Soon after I arrived in Louisiana from New York, a friend took me to Sunday zydeco at Whiskey River Landing, the bayou-side roadhouse between here and Lafayette. Word spread cross the dance floor there was a Brooklynite in the house, and before I knew it, the singer was calling me up on stage. “A new one. From Brooklyn.” I got some curious/skeptical looks from the audience, but my dance card was full for the rest of the afternoon. Apparently, there’s some novelty to showing the new girl how to dance. Watch your toes.
The same is true of watching football at Tiger Stadium. Instead of putting a ribbon in my hair and driving myself to the dance, I bought student season tickets and a girl-cut LSU jersey. Both gestures felt something like getting ready for a coming-out party.
At first (the start of the 2011 season), I mostly sat in the student section, with other grad students. (These were almost all guys; I’ve only convinced two women to join me in two season). Then, via a powerful friend of a friend’s uncle, I found myself tailgating with about half the Louisiana State Cabinet for the Florida game. I met Governor Jindal in the breezeway to the field. He liked my jersey. Guess I’d picked right.
For that game, the aforementioned powerful friend delivered us to the sixth row of sorority seating, right around the 20 yard line. We wedged in amongst the sisters with apologetic smiles; by the third quarter we were new best friends.
“I’m interested in writing about sports culture.” It was a few months before the start of the 2012 season, and I said as much in the office of Bill Demastes, contemporary drama professor and LSU’s new Faculty Athletic Representative (FAR). He gave me the encouragement, the connections, and the independent study credit to get Gameday Debutante off the ground. He also gave me a ticket to the first game of the season. We sat in his new FAR seats. “Oh, too bad they’re not on the 50,” he quipped when we found them. They were on the 49.
As part of my research, I got a second-tier press pass — access to the press box, but no assigned seat. Fortunately, I found an empty seat next to Joe May, former assistant football and track coach. Joe should be turning 80 any day now, but he’s kept up the muscle in his right — javelin throwing — arm. “SEC champion,” he let me know, flexing his bicep. We mostly watched the game intently, but when things got interesting, I was the closest audience letting off steam –“We need a first down like a dead man needs a coffin” was one of his favorite lines. During halftime, he introduced me around to the other press-box octogenarians, including LSU’s oldest beat writer, Ted Castillo.
Bill and I spent another game together, this time from the corner of the chancellor’s booth. It was a good view, about 100 feet above his regular seats. I met the athletic director and his wife, the chancellor, and a handful of other people whose names you see in the newspaper. But mostly, Bill and I — the only folks in the whole place in blue jeans — kept our heads down and talked department politics, LSU offense, and what to write about next.
The last game of the season I watched from a new vantage, the east-side suites of Tiger Stadium, as a guest of Jim Engster and his publishing group. The afternoon sun was fierce for November and the competitor, Ole Miss, stayed closer than I would’ve liked. We talked during breaks in the action, but kept our squinted eyes on the game while the ball was in play. Other than the sun, the corporate suites are different than the west side in two important ways: booze and china. Walking down the hall, I saw nameplates for most all the major players in South Louisiana. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure it was Shaw that had a double-wide spot at midfield.
I’ve used the “I’m not from here” excuse many times since Whiskey River — dancing at Phil Brady’s and Café Des Amis, Festivals Acadiens and International, Blackpot and Jazz Fest — and just about every time I sit down for a football game. I’m still a cruddy dancer, and confused by some penalty calls, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone I’ve met is willing to dance a number and talk football.
The kindness of strangers might be a southern cliché, but down here dancing and football are ways of life. Step onto the dance floor and they’ll gladly give you a lesson.