Monday, January 25, 2010

Strange and Beautiful

First of all, let it be known that I care little for, or about, football. I have a scattered and generally ambivalent relationship to the sport: growing up in Central Florida, we watched our share of Dolphins' games--Marino was in his prime back then, so it was fun in a look-at-him-go sort of way--at home, while at my grandmother's house, where everyone hailed from Chicago, we rooted for the Bears. After my mom graduated from FSU we cheered on the Seminoles, and there were some moments, years later, living in Gainesville, where I experienced small, silent spurts of inexplicable happiness as I sat in faceless, featureless bar-and-grills and watched the Noles beat up on the Gators. But really, I was no great fan; one of the major factors in my decision to go to New College was it's lack of organized sports--or more specifically, the fact that it didn't have a football team. I had seen enough of the ugliness the game seemed to provoke (someone always died after the FSU-UF game), I wanted nothing to do with the seemingly pointless group-think, the shirtless screaming, the endless, inscrutable statistics.

So. Anyway. What was I saying?

Oh yeah: I don't give a crap about football. I guess that still holds true, in the strictest sense, though last night I cared, a lot, about what was happening on the field. I knew every player's number, their position, their strengths and weaknesses*, I found myself shouting about third-down conversions and bad calls and oh my god, I was singing that Favre-on-the-ground song and I meant it, I did, I wanted to see him writhing on the mother-fucking ground, until WHOA, he was actually writhing on the ground, at which point I felt bad for wishing him ill, but still. The point is: I cared, for the first time, about football. I have cared for a while now, though not nearly as long as some people in this town, but long enough to get it, to understand what drives this crazy, fanatical, heart-bursting-through-the-ribcage love--LOVE!--we have for our Saints.

A lot has been written and said about this team, what it means to this city and vice versa, and I'm sure a lot more will be written and said in the next couple of weeks. But I wonder: if you don't live here, can you really get it? Because this video is so beautiful, and so true, and while I'm sure people watching it in other places--some of them--will shake their heads in wonder and maybe wipe a tear from their eye, do they really know? I don't think so. Because if they knew, they would live here. They would uproot their families and take a big paycut and maybe home-school their kids and they would move here, they would be here--they would, if they really got it. Like John Besh says in that wonderful video--something I've been trying, unsuccessfully, to articulate for years now: "New Orleans doesn't have a place for people that are lukewarm. You're either with us or you're against us."

Our team, this team, is about so much more than football. When Drew Brees played for San Diego, I'm sure it was all about football--about the money, the game, the fame and maybe the titles. When Payton coached the Giants and the Cowboys, it was probably all about football--the money, the wins, the stats, the titles. And don't get me wrong: it's still about that, it's always about that, but here, in our town, it's about so much more. It's about synergy, about underdogs, about being the hated ones, the ones left behind, left for dead, left to pick up the remains of their shattered lives and put it all back together, piece by piece, tile by tile, play by play, win by win. They are a team of NFL orphans; we are a city orphaned by it's government, its countrymen, left to fight our way back, on our own. When the Saints claw their way to victory, we can relate; we all know by now what that feels like, what it's like to sling a sledgehammer against the rotted walls of your own home, or to shovel debris from your neighbors'--and when the Saints soar, when those passes soar down the field and seem to nestle right into the hands of whatever receiver they happen to pick for that particular play, we can relate to that too--we know what it's like to second line, to dance in the streets, to celebrate life, to soar.

So, can we beat the Colts in the Superbowl? Does it really matter? Well, okay, of course it matters--we'd be kidding ourselves if we said it didn't--but at the end of the game, after the clock runs out and the coaches shake hands and the winners mount the podium and the losers trudge back to the locker room, our Boys will get to come home, they'll get to come here, to the greatest city in the world, where we'll all be waiting with wide open arms and huge-ass beers and more gratitude than can ever be expressed in words. No matter what the outcome, they are us, we are them, and when Drew Brees rides as Bacchus, you better believe we're all going to be bringing the love. No matter what. And what will they get in Indy? A couple of parades and a pat on the back? It just simply does not compare.
Saturday afternoon, the day before the game, I went for a run; about halfway through the 5-miler I stopped, sat down on the sidewalk, and put my head in my hands, overcome with emotion. A man strolled by, walking his dog--both were dressed in Saints attire--and he stopped to ask if I was alright.

I sniffled. "I'm just thinking about the game."

The poor man seemed at a loss; in a reassuring tone he said, "But I really do think we're going to win."

