Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Let's Go Bowling (My New Orleans Bowl Trip)

Today, I woke up in New Orleans--at 4:00 a.m.--to the sound of a cell phone alarm playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (a tribute to yesterday's birthday boy). That's not the normal way to start a teaching day, just like going to see a 3 1/2-hour-long movie will not be a normal way to end it. But here I am, filling in some of the spaces between then and now.

Part 1: Getting There
The flight to New Orleans was fine, if a bit bumpy. It was interesting in that I found out I had stuff in common with both the other random people in my row. I was seated next to an off-duty flight attendant who had been visiting her mom in Garland, where I live now. She gave me one of her mom's "peanut patties"--basically like pecan pralines only with peanuts (duhh). Great stuff! (And in case you're wondering, guys...she was older and had a big rock on her finger, so no "did you get her number?" jokes this time.) Seated next to her was this high-powered hotel-franchise salesman who turned out to have attended UNT when I did and was also an extra in Necessary Roughness just like I was. You've probably heard the stereotype that all hotel owners are from India, and sure enough, he said over 60% of his clients were named either Patel or Bhakta. I even found out why there are so many Patels from India; it's not just that it's the counterpart of Smith. Evidently your last name is tied to your profession; I believe all the Patels were farmers once upon a time. Interesting stuff, actually.

We landed in New Orleans and I was there all of five minutes when my fraternity brother Marc called my cell and said he was waiting outside (yay, he was awake!). We got back to the hotel and then went over to this huge indoor "tailgate" party at the Hyatt. It was in the same exact ballroom where they had IAJE in 2000 when I was there.

I was blown away by the size of the party. I've mentioned before how impressive the crowds were at home games this year, but this was really something. There were more people in that ballroom than there were at some of the games when I was in college--no joke. They had a live jazz band, part of the Green Brigade marching band was in there for a bit playing the fight song and so on, and there was a huge food spread.

Looking back, I'm surprised I was still walking after my little "snack sampler," but I had to try a little of everything. Here's what I had:

Red beans and rice, jambalaya, catfish, a hot dog, a small bag of Zapp's potato chips and some apple cobbler (I know that stuff had fun mixing up in my stomach). I also had a drink called Mr. Green, just because it was there and was so closely associated with school colors and all.

Afterwards, we headed to the Superdome (connected to the Hyatt by a small but upscale shopping mall). To get across this elevated open area, we had to go through the "gauntlet" of Memphis supporters, who were evidently having their tailgate party right there. They had a live blues band and everything, and we felt more than a bit conspicuous walking through the sea of blue with our green shirts and Mardi Gras beads and pompoms. (I almost felt bad that I'd led everyone that way, since the president of UNT and his wife were following us and thus subjected to the same gauntlet.) We went in and got to our seats.

Part 2: The Game
The Superdome was by no means full (it holds something like 69,000 people, and this is only a third-year bowl), but it was loud. The UNT and Memphis bands both did pregame shows, and everyone pounded along raucously with the green and white ThunderStix we'd been given when we got to our seats. (The lady next to me was very percussively-challenged...ack.) I was of course trying to get just the right timbre with mine, except that one of them kept deflating all night. At any rate, it was loud and rowdy and fun; we were primed to go at kickoff time.

As for the game, didn't turn out as well as we wanted. Memphis all but shut down our running game, blocking every gap that Patrick Cobbs would usually race through all season (he had been leading the nation in yards per game going into the bowl). We took the early lead, but only on a field goal. Memphis' quarterback, Danny Wimprine (dang, I bet he got kidded about that name in elementary school) threw some amazing long passes, usually after we had them pinned back at third-and-long. One of them led to a touchdown that ended up giving them a lead they would never relinquish; fortunately, the vaunted Eagle defense got back on track and held them to only another field goal, which should have made the score 10-3 at halftime.

Unfortunately, the play on which the game probably turned happened next when a UNT receiver on special teams tried to run back the kickoff that was probably nine yards back in the end zone. He should have just left it alone, because he ended up fumbling and Memphis recovered. Four plays later, the Tigers marched into the end zone for a 17-3 lead at the half.

Halftime was cool; the Green Brigade did the "Sing Sang Sung" show again (the tempo is still so slow when you have to march to it) and everyone liked it. I'm still so psyched that my buddy Nick got the the director's job. After the Memphis show, they had this contest where two people tried to hit a target 20 yards away with a football, and they were just...horrible. Nobody even clapped when they were done.

We rallied a bit in the second half, bringing the score back to 17-10. (At that point, I was visiting with some fraternity brothers next to the band, and I stayed there out of sheer superstition since the team was doing better. I also noticed that the stands in that section of the Superdome shook whenever we stomped up and down a lot; I hope that was supposed to happen.) The teams traded touchdowns to make it 24-17 with seven minutes remaining, but a couple of costly penalties against UNT helped Memphis get close enough to kick the game-icing field goal; final score, Memphis 27, UNT 17.

