If you ask me who the biggest football fan is in our family, I will tell you it is my sister Jennifer. Not my dad, who went to college on a football scholarship. It is neither my brother nor myself: my brother, who, as a child and youth, was very physically capable, but never got into sports that much. I played football through high school. I played for my dad, who coached at a local parochial school for 29 years, but I didn't really enjoy it in the four years after playing under his coaching. I don't enjoy it much, now.
After I left for college, Jennifer became dad's primary football watching buddy. Jennifer knows the game as well as any fan, having learned how to watch from our father, who has spent much of his life as a student of the game as well as the social and political aspects of it. Jennifer watches every Sunday. She watches the Minnesota Vikings, the home team of her childhood, with more dedication than teams of Chicago, her current home, or Washington, her most previous home. She watches with more dedication than she does the New Orleans Saints, the team of our parents' home, the home of many loved ones, and the somewhat darlings of American football.
As important as our roots there are, she does not like the Saints, she said to me over a recent holiday phone call. They play dirty, she told me. She doesn't like that. Dirty.
But among all the character(s), virtues and charms, that is what New Orleans is: a mix of wonder and dirt.
For a long time, people who vacationed there, even vacation there frequently, talk about how much they love the town. I love the town, too, but the New Orleans they talk about is almost unrecognizable to me.
Most summers as a child, our family would make a trip down to New Orleans from our Minnesota home. It was three weeks with grandma and grandpa. Three weeks of getting spoiled. Three weeks of seeing and meeting relatives, my father's old friends, amazing food and more getting spoiled by grandma and grandpa.
It was also three weeks of culture shock. Three weeks of seeing fist (and stick/rock/bat) fights break out. It was a lesson of seeing how poor people could be in America. It was a lesson on how the city's “fathers” were content to allow some streets to experience a cumulative decay and filth, mitigated only by the rare man or woman with the time and initiative to literally take their broom into the streets.
New Orleans is the place of the French Quarters, an amazing spectacle of culture and architecture. Most of this was built with slave labor. Not a labor of love. Not compensated. Hardly recognized. It is the place of some of the greatest music on earth, created by it's unique cultural mix: a history of slave life; emotive of long and deep suffering and the pockets of joy infused to keep the spirit alive long enough to produce the next generation who, hopefully, will be freed from the despair.
New Orleans is the home of a levy design that conveniently selected a level of tolerance for disaster that certain strata of the cultural echelon could survive. It is the place where the fault of that levy eventually brought that disaster. That disaster, hurricane Katrina, brought a military action against the victims of the storm. The lack of investment in infrastructure and the penchant for treating the city's residents with disdain were two of the the many secrets that dominant culture worked to keep from tourists and anyone else from whom it is important to impress with the idea that things are okay.
It is also the home of the New Orleans Saints. They won the Super Bowl last year. This year, are they okay?
It is easy to get lost in the sea of success and popularity when searching for fairness and justice. In moments of despair, long bouts of despair, and cultures of despair, it is easy to accept the facade of “okay.” Who knows what America's Team will blow in on the winds of the winds of our next Katrina. Who knows what secrets will blow in with it—and what secrets will get swept away?
Conveniently, Jennifer's favorite team is the Vikings. The team that no longer has the narcissistic quarterback whose secrets have had their covers blown away. She will watch next season a team with a new coach who is described as one of the good guys. Jennifer is far enough away, in Chicago, for it to remain a secret to her, as it will effectively for many of the people here, to hear the legislators who started their session today in Minnesota talk about putting a chunk of our money into helping billionaires respond to the tattered roof of their current playing home.
Come fall, Jennifer will call dad on Sundays. They will make informed comments about what they see. They will know that I, nearly 35 years removed from my last touchdown catch, will not be watching—and they won't call. They don't need to call. It is enough to know that they get to share that joy. Their phone chatter is a slightly kept secret with few compromises. It is a place to escape the dirty.