A week ago today, I sat in Port O’ Call in New Orleans, surrounded by friends, monstrous burgers, redolent baked potatoes — sour cream and cheese stuffed pleasure bombs flecked with “bacon” bits and scallions, as served in the NJ malls of my youth during the mid-80’s baked potato craze — and Monsoons (the the ambrosial pleasure bombs for which Port O’ Call is famous). A quiet optimism pervaded our table. Our 13-0 LSU Tigers were playing hated Alabama for the BCS National Championship, and our white-hot New Orleans Saints had sent Detroit packing the previous evening, and now had their sights set on San Francisco. To say it was a good time to be a Louisiana sports’ fan was an understatement. It was more than that. It was a “Golden Age” that was upon us. Past injustices would be avenged, a new order would be established, and we would fly Louisiana pride from flagpoles everywhere, as our Purple and Gold and Black and Gold reigned triumphant.
Except it never happened, and a week later I am trying to make provisional sense out of two crushing losses that have tried a fan base already bruised and battered from years of on-field and off-field tribulations — the best laid plans of mice and men now expanded to include coonasses and Who Dats.
The thing is, there is no way to make sense of it. You can talk about preparation, heart, drive, bad bounces and big calls — they figure into any game. You can talk about fate, destiny, or will — sometimes there does seem to be a guiding hand. There are clichés to be heaped upon platitudes, all holding some glimmer of truth, that will be trotted out by numerous and sundry talking heads, anointing heroes and disparaging villains, a blackboard menu of this week’s flavor. Still, there is no sense to be made of why one fan-base gets punched in the gut and has their lunch-money stolen twice in one week; or, why a state that has suffered so much not only in recent memory, but throughout its history, gets sucker-punched yet again.
My mother used to say to me, “God never gives you more trouble than you have the strength to carry.” I have absolutely no idea if this is true, but if it is, then the people of Louisiana are some of the strongest I have ever met.
Yet even with this strength, I can see a bow in the back, a little tremble in the knees, as many wait for the other shoe to drop. The common rejoinder is, “Well, we haven’t had a hurricane in awhile.”
If you haven’t spent much time in Louisiana, especially South Louisiana, this thinking may seem moribund to you. A deeply ingrained fatalism tinged with dark humor and ever-present mortality. The cemeteries even sit above ground, beckoning. Death is never far away, literally or figurative; the dead dance among us, spilling into the streets like the Sunday night Fais Do Do at Tipitina’s.
And make no mistake about it, these two losses were nothing short of a death in the family. The crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth heard on the I-10 from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. However, if you listen closely, you can here something else….
It sounds far away at first. A low rumble. A disembodied beat on a low-slung base drum, maybe punctuated with that firecracker sound — the torn paper — that is a rolling snare. And then the horns. All sorts of horns. Are they playing together? Yes and no, but more yes then no. And people are dancing. Dancing? Yes, dancing. In the streets. With each other. With no one. With parasols. The colors, of the people, the sky, the clothing — the resplendent brass band — all crashing together, like tectonic plates, into a mosaic of ineffable beauty. This is no funeral, this is a party.
It *is* a party.
The most beautiful party that you’ve ever seen. A celebration of life and death. It might be a jazz funeral, or it might be Mardi Gras — or it could be the Mardi Gras Indians krewing on Saint Joseph’s, if you are in the city.
If you are in the country, maybe it’s Mardi Gras in Mamou, or a boucherie in Mansura, or a zydeco brunch in Breaux Bridge.
The kind of party that makes you sweat, and swear you’ve found salvation. Soaked in beer and food and music, covered in hot sauce, and savored in big bites.
For many outsiders, the endless party that is Louisiana might seem frivilous. For those not afflicted, unpossessed by the spirits that roam unfettered throughout South Louisiana, it might even seem profane.
But, for those who have seen it all come crashing down, maybe more times than they would care to remember, it is the safety-valve that allows them to carry on. The joyous release that declaims “Today we are beaten, but never broken!” The thing that lets you get up in the morning after the opening of a spillway wiped out your world or 80% of your city went under water.
To my way of thinking, I can’t think of anything less frivolous.