Super Bowl-winning Saint, Will Smith, was murdered last week attempting to save his wife’s life after she’d been shot once in each leg. The second line celebrating his life and return home started at the Half Moon Bar, not far from where Smith lost his life, and was headed to the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar in the Treme. James Andrews led the band as Baby Dolls, Saints fans and local-born Saint, Keenan Lewis, gathered to hug, dance, sing, pray and cry. The 4 mile parade started with a moment of silence and some words of hope in front of the memorial that’s been climbing up the fence and spreading across the sidewalk.
Wednesday, I’d stopped by the Will Smith memorial. I never met the man so I was surprised to find myself crying. Another woman walked up behind me as I was taking it all in and she immediately started crying as well. When her crying escalated, I turned and opened my arms and we cried and held each other for awhile – a longer while than I normally would even with someone I know. She whispered, “It’s so sad.” We separated, talked for a moment then hugged some more.
I didn’t see her at the second line but I did run into many friends and wave to others our procession passed as we made our way from the Lower Garden District to the Treme. Many of us cried at the start as we sang I’ll Fly Away, but the mood shifted and by the time we hit Canal Street, I felt something like a victory – like we’d taken our city back for a moment, not caring if the tourists had problems with the traffic or the streetcars stopping. We paused near the intersection with Bourbon Street to finish singing When the Saints Come Marching In with a round of Who Dat chants.
The whole experience kept colliding with my memories of the Saints 2009 Super Bowl-winning season and how it felt to live here then. My latest book is set during that moment so I’ve been reliving that season and the glorious win and Victory Parade during the middle of Mardi Gras for months. Rich, poor, old, young, black, white – it was our city’s most victorious coming-together since The Battle of New Orleans.
Coach Sean Payton had just begun Smith on the path to becoming one of the Saints’ coaches based on his former success as the defensive captain. The timing was perfect as Smith (along with Hokie Gajan, another former Saint who passed last week as well) was being inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame later this year. When asked about the murder, Payton said, “I just know this: Our city is broken.” He elaborated, “It’s like our big little secret. They don’t want to kill tourism. But right now, it’s like the wild, wild West here.” I’d love to disagree but the average police response time right now is 1 hour 19 minutes. That makes for a very different climate.
So when we took over Canal Street, filling it with music, dancing and hope, I felt very strongly that it’s a perfect time to bring ourselves back to that better moment and remember our greatness and our joy in overcoming. I’d been saying all week how much I needed this second line, that I needed to “dance it off.” I was hoping it would make me feel better about Will Smith, his injured wife and their 3 children. It didn’t. But as I paraded with my fellow New Orleanians, I felt that Who Dat Nation spirit again. I saw children dancing on the neutral ground, showing off their best second line spins and splits and happy-cried. The parade didn’t make me feel better about the Smiths but it made me remember how very much I love this city, even when it breaks my heart.