My first time in New Orleans was approximately a month after the seminal event known as Super Bowl XLIV. For the uninitiated, that would be the year the New Orleans Saints, perpetual laughingstocks of the NFL, won the Super Bowl over the favored Indianapolis Colts. It is no exaggeration to say this was among the finest moments in the history of the city of New Orleans. So much has already been written about this moment that I won’t even try to capture the sense of pride — if that is indeed the right word, as it only encompasses a small part of what was truly at stake — that was flowing through the streets of New Orleans, the confluence of the triumph of human spirit through the same streets where five years previously floodwaters stood. The city was again on the upswing, and the question of WhoDat was emphatically answered: No one could beat those Saints; no one could suppress the spirit of New Orleans.
And then April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and New Orleans was once again under siege. A city dependent on the industries of oil production, seafood, and tourism was facing an uncertain future yet again. The oil kept flowing — and the lies kept emanating from the BP brass — as oil workers and fisherman sat home without pay, and restaurants watched their product and profits slip away.
Sitting home in Hoboken, NJ, watching the events unfold, our immediate reaction was disgust. Once again the poorest and most vulnerable Americans were being affected while a foreign multinational was shrugging it’s shoulders. And Louisiana’s coast, already struggling due to coastal erosion, was now under ecological threat from oil as well; the shrimp, crab, oysters, and redfish threatened by a cocktail of oil and chemical dispersants. I also got the distinct feeling that many Americans just didn’t care, having already borne the “fatigue” of Louisiana too many times in recent years.
Thus, when we decided to organize a benefit, we weren’t only unsure if it would make any money, but if it would generate any interest at all. To our surprise, it did both, and we raised $3000 by slinging gumbo and jambalaya and red beans and rice at a NYC bar. If the story had stopped right there, it would have been gratifying enough, but it didn’t. Instead, as is so often the case, out of tragedy something else was born: in this case, friendship.
Sitting at the bar after the event had ended with a hangdog look on my face, the result of six days of restaurant cooking followed by twenty-four hours of benefit cooking, the last thing I was looking for was conversation. I was beat. That didn’t concern Aaron and his irrepressible cheer in the least. He joined me at the bar to tell me that my gumbo was “coonass approved,” which no higher compliment can be given in Louisiana parlance. He and his girlfriend Sarah were denizens of Louisiana, and came in for the benefit. We whiled away the next couple of hours drinking and talking, and became fast friends. The next thing I knew, we were being invited to watch Saints football, and come over for fried catfish and the LSU game. It happened, as hospitality often does in Louisiana, just that quickly.
And now a year later, we sat in the same seats at the same bar where we first watched a Saints game together, Manny’s on Second in NYC, an Upper East Side sports bar, a small island of black and gold among a throng of Packers fans. Now, however, we weren’t just new friends, but the Krewe de Drew, NYC, my affectionate name for our ragtag group of Saints fans (named for Saints quarterback Drew Brees), who love football, but love each others’ company more. And we do it differently up here for sure. Yes, one of our members was knitting during the game (I attribute it to nerves). And yes, we have an Englishman in our group who confects his understanding of rugby and soccer into a plausible if not entirely accurate although no less entertaining representation of American football. And we would be lying if we didn’t admit that we go to eat and drink and give each other shit as much as watch the game. Because in the end, the outcome of the game isn’t really all that important in the big scheme of things. We lost that game, yet no one left unhappy. If anything, we left with the resolve that we would get ’em next time, the eternal optimism of a next time, of one more chance to play, and to come together as friends.
Sarah and Aaron got engaged this year in New Orleans on the levees overlooking the Mississippi River. The wedding is set for next year, April 20th, 2012. I’m not sure if they had any idea of the significance of this date when they picked it, but I would have to think not. Yet, as I stand happily in attendance, I won’t be able to help but think about the annular nature of life and of friendship, and all that was lost, and what was found…