Memories in old New Orleans

Everyone has a New Orleans story. It seems everyone has been there. Literally. You, your best friend, the mailman, the old guy that picks up the scrap tires down at the auto garage. And every one of them has a story that begins with, "There was this one time, on Bourbon Street …"

For Alabama fans, New Orleans is the time-share condo on the funkiest beach on the coast. That's because for years, Alabama might as well have been paying rent around New Year's Day. Through all the Sugar Bowl appearances, goal line stands, embarrassed University of Miami wide receivers and national championships, Alabama put its own stamp on a city that refused to be stamped by much of anything.

Columns like this are usually reserved for off weeks, where the most interesting news coming out of Tuscaloosa is whether they've figured out a way to route traffic around Ferguson Center. But the demise of New Orleans demands to be given proper address, particularly from fans of the school that practically owned it, in a way.

My own experiences with New Orleans are many. My father was a doctor, and was required to attend a certain number of continuing education classes in a given year. He always made sure one of those was in New Orleans. Off the top of my head, I figure I made between 12 and 15 trips to the Big Easy. At one time, I knew it so well that I could recall the layout of the French Quarter streets without having to glance at a map.

As I got older and moved away from my parents, though, I lost the ability to connect with the city. I've made only two trips back since 1989. Not consequently, they were the 1990 and 1993 Sugar Bowls.

Memories of the last two trips there are vivid. And in typical New Orleans fashion, they were unique unto themselves.

Prior trips to the Big Easy taught me a lot about growing up, probably more than my parents would have liked. On about half the trips down there, we stayed with a family friend at his home on Conti Street. In addition to housing us, he would take in complete strangers, or friends of friends of friends, letting them have a spare bedroom on the home's second floor. I was eight years old, trying to find the lone bathroom in that house once when I opened a door, cut on a light, and saw a couple, fast asleep – and completely, totally, 100 percent naked – lying on a bed. I made sure I waited about 10 years before I told my parents that story.

That particular house was also home to some other uniquely New Orleans happenings, like the time our friend let about 30 people sleep over on New Year's Eve – half of them whose names he didn't even know – and at about sunset that evening, one of the guests threw open the front shutters and started selling used flashbulbs to passers by, yelling "Happy Mardi Gras!", even though it wasn't. And people were buying.

As of this writing, my family still hasn't heard from our old friend, Charles Ramsey.

Like the fortunes of the Crimson Tide in its 1990 and 1993 New Year's Day games, my family's trips to New Orleans in those two years were distinctly different. Not only was the 1990 game, which followed Bill Curry's final 1989 season at Alabama, a disaster, so was our trip.

We stayed with Charles that week, because on our previous trip to New Orleans, someone had taken up the hobby of pulling the fire alarm every couple of hours at the Royal Sonesta, where we had a room. Now, being on Conti, we had to take cabs everywhere we went, and getting one to come to a residential location on Conti was a chore. We were very nearly late for the game because of it, and once we got there, found out we weren't sitting together.

After the game, we got lost trying to find the taxi stand, which wasn't where we were told it was going to be. We ended up walking two blocks in the pitch black dark until we stumbled across a hotel – the Miami team hotel at that – and were accosted by several fans drinking a concoction named after their mascot. This came a couple of days after my mother had been followed back to the house after breakfast by some guy with a green mohawk haircut sticking two feet straight up on top of his head. By the time we got back in our beds, we were swearing we'd never do this again.

Thanks to Gene Stallings, though, we did, coming back in 1993 to watch the rebirth of Alabama football on a national stage. Wanting to be closer to the action, we ended up in the honeymoon suite at one of the older hotels, the name of which I have unfortunately long forgotten. But I do remember that, with its brick interior walls, courtyard balcony and proximity to Bourbon Street, we got to experience the full flavor of tourist New Orleans.

And then, the game – and what a game it was. Everything on game day happened as you might read it in a fantasy tale. My family got there on time, sat together, and watched Alabama completely humble the Hurricanes, who under head coach Dennis Erickson, were in dire need of the experience. Looking back at tapes of the game and hearing ABC announcer Keith Jackson say, "He took the ball away! Teague's got the ball!", I remember saying the same thing at the same time to my mother, who could not rise quickly enough from her seat to watch the action at the other end of the field.

I remember my voice didn't come back for a week, and I didn't give a tinker's damn. I got my revenge the next night by going out to dinner in a restaurant filled with Miami fans, who were incredibly more hospitable and modest than the taunting mob that had shoved and cursed us as we tried to enter that hotel three years before, and hoarsely whispering "Roll Tide" to a couple at the bar on our way out.

Now, the same storied field on which Teague took the ball away, Krauss stopped a fullback over the top and McNeal inexplicably drove a man out of bounds sideways is covered in three inches of water and human excrement. They're talking about tearing the building down rather than repair it, and part of me can see the logic.

New Orleans will come back, in some form. Whatever form it comes back in, however, will not be the one I left on Jan. 3, 1993, after four days of good food, great family and watching Alabama win its 12th national title. At the same time, I'll remember it as the year when the guy in the Miami ibis mascot suit was shot in the eye two days before the game, and told the press it was going to take more than a bullet to the eye to keep him out of the stadium.

And there, in a nutshell, you have New Orleans. Crawfish, liquor, football and bullets. Cayenne pepper, anarchistic taxi cab drivers, restaurants backed by the mob and streets too narrow for a five-man offensive line to walk down shoulder-to-shoulder. Cars with every body panel dinged up, a football stadium with more history than most museums, the best music in the world and the only place south of Montreal where signs appear in both English and French.

New Orleans has always been that to all of us, particularly those of us in the South. It's the eccentric, flighty uncle with the limited criminal record, who is 50 (but never married) and who shows up to the family reunion half-lit, with three days of beard growing, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, telling the kids dirty jokes and telling prudish Aunt Betsy that if she'd spend more time out dancing than complaining about an uncle's tie-dyed shirt, she'd probably have a happier husband at home.

We probably won't get that New Orleans back. We'll get a sanitized shadow, as our flighty old uncle finally shaves, starts going to AA and makes up with Aunt Betsy. The French Quarter will still be there, but it may look more like a Disney resort than a 300-year-old French settlement that grew old but never grew up. And our Sugar Bowls? They may be happening in San Antonio, Atlanta or Nashville.

New Orleans, we will miss you. Les bons temps rouler, once more, please.

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