Only the city's natives know what it really means to be from New Orleans. But for those of us who grew up in Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama along the Gulf Coast, New Orleans was the bigger, more cosmopolitan sister city, where we went often for outrageous experiences, otherworldly food and, if we were lucky, a big-time football game in the Superdome.
The Saints were the only pro team to root for in that part of the country, since Florida felt so much like its own world. Just as a lot of New Orleans folks did, we called them the Aints during the worst of times. Still, they represented something of the city's flavor, and naturally, the fans and celebrations surrounding them were of an order unlike any other.
My hometown of Mobile, Ala., parallels New Orleans historically in many ways. There's a French and Spanish background, the gumbos and seafood culture, and they're both port cities with a wide influx of immigrants over time. Mobile even claims the first Mardi Gras—"Mother of the Mystics," they call it—but everybody knows it from New Orleans.
I was lucky, then, for the countless trips my parents made there with the whole family. Those journeys revealed a whole different South than the one that surrounded us most days of the week. My younger brother and I had our first raw oysters there. And of course, the Proustian food memories are without number—beignets at Café Du Monde, muffaletta at Central Grocery; the line outside Galatoire's because they didn't take reservations.
We might as well have been going to Paris, something my folks understood. They just had to take us there. Maybe they were thinking that someday it might be different.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, there were so many horrible images. The Superdome, though, went from the most stirring image of desperation and negligence to a symbol for the city working to be recast in a new light. And appropriately, the Dome is now home to the world champion New Orleans Saints. Both the team and the stadium renewed the city's vitality. I can't say I've followed the Saints in recent years more than in passing. I was excited for their great season this year, but it took me off guard that they had actually made it to the Super Bowl. But at the first signs they were doing well, I felt, as I'm sure others did, that, damn, that city deserves for them to win it all. I would never claim to know the place like those who have stuck around, but I was still beaming during Sunday night's big game, handing out beads to friends, trying to share the place I'd loved with those around me. Someone even made a king cake.
When I got dressed for work Monday, I threw on a T-shirt under a sweater and ran out the door. I hadn't realized until midday that I'd put on a ReNew Orleans shirt I'd bought in 2005 from the outfit supporting Crescent City musicians. Funny, I guess I just had to wear it.