There's no moving Bourbon Street north

September 20, 2005|By RICK MAESE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Four quarters of football and then back to reality. Watching the black-and-gold line up on the field is only a brief sigh. You don't want it to end. You don't want to go home. You don't want to think about home. Because you don't know what home is anymore.

A home game, they called this. The New Orleans Saints playing their first home game of the season in New Jersey - Giants Stadium. Against the Giants.

This wasn't their home. Not for the players on the field. Not for the few fans sprinkled in the stands. Not for the cheerleaders on the sidelines. And certainly not for Eddie Compass.

Compass is the New Orleans police chief who stood next to former President George H.W. Bush for the coin toss last night. He was smack dab in the middle of Giants Stadium. But that wasn't his home.

The game ended - a 27-10 Giants win - and Compass returned to a New Jersey hotel room. He was to wake up this morning and fly back to his real home, to his New Orleans, the city he grew up in, the city he raised his children in and the one he tried making safer for everyone else who proudly called the Big Easy home.

This wasn't a home game last night. Hurricane Katrina scattered an entire city all across the country, next-door neighbors suddenly separated by miles of freeway and long-distance charges. How can Compass go back and tell his officers he was at the Saints' "home" game?

He has an 80-year-old sergeant named Manuel Curry who lost his home last month. Curry was forced to live in a Wal-Mart parking lot and yet he still showed up for work each day. What would Curry think?

Compass' own house was spared. But he has six of his police officers living there right now. You think they're going to be impressed that their boss traveled 1,200 miles to watch the Saints play a "home" game?

You bet they are.

"The Saints are a godsend to us," Compass said. "We're trying to get back to a normal life and there isn't nothing more normal to New Orleans than watching the Saints."

The Saints are football vagabonds, scheduled to play most of their home games in Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio. This first one was scheduled for New Jersey.

It sounds like a bad joke, doesn't it? What happens when you move the French Quarter to Jersey? Only no one ever thought to create a punch line. I wish they had. A chuckle would have felt good last night.

Instead, there were tears during the national anthem. There were cheers throughout the game. And there were jeers whenever the "home team" tried to make itself at home.

"We hate you, Saints!" a tailgating New Yorker yelled at a pair of New Orleans' fans before kickoff. He softened his voice. "But we got love for New Orleans," he said, raising an open palm in the air.

In the end, it was somewhat of a letdown. It was just a football game, the made-for-TV grandeur missing a little something up close.

Even if the execution missed, the sentiment was well-intentioned. A league-sponsored telethon was held in conjunction with the game, and several hundred displaced Gulf residents were brought in for the game. Even New Orleans native sons Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis were on hand, charged with performing the national anthem.

But it never felt entirely right. We saw a homeless team pretending to play a home game. And we felt for their fans, whose own homes became mere trinkets in a fishbowl.

The NFL should have known better. But it charged ahead with a convoluted plan that somehow linked the 9/11 tragedy in New York with the drowning of one of America's great cities, forsaking parity and sensibility with convenience and marketability.

The stands were predictably filled with Giants fans. In the concourse, the souvenir stands hawked New York gear. Even the dusk sky - a vivid setting sun glowing against a blue and white backdrop - seemed to champion the Giants' colors.

A few Saints fans tried their best to root for the home team. Randall Roberson and Reed Hogan, both 25, flew in from Jackson, Miss., on Sunday. Each had the Saints' logo - a black fleur-de-lis - painted on his face. The two wore Afro wigs and gold shirts with the inscription: "Lost our homes, but not our faith."

"They're supporting everyone back home," said Hogan, "and we wanted them to know that we're supporting them up here."

The league's telethon thankfully raised a lot money. Pretending that New Orleans could be transplanted to New Jersey should have raised a collective eyebrow, though.

It'd take a lot more than booze and beads to ever confuse the New Jersey Turnpike with Bourbon Street.

No, this wasn't home. But then again, what is anymore?

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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