Spencer Hall attends a funeral in New Orleans, the only possible final resting place for the 2011 college football season.
"We put the fun in funeral -- NEW ORLEANS."
-- bumper sticker seen on car in the Garden District
It is Friday. Carnival season began the day before. King cakes have popped up all over the place, the glorified cinnamon buns shot through with cream cheese and coated with purple, green, and yellow sugar. Served in triangular slices, they mark the arrival of carnival season. A small seed sits inside each one: a plastic baby, the sign of good luck, whose owner quickly understands the obligation to bring King Cake to the party the following year, and possibly that he has just cracked a tooth badly and is in need of emergency dental surgery.
They are the first thing I notice in New Orleans. The second are the Rolling Elvii, a crew of Elvis impersonators. I scarcely noticed them; that in itself may be a testament to how quickly and quietly expectations are recalibrated upon arrival into the New Orleans Reality Distortion Vortex. One skinny Elvis is talking in my right ear while the Cotton Bowl sputters to an end on the flatscreen in front of us.
He speaks at a full roar over the juke box.
See, I went to Appalachian State? And when we beat Michigan, they flipped out and said, we have to be like them, don't we? That's what we have to do, we have to be like everyone else and run the spread so that's what they did, and that destroyed them? I mean, if you're boring, just be boring. Don't apologize for it, right? Just be what you are. Right? Hey, look at these.
He points to his wife's breasts. She laughs and opens her shirt. For some reason I am awarded a scarf for the small effort of taking part in this process. The Cotton Bowl expires behind us, and Bobby Petrino flashes a grim, reptilian smile at the handshake at midfield. With the Cotton Bowl over, and the night ahead, roughly 72 hours separate the present from the national title game. The streets of the French Quarter and Garden District are quiet and well-patrolled, and the walk home is quiet, cool, and lit by by the cold glare of a waxing, nearly full moon.
That night nine people are shot in New Orleans, including five in a single incident.
It is Saturday. New Orleans does not need this lesson about being itself. It has no choice but to be what it is. We walk to the Super Wal-Mart on Saturday morning. (Yes, that Wal-Mart.) A man holding a pitbull like a pistol in front of him walks past us, the dog's paws sticking out parallel to the ground, its head facing forward and its ears flat back against its head in complete surrender. We pass each other, asking no questions.
The lower Garden District is alive with construction, provided it is an acceptable hour for work, and you happen to have workers that day. Working on reconstruction jobs here has its own quirks. Things take longer. Permits require some dextrous bureaucratic wrangling. Sometimes cash works when all else fails, as it has for centuries now in New Orleans. A ten-dollar bill and some frantic waving at the city maintenance truck goes further toward filling a tire-killing rut in the road than weeks of phone tag with officials. (This happened while I was there.)
Still, there is the faded Tyvek logo shining through on the sides of a dozen half-finished and half-destroyed buildings on this walk. That shotgun house's entire back end is a sagging, surreal landslide of rotted wood; this one appears to have taken several mortar shells through the roof.
The looming husk of the Louisiana Power building is on the left. I ask my guide what they're going to do with it.
"Oh, it's going to be a Bass Pro Shops. Firing range. Going to have a giant stocked lake in the middle."
We buy an air mattress at WalMart. We buy the last air mattress at Wal-Mart, because over the past few days they have flown off the shelves as people searching for hotel rooms look for anything resembling a bed. There are stories of people buying houses here and finding total strangers squatting in them: Mexicans, hippies, destitute randoms who threw their garbage beneath the houses, bringing armies of rats with them.
The squatters this week are football fans, and they have stuffed the city full to the rotting, overtaxed seams. Some just stay through the whole Ring Cycle that's unfolding here: from the Saints game on Saturday to the full two-channel roar of the BCS Championship Game on Monday, taking whatever rest the city offers on Sunday to recover from the punishment of a Saints tailgate and subsequent festivities.
We walk around the Saints tailgate, surveying the giddy free-form lack of order. Children get beer pong tutorials. (Just the basics, and without the beer, or at least without any beer I saw them drinking.) A woman has her six-month-old at the tailgate, a pack-and-play at the ready to put the child down for a nap in the middle of the Superdome parking lot.
The Saints crowd in comparison to an LSU mob is more New Orleans and less frat house: weirder, more diverse, and less reliably typecast than a Tigers Stadium tailgate. Detroit fans bask in the 70-degree weather and sip gin from tiny cups of ice and lime. The costumes roll in; at one point, Saints Boba Fett and Saints Joker exchange business cards. There are more tattoos per inch of exposed skin here than you would see at LSU, more Rebirth Brass Band and less "Callin' Baton Rouge."
I am headbutted by a Saints fan descending the ramp. It turns out to be a friend of mine on the giving end, but for an instant I have no idea who it is, and am blinded by the sudden pain. In the King Cake of humanity around the Superdome, I have bitten into the lucky slice containing the surprise of the season. No one seems to think this is that unusual. No one seems to think this is unusual in the least.
In February 1958 when he died, the classic comment (usually attributed to Red Skelton) upon seeing the large number of people showing up for Cohn's funeral: "Give the people what they want, and they'll turn out for it!" When a member of the Temple asked the Rabbi to say "one good thing" about the deceased, he paused and said "He's dead".
