I was born in New Orleans. My family moved away when I was 11, and I have lived in six different states since then, but I will always consider New Orleans to be my hometown. It's a unique city, unlike any other, anywhere in the world. When I think of New Orleans and what sets it apart, I think of two words--character and flavor. The food, the music, the people, the traditions, the architecture, the accent, the vernacular, even the weather are unique to the region, and they all play a part in making New Orleans what it is.
I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans this past weekend, the first weekend of the Mardi Gras parades and the weekend of the Super Bowl. It was a trip I almost didn't take after learning that my sister (with whom I would be staying in New Orleans) was going to Miami for the game and getting sick just days before my flight would be leaving Connecticut. I knew the trip would be fruitful, however, when I saw local celebrity and former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert standing in line waiting to board my plane. Bobby ended up directly across the aisle from me! For a lifelong Saints fan, this was a positive omen for the game. (Also on the plane, but much less exciting, was Louisiana State Senator Mary Landrieu.)
This wasn't the end of my celebrity sightings or auspicious signs. I walked off the plane behind Bobby, hoping to stay right behind him through the airport where I could soak in his aura and witness the looks of those he passed. Instead, he was walking too slowly, and I had to use the restroom, so I broke formation. As luck would have it, though, this allowed me just enough time to be present when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin walked through the concourse with his entourage. Now, I am no fan of Ray Nagin, his politics, or his now infamous ability to say all the wrong things at all the wrong times, but still...he's the mayor of New Orleans! I wanted very badly to say something crazy to him, like "Gimme some chocolate!" or "Hey! It's Willy Nagin!" Instead, visions of bodyguards taking me down flashed through my head, and I opted for a calm and respectful, "Hey, Mr. Nagin" to which I received a suave and somewhat smarmy, "Hey, darlin'." I was pleased with the interaction overall.
I walked on, catching back up to Bobby. (I mentioned that he was walking really slowly, right?) On the other side of the security check-in point, I saw my sister waiting for us. I was brimming with excitement from my multiple celebrity encounters and motioned to her with my head at Bobby. In her hands, she held a sign she had made which read, "The Who Dat Nation welcomes Bloomfield, CT!" She presented us with black and gold beads and gave me a black and gold boa, which I wrapped around my neck...not an uncommon look in New Orleans. A woman walked up to us and said, "I don't know you, but I'm from Bloomfield." Another omen! "Well, the Who Dat Nation welcomes you, too," said my sister.
My first night in town was spent at two Mardi Gras parades, one on the West Bank and one in Metairie. I also got to see a childhood friend whom I had not seen since moving. After 28 years, I recognized her right away. I hadn't been to a Mardi Gras parade since moving away from New Orleans, so it was fun to experience them again. Of course, Mardi Gras is when all of the characters come out of hiding. Men are unashamed to dress in tights or tunics. People beg for beads, plastic cups, doubloons, stuffed animals, spears, hatchets, and coconuts. Anyone with a hint of fame can become a Grand Marshall or even a King. Mardi Gras is an excuse to let your freak flag fly at full mast!Another thing that Mardi Gras brings out is garbage. The streets are lined with discarded beads, broken cups, empty boxes that once contained throws, plastic bags, and a sundry of other objects--both odd and mundane. At one point, I watched as two groups of parade watchers played kickball across the street with an empty beer carton. The game would pause briefly while marching bands and floats passed, resuming again once the opportunity arose. Not long after that, I noticed a stray plastic sandwich bag which had been blown by the wind from its place of origin to my little stake of property. It briefly danced around at my feet before continuing on its way down the street. It was a simple plastic baggie with a simple, three-letter word written on its side, but somehow it represented both every piece of garbage and every weird character on the streets of New Orleans at any given moment and particularly during the Mardi Gras season. Yet another omen? Why not?
Sunday was the Super Bowl. Like an athlete preparing for the big game, I spent the day resting, performing my rituals, praying, and anxiously waiting. After 60 minutes of football, the New Orleans Saints had defeated the Indianapolis Colts, winning the Super Bowl in their first ever appearance. It's now a part of history. The Saints won the Super Bowl! Unless you're a Saints fan, I don't think you can truly appreciate what that means. Being in New Orleans, I got to experience the energy of the city and all of the Saints fans as we witnessed this miracle. I ran out into the street, screaming at the top of my lungs, while my sister's neighborhood erupted with the sounds of fireworks, car alarms, cow bells, and screams. Strangers shared in a magical moment of disbelieve, looking at each other through teary eyes, and hoping that we weren't experiencing some sort of mass hysteria. All over the city, people flooded out of their homes, bars, restaurants, and hotels. The streets of the French Quarter were clogged with people. The bridges and roads were packed with cars. No one wanted to be alone. We needed one another.We celebrated through the night and into the following day. We walked around like zombies, hungover from a night of unprecedented joy. While many retreated into their homes, some of us continued to seek out each other. We ran out early to buy the morning paper by the armful. We cleaned up the garbage of the night before. We replenished ourselves with food and rich chicory coffee. And all over again, we recognized and appreciated the character and the flavor of the city of New Orleans--my hometown and the greatest city on Earth.