The Saints’ Win and New Orleans Lagniappe


     The word lagniappe is frequently used in Louisiana. It means a little something extra; a small gift. During the two weeks between the Saints winning the NFC Championship game against the Vikings and Sunday’s Super Bowl, you heard lagniappe used this way: “I’m happy enough the Saints are in the Super Bowl. If they win, that’s lagniappe.”
     If I were to give a foreigner advice on Louisiana culture, I would say the two important points of reference are lagniappe and destiny. New Orleans is a city of impulses, it is governed not so much by the mind as by instinct: by necessity and desire. This is why in a Streetcar Named Desire Blanche Dubois remarks “when you get off of the streetcar named desire, you get on the streetcar toward cemeteries.” That’s life anywhere, I suppose -love and death-but it is especially characteristic of the way it feels in New Orleans.
     The point in between your heart’s longings and death -though Blanche unfortunately never said much about it -is lagniappe: those frivolous little gifts you enjoy along the way.
     I learned a lot about watching football from the Championship game between the Saints and the Vikings. We were at a little bar on the corner of Chartres and Bienville in the French Quarter. An artist sitting at the counter with a pencil and pad of paper sketched the faces of the bar crowd watching the game: the faces at first were apprehensive, alternating between worried, angry, joyful, elated. As the Saints scored the final winning points, the bar broke into a frenzy of Who dats! And we broke out onto the French Quarter streets, hugging strangers and slapping high fives. College kids in black and gold drove sports cars with the tops down through the streets, hollering and cheering. People were in a bliss of Who dats; people yelled they loved other people; people broke into spontaneous, joyful tears.
     Aside from Who dat?! (as in, Who dat says dey gunna beat dem Saints? Who dat?! Who dat?!) Saints fans like to say “winning is an attitude.” The slogan is printed on tee-shirts and bumper stickers, done in the Saint’s black and gold and with the symbol of the fleur de lis. For many years, since the Saints weren’t winning games so much, the team’s winning attitude was all they had. That, and, perhaps even of greater importance, the faith their fans placed in them.
     Used to be I didn’t know if the slogan was about the Saints or the city of New Orleans, and even still, I forget the two are not one and the same.
      “We did this for the city of New Orleans,” Saints receiver Marcus Colston said Sunday, after the Saints’ victory.
I learned a lot about watching football during that Championship game, but I learned even more about it Sunday night, watching the Super Bowl. We watched the game from a corner on the main floor of the House of Blues in the French Quarter. It was shown on a giant screen and the crowd was packed wall to wall, in black and gold and eager to win. This is the Way We Live, one of the several popular remixed Saints songs got the crowd stepping and clapping and cheering alongside rounds of Who dat!
     Curling irons were kept hot on the counter in the women’s bathroom, and you could buy toiletries and hairspray from the attendant.
     When the victory was won, we were again on the French Quarter streets, slapping high fives, hugging strangers, and hollering our hearts out, pushing through the shoulder to shoulder crowd. We rode our bikes through the streets going the wrong way, greeting passengers of cars through unrolled windows: Who dat! Who dat! Who dat!
     There isn’t a place on earth I would have wanted to be other than New Orleans then.
     It didn’t ever matter so much to people in these parts that the Saints weren’t winning in previous years. The Saints are a Louisiana team. They are the Saints and they are our team has always been the attitude here. And that alone has been enough. Winning the Championship game and going to the Super Bowl then, was all lagniappe. It was a special little something that delighted everybody. It was an excuse to wear strictly black and gold for two weeks straight, to drink beer at noon. It was also a way to believe, really believe, that life really is getting better, that there really is the possibility of overcoming the tragedies that have befallen this region (that have befallen all of us, in any region, in our own times and ways). It was the little gift of hope about the future; it was destiny, not just for the Gulf South.
     When I read in the paper last Friday about a 15-year-old boy who was shot dead at six a.m. in New Orleans as he waited the catch the bus to school, I shocked myself first by not being shocked by the reality that a child can be shot dead on his way to school (no, I’m never shocked anymore, only outraged). I shocked myself by how sorry I felt that if this kid had only made it a couple more days he would have seen the Saints go to the Super Bowl. What a great tragedy it still seems that he missed it.
Like so many things, the Saints winning the Super Bowl was lagniappe, and yet the win was crucial. It proved to millions of fans what they already believed to be true: the spirit of New Orleans, Louisiana and of the Gulf Coast cannot be defeated.
     I’ve been in New Orleans just less than four years now. Walking from my car to the Orleans Parish Courthouse on Tulane Ave. this afternoon, the street was quiet and empty and the pale, sunny sky was cloudless blue. No one was around, in part, because at least a couple thousand New Orleanians were just then lining up in cars outside the airport to welcome the Saints as they arrived home from Miami.
     I guess it was because of the quiet street that I got to thinking then about June 2006, nine months after Katrina, when the National Guard was called on a tour of duty to the city to keep order in the many empty neighborhoods. The camouflage humvees sat on the street and neutral ground outside the Orleans Parish Courthouse. They filled up the whole area between lanes along Tulane and took up blocks of curb space around the hotel, a lone revamped building amid windowless, wind-wrecked structures, where members of the military were put up during their stay.
     Thinking about that time, I stepped over an empty gin bottle and untangled my foot a couple times from free floating plastic bags-the remnants I suppose of someone’s supplies from the weekend’s Mardi Gras parades and Super Bowl game.
     As I neared City Hall, a man veered across the sidewalk toward me. Glimpsing his unsteady walk I reached in my pocket for spare change. “I have just one question to ask you,” he said, coming close and smiling that way folks in New Orleans do: “Who dat?”
     His smile was contagious. I couldn’t help but smile back. “Who dat!” I said. It was lagniappe.

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