Two kinds of Saints, Catholic and football, matter greatly in New Orleans, but only the latter have continually and against all odds performed the greatest of miracles: pulling together an imagined community in a city as culturally dynamic and often disharmonious as this one, which is known around the world for its culture but is still located in Louisiana. This is a state where the same Southern termites—class division, racism, self-serving mythologies, and economic inequality—that gobbled away at the post-Civil War reconstruction continue to chew with much gusto, making Louisiana and New Orleans notable for scoring high on the worst kind of socioeconomic statistics, including this particularly tragic one: New Orleans has the most incarcerated people of any city in America, and Louisiana is the state with the most incarcerated individuals in this country. So, for many the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League are a cherished distraction, a circus that appears to exist beyond the corruption and difficult task of living here.

And despite the ever increasing numbers of outsiders—also referred to sometimes as Northerners, Yankees, Californians, “Not Locals,” and, yes, Carpet Baggers (regardless of motivations or point of origin)—who have come to live here and root for the teams from where they grew up or from where just moved, and despite the deep religious faith held by many of this city’s residents, the Sundays in New Orleans belong to the Saints.[1] There’s no question about it: walk down any street where there is a bar or restaurant or convenience store or car repair shop or snowball stand or gun shop or hotel lobby or Laundromat that has a television to show the games, and you don’t have to go in to know how the Saints are doing. You can just figure it out from what you hear from those inside. Alongside the live music on Frenchmen Street and the bubbling chatter of a half  (or more) drunk happy hour crowd, the resounding echo of a “Who Dat” chant: Who Dat, Who Dat, Who Dat , Who Dat Gonna Beat Dem Saints![2]

Before they won the Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints were the ‘Aints, one of those kinds of teams where spectators wear paper bags over their heads in the stadium and practice a particularly masochistic form of fanaticism; that is, watching the same horrible spectacle over and over again. Plainly, New Orleanians just loved this miserable team too much, and for this sin they performed a penance: they continued to roll into the Superdome, a stadium that was under construction in the 1970s and completed in the context of an Ultimate Oil Industry Super City pissing contest between New Orleans and Houston (AKA that “soulless city to the west” as one elderly New Orleanian once described it to me). For about the first twenty years the Saints only managed to hit a .500 winning record twice, despite having the freakish Archie Manning on the roster.[3] They didn’t win their first playoff game until the first year of the 21st century. And five years after that sole playoff win the team lost its iconic home in the wake of the worst combo disaster (both natural and man-made) in U.S. history.

At this juncture, the narrative of the New Orleans Saints both swerves and duck dives: a franchise in one of the richest professional sports leagues in the world, owned by one of the wealthiest men in the American South, seemed insignificant when 80% of the city where that franchise was housed was underwater. Pause on that for a second: lake, river, and rainwater conspired to mostly cover one of America’s best-known cities in a deep, trash-ridden soup. But just three years after the team’s return to the Superdome—a contentious homecoming in which those from within and outside this city opined that the estimated $185 million repair bill could’ve and should’ve been better spent somewhere else—the long maligned New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. It is hard to explain to non-New Orleanians what the Saints’ win meant to the city, especially considering the length and shade of Katrina’s shadow at that time.[4] More than one person I know who was here at the time has told me that the sense of elation far outdid what is manufactured every Mardi Gras season. Another friend tells me that the traditional narrative about the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning season, and how important it was to the rebuilding of pride and identity for the city, does not go far enough: he told me that capturing that Super Bowl is the best thing that’s ever happened to New Orleans. I pressed him on this point, and he clarified. He means the Super Bowl Win means than the music, the cuisine, the syncretic blend of language and peoples. Quite simply, the Super Bowl was the mountaintop descending to the land of swamp, potholed streets, and very loose open container and gun laws. I tell you all this because this is what New Orleans does to you: it makes you dig deeper into wells of culture, drawing your attention closer and closer to the details.

Oh, New Orleans. You’re beautiful, I’ll give you that, but you’re also heartbreaking. Even the most strident, true believer in this city will give you that. Comprised of stunning tableaux—the homes on St. Charles Avenue, the sun setting over the Mississippi, the lived history of New Orleans East and the 8th and 9th Wards—New Orleans is also cruel to those who love her. And we all do, in some sort of way: those of us who’ve chose to live here. You have to love something—even if it’s just one’s own sense of self—in order to forgive it this much.

