Letters From New Orleans

Photograph by Allyson O'Keefe

What It Takes to Make the Sainthood

Saturday is election day. Sunday is the Super Bowl. From Mardi Gras nights to mayoral panels, our writer surveys two big fights in New Orleans to get things right.

The man behind us is adamant: “Brees gotta throw the shotgun in there! Gotta throw the shotgun.”

My roommates are huddled together, hands clasped anxiously. “Brett Fav-RE just got hit.” They jeer as though he tripped in the cafeteria. With his helmet on, Favre looks like a little boy. When it’s off, though, it seems like he could use his slippers and a cup of tea.

The Saints’ N.F.C. Championship game was the second time I’d watched football for more than 10 minutes straight. The first time was a week earlier when the Saints beat the Cardinals. When the Bears were in the Super Bowl a few years back, I tried to sit through the game but the seven-layer dip was in the kitchen.

I am learning as we watch, though. I text to my more knowledgeable friends proudly: “Fumble!” “Blitz!” “Overtime!” Out of courtesy I’d declined their half-hearted invitations to watch with them. They wouldn’t have welcomed the question, “What just happened?” every time a penalty’s called. (Facemasking?)

That week, otherwise unrelated text messages about dinner plans or directions ended with, “Who Dat?!”

The game is in overtime and my friend Ashley makes everyone at the table drink a shot of Crystal hot sauce. But my boyfriend won’t do it. Our cajoling turns to threats—“You’re gonna make the Saints lose.” He escapes to another table and Garrett Hartley kicks a field goal to win the game.

The bar erupts; the city erupts. A friend later tells me that the Nielsen rating in New Orleans for that game was 80. The true number turned out to be around 63, but that still means two-thirds of all New Orleans televisions on during the game were watching the Saints. Not quite 80 percent, but still the largest local rating for an N.F.L. post-season game.

“Let’s go to Miami!” my roommate shouts. I remind her I just learned what a first down was last week.

Outside the bar the honking starts. My friends head downtown, but I’m too drunk and tired. I go home and pass out listening to Morse Code of blaring horns. How do you say, “Who Dat?!” in dots and dashes?

If you’re looking to begin or end a particular conversation with a stranger in New Orleans, mention the Saints. The next day, my neighbors are drinking on the porch. “You watch the game?” They’re testing me. I shout, “Yeah, Super Bowl!”

A self-described “number-one hustler and drug addict” outside the house is persistent. He wants us to hire him to cut the grass. “I went out to the bar last night to watch the Saints game, I don’t have any money,” my friend tells him. “Ah, who dat?!” the man yells and walks away smiling.


* * *

For six of the seven days following the N.F.C. Championship, the “Super Saints” and Saints-related news are the Times-Picayune’s lead story. On Tuesday, Jan. 26, alongside a lead story on fan excitement and lesser headlines on whether to go to Miami or stay in New Orleans, is the headline: “Football Benches Election Buzz in N.O.”

Elections for New Orleans mayor, city council, sheriff, assessor, coroner, judges, and district court clerks are being held tomorrow, the day before the Super Bowl. Though the runoff election for mayor is scheduled for March 6, a candidate can win outright if he or she secures at least 50 percent of the vote.

Campaign signs, flyers, and billboards have spread like a rash across the city in the past month. Tracey Davillier—candidate for Juvenile Court Judge—glad-handing at an Uptown bar is a minor celebrity sighting.

“Look,” I nudged Ashley from the other side of the room, “that’s the chick from the billboard.”

On Jan. 27, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris delayed a Feb. 1 jury trial. According to the order:

The court takes judicial notice that Saints mania permeates the City of New Orleans. Many prospective jurors for the Parish of Orleans, several attorneys involved in this litigation and Court personnel plan on traveling to the promised land—the Super Bowl in Miami, Florida. The Court recognizes that this pilgrimage enhances the chances of the Who Dat Nation to acquire the long sought after Holy Grail—the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

There are 11 candidates officially on the ballot for mayor of New Orleans, but only six are said to be contenders: James Perry is a 34-year-old fair housing advocate; John Georges and Troy Henry are businessmen; Rob Couhig is the only Republican running, and Nadine Ramsay, a former Civil District Court judge, is a long shot whose grandfather died in the Lower Ninth Ward during post-Katrina flooding. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is the race’s frontrunner and the brother of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. He entered the race only eight weeks ago. If he wins, Landrieu will be New Orleans’s first white mayor in 30 years.

