Sunday morning in New Orleans the scent of stale beer and vomit lingers over the abandoned go cups and tendrils of broken Mardi Gras beads that several orange-suited workers sweep up under the marginally vigilant eyes of a cluster of police officers. It’s the smell of success on Bourbon Street. The good times are rolling again.
A few blocks away, just outside the French Quarter, Mass is about to begin at St. Augustine, the country’s oldest African-American Catholic parish and a historic civil rights landmark — this is the church where Homer Plessy, of the separate-but-equal Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson, was chosen by the congregation to sit in a whites-only railroad car, 63 years before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus. After Hurricane Katrina, the archdiocese tried to shut down the church — not enough parishoners left to sustain the cost, they said — and protests erupted. St. Augustine stayed open, and on this morning of the church’s 164th anniversary, TV camera crews have come to record the celebratory Mass of survival, which has drawn a crowd of outsiders. Black, white and brown faces mingle among the regular congregants and notable visitors, including Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who will stay long enough to wave hello to the crowd but leave before Communion.
A few in the pews have come for the music, and when the saxophone-led choir lets loose with “When the Saints Go Marching In” after a good round of musical “amens,” even the most timid sing along. But many of the newcomers don’t know how to react when, during the service’s “expressions of guests” segment, U.S. Representative William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, a.k.a. “Mr. $90,000 in the Freezer but Still Running for Re-election” Jefferson, doesn’t just do the politician-in-the-house wave, but delivers remarks on the Book of Job. He assures the gathered that this is not a campaign speech, but quizzical expressions appear on some faces when he tells how he’d been asked to pray for a friend and then reads from the 10th verse of Job’s 42nd chapter: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”
Is he asking for forgiveness, or $180,000 to put in his freezer?
Anyone who loves New Orleans knows that this is a town of decadence and sin, of hope and optimism. At Fiorella’s, toward the least-populated end of the French Market, decadence and hope comes on a plate in the form of the city’s finest fried chicken since the great chef Austin Leslie passed away a month after riding out Katrina in his attic. With the Saints game playing on the corner TV and plywood shoring up the hurricane-damaged entry, tourists and returning residents tell their stories, which range from harrowing tales of tsunami-force rushes of water to observations of hope in the lower Ninth Ward (Fats Domino’s house still standing proud, the pair of Doullut “steamboat” houses, built for his children by a riverboat captain, now freshly painted amid the wreckage of the neighborhood’s shotgun homes), to an argument between two girlfriends over which drink will get you drunk faster, a hurricane or a hand grenade. Let the good times roll.
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Back outside among the stalls of the French Market, all radios are tuned to the Saints game when, deep into the final quarter, Tampa Bay takes the lead, 21 to 17. “C’mon Saints!” shouts a guy looking over the jazz and zydeco CDs, while the proprietor tells a visiting businessman about the quality music at Donna’s over on Rampart Street.
Not long after, passing a display of books about Katrina and her aftermath, the African-American shopkeeper outside A Tisket A Tasket calls out, “Now, that’s the book to buy.” He points toward 1 Dead in Attic by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose. Like a strip-joint tout on Bourbon Street, his patter entices several customers into the store. He talks up Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge (“He’s a professor at Tulane University”), the Times-Picayune Katrina photo book, and turns to his favorite recipe in the new Uglesich’s Restaurant Cookbook (“That’s it, the barbecue shrimp”). Suddenly, his eyes drift toward a tiny black-and-white TV behind the cash register as USC hero and Saint rookie Reggie Bush fields a punt with just over four minutes to play and begins the 65-yard return that will win the game for New Orleans.
“Reg-gie BUSH! Reg-gie BUSH!” he shouts as Bush hits the end zone. “That’s the way to make your first touchdown! That’s the way!”
Even a UCLA fan must admit, it was a beautiful run. And these days, who isn’t rooting for the Saints?