Along with being beautiful, New Orleans has many specialties, one being the ability to draw young and not so young men and women from around the country to come here to buy, use, and consume an excessive amount of things: gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish, and beignets; garish Bourbon Street t-shirts with bedazzled fleur-de-lis; beads of all shapes and sizes, brightly colored to-go cups printed with the name of some restaurant or event; music of every conceivable genre and quality; fine antiques and bad street art; snowballs and small white plastic spoons; cheap New Orleans Saints hats and towels from Walmart; cheesy bumper stickers (“New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home” and “LA not L.A.); and, of course, the fuel for the accumulation of all of this—the booze sold in bars, restaurants, and stores, as well as the vast array of recreational drugs sold by school uniform-wearing adolescents the French Quarter.

Like its West Coast semi-counterpart, Las Vegas, New Orleans has an oversized reputation for the spectacle of hedonism. And like Las Vegas, the city has been cultivated—through popular culture, marketing agencies, and word of mouth across time and space—to embody this “more is more” culture. The sheer number of festivals, bars, and restaurants is the clichéd testament to this, as is the ultimate celebration of moreishness: Mardi Gras. A byproduct of this larger culture of stuff is that it leads to a seemingly bottomless well of trash. It is not, despite the metaphor, all deposited in one place—the trash sifts though the city. There is a tree on Prytania Street that is adorned with beads, some dull and broken, some shiny and new enough to sparkle in the afternoon light. I have taken photos of this tree, walked over the beads that have fallen from the branches above on to the pavement, and ultimately wondered why this tree rather than anyone in the mostly leafy Garden District gets this treatment. The reuse of trash, the repurposing of these items that are so plentiful and central to Mardi Gras but emblematic of carnival’s embrace of waste, is what makes this tree iconic to me.

But not only are you a visual spectacle, NOLA, you’re an olfactory wonder—and not in a good way. New Orleans, you stink. Crawfish rotting in a broken trashcan next to a pile of dog shit kind of stink, the vapors like wet, sticky, lukewarm tridents stabbing at our noses. Moreover, you’re trying to break my ankles and kill my car: Tire piercing broken streets, jagged teeth walkways. But when I leave I forget the reek and how the roads are a joke. What I do remember is that you’re just as wobbly as the drunks that have tottered about inside you for so many years—the frames of homes leaning this way and that—but you’re ready with a counterpunch when it comes to moments of reckoning: events of over a decade ago taught us that. You are oversized, or, as a friend of mine describe it, skinny-fat; the edges of you spill out to a West Bank and a North Shore. Still, that isn’t really your fault. Too much here, it’s always too much. And you’re a bit of a bore: so many claim to have heard your story–echoing out, telling tales about decadent nights out and humid evenings with jazz wading through the thick air.

But, on the flip side, I can see how New Orleans makes you want to represent her. I walk a lot in New Orleans; that’s pretty much what I love most about this city, the ability to walk and gawk at beautiful things. And the fact that though there is some sort of grid for the city, the basic orientation of North, South, East, and West is tossed to the side. In New Orleans, you start to figure out where you want to go by four points: Uptown, Downtown, River, and Lake. But, as with any city, there is a beguiling set of more finely defined spaces within the city, stacked up on one another, some bleeding into each other, some appearing to not touch at all.

 

Notes

[1] I’m one of them, although I may be more disliked as I moved to New Orleans from Florida, the most reviled state in America.

[2] “Dat” comes from a local English dialect. According to the Dialect Blog — a site where linguists, amateur enthusiasts, and actors discuss the world’s many English dialects — Yat has a similar sound to a particular form of New York City English. Experts claim that Yat is especially common amongst working and middle-class whites in New Orleans, and has a set of familiar pronunciations. A Slate article on the same subject identified a short list of Yat terms: “‘dese, dem, and doze’ for ‘these, them, and those’; ‘berl, earl, and ersters’ for ‘boil, oil, and oysters’; and ‘mudder for mother.’”

[3] There is a framed Archie Manning portrait in my office, so this might be a slight case of homerism.

[4] I did not live in New Orleans then, had just, in fact, moved to the United States to study at a university in Virginia. My first interaction with New Orleans and the people that lived there included the displaced Tulane University students who were now rooming with some of the first American friends I had. The student population of Tulane, both then and today, drew heavily on students from the Northeast, so for many of these students Katrina did the opposite than what it did to others from New Orleans—it pushed them closer to home.

 

Christopher Garland

Christopher Garland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. His writing has appeared in numerous of journals and magazines across the world.

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