Sure, we could gripe about the officiating; it seemed like the Eagles were called for every little bit of contact on pass defense while the Tigers got away with murder. But it all came down to the fact that a team we didn't know much about (they hadn't been to a bowl in 31 years!) played a very good game on a night when we didn't. Sure, a victory would have been nice, but I'm glad I went; I had been to the Cotton Bowl before, when my sister was going to Texas A&M, but it was more fun on a personal level since this was my alma mater. Hopefully, we'll be back again next year to keep the string going.

Part 3: Postgame
Thankfully, despite the shortness of my trip, there was still a chance to take in a little bit of the French Quarter. New Orleans is one of my favorite vacation spots, and, in case you're wondering, it's really not about the partying; I could go there, not touch a drop of alcohol, and still have a great time enjoying the music, food, architecture and overall funkiness of the place.

My fraternity bro Marc and his friend (also named Marc), my gracious hosts for the night, weren't up to walking all the way to the river, so I couldn't have a shrimp po-boy at Cafe Maspero or beignets at the Cafe du Monde, but this was a trip on the cheap anyway, so we settled on Popeye's.

New Orleans is a different place, as I've said. For one thing, there's a huge homeless population downtown, so things like "restrooms for customers only" have to be strictly enforced. This Popeye's almost went overboard on that, though, as they didn't even have a condiment table; you had to go ask this guy for whatever you wanted (maybe the homeless would make a meal out of ketchup otherwise?). This particular outlet was also a bit unprepared for the post-bowl crowd: no bread for po-boys, not even any tartar sauce! The restrooms were chained off and guarded by an employee; I went up there, receipt in hand (just in case), but even that wasn't enough...

ME: Hi, I just finished my meal; may I please use the restroom?
EMPLOYEE: The restrooms are closed, sir.
ME: Even for people who bought food here?
EMPLOYEE: I'm sorry, sir (said with the most "no, I'm not really sorry" look on her face as possible)

But at least we were able to catch the sights and sounds for a while. When we left Popeye's, some guy was playing drums--really well--on two pickle barrels of different sizes. The neon on Bourbon Street, combined with the music (mostly jazz and blues) blaring from the various clubs, made for quite a sensory experience. Thankfully, the guys were pretty tired, so I didn't have to make a big stand about why my beliefs would keep me from going into a strip club (they would've gone, trust me). It was fun to shout "Go Mean Green" to anyone decked out in school colors and hear them shout "WOOOOOOOOOO!!!" in return. I'll be back soon enough when I can go to more of my favorite haunts, but at least I got a taste of the Big Easy for the first time in nearly four years.

Part 4: Going Home
My flight out was at 7:30 a.m.; this meant very little sleep, but it also gave me the chance to see New Orleans at a really unusual hour of the morning. Since I was the first stop on the airport shuttle's route, I got to see what the French Quarter looks like at five in the morning (yeah, I'd been here for conventions before, but I don't think we ever stayed out past, umm....four, maybe).

The surprising thing was that there really were more than a few people out. Some actually looked like they were working, but there were a few straggling partiers stumbling out of the Quarter, even though the Bourbon St. lights had long since gone dark. It had been a slow night the night before anyway; a cold front had come through while we were at the game, so the wind whipping through the buildings made it feel more like Chicago. Needless to say, nobody was earning beads that night...

That's about it, other than to say that my flight home had to be at least 50% UNT people, most still decked out in "mean" green. Despite the loss, it's still cool to see my alma mater move it up a level in prominence like that.

Oh yeah, and if you recall a post from a while back about Zack forgetting to feed my cat when I was out of town...well, it almost happened again. He did forget at dinnertime, and it finally happened at 4:40 a.m., after he got home from the midnight LOTR showing. No wonder Tasha was so content when I got home a few hours later.

Some random quotes from the trip:
HOTEL FRANCHISE GUY: "It's really pretty easy to buy a hotel franchise, as long as you have good credit....and $250,000."
OFF-DUTY FLIGHT ATTENDANT and ME (pretty much simultaneously): "If..."

"One of my noisemakers is having Viagra issues."--Me, when one of the ThunderStix kept deflating during really exciting parts of the game.

"That sure reinforces the Tennessee stereotype, doesn't it?"--Me, remarking on the fact that the Memphis colorguard and dancers all performed barefoot.

"We just lost the game. Ask somebody from Memphis."--Marc's friend Marc, when approached by a homeless guy for money (shockingly, one of the rare times that happened this trip)

WEIRD JUXTAPOSITION OF OLD SCHOOL/NEW SCHOOL: "I've been coming to these games for 51 years"--elderly Memphis fan after the game, who then paused to answer his cell phone, which had an annoyingly trendy ring tone rivaling that of any high school or college student.

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