One of the earliest Mardi Gras parades is also one of the dirtiest and most political.A lot of people on the internet and talk radio with opinions about Louisiana politics are either “playing the race card” or accusing someone of “playing the race card.” From what I can tell, bringing up the race card is an effective way to avoid talking about racism.

Landrieu tells WWL Radio, “Do you really think anybody cares right now that (Saints quarterback) Drew Brees doesn’t happen to be African-American? Or do you think they care that he’s white? They don’t really care. Do you know what they care about? Are we going to win the Super Bowl?”

The outcome of the mayoral race will be a victory for someone, but could very well be a loss for New Orleans. If the Saints win the Super Bowl, the entire city will have reason to celebrate, but will that have any lasting impact on blight or corruption? This past November, William Jefferson, the city’s local Congressman, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery. No one here bats an eye when employees are caught stealing from school payrolls, or government contractors are investigated for an “elaborate kickback scheme.”

As a very recent transplant, I get irritated when people can name the Saints lineup but not the mayoral candidates.


* * *

Jan. 30 was Krewe Du Vieux in the French Quarter. The theme this year is “All Fired Up.” One of the earliest Mardi Gras parades is also one of the dirtiest and most political. The temperature is near-freezing that night. Shivering in the crowd, a woman in front of me lobs beads at a giant “flaming” paper-mâché asshole—“Fire in the Holes”—on a mule-drawn cart. I compliment her aim; she credits “softball and sex.”

Krewes march past dressed as flying pigs, carrying signs that read: “Hell Froze Over,” dancing in the streets now that the Saints are in the Super Bowl. Floats skewer Bobby Jindal, Pat Robertson, and Mitch Landrieu. Ray Nagin roasts on a spit and signs saying, “Third term such a Night-Mayor” abound.

But the biggest, most memorable float is the “VOODAT.” Marchers dressed as voodoo-doll Vikings’ and Colts’ players dance around a giant football. The slogan, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the Saints,” is punctuated by tombstones for teams they’ve slain.

A few days earlier, the N.F.L. sent letters to two New Orleans T-shirt stores demanding they cease and desist selling New Orleans Saints trademarked merchandise. The N.F.L. claims they own not just the team logo and its name, but also the phrase “Who Dat” when used in connection.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter doesn’t support a public healthcare option, but he supports the right to “Who Dat” T-shirts. In a reply to N.F.L. commissioner Roger Goodell, Vitter wrote, “I am having T-shirts printed that say ‘WHO DAT say we can’t print Who Dat!’ for widespread sale in commerce. Please either drop your present ridiculous position or sue me.”


* * *

Back at home my roommate is cutting a “Who dat say we gotta cease & desist?” stencil to make shirts for the clothing store where she works.My friend Brittany and I drive out to Algiers for a mayoral forum on housing and transportation. Tracey Davillier is there, introducing herself to people in the crowd, but Mitch Landrieu doesn’t show. Couhig and Georges take the opportunity to label Landrieu a “career politician” and accuse the Lieutenant Governor of “cutting deals with political groups” to the sparse, sleepy crowd.

Back at home my roommate is cutting a “Who dat say we gotta cease & desist?” stencil to make shirts for the clothing store where she works. “It’s two separate issues,” she explains. “It’s just that they’re happening at the same time.”

“But one is overshadowing the other,” I protest.

“The Saints are overshadowing everything. They’re overshadowing Mardi Gras. It’s better than I thought it would be. I just thought it was going to be riots in the streets and nobody working.”

There’s a photo from that Vikings game of two guys with their upper bodies painted gold, “Who Dat” written in black on their bellies. They’re hanging over the side of the stadium, screaming. This brand of fervor is the reason I wouldn’t go to any college with a decent football team. But this week, I imagine two best friends getting ready for the game, shotgunning beers and painting their bellies, and it almost seems sweet.

New Orleans is the most welcoming place I’ve ever been. Contrasted with the pettiness and enmity of its political races, frenzy over the Saints has made friends out of acquaintances. I may not know a linebacker from a wide receiver, but if my friends ask me to paint my body on Sunday, I’ll do it—as long as they vote tomorrow.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka