Catching the Saints' game at a classic neighborhood bar in the French Quarter with new friends, mystery shots and a dog named Sweet Potato.
- by Layth Sihan
- photos by Reda Wigle
By 2 p.m. on this particular Sunday, the crowd of Who Dats gathered at Cosimo’s on Burgundy Street in the French Quarter is a happy one. The score is favorable, and the free shots from Casey, the bartender, keep the crowd sociable.
“Raise your hand if you want a shot!” she calls out, and most of the bar patrons raise a hand. The folks closer to the bar pass shots back until everyone who wants one has one of the little plastic cups. It’s a combination of teamwork and ritual that makes everyone wish the game lasted a little longer than it does.
It’s undecided what exactly is in the shot that’s handed to me. It’s not whiskey or tequila. It’s a concoction unknown. I can accept that. Reality in New Orleans always comes veiled, and while some folks may know what is in the shot I’m holding now, I know that I don’t really want to know. The mystery turns it into blue-collar manna.
Maybe it’s not something I’ve earned or even deserve, but it’s been delivered to me to by a higher, benevolent power for a reason. I raise my plastic shot glass to the heavens and to the football screen over the bar, and along with the rest of Cosimo’s, I take my shot of the unknown concoction.
When I’d arrived at Cosimo’s a couple of hours earlier, I was draped in the invisibility cloak of music and headphones. I never go anywhere without headphones. It’s a way to hide in plain sight. With my music playing, I can’t hear the world around me, and it starts to feel like the world can’t see me. More and more often, I want that buffer of invisibility between myself and the world, any sliver of solitude or privacy I can grab for myself.
But after I took out my headphones in the bar, my other senses kicked in. I notice the dappled sunlight on the bar floor, smell the food cooking in the kitchen to my right, and allow the pre-game commentary to filter into my ears.
I order a drink from Casey’s counterpart, Abby, and she asks my name. It was a touch of social grace that game days illicit, or maybe she recognized me. There’s a local flavor in Cosimo’s that most places in the Quarter share even if the crowd at Cosimo’s is more football focused and settled than in some other bars in the Quarter. I tell Abby my name, and she welcomes me. Even though I’ve been here two minutes it feels like I’ve made a friend.
I notice to my left there is an entrance to the bar’s backroom. In the backroom, it’s apparent there are actually two Cosimo’s. There’s the bar by the kitchen where the Who Dats drink beers, take shots, and eat burgers and fries, and there’s this more austere room in the back. The austere room has a pool table, wooden floors, brick walls, and two ancient fireplaces used these days to house matching space heaters.
The way that this part of Cosimo’s is inextricably tied to the building that houses it reminds me that Thanksgiving, and all the warmth that holiday conjures, is this week.
On the brick wall are two championship banners. “Cosimo’s Kramers Winter 2008 Champs” and “Summer 2009 Champs.” I don’t know what the Cosimo’s Kramers are champions of, but it’s been ten years since they’ve brought home a championship. Ten years is also about how long it’s been since the Saints last won the Super Bowl. I hear the game beginning, and I head back to the bar and the other Who Dats.
There are two types of fans: anxious ones and depressed ones. Any therapist will tell you: anxiety comes from dwelling on the future and depression, the past. The hum of football-related conversation about the players, the coaches, the season’s prospects creates a strata over my head, as does the roar of the stadium crowd through the television set.
I recognize that as much as the fans are here to watch a good game of football, they are also just as interested in watching a bad game of football so long as it results in a victory for the Saints.
At kickoff a vague distrust of the outcome settles like beer suds sliding down the side of a pint glass. It’s as almost though by allowing their nerves to settle the crowd is accepting the worst. New Orleans can be a truly savage town, but there is an eccentricity, a quirkiness to it, born of a highly evolved sense of irony, that always makes me smile. After the Saints score their second touchdown against the Panthers at 12:34 p.m. CST the jukebox blasts Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
It’s now the third quarter. At this point in the game the Saints are up and one of the Panthers' players has just been flagged for punching a referee. The flag creates a momentary lull in the on-field action.
“No,” the friend I’ve just made tells me when I ask him if I can use his name in this piece. “I avoid the media like the plague.”
I nod, and I tell him I get it, and I do. None of us showed up at Cosimo’s to announce our entrance to the world of New Orleans society by having our names published in the paper the way 18th-century courtesans in gowns and wigs the day after a big fancy ball would have.
Our social aspirations are simpler. We’re at this place to line up a few drinks and root for the Saints. It’s a 4-hour Mardi Gras if you swap out beads and costumes for Kamara jerseys and ballcaps. For a while, who we really are individually doesn’t matter. While the game is on, we’re Who Dats.
There’s a dog at the end of the bar. The dog’s name is Sweet Potato. When I came in, I didn’t ask the owner his dog’s name. I don’t know the owner’s name. I just know his dog’s name. All during the game, I’d pat Sweet Potato’s head whenever I walked past him on my way to the bathroom or the kitchen to order a burger or just wherever I happened to be heading. Lots of folks do the same.
Sweet Potato is there and present and happy, and it’s hard not to give him a little of your attention. Dogs - and Sweet Potato is no different - are sensualists. They’re turned on by smell and all their other senses, and whatever it is that catches their attention, they react to it. An existence like Sweet Potato’s requires acceptance without judgement, something at which dogs, and not necessarily people, excel.
When the Panthers score, the key of the conversations around me go either sharp or flat. I wonder what key the bar is in. I want Cosimo’s to have a piano. I want to play it and orchestrate a sing along. That’s what watching football is like here. It’s American like Whitman, full throated, but it’s in tune. It’s a roar that’s in tune.
Over my shoulder, I see there’s actually a piano in the corner. I play it, but the crowd in the bar is too loud to hear the tinkle of the chords I play. Football is a game of decibels as much as it is a game of inches.
As time expires, Will Lutz kicks the game winner, and the Saints put away the Panthers. For better or worse, the game has turned out to be an exciting one. But as the game’s final seconds tick off the clock and the Saints victory becomes final, this moment for all of us in Cosimo’s is a perfect one.
It is the realization of the day’s fate. It is the call on the underside of the PBR cap. It’s inarguable. Ugly, pretty, exciting, unexciting, win or lose, it doesn’t matter. This moment is the culmination of the day, and whatever the outcome, it’s our shared fate.
Chants of “Who Dat! Who dat say we gonna beat them Saints!” fill the bar as more shots of the unknown concoction are passed around. All of this means something. All of this means lots of things. But right now, it means one thing. It means that whether we saw it coming - or not - we won.