NEW ORLEANS – It was after midnight, deep in the Marigny, inside a bar on St. Claude Avenue, and I was being booed. The people — my people, Who Dats and Saints fans — had turned on me. And they wanted me to know it.
“Booooooo!” they roared.
Of course, it was my fault. As I stood before the angry crowd after midnight Thursday, stepping onto the karaoke stage at Kajun’s Pub, I was wearing a brand new, pristine white Seahawks jersey and a neon green Hawks ball cap to match. On the cusp of the Saints-Seahawks playoff showdown, I was announcing myself as the enemy.
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“Are there any Seahawks fans in the house?” I asked.
“Booooooo!” the crowd roared again.
The gear had arrived at my house in New Orleans just hours earlier via overnight delivery. I needed it not because I’m a Seahawks fan. Please. What self-respecting man would wear neon green? I’m a Saints fan and denizen of the Superdome on Sundays. I know where my loyalties lie.
This was about research. In recent years, Saints fans have complained about how they’ve been treated while cheering for their team in opposing cities. In San Francisco, during the 2012 playoffs, 49ers fans greeted New Orleanians with vulgarities and threats so offensive that Niners executives publicly apologized. And just last week in Philadelphia — that City of Brotherly Love — at least one Saints fan was spat upon after New Orleans’ 26-24 victory.
And now another playoff game looms. Seahawks fans at CenturyLink Field in Seattle will raise their 12th Man flag — that symbol of the team’s passionate fans who, at games, scream, flex their muscles beneath slick Patagonia rain gear, and become just about the loudest sports fans anywhere.
But what would happen if I symbolically raised the 12th Man flag right here in New Orleans? Were we any better than the football hooligans we so despise? I wanted to know. So I bought my Seahawks jersey — No. 12. The name across the back said simply, “Fan.” And I headed off into the city to learn the true character of Who Dat Nation.
“Don’t call me from the emergency room,” my wife said as I left.
“Go Seahawks,” I replied.
THE NIGHT BEGAN inside a quiet barroom in Gentilly, the sort of neighborhood joint you’d only know if you lived here. And that was apparent as soon as I walked through the door. Had there been a record playing, I assure you, it would have scratched.
“What is a Seahawks fan doing in here?” said a woman named Angie, drinking and smoking at the bar. Then she just stared at me, mouth agape.
Angie, to her credit, truly wanted to know the answer to her question. But her boyfriend shooed me away, as I tried to make friends. “Uh, we’re trying to have a conversation here,” he told me. “So you can just move on.”
The bartender, a tattooed brunette, was a bit more welcoming to this purported visitor from the Pacific Northwest. As most people I’d meet over the course of the night, she was happy to inform me the Saints would win, and willing to offer some other advice to the idiot in neon. Don’t be cocky. Don’t go downtown. And definitely don’t go to Bourbon Street.
“Have a good stay in New Orleans,” she told me as I left.
Bourbon Street, as it turned out, wasn’t a problem. Only one person — a bouncer — noticed my Seattle get-up there. “You can’t wear that here,” the bouncer told me, scowling. But when I asked him why not, the large man smiled and welcomed me, the 12th Man, the Fan. “I understand,” he apologized. “You gotta represent.”
It was the same just about everywhere — from Mid-City to the French Quarter, the Marigny to the Bywater. Were there dirty looks? Absolutely. Dirty enough to make your mother blush. Were there comments? Always. But after the bluster, I’d be embraced.
A man named Mike on Frenchmen Street rattled off a list of the music clubs that I just had to visit while I was here. A woman named Monica cautioned me, the enemy, about which streets I should and should not walk down wearing my Seattle gear. And the Thursday night crowd at Bud Rip’s Old Ninth Ward Bar — about a dozen guys, if you counted the customer sleeping on his bar stool — turned me into a sort of mascot over the course of an hour, a curiosity not to be attacked, but to be shown off, even celebrated.
I defeated them at the billiards table — twice. And they didn’t care. I questioned Drew Brees’ toughness, but they just assured me he’d be tough in Seattle. And then a man named Chris asked if I’d be willing to wager on the Seahawks — $20. I gave him 7½ points. He gave me his address. I secretly hoped to lose the bet and Chris, in general, seemed pleased about our arrangement, until he realized something. “Wait,” he said, when I got up to leave, “if the Saints lose, how will I ever pay you?”
AND NOW, A SHORT while later, at Kajun’s Pub, I was being booed. Anger, finally. And I let it wash over me. Maybe now I’d be cursed or threatened. Maybe now I’d get what I deserved for the neon green and the hubris. But no.
“There’s no booing allowed,” the karaoke DJ announced over the microphone. Anyone who booed any singer — even me — would be asked to leave, she informed them.
And so they stopped booing. And I sang. I chanted — Seahawks, Seahawks, Seahawks! — during the chorus of my song, “Sweet Caroline,” trying to incite the masses. And still the people sang with me. “Good times never seemed so good …”
When it was over, I was greeted offstage by a Saints fan in a hoodie. He was tall and drunk and wanted to tell me something. “You keep rocking that jersey, Seahawks fan,” he said. “That was awesome.” We took a picture together. He draped his arm over my shoulder. And as I turned to go, I told him to keep rocking the hat he was wearing. It was white, with two words written in black and gold.
Keith O’Brien is a former reporter for The Boston Globe, a freelance writer, and the author of the book “Outside Shot,” on a community’s obsession with high-school basketball.