-- Anecdotes from the funeral of despised Hollywood mogul Harry Cohn
It is very early Sunday morning. There is a cab ride you take in New Orleans late at night. The windows are foggy with humidity. The lights are too bright when they pass, and the dark far too dark when it comes. The wall is high, and shot through with cracks from moisture and the slow prying of trees and vines. Behind it, tiny white spires and crucifixes. Cities of the dead all over the place, stowed behind walls and rusty iron gates, that pass in the night between the bars and the restaurants and the one last bar you hit before checking your watch aghast at the hour.
The older cemeteries -- built above ground to keep the bodies from literally resurfacing and floating like gory corks after rainstorms -- had small bells mounted above them, with strings going down into the crypt itself. Just in case, in the haste of a 19th-century burial, you had done something like bury the living on accident, the unfortunate person could simply ring the bell for help.
I am in New Orleans to watch the end to a season, to bury it properly with whatever will happen in the game, and note the time and manner of its interment. It has some loved ones, and they have made the trip. We won't judge, as funerals are not the time for judgment of the living.
Most others, though, would be all too happy to bury this year. 2011 will be remembered -- unfairly or not -- as the year of Sandusky, of the rapidly paling Ohio State and Miami scandals, of tragic overdoses, of a thousand little squalors and a few huge ones adding up to form the worst possible picture of college football's plantation system. Ugly as it was, in sum it was not an inaccurate portrayal of the recently departed, either.
And starting the day with the last dregs of the night is never conducive to thinking happy, optimistic thoughts, but driving past the cemetery in the backseat of a cab headed uptown at two in the morning, I don't know if I would answer the bell if it turned out we had buried 2011 too soon. I might just put my hands in my pocket and whistle, walking innocently away and hoping no one saw me in the act in the light of the full bayou moon.
Later that day, we go airboating on the bayou in Lafitte. The things I remember: the dead cypress trees standing ragged at the poisoned, brackish edge of the swamp, and the hissing of the alligator our guide almost stepped on getting out onto a bank. It went quiet for a moment, and the tiny mustachioed Cajun grabbed a paddle and slapped the water in front of it.
"Is he in there?" asked an Australian tourist behind us.
The same watery hiss, like someone opening a steam valve deep within the muddy bank, reported from inside.
"Oh, he dere."
It is Monday. Jordan Jefferson is playing blind, incoherent football. Alabama has this effect on teams, but this is something entirely different from mere defensive domination. This is the kind of walking hallucination that struck Troy Smith in the 2006 BCS National Championship Game, a complete debacling leaving him looking like one huge misfiring motor neuron in cleats. At one point, Jefferson all but hands the ball to Alabama's C.J. Mosely, standing calmly in the short zone not five yards in front of him. Mosely takes it, runs five yards downfield, and then has his leg broken on the tackle.
This sequence was everything you could want to know about this game, a brute asphyxiation of LSU that played out exactly like every other win from Alabama. LSU did not cross the 50 until there were eight minutes left in the contest. The pressure of Alabama's defensive line and airtight coverage left Jefferson floundering, and when the final seconds ticked off and Nick Saban raised the corners of his lips in a gesture he has been told is a "smile," LSU had a mere five first downs for the entire contest.
Having left LSU's offense ringing the bell in the sarcophagus, the Alabama offense let A.J. McCarron throw smash routes and hand the ball off until a gassed LSU defense, one that received zero rest throughout the game, gradually disintegrated beneath the weight of hopelessness. In the game of torture, Nick Saban football is a stress position: attempt to hold it long enough, and you will break. Maybe not in five minutes, maybe not in 10, but eventually, over the course of time, your body will override your mind and surrender.
In the bars, Alabama fans demanded to hear their coach. The bartenders played LSU's fight song over him. Saban, mouthing words on the screen dispassionately, looked every bit the undertaker. The imagery has been used before, by Alabama's coaches themselves: play us, and attend your own funeral. But that sounds so morbid, really. A funeral is a party for Alabama. You leave your body, and they get paid after laying you out. This defense was as efficient a crew of undertakers as there have ever been in college football.
Their art is grim, but, still, call it what it is: art, and nothing less.
This is the end of something. You assume the eternity of the present, but none of this stays. Just eight years ago Nick Saban stood on the other sideline, worrying a headset into oblivion as Chad Lavalais demolished Oklahoma's offensive line in Saban's first turn through the BCS Trophy greeting line. Les Miles spent his days coaching Oklahoma State as a little-known head coach without name recognition or an SEC recruiting budget on his side. New Orleans itself was twice as big, and the roofs of the city were not caved in or blown clean off by Katrina. Things change. On a few lucky occasions, they even improve.
This city still lives. Corrupt, dirty, and sewn together from the plans and designs of architects who couldn't know what they were building. After the game, Alabama fans poured into the French Quarter, snagging Hand Grenades from Tropical Isle, pounding the bricks of what were once slave streets yelling, "14!" to each other with wide eyes and necks draped with elephant-themed mojo. LSU fans consoled themselves by drinking heavily, and taking long waits at the lines at Harrah's and Rick's Cabaret. Police horses swam through the crowds, tiny girls in houndstooth skirts and hats patting their sides as they passed. The smells of booze, urine, and horseshit hung in the humid air.
If there was to be a funeral for 2011, it was only fitting that it take place in New Orleans, and that the somber Crimson Tide be the ones perform the services, and then enjoy the proper festivities of a NOLA funeral march afterwards. Don't mourn the passing of this one, though. No one will, or should. A funeral is still a funeral.