway for the stars to strut, a radio show, and a few TV stages. A barrier cages the reporters, separating us from the guests. I search for PopMatters’ spot in the cage, designated with a printed piece of paper. The first pages are local. The following are sports channels. I’ve passed tens of pages. We’ll never get there. My eyes cross. I’m dizzy. All I see is red and white and black. It’s like that joke about a zebra and a newspaper. Finally I find PopMatters.
The spot is directly across from the Sirius XM station, where Jim Miller has set up camp. The Sirius team is entirely male and Caucasian. A blue sign says “ON AIR” and Miller projects his voice, which probably sounds great from a radio but makes him look like a tone-deaf drunk in person. “Live from the NFL Honors Awards,” he bellows.
“That’s not going to get old,” another journalist mutters.
We wait for the guests to arrive, whose names we’ve received on a long list. Most of the males are in suits. The women wear metallic mini-dresses. One woman, who is a host, waits patiently while a crew-member slathers oil on her legs. The stage lights hit the oil, giving it a petroleum jelly sheen.
Figuring we’re going to be waiting a while, I glance over the guest list. The sports reporters near me can hardly believe their luck. They throw out names. It seems like every VIP is one of the greatest of all time: Barry Sanders, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Steve Young, and Jim Kelly.
My light sports reporting background helps. While most of my neighbors are busy gasping over the next legend walking towards us, I take that extra second to shout the name and nab the guest. A reporter to my left, a freelance journalist from New York who used to write for ESPN, is also quick to the draw. “Joe!” “Barry!” “Steve!” we cry.
James Carville, a Democratic political consultant and member of the Super Bowl Host Committee, smiles during the interview.
“Have you been to the airport lately?” he asks in his marbles-in-the-mouth accent. Carville continues to list off the Super Bowl’s benefits to New Orleans: “There’s a new streetcar line. All the money that these people are bringing in. Our city being front and center of the biggest event in the country, maybe the world, that’s going on right now. All the action around the hotels, the Dome…seems to me we’ve got a lot goin’ on.”
Unsurprisingly, the mayor agrees. “[Hosting the Super Bowl] means everything,” the angel-faced Mitch Landrieu says. He won his office the day that the Saints came back from the 2010 Super Bowl, a day when we celebrated by giving the Saints their own parade. “It’s unbelievable. This is the biggest event and for us to be able to host it, it really shows that New Orleans is back.”
Landrieu’s right. From January 28th to February 3rd, every sports and news channel showcased New Orleans on repeat. Turn on ESPN and there’s Jackson Square. The parties feature some local talent, like the Hot 8 Brass Band and the Soul Rebels. A national audience sees that our Superdome is no longer a symbol of devastation but an amazing stadium with a killer light show. While locals make the case that it’s a good thing we host the Super Bowl, other athletes praise the city.
“The love that these people genuinely show - the food, the music…it deserves a visit,” Joe Namath croaks. I think of his infamous interview on Youtube and take a slight step backwards. Nothing to see here, Joe.
Now, as a professional, I’m not supposed to get star-stuck. I’m here to do a job, which is write a story, and this person is talking to me to do their job, which is to promote their music, sport, event, or organization. There’s a short list of celebrities that I would privately geek out over, but at this point I’d like to think that I’m far enough in my career to maintain a professional attitude.
But Drew Brees walks by me. He’s heading away from the theater and towards the street. That means he’s about to walk the carpet towards me.
Professional poker face, gone. Adoring expression, on. Fan worship, engage.
He turns around at Rampart Street and makes his way down the carpet. He’s not stopping for anyone. People shout his name. He wears a light gray suit. I don’t know what kind. I’m not a fashion reporter. I’m a music journalist. He’s coming closer. He’s almost to me. He’s not stopping. I won’t get to meet him. I die inside. At least I met the mayor.
The Saints network team is to my left, inside the cage. They’re in their early twenties and eager to get a short clip. “Saints Network, Drew! Over here!”
This is an unbelievable stroke of luck. Brees ceases his beeline for the exit and stops directly in front of me. As he turns to the Saints network, I do it. I have never done it before. I would do it for no one else.
I go full-on fan-girl.
“Drew, I’m from New Orleans!”
I thrust my hand at him. He pauses in the turn, He looks at my crazed green eyes. He understands. He shakes my hand.
“Thank you,” I say. I’m not thanking him for the handshake, although that was unquestionably the most financially valuable hand I’ve ever shaken.
I’m thanking him for everything.
* * *
Leather and Laces Party
Photo Credit: Annie Pennell