Is New Orleans America’s One True Super Bowl City?

31 Jan

There are only two entities that claim to contain America’s soul: football and New Orleans. But the idea that the Superdome, symbol of a deteriorating Third World American nightmare, must now stage the American dream—we’ve reached a fairly surreal national moment.

New Orleans Water manhole covers by Chris Koentges
Five hours before Super Bowl 2010 (XLIV), Wynton Marsalis strides onto an empty stage in an empty theatre. There is a pause. Some crumpled notes come from his trumpet. He pauses again and ponders the precise note he wants to find. But nothing comes. Instead, he uses his voice to conjure images of his hometown. It becomes an elegy. Maybe the finest elegy for a city built on elegies. “You ever wait for something so long that waiting becomes the something?” he asks.
New Orleans, N’Awlins, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, the northern capitol of the Caribbean, Groove City. Man, they have things down there you wouldn’t believe. A mythic place of Mardi-Gras and gumbo, Voodoo and the moss-covered, alligator-spiked pathways of back-country swamp drained and sprinkled with gris-gris dust to house a wild, unruly population.
The more his voice rises, the more it comes to feel like a whisper. Because this elegy is squeezed between Bud Lite ads and NFL commentators who don’t talk, but bark their declarations about who will win and how much they love football, the Marsalis package comes to feel like a sacred moment. (The most famous horn player in the world, and he ain’t even playing.) Images wash across the screen, not of football players making football plays, but the more awesome power of dark roiling water. He asks us to viscerally live the lives of those people on the ground. We see the washed out Lower Ninth Ward. We see people dancing too. We’re asked, again and again, if we know what it means to miss New Orleans? The question is urgent, not whimsical. In those minutes, all America seems to be in on the fact that New Orleans is where their nation’s soul exists. That a soul is worth having and protecting. That a soul is complicated. It felt like an important moment. The storyline: football’s going to bring The City That Care Forgot back into the light. It was the most watched event in the history of television, breaking a record held by the finale to a long-running comedy about America’s war in Korea.
In his long list of Big Easy monikers, Marsalis never mentioned Super Bowl City. Of the 45 Super Bowls, 26 have been played in just three cities. Seven in Los Angeles, ten in Miami. Sunday will be New Orleans’ tenth. New Orleans is the Super Bowl city of Super Bowl cities because it is both more and less like any city in America. (In a region of America where football has come to be more important than any other expression of cultural identity.)
CBS is going to do something different in the hours leading up to this Super Bowl. They’re going to mute the barking and hand the baton to Marsalis—this time for an entire hour. “It’s not your normal NFL preview or pregame show to do,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “We thought that if we could take some of that magic and some of that poetry and some of that beauty and make it into an hour show, it would be pretty special.”
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The original four-minute Marsalis essay captured my imagination in a way that football hadn’t captured my imagination since I was a kid. I became fixated on the images of ornate verandas hanging off shotgun shacks; with the idea of how much it costs to live in one of those shacks, about why they were called “shotguns.”

I consumed every bit of pregame hype that day. James Carville, who himself has as many nicknames as the city, wrote about the relationship between football and his hometown: “For so long, the Saints organization has been a metaphor for all the ills of New Orleans—always trying to get over the hump but continually falling a little bit short; a team and a city short on luck. But during this Super Bowl run, the team has become a symbol for not only what can be but also what is. New Orleans is moving. She’s recovering.” He begged Americans to remember why New Orleans was so important to the “fabric of the country and why you cheer for underdogs and comebacks.”

Walter Isaacson suggested:

The Saints have been the single most important thing to bring the city together and make us realize why New Orleans is magical. And it’s why the good Lord is blessing us.

Marasalis eventually concluded that waiting for the Saints, now just hours from playing in their first Super Bowl at a moment when their city was still coughing flood water up from its lungs, was “like waiting 43 years for someone to say I love you back. And they do.” I didn’t know what it meant, or if it was overhyped marketing bullshit, but for those hours I believed again in football. I decided if the Saints won, I would go to New Orleans.