That was it; I totally lost it. "I know," I sobbed. "That's why I'm crying."
This city has taught me so much, so much about myself, about perseverance, about community and sacrifice and fear and hope. And I'll be damned if it hasn't taught me about football, about how a team--not just any team, but a truly special team--can bring a generally sane person, someone not given to public displays of emotion, to her knees on a random sidewalk, wailing to a stranger in a Saints jersey.

Strange and beautiful days, indeed.

* Like, why the fuck do they keep handing the ball back to Bush? Am I missing something??

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It Was Me

This morning, at 6 a.m., I headed out the door for my 15-mile training run. Now, I usually bring a small water bottle with me on long runs, but this morning I decided against it--I could hardly bear the thought of running for two and a half hours in the (dear-god-in-heaven-please-present-me-with-an-animal-carcass-so-that-I-may-crawl-into-it-) cold, let alone the prospect of lugging a plastic bottle filled with liquid for the entire distance. So I set off empty-handed, having mapped my route strategically, with public water fountains in mind.

Sounds like a good plan, right? (This is where you shake your head, marveling at my stupidity. It's okay, go ahead. Don't feel bad.)

The problem, of course, was that the water fountains had frozen overnight. I realized this after I spent a full minute slapping and punching the fountain near the bathrooms at the Fly; I finally put things together when I looked down to find myself standing on a sheet of ice. (Go ahead, please, I promise I cannot hear your snorts and chortles.). So I trotted into the ladies' room, where I hopefully turned the tap at the sink, only to be met with a meager trickle, which told me--I was catching on a little more quickly at this point--that the pipes in the bathroom had also frozen. I was parched, however, and with the knowledge that the next 12 miles would only leave me feeling more so, I bent my head and slurped. When I was finished, I turned the taps until I met resistance, then trotted off. At the top of Audubon Park, near the big playground, I found a similar situation: the water fountain, having frozen, was inoperable; the sink in the woman's bathroom provided me with a trickle. Once again I slurped, turned the taps until I met resistance, then headed off down the streetcar line.

About an hour later I stopped at the same restroom, to have a slurp and an energy gel. It took me several seconds to process the noise; it recalled a quickly flowing stream, though I knew nothing of the sort existed in close proximity. And that's when I saw the water rushing through the entrance to the bathroom, the same bathroom where I had stopped to--

Okay, you know what's coming, right?

--and yes, the sink was gushing water, so much that it had filled the small basin and had gathered in a two-inch puddle on the floor, topped the small ledge at the entrance, and was now spilling out onto the floor of the breezeway. I knew right away what had happened, of course: instead of turning the taps off, as I had intended to do, I had turned them all the way on, so that when the temperature rose just a little and the pipes warmed up, the deluge was initiated. And I was more than a little freaked out, looking around in panic as though someone in charge might realize that yes, it was I who had perpetrated this crime, then tiptoeing through the flood, soaking my shoes and the bottom of my pants, to turn off--off!--the taps.

Funny thing about shame, though: it really does tend to dissipate in the face of certain physical needs. Once, while enduring the Katrina gridlock at 9 months pregnant, I peed in a cup in the front seat of Cade's car, then handed it to him so that he could dump it out the window. So, this morning, despite my embarassment and desire to run far, far away from the scene of the crime, I stayed, I lingered, to look for an alternate source of water. I was so, so thirsty. I briefly considered the water in the sink--that's just how thirsty I was--before the thought occurred to me that, unless there is some male equivalent of me who runs around doing dumb shit really early on Sunday mornings, the men's bathroom would have a sink, and it would not be flooded. So, having determined that said bathroom was empty, I headed inside and turned on the tap.

I was busy slurping away when the door opened and someone stomped inside, muttering and cursing through undoubtedly frozen lips. I bent my head lower and prayed for obscurity, prayed that he would chose a stall, rather than the urinal which happens to be situated right next to the sink. But no such luck: he went for the urinal, and I can only assume that he assumed I was a man--a man of short and slight stature, perhaps--because he didn't seem alarmed by my presence, though we were so close at that point that our asses could have bumped. I slurped, in what I hoped was a manly fashion, while he peed, in what was definitely a manly fashion, and I thought the worst was over until he decided that hey, we're both here, we're both guys--let's have a conversation!

"Sure is cold out there, huh?"

I bent my head and considered my options. 1) Ignore him. Unfortunately, it is not in my nature to ignore people when they are speaking to me, and even if I did, he might assume I didn't hear him and come closer, thus blowing my cover and causing a most awkward encounter. 2) Answer, in my regular voice, and most likely cause a seriously awkward encounter. 3) Answer, in a...different sort of voice.

