PHILADELPHIA — I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 10 years and I love it. I truly believe this city — my city — gets a bad rap, unfairly written off as a place to gas up between New York and D.C., an also-ran in terms of arts, culture, food and fun. (These things are not true, but we’ll get to this later.)
But there’s one aspect of Philly culture I’m not a fan of, and that’s … fandom, in the sports arena. Thus my concerns about today: I’m a Saints fan, a black-and-gold-wearing fool in a green-and-white world.
Not five minutes ago, I heard how Philadelphia police will have undercover officers wearing Saints jerseys at today’s game because fans here have a “lamentable history of harassing and even attacking those wearing opponents’ colors.”
Some examples: A fan wearing a Lions jersey was beaten after the Eagles beat Detroit in December. After the NHL’s 2012 Winter Classic, some Flyers fans jumped two visitors wearing Rangers jerseys.
In the interest of brevity, I won’t even list the incidents in which surly Philadelphia fans have attacked innocents (Santa Claus, 1968), mocked the pain of injured opponents (Michael Irvin career-ender, 1999) or tried to harm former hometown favorites (J.D. Drew targeted with tossed batteries, 1997).
In 2011, GQ magazine said Philadelphia sports fans were America’s worst. Woohoo! Finally tops at something!
I know the wrath of Philly fans firsthand.
Some background: The city of New Orleans charmed me when I lived there for about six years, until 2002. But it was going through Hurricane Katrina with some plucky local journalists, then joining the city rebuilding effort as a volunteer, that transformed me into a Saints fan.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know football. I know the basics, sure, but I can’t call plays and I fall for every fake out there. It’s never been my sport, which is how I avoided having a team of my own despite growing up in North Jersey among Jets and Giants faithful. (Sorry, Dad.)
But seeing how much the Saints meant to New Orleans after Katrina did it for me. Soon after the storm, I remember interviewing a man who’d lost everything — including a family member — in the flooding. Unprompted, he asked me, “You know what gets me through?” Then he pulled out some Saints gear.
So enchanted was I by this Saints magic that, during the 2007 playoffs, I did what some of my neighbors still consider unforgivable: I wrote an opinion piece for The Philadelphia Inquirer declaring my love for the Saints. I started it this way:
“With all my heart, I want the Eagles to lose Saturday night.
“I won’t be sad if Jeff Garcia catches a cold and if Brian Westbrook gets lost on his way to the Superdome. I won’t grumble if I see the Eagles fumble or throw passes that get intercepted. If another Birds season ends abruptly, I won’t give it a second thought.
In this — I thought well-written — piece, I argued that the Saints had absorbed New Orleans’ determination and spirit. A win would further inspire those working so hard to rebuild this truly wonderful place. It wasn’t all about football, I dared to say. It was about something bigger.
The response? Well, all of the reader comments from that article, which remains online, have disappeared. But I remember that first one, bright and early on the morning the story was printed: “Natalie Pompilio, drop dead.”
Ah, brotherly love.
As the day wore on, that article garnered dozens and dozens of even-less-friendly remarks, including some analysis of my personal life, my family and one cryptic request for me to meet someone at an address that turned out to be a cemetery. As my husband said in a quick phone call that day, “Stay in the house.”
It was a tough time.
My only comforts?
(1) The Saints won that big game. (Although their season soon ended in Chicago. I’m sure you remember the Bears fan — a Philadelphian in spirit — with the sign proclaiming his team was “finishing what Katrina started”?)
(2) I had an editor who was smart enough to persuade me that writing a “God don’t sleep, Eagles fans, and this is what you get for threatening my life” follow-up article was a bad idea. After all, I still have to live here.
But here’s the point: I love Philadelphia. I love New Orleans. And, I think, if the people of these two great cities got to know each other, they’d be best friends.
Look at all you have in common: You love your football teams. Team jerseys qualify as high fashion in both cities. I’ve been on the streets in both on Sunday game days, and you don’t have to be near a TV to know what’s happening on the field.
You love good food. New Orleans may be more recognized as an eating paradise, but Philadelphia is its equal. It’s not all pretzels and cheesesteaks — although there’s nothing wrong with either of those. We lack drive-through daiquiri shops, but we have an abundance of “BYOB” restaurants, a true money-saver for those who enjoy the occasional cocktail.
Both cities have unique cultural elements that the rest of the country can only envy. Carnival and the Mummers. Deep musical roots and a shared jazz tradition. A love of the over-the-top that has to be seen to be appreciated: New Orleanians have a love of costumes — especially on Mardi Gras or Halloween. Philadelphians embrace holiday décor with the zeal of Al Copeland: There’s nothing like a drive through South Philly in December.
You have the same urban problems. Struggling schools? Check. Dirty streets? Filthadelphia, meet a city that measures crowds in trash. Infrastructure issues? I used to think Philadelphia had the world’s worst potholes. Then I moved to New Orleans. Then I moved back to Philly. Conclusion: It’s a toss-up. Residents from both cities can bond over — or, actually, inside — some of these canyons.
You are two cities with incredible histories and unique architecture and plenty of “Only in (--)” personalities. A lot of people make the mistake of seeing you as underdogs. But that can work to the advantage of those of us who know “the truth.”
Seriously, get to know each other and I’m sure you’d be friends. I’m not saying Eagles fans will cheer a Drew Brees completion, and I can’t imagine any Saints loyalist acknowledging Nick Foles and his super surprising season, but at least no one would get hurt.
And that brings us back to today. And me, in my Saints shirt, here in the belly of the beast. Wish me luck. I might follow my husband’s old advice: “Stay in the house.”