BillieNealDownByLaw

New Orleans is the Super Bowl city because like the game itself, it’s a city made of languages that don’t have words and take on revelatory significance to those who know how to interpret. It’s the way a tipped ball flutters in the air on a botched seven-yard crossing route has as much to do with football, on the surface, as pickles and oysters do with a wide baguette.

Most of the time you don’t understand what’s going on in New Orleans. Always you just know that something has happened that you can’t put your finger on. Everything is in the subtext, local and rich. It’s the conversation a trombone has with a trumpet, seamlessly switching time and songs—you see old timers in the room nodding appreciatively—and you know something has happened. New Orleans is a culture distinct from anywhere else, with an unspoken language that takes a profound fanaticism to learn. Paws at night on a pressed tin roof, the way the Charles Street streetcar picks up steam—we know these sounds even before we’ve been to New Orleans—it’s the language of keeping time. “Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans,” asks Blanche DuBois, “when an hour isn’t just an hour, but a little piece of eternity dropped in our hands—and who knows what to do with it?”

Women actually say stuff like this in New Orleans. She could have been talking about the second half of the Saints/Colts Super Bowl, which seemed first to be a route, and then a series off improbable miracles, interspersed with so many advertisements that, a few drinks into the game, you’d forget what had happened five minutes earlier. You just knew it meant something.

BanskyNewOrleansBefore

Banksy looting shoping cart new orleans ghetto blaster by chris koentges marigny

That summer after Saints beat Indianapolis, I found myself with one of those women on one of those verandas that hang off one of those shotgun shacks on Chippewa Street. Half a dozen blocks away was the mansion in the Garden District where then Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning grew up.  Half a dozen blocks the other way was the Mississippi river. Somewhere in between was the housing project where Sister Helen Prejean wrote letters to the death row inmates Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. And somewhere near the housing project was a corner where the woman’s fiancé had been shot to death in the lead up to the Super Bowl. The veranda smelled like cigarettes and whiskey, and rain fell so hard that you couldn’t see the park across the street, where the National Guard had sporadically rappeled from helicopters after Katrina, advising her to leave, and if she wasn’t going to leave, to get some kind of a weapon and fill up a cart at the grocery store down the street before everything had been looted. “You can walk that way,” she told me, pointing towards Magazine Street, and the Garden District mansions. “But please don’t walk that way,” she said, her words drowned out in the rain, as she gave me a set of keys, and I gave her $150 for my first week’s rent. And an hour did not seem like just an hour, and I wondered how to ask her about the flood and shooting. I’m not so dense to think that real life has anything to do with the contrived miracles on a football field.

The language of pigskin and turf  is a language unto itself, weirdly appropriated, twisted and blown up as the embodiment of bombastic, commercial, blindly partisan, unnuanced, violent, self-loving America. America, football, and multinational marketing become perfectly intertwined on Super Bowl Sunday. “It’s halftime in America,” went the great Clint Eastwood ad last year about the country’s other forgotten soul Detroit, and a grossly premature declaration of recovery.

Murder Capital, USA.

This week, CBS has sent all its major shows and personalities to New Orleans. They’ll have four different sets in Jackson Square. Nobody made this sort of effort to cover the refugees trapped in the Superdome in 2005, as the empty concession fridges filled with corpses.  Evening New anchor Scott Pelley said that his news broadcasts will focus on what he calls the “amazing comeback story” of New Orleans. When all’s said and done, the Super Bowl hurricane is touted to spur more than $400 million spending in a region that is desperate for cash.

Maybe I’ve watched too many David Simon shows, but it’s hard to believe anything but a bit of tip money’s going to trickle down to the people hanging onto broken FEMA trailers. Consider news last week that mayor Ray Nagin—the face of New Orleans desperation in Katrina’s aftermath—was indicted on 21 federal corruption charges. The stories about the American dream and the American soul and nightmare collide uncomfortably here. This is the same week that Sean Payton, the coach who brought improbable New Orleans to the Super Bowl, was reinstated from an unprecedented season-long ban after the league discovered he had developed a bounty program—systematic cash rewards for injuring other players.

