FROM NEW ORLEANS TO PORT-AU-PRINCE
(New Orleans, Feb. 7, 5:00 p.m.) A bald man I just passed on the street sports temporary fleur-de-lis tattoos all over his pate. The streets are loud with “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?”, chanted in that special New Orleans syncopation. Over at Parasol’s, my neighborhood bar, people have been drinking since late morning; now they are hanging a sheet on a building across the street for outdoor viewing of the Superbowl. Many are out doing last-minute shopping for their parties tonight, for very soon most restaurants and stores will close and all will be assuming the position on their sofas or their porches.
The euphoria has been at fever pitch for weeks. Hospital doctors and school children have been allowed to substitute Saints t-shirts for their normal uniforms. Tailgate parties, with crawfish and bar-b-que, women in gold lamé mini-skirts and high heels, and lots and lots of beer, line downtown sidewalks before and during game time. Even my parents’ subdued Episcopal church sports a bold “Go Saints” banner on its front fence. And some schools are actually closing tomorrow, I guess in anticipation of the celebration to come.
The beloved local sportscaster, Buddy Diliberto, once said that if the Saints made it to the Superbowl, he would go to Bourbon Street in a dress. Buddy died a few years ago, and thus missed his chance. But a reported thousand other men donned dresses and took his place last Sunday in a wild French Quarter parade.
Amongst all the people I know here, I am the only one not caught up in the craze. My head and heart have been in Haiti: tallying my dead, glued to my inbox learning news, spreading word from grassroots movements, and generating as much support as I can for political and humanitarian needs.
The Who Dat Nation is a surreal setting in which to mourn, but a good one. Hurricane Katrina’s legacy looms large here: physical destruction, governmental neglect of social needs, and exclusion of many of those most impacted from the redevelopment process. This moment in which residents can fulsomely celebrate is as unexpected as it is beautiful.
Eager to beat closing time, I just sped through errands in preparation for my trip to Haiti tomorrow. In the two miles between my home and the grocery store, I did not see one single person on the street who was not dressed in black and gold. I counted ten consecutive individuals wearing Saints T-shirts. Since Mardi Gras parades started this weekend, putting the city over the top in its orgy of elation, most were also bedecked with gold beads. At the store I saw only two or three others, like myself, not in regulation gear.
As I stocked up on raisins, nuts, and protein bars –what I assume will be my full diet for the next few weeks- I found myself next to a woman wearing a big gold feather in her bleached hair, a gold boa around her neck, and a very low-cut black dress with elaborate ruffles. As is the custom here, she began talking to me. When I complimented her outfit, she informed me that she had dressed up expressly to go to grocery shopping.
Beaming, she said, “Who would have imagined this? Five years out from Katrina, we’re in the Superbowl. Mardi Gras is starting out wonderfully. Everyone is happy. It’s the five-year redevelopment plan!
“No one thought we could reconstruct. It’s just a testament to the human spirit.”
May this spirit flow southward to all-suffering Haiti. While that region faces reconstruction challenges this one never did – and this one still faces many – still, I’m setting my sights. Five years out: Port-au-Prince to the Superbowl.