MODESTO — Watching some of this week's Super Bowl hype brings back memories.
I was fortunate to visit The Big Easy and the Superdome four times as a sports columnist in the 1980s and '90s. The city welcomes visitors like no other, resembling a living museum to some and a lewd state park to others.
It's where old, Southern charm meets decadence, but also where mind-numbing poverty is only a block or so away from posh mansions.
The Superdome is cavernous, yet doesn't have a bad seat in the house.
In 1988, University of the Pacific was still seven years from dropping its football program, playing powerhouse programs that paid big bucks to small schools so that they could run up scores and enhance their national rankings.
A day after UOP picked up $200,000 to get splattered 63-14 by Arkansas in Little Rock, I flew into New Orleans in time to cover the 49ers' thrilling 34-33 win over the Saints at the Superdome.
After filing my column and notebook, I had just enough time before my flight home for a quick dinner in the French Quarter. I went to Mr. B's Bistro on Royal Street and ordered the barbecued shrimp, which weren't really barbecued at all. They were dangling, uncleaned prawns served in a bowl of extremely high-powered sauce and accompanied by small loaf of french bread.
Half-asleep on the flight home later that night, the attendant tapped me on the shoulder and, with a with a concerned look on her face, asked, "Sir, are you OK?"
Sure. Why do you ask?
"Because you look like someone dumped a bucket of water on your head," she said, handing me a towel.
Indeed, the spicy sauce left me drenched in sweat like nothing I'd ever experienced. And now, whenever I eat anything too spicy, my noggin turns into Yosemite Falls. (The waiter gave me a copy of the recipe).
Fifteen months later, in January 1990, I met the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen during the party co-hosted by sports agent Jeffrey Moorad of Modesto aboard the riverboat Natchez.
That Sunday, the 49ers scored eight touchdowns in a 55-10 win over John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.
Beyond the totality of the day's rump-whupping, the halftime show was pretty impressive, too. Sliding in from one end of the stadium, a flat float telescoped into a four-story-high riverboat with singers and dancers popping out everywhere. (Of course, the songs probably were lip-synced, but who cared?)
Yes, the Superdome is that big.
Because I couldn't get a flight out until Wednesday following the game, I was "stuck" in The Big Easy. Believe me, there are worse places to be stuck on the company's dime.
I wrote about a trumpeter and saxophonist who competed for tips on opposite corners of a deserted Jackson Square until they finally gave up and together played a mournful rendition of "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" that would have moved even Tony Bennett.
A fire that gutted the Cat's Meow piano bar on Bourbon Street prompted someone to hang a banner that read, "I said a Bud light!"
And as city workers began preparing the streets for Mardi Gras, one proudly told me that by the time midnight arrives on Fat Tuesday and the Lenten season begins, revelers would have emptied enough beer cans to stretch end-to-end from New Orleans to Canada and back. Just think of the recycling opportunities.
The following September, I returned for the regular-season opener. Instead of crisp winter air of January, the city had a stench after a steamy summer. I equated the odor to that of a sweaty armpit rotting in a greenhouse.
Joe Montana, who never lost in New Orleans as the 49ers' starter, brought the 49ers back to win 13-12 in a game that once again devastated the Saints.
And in 1991, the French Quarter buzzed the Friday night before Sunday's 49ers-Saints game, but not because New Orleans finally was favored (Montana and Steve Young were both sidelined due to injuries).
College students from Alabama flooded Bourbon Street before the Crimson Tide met LSU just down the road in Baton Rouge that Saturday.
That Sunday, third-stringer Steve Bono and the 49ers lost 10-3. The most remarkable part of that game? A fireworks display that didn't end after the halftime show.
In the Superdome, they mount the fireworks in the ceiling gondolas, using burlap as insulation.
A few minutes after the sulfur smoke abated and the second half began, a piece of burlap burst into flames. The game stopped for eight minutes as a pyrotechnician shinnied out on the gondola over the field. He hacked away at the burning burlap and sent it plummeting to the artificial turf below. It landed on the Saints' 40-yard line.
Members of the stadium's maintenance crew stood there, shrugging their shoulders. They turned away as if there was nothing they could do, resigned to watch it burn a hole in the rug. So 49er assistant trainer Ray Tufts came to the rescue.
He brought a cup full of water from the 49ers' bench and knocked down the flames, like a CalFire hot-spot strike teamer. Then a member of the Saints training staff brought a bucket of Gatorade and did the mop-up duty.
Ah, the memories.
Jeff Jardine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.