To counteract the image of lawless on field brutality, NFL owners began this season without their regular referees—the need to crush some pissant union more important than redeeming the image of their multi-billion dollar brand. It’s maybe not for nothing these owners now face lawsuits from more than 4,000 former players claiming to be “victims of a league-orchestrated cover-up of the long-term effects of repeated head trauma.” Which is not even to touch on the children raped by iconic Penn State football coaches, images of showers and tickling hang over the sport in the same way BP’s oil has hung on the Gulf.

It’s a dark time for football, and the invisible levee that protects the NFL is beginning to strain. There’s more profit now in attacking the brand than basking in its version of manifest destiy. The meaty features that magazines once gave to larger than life quarterbacks now break down drug scandals, murder, suicide, and human breakage. If Esquire is an insight into the American male mood, consider their chilling feature on the NFL this month, Theatre Of Pain. Even the daily sports section has turned. Citing a list of recent horrors, starting with Junior Seau’s suicide and ending with the world renowned surgeons who cleared injured Dolphin Pro Bowlers, literally on the verge of death, Dan Le Batard wrote in the Miami Herald (from America’s second Super Bowl city): “We think we know this forever-growing monster we are cheering on Sundays. But we don’t. We have no earthly idea.”

The Superdome, which has become the symbol of deteriorating third world American nightmare, is now required to stage the American dream—we’ve reached a fairly surreal national moment.

While you’d be hard pressed to find a place with a more inflated sense of its own importance than New Orleans—there is a deeply held belief that if New Orleans dies then so does America’s soul—the belief is only topped by the NFL’s intense efforts to brand itself as America’s soul. The difference between the NFL and New Orleans is that while the former appears to hold a mandated policy of denial, the latter revels in reconciling its dark places—its grift and graveyards and Southern Gothic debauchery are what the New Orleans mythology’s all about.

Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or disorienting characters, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence. It is unlike its parent genre in that it uses these tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South, with the Gothic elements taking place in a magic realist context rather than a strictly fantastical one.

New Orleans is the Super Bowl city because it is both dream and nightmare. If you get too excited about the comeback, a local will be the first to remind you that unemployment’s at 10% and you’re officially walking in the murder capital of America, that the edge between American dream and nightmare is so thin.

Mardi Gras new orleans doll house by chris koentges

The week between Super Bowl and Mardi Gras—it’s happened in 1970, 1972, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1986, 1990, 1997, 2002, 2013—is a kind of perfect storm. Parade beads hang like glittering Spanish moss from Oak trees. You get so used to the way they look that a tree seems naked without them. You come to have such vivid dreams in New Orleans that you  wonder what’s real. A combination of not enough sleep, and strange proportions of salt and hog fat and whiskey in your blood—it gets to the point that you don’t want to sip anything but whiskey. I had officially got my way down to New Orleans with a magazine assignment to write about people who represented the post-Katrina city. Right away I met an artist named Steve Shepherd, who said he was Shepherd Ferry’s cousin, and talked the about catching too much mullet. About hallucinating. About still eating mullet. Just not right before bed.

This sense of déjà vu clings to the city. One night, I passed a familiar looking bar on Toulouse Street. There was something weirdly familiar inside. People were focused on one small television screen. It couldn’t be. They were down by 1 with 10:44 left. 17-16 Colts. Manning marching the Colts downfield. Perplexed, I asked the bartender: “do you play this 24 hours a day?”

“No,” she said. “But we should.” Then she thought for a bit. “I was working Super Bowl—this is the first time I’ve ever seen it.”

