New Orleans is where myth and reality meet, and most days it’s tough to tell who’s winning.
A guy I respect tells me about a bar in the French Quarter that houses two urns, each featuring the ashes of a New Orleans Saints’ fan. He’s not sure how the story goes. Do I want to see the urns?
I’m on the way.
But first I stop at the Mississippi River, where the Creole Queen is docked. Who’s that waving from the deck of the 190-by-40 foot paddleboat? It’s captain Don Rojas. Or, as I like to think of him, Riverboat Don.
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Riverboat Don, who is 34 and grew up in New Orleans, proudly shows off the 30-year-old vessel. The boat accommodates up to 819 passengers and the 24-foot paddlewheel is its only means of propulsion.
We walk upstairs and, suddenly, I want to commit my life to the sea. There are radios and radar, an Automatic Identifying System, a wooden steering wheel and a blue cord.
Hey, what happens when you pull the blue cord?
“Let’s find out,” Riverboat Don says.
Pull the rope, sound the horn and watch the visitor go ceiling-ward like a young David Thompson. This is the sound the Panthers should replicate when Carolina coach Riverboat Ron Rivera converts a fourth down.
Does Riverboat Don take risks?
Fog is a risk. The Mississippi, which is 3½ feet above sea level on this day, can rise to 17 feet above. Rising water is a risk.
“We get a lot of debris in the river,” Riverboat Don says. “There’s risk in that as well. What I mean by debris is everything from logs, trees, refrigerators, ropes. You name it, it’s in the river. So, yes, there is risk. That’s why we have two captains on board instead of one.”
The Panthers also believe in multiple captains. A former captain is Jake Delhomme, who played quarterback for Carolina from 2003-09. He grew up in Louisiana, lives 90 miles west of New Orleans and will stand on the Carolina bench Sunday night.
Saints’ fans have interrogated Delhomme about the Panthers all week.
“Football in New Orleans truly affects people’s lives,” he says Saturday. “That’s the truth. That’s not an exaggeration.”
Example: Jason Kyle was Carolina’s long snapper from 2001-08, and finished his career as back-up long snapper for the Saints in 2009-10. That was the season they won the Super Bowl.
Kyle told Delhomme that grown men approached as he rode in the victory parade. They were crying. They told him, the back-up long snapper, how much his contribution meant.
And they were sober.
These are the fans that end up in urns in French Quarter bars. But one more stop before I greet them, and that’s Root.
Root is an enormously popular Warehouse District restaurant. Among Root’s offerings are Moroccan spiced pork & duck rillettes, roasted marrow bones and eggplant lemon ash radiatori. The proprietor and general manager is the impeccably dressed Maximilian Ortiz.
On game day, Ortiz ditches the pretty clothes and becomes Darth Saint. As a kid he loved Star Wars and the Saints. Over the years the process has, as Ortiz’s mom tells him, “spiraled out of control.”
Ortiz, 35, gets up at 5:30 a.m. for home games and spends 2½ to 3 hours painting his face and his head, putting on his costume and putting in the contact lenses – his vision is 20-20 – that turn his eyes red.
Ortiz loves the city in which he was raised, and in one beautiful sentence explains the qualities that distinguish it.
“We have character and characters,” he says.
He doesn’t mention urns.
I take a left, and another left, and walk inside the bar. A few stools down is a pleasantly drunken guy in a Santa suit. Behind the bar are five urns. The bartender isn’t sure any of them feature the ashes of a Saints’ fan.
What about that one?
The Saints’ colors are black and gold and the urn is black with maybe a little gold. It’s true that on the front of the urn is the word TEQUILA, which implies it could be a non-urn.
But this is New Orleans. I choose to believe.