What happened in the New Orleans Superdome Monday night was a type of miracle. Which is fitting, because New Orleans itself is and always has been a living miracle, a testament to faith’s victory over folly.
To be clear, no visitor to New Orleans today can come away thinking anything other than that the city still teeters on the brink of permanent ruin. There is a “sliver by the river” — Uptown on the river side of St. Charles Avenue, the Garden District, and the French Quarter — that would look almost untouched by Hurricane Katrina if it weren’t for the frazzled, overburdened expressions of its old-line denizens. Commerce seems almost to thrive there, and whole neighborhoods are clean and bright.
Then there’s a large area, roughly midway between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, that is slowly, all-too-slowly yet surely, renovating itself room by room and scattered house by scattered house.
But then (as of just over two weeks ago), in the half of the city closer to the lake, there still are the immense, seemingly endless swaths of ruined, abandoned homes on ruined, abandoned blocks, with weeds and bushes and scrawny new trees sometimes growing eave-high against the walls of what once were residences, threatening to engulf the structures in the manner of a voracious forest reclaiming land from a long-lost civilization. Perhaps one random property per block might show signs at least of a human touch: a lawn mowed in front of a still-scarred and unlived-in home, or a half-rebuilt garage, or a well-scrubbed exterior of a house still without furniture. Mile after mile the devastation yet stretches, creating in its observer a sick, empty feeling so deep in the gut that it seems fathomless in both senses of the word.
Drive back towards downtown from the lake along world-famous Canal Street, and the disquiet grows. Earlier in the day, the part of Canal between the French Quarter and the Central Business District had been eerily empty; now, at 4 in the afternoon, it’s almost frighteningly teeming with people who don’t look happy. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s the gangsta attire, even on 60-year-olds, that is most disturbing, especially when combined with crowds heedlessly spilling over the sidewalks into the street and all but daring drivers to fail to dodge them. It’s not that these are bad people; it’s that there is neither order nor, apparently, any societal standards being upheld — and certainly almost no police around to maintain discipline.
In point of fact, these people, almost all of them black, do nothing visibly threatening. Their teeming, undisciplined appearance is not a fault of theirs, but a product of their numbers and of the city’s lack of resources to maintain order. The truth is, when you think of it, they have almost no place else to go once school or the day’s labors have ended. Their city may have its tourist spots open, saved by slight gradations in topography. But its neighborhood institutions, its playgrounds and Boys Clubs and taverns and “benevolent societies,” exist mostly in memory now. The actual buildings, the facilities and meeting places and infrastructure, will not be rebuilt for years.
THAT’S WHY WHAT HAPPENED in the Superdome Monday night was such a miracle. For 39 years, the biggest ground of commonality for New Orleanians has been a usually woebegone, losing football team. White and black, rich and poor, we all love our Saints. We love them because their very existence tells the world that in at least one sense the Crescent City remains “big-league.” We love them because they always seem to face long odds, odds as daunting as those faced by the settlers who braved mosquitoes, malaria, marsh and mud to create what quickly became one of the world’s great port cities. Cursed by voodoo, or perhaps just by bad management, the Aints mirror their city’s foibles.
This was the team whose first main quarterback, Billy Kilmer, sometimes resorted to drawing plays in the dirt of old Tulane Stadium, trying to make up with guile and pluck for the lack of talent and lack of good coaching that surrounded him. This was the team that hired a former astronaut as a general manager, apparently unaware that his knowledge of stars in the heavens would not translate to an ability to identify stars on a gridiron. This was a team whose most beloved player ever, Archie Manning, never enjoyed a winning record in even one single year; a team that wasted a first-round draft choice on a kicker-punter who couldn’t make a field goal and who ended up in jail for fraud; a team whose greatest play in its first three decades was a field goal kicked by a guy with half a foot, as all-pro opponent Alex Karras rolled on the ground laughing at the very notion of such a gimp clearing the crossbar from 63 yards away.
A natural disaster tried to ruin even that triumph for Saints fans listening on the airwaves: Just as the ball was snapped, a huge swarm of bees flew into the transmitter and utterly ruined the radio signal. (Yes, that’s a true story.)
Yet this bedraggled franchise, for now, has risen from the mire. Against the team’s greatest rival, the Atlanta Falcons, in front of a national TV audience, the Saints dominated from start to finish in a Superdome refurbished after serving 56 weeks ago as a worldwide symbol of squalor and despair. Unless you are from New Orleans, unless you have sat in that Dome (and in Tulane Stadium before it) and endured the Bag-heads and the Who-Dats, the fumbles and the stumbles, you just can’t fully understand what a balm that rocking, pulsating, victorious Superdome was for so many of us spread all across this great, wide land.
Flawed as it may be, New Orleans is a city that never gives up no matter how outlandish the idea of success may be. Which is perhaps why it was fitting that its football team’s first-ever All-Pro was an undersized receiver drafted way deep in the 17th round, an afterthought named Danny Abramowicz of whom it was joked he was so slow-footed that he couldn’t outrun his own shadow on a moonless night. Part-way through the first Saints training camp, head coach Tom Fears called Abramowicz into his office to tell the receiver he was being cut from the team. He just didn’t have the physical tools, Fears said, to play in the NFL.
Abramowicz, fearless, looked Fears in the eye and said, “Coach, I’m not leaving. I can help this team. You can’t get rid of me.”
Fears looked at the unlikely physical specimen before him and reconsidered. Aw, hell, he decided, I’ll let him stay a little longer.
Danny Abramowicz ended up staying long enough to lead the entire NFL in catches one year, and to set what was then the league record for catching at least one pass in the most consecutive games.
New Orleans has a thing about facing Fears and refusing to go away. And at the hour of the city’s greatest needs, its Saints are marching in.