When I asked, “Why tonight?” she pointed to a place deeper in the bar. For the first time I noticed a door at the end. The next time it opened, I snuck inside, into a big dark chamber. As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I realized that everyone inside wore Saints jerseys. It felt like a secret order of something.

I’d arrived just in time to hear Kyle Turley shout “I’m drunk.” He held a guitar over his head, then scream: “Yaaaaah!” He played some bad country music. His music.

“Which is more fun?” he asked rhetorically, “playing in that mother fucking Superdome on Sunday? This compares, up here man.”

When I came back out there was four minutes left in the fourth quarter. “Do you want to do a shot?” the bartender said to nobody in particular.

“I’m already drunk,” the woman beside me replied, which the bartender interpreted to mean: “yes.” As she lined up shots, a man with the build of a high school full back, who’d been playing the Elvis pinball machine like you would play a beat up old accordion, had his head cranked up at the TV, wiggling his but,  shaking the machine frantically, eyes not leaving that television. Matt Stover missed a field goal. A bad hold.

It was Christmas in July.

It’s been suggested that we should elevate Super Bowl to a three-day national holiday weekend. An NBC commentator suggested:

“The Heritage Christian, which requires students to give a detailed account of being saved by Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for enrollment. Then, think about what Super Bowl means as a unifying force to America…As everything in American life has become more fragmented, compartmentalized, demographified (if that’s a word), the Super Bowl still gathers people of all faiths and all ages together in celebration of things that make our country great.”

Of course, he also suggested that you’d have to drop Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the process. There is a fine line between reveling in tradition and sentimentalizing the past.

Whenever anyone goes down to New Orleans to write a post-Katrina story, they end up talking to John Besh, who was born and raised in Louisiana, and was a marine in Desert Storm, who came back, and has now opened four restaurants, lauded as the city’s best chef. I asked Besh about how pickles and oysters worked on sandwiches, and where to find the best Po Boy in town, and he suggested the real thing I had to try if I wanted a French-style baguette sandwich was Vietnamese bánh mì. The Vietnamese immigrants, who worked the fishing boats, were killing it with these sandwiches. That same month, the  Ogden, the grand museum of Southern art was wrapping up an exhibition on Bounce Music, the call-and-response ass-shaking that’s become as popular as jazz and gangsta rap in New Orleans. After Katrina, New Orleans expats have come back from all over the world to graft the thing it is they did onto the broken places. There’s a sense that you can make a go of anything in New Orleans right now, so long as you’re not Hard Rock or Planet Hollywood, which never caught on here. So long as you don’t want to perpetuate those Bourbon Street cliches.

St. Charles Avenue Streetcar by chris koentges uptown new orleans

Something else Marsalis said—that didn’t make it into his last Super Bowl essay—before Katrina, the city had become like Disneyland. Before the storm, New Orleans’ real problems—rising crime, crumbling school system, deteriorating infrastructure—were so deep as to be unfixable. Katrina showed, in the worst possible way, that the way things are is not always how they have to be.

Will the Super Bowl save New Orleans?

Other way around, podna.

CHRIS KOENTGES

Follow @veryethnic. Facebook friend.

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*Want to know why it’s called a shotgun? People like to say it’s because a bullet fired through the front door will go clear through the backdoor without hitting a wall. But the one-room deep floor plan, long like the barrel of a shotgun, is modeled after homes in Port-au-Prince. Afro Haitian slaves used to use the expression “to-gun,” which means place of assembly, which fits nicely with the Springteen line: “We take care of our own, from the shotgun shack to the Superdome.”

One Response to “Is New Orleans America’s One True Super Bowl City?”

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  1. On 32lb Jackfruit, cabin fever, underdogs, dive bars, seasonal affective disorder, the other Chinese market, crimson hues—and the last time the Giants played the Patriots in the Super Bowl « VERY ETHNIC - January 31, 2013

    […] think, for instance, it would have been simple to bet a lot of money against The Pats in the Super Bowl—only a sucker would make such a bet—but after setting up an offshore betting account, which […]

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