The Rev. Billy Zacharie Jr., second from left, and his congregation watch… (Jeff Haller / Keyhole Photo )
Reporting from New Orleans — The sound rose up and spread across the rooftops of the old city, a deep, guttural, Biblical sound -- the sound of souls wailing by the thousands.
This time there would be no tragedy. These were the howls of victory, emanating from Bourbon Street.
New Orleans -- for so long wearily burdened as a symbol of hard luck and misery -- was erupting in pure joy. The Saints had won the Super Bowl, and the people had spilled into the streets to cheer away the bad times.
"I never thought it could happen -- I got tingles!" said Talanda Chiqueta, 33, working her way through a seemingly endless throng of chanting souls. Chiqueta, of nearby Donaldsonville, La., said she had suffered along with the poor-performing Saints her entire life, and referred to her fandom almost as if it were an exotic chromosomal abnormality.
"Oh Lord," she screamed over the din. "It's been in the family forever."
The South's great party city and infamous den of iniquity has seen just about everything over the years -- except for this celebration, which, in one of the enduring quirks of the city, has long been its great collective wish.
Bourbon Street, normally shunned by locals, was packed wall to wall with them Sunday night. A tuba honked out the spine of timeworn Mardi Gras anthems. And the people burst, over and over again, into the grammatically loosey-goosey aural tattoo that the outside world, too, has learned in recent weeks: "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?"
Anticipation over the Super Bowl had built to bursting here. It seemed that everyone -- from the saltiest line cook to the stuffiest Uptown lawyer -- was decked out in black and gold, and people spoke of the Saints' victory in strangely providential tones. One popular T-shirt called them "Destiny's Team."
The run-up to the Super Bowl gave an odd boosterish flavor to the weekend mayoral election, which ended with the winner, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, accepting victory to his supporters' chants of "Who dat?" For days before the game, airwaves and websites were full of heartfelt laments for parents, aunts and uncles who had stuck with the team for so long but hadn't lived to see this day.
"We'll be watching the game tonight with Mom, and have Dad's ashes in front of the TV," a fan by the name of "hurricat" posted on the Times-Picayune's website. "I . . . wouldn't want to take away from the hard work of those incredible guys on the field and the sidelines, but I can't help thinking [that] the critical mass of saints in heaven [have] made a difference this year."
The celebration will probably continue for days: The city, hedging against a defeat, had planned a special parade for the team on Tuesday, win or lose. The following Tuesday is Mardi Gras. Bobby "the Cajun Cannon" Hebert, the former Saints quarterback and radio personality, has repeatedly predicted a party of Brazilian proportions.
Fans from around the Gulf Coast began clogging the French Quarter on Sunday afternoon in expectation of the pandemonium that would come with a victory. But first, much of New Orleans went to worship, dressed in Saints attire.
In storm-battered New Orleans East, they poured into a tiny storefront church by the name of Jesus Outreach Ministries and Fellowship. The boys wore long braids in the Deep South style and Drew Brees jerseys; the women wore T-shirts with fleur-de-lis jewelry and matching handkerchiefs.
"Oh, look at all that black and gold," said the Rev. Billy Zacharie Jr., his own Saints T-shirt peeking out from behind a well-tailored suit jacket. "We thank God for the earthly Saints and the heavenly saints, Amen?"
"Amen!" the people shouted.
"And with the help of the Lord we gonna be in that number victorious, Amen?"
"Amen!" they said.
Before Katrina, Zacharie's church was in the Ninth Ward. It flooded after the 2005 storm, so Zacharie relocated for awhile to his garage. More recently, his church has been in this flood-beaten stretch of New Orleans East, in a ramshackle strip mall with a gravel parking lot. Every week since early fall, church members have been singing, "When the Saints Go Marching In," and praying for their team.
Most of the 70 or so members had lived some version of the Katrina story. Zacharie spent the days after the storm in the festering, neglected Superdome. But today, there was a feeling that New Orleans, once written off as lost and unlivable, had been validated. The Saints were in the big show. This was an occasion for pride and joy.
"This season's been a blessing, man," said Gary Leigh, the bassist in the three-piece band. "Just an uplifting for the whole community."
On Sunday, Zacharie, a 54-year-old forklift driver with the stocky build of a linebacker, said they would hear a sermon about another color besides black and gold: the color of the blood of Jesus.