Two Fires, Saints Lose and I’ve Never Felt More Like a New Orleanian

[written in January 2007; reposted as a reminder of last Saints season as this one begins…]

It was Sunday—in most of the South and on most years, it is the Lord’s day. But this is New Orleans football Saints in an unheard of position, a wonderful position—a chance to play in the Superbowl—in a city dog-tired of dealing with unheard of conditions in the United States and political actors without the will to change them. So, instead, everyone puts down a few drinks and places their faith in a sports team, one reminiscent of New Orleanians themselves—charasmatic, resilient and, best of all, lovable. A bit of sport imitating life.

Hearty cheers of Reggie! Reggie! spilled out from bars as I biked along the northern boundary of the French Quarter, heading back to my neighborhood dive, Iggy’s (I had missed the most exciting play of the game, rookie hottie Reggie Bush’s scamper for 80 yards and a presumptuous flip into the end zone).

Iggy’s is a small nook of a bar, open 24 hours, which never has been a hip place and never aspires to be. A dated jukebox and a worn pool table with a broken-to-working cue stick ratio of five-to-one top its material amenities. However, its charm emanates from the people who show up from the surrounding streets, offering you free food and a large slap of brotherly love on the back. They are boisterous. They are frank. They scream “Who dat! Who dat! Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints!” all the live long day. In the streets for the past week, instead of greeting people with “hello” or the N’awlins traditional “how ya doin’”, complete strangers would yell out “who dat!” to each other and respond with the aforementioned call out.

Bush’s touchdown would be the last time the Saints scored in the tumultuous 30 degree snowy conditions at Chicago’s Soldier Field. As the game ended in tragedy, a defeat of monstrous proportions against the Bears of Chicago, all my fellow barmates sung out “Who dat!,” and proudly, I joined in.

A friend of mine from out of town was completely distraught, on the verge of breaking down. She said, “But these people have been through so much. They deserve this. They deserve better.” A middle-aged gentleman with a gut and hat overheard her and sauntered over. “Don’t worry, there will always be next year. This is the farthest we’ve ever got and that’s somethin’,” the life-long Saints fan said, comforting her.

Grateful and desperate for a little hope, a little action where there had been none for sixteen months, a little wonderful distraction from the ongoing mess of vacant houses around them and from missing displaced friends to celebrate with and heal with, I saw a solidness in people’s eyes. A loss in football? For all they’ve seen, that’s nothing they can’t handle. And anyway, why would they get their panties in a twist over a game? I mean, there’s some serious Mardi Gras planning to do.

A night later, upon returning home from a bar session around two a.m, I had just put down my backpack, taken off my coat and changed into the pj’s when a single large explosion preceded a car squeal. I have heard similar noises before during my time in New Orleans. Each time the “explosions” were in quick succession, pow-pow-pow, and in fact had been gun fire.

At first, I hopped under the covers. I tried to mentally detach myself from the world outside the walls to avoid that creeping fear of hearing a knock at the door. To put my mind at ease, I’d reason there was no motive for someone to knock on my door. But recently there had been a rash of murders, some random, in New Orleans—seven in seven days to start January. Citizens called for effective community policing (cops are notorious for corruption and brutality here), convicting (only 10% of murder allegations lead to convictions) and political and communal responsibility. This all culminated in an anti-violence march on City Hall, the largest in decades, where demands and potential solutions were clearly articulated. All, however, leaving the burden on bureaucrats to get the job done.

Staring at the ceiling, I flashed back briefly to those speeches, which were entrenched with strength and purpose in the face of pain, fear and death. The words, ringing like heavy bells, moved me to rise and check out the scene, perhaps help someone or call the ambulance if they were in distress.

But pulling the blinds slowly back, I peered through my window to see a large billowing smoke cloud coming from an orange swath of flames. Several fire trucks and an ambulance were already on the scene. Curious, I opened my door, standing underneath the short awning as a light rain fell.

My neighbors, two houses to the right, were on their porch as well. I walked over and asked them what they knew, but the two robed woman only shrugged, “an explosion,” they said and went inside.

Across the street from the small single-floor house, along with a pair of young men and a television camerawoman, I stood still, somewhat shivering, somewhat confused. Was this house of ill repute? A target for arson? Meanwhile, strategizing firefighters coordinated their plan of attack, unleashing water streaks six inches wide into the rafters to dampen the embers and small flames still running along support structures.

As the excitement and fire died down, my hair soaked, I came back to my block to find that more fire trucks and firefighters were out and about. Another fire was in full swing two houses to the left of my apartment, what my roommate and apparently several other neighbors agreed was a drug house. (Many times I had heard what could have been a code, as cars would pull up and honk four times with the rhythm short-short, long pause, short-short).

Gradually, house by house, heads of household dragged themselves out of bed at what must have been at least 3 am. In their nightgowns. And boxers. Did I mention it was raining? It was under these circumstances that, being new on the block, I got to meet my neighbors.

We gazed toward the flame, on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, saying little except hellos and observations and asking who lived there. Everyone seemed neutral to the situation, many with a glint in their eye that marked a secret satisfaction of drugs leaving the neighborhood. And after twenty minutes of the spectacle, people returned their tired eyes to bed. As strange as it sounds, those fires brought our neighborhood together. After living in New Orleans, nothing surprises people, not even the coincidence of two fires in two blocks in the same hour. It is only natural in a place of mystery, small-town charm and big city problems.




Published in: on August 8, 2007 at 3:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

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