Now, you're probably sitting there shaking your head and muttering oh no she didn't, but I'm here to tell you that yes, yes I did, I most certainly did, I bent my head over that sink and I spoke like a man. I grunted, actually, in a tone several decibels lower than normal, in what I hoped was a manly fashion. And I guess it worked, because he wished me a good day, left, and I sat around, slurped out and humiliated, waiting until I was certain he was gone.

On my way back around the Fly, I noticed that someone had locked the door to both restrooms. Smart folks, they are. I hope they didn't get their shoes wet turning off- off!- that tap.

So there it is, my confession. Two points of advice: one, if you're going for a long run, bring your own water--it's just so much easier when all is said and done. And also, if you're going to Audubon today, you might want to avoid the ladies' room at the top of the park, near the big playground.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Home Sweet Home

It's a tricky thing, when people ask you where you're from. It used to be no big deal, of course; it used to be you'd smile and say "New Orleans!" and people would nod their heads with recognition and envy and tell you all about the time they came for Jazz Fest/Mardi Gras/Sugar Bowl/Bachelor Party and got totally hammered on Bourbon Street. It was generally acknowledged that New Orleans was a spectacular place, and while maybe you were just a tiny bit crazy for actually living there, it kind of made sense to folks. It was not, in other words, objectionable.

Not so anymore. These days, when people ask what has become for me the Dreaded Question, I find myself hesitating. Sizing the person up, quickly and silently, preparing myself. Is this guy, who seems perfectly nice and ordinary in his polo shirt and baseball cap, secretly one of those Fox News nutjobs? Am I going to spend the next hour defending my city (or, more to my nature, fall silent and listen with seething disdain, having long ago resigned myself to the knowledge that these people are not worth arguing with)? Will this soft-spoken, kind-eyed lady force me to recount every detail of my Katrina Experience, clucking her tongue throughout before posing a diplomatic but pointed question--that being, "But after all that, you decided to come back?" Will I nod, a bit sheepishly, ashamed of my sheepishness, feeling lame and defensive as I list the various reasons we live here, knowing all the time that no matter what I say, this person simply will not get it?
I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving in New York City, where my best friend and his fiance live. They share a beautiful, tiny studio apartment on the Upper West Side, right across the street from Cafe Lalo, one of my all-time favorite New York spots. I totally heart New York, in every way: running in Central Park, walking walking walking, everywhere and anywhere, the food, the subway, the energy, the people, the random celebrity sightings where I pretend to be all cool and jaded but am, in fact, freaking out just a little on the inside. And New York City in the fall: oof. I mean, you'd have to be brain dead, or just plain evil, not to find yourself awestruck and occasionally overwhelmed by the spectacle, both natural and man-made. It is, to me, an indescribably wonderful place, and although I will probably never live there, I have no difficulty understanding why so many people do.

One evening we visited the home of my friend's friends, a married couple expecting their first child. They were bright, creative, gregarious people who, despite having just purchased a spacious and undoubtedly expensive apartment in Tribeca, seemed as laid back and liberal as they come. Still, though, when the question came, I hesitated. Where are you from? she asked, absentmindedly rubbing her swollen belly, the way all pregnant women do. And I had a small, private moment of panic, knowing the conversation that was coming, the awkwardness I'd feel--do they really want to hear about this? or are they just being polite?--the likelihood that my friend would mention that hey, I was pregnant for Katrina, tell her the story, this is unbelievable. But I went on with it, feeling really tired and bored with myself, and unreasonably frustrated with everyone else, wishing for the first time that I was from Wichita, or Boulder, or anywhere else really, and I could just say so and that would be that.
This is a hard city to love, in so many ways. It's dangerous, and dirty, and the schools are just so bad. Politics are a joke and yes, there's that pesky hurricane business and did I mention the schools? But still. After all. What I mean to say is--

If you don't get it, you never will. You'll never know what it's like to stand in line for the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disney and see a family with Saints sweatshirts on and find yourself screaming "Who Dat!?" at them, even though you don't really care about football. You'll never understand why a beignet is much, much better than a dougnut, how the clang-clang-clang of the streetcar (NOT the trolley) coming down the line after a two year hiatus can bring tears to your jaded eyes. You will never line dance in the street on Mardi Gras day, nor will you understand how perfectly normal, sane people might be driven to knock down their elderly neighbors for a strand of plastic beads. And you'll never, ever know the pleasure of hearing your four-year-old squeal with joy upon discovering the king cake on the kitchen counter, on the first morning of Carnival. Your kids squeal for Santa; ours, well, they know real magic when they see it.