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More Than a Building

By Nicholas Lemann

The main thing about the Superdome is that it's big. The Superdome is 27 stories high and sits on 52 acres of land. Its roof alone is 9.7 acres. They say you could put the Houston Astrodome inside the Superdome and not only would it fit but there would be enough room left over for a small airplane to fly around in there too.

All that may, however, be just a primary and shallow impression. The people who run the Superdome tastefully avoid talking on and on about its sheer size and assiduously avoid crass comparisons between the Superdome and the Astrodome or the new domed stadiums in Seattle and Detroit. The Astrodome came first, of course, so that may contribute to the Superdome people's reluctance to talk about it, but that's not really the point.

The people who run the Superdome are unfettered by petty considerations, and see the Dome in broader, less mundane terms. If you go on a tour of the Dome a tape broadcast over its public address system will tell you that it is "more than a building or a stadium or a hall," that it is "the depository of Louisiana's belief in itself and a budding, exhilarating, moving certainty that tomorrow can be now." Like the Seven Wonders of the World, the tape tells you, "it is a monument to man's daring imagination, ingenuity, and intelligence--awesome in size and inspiring in beauty...it is the greatest structure ever attempted by mortal man." The Superdome people, well-read in addition to everything else, say as William Faulkner once said of mankind that the Dome will not only survive; it will endure.

Seen in that light a lot of the Superdome's flaws just melt away. The Dome may have overrun its original cost estimates by more than 500 per cent, becoming the biggest gravy train for Louisiana builders and politicians in years--but so, for all we know, may have the Pyramid of Cheops, and who remembers that now? What does it matter that the Superdome is actually ugly, a vast heap of metal that now dominates downtown New Orleans? Or that it has bad acoustics and ventilation or that nobody can find the bathrooms, or that you can't see from some of the seats? These are not the kinds of things that should dilute a monument to man's imagination.

Visitors to the Superdome seem to be suitably impressed by it all; they sit reverently in their color-coded grandstand seats, gazing out into the cavern. The size of the place and its frightening newness and emptiness and the reverent tones of the voice on the tape have lulled newcomers into a punchy stupor, and they wander around obediently. People who work at the Superdome are more jaded, and the tour guides tell each other jokes and surreptitiously play the radio. Dazed-looking construction workers and officious security guards wander through the press box and box seats and field, but the place is so huge that they all seem to know they couldn't possibly get anything done there, and they go about their work with an air of defeat. The security guard who kicks me out of the press box probably knows as well as I do that I am going over to the other side of the Dome to sneak into other boxes, and that he won't be able to do anything about it.

Over on the other side of New Orleans, hard by the Industrial Canal, is the world's largest supermarket, which covers a couple of city blocks and has a huge sign across its front that says SCHWEGMANN BROS GIANT SUPER MARKETS. The people who run the Superdome probably don't know about the world's largest supermarket--they must assume that if the Chamber of Commerce isn't plugging it, it doesn't exist--but there it is, and no one can think of a supermarket that's any bigger. There are no tour guides there, probably because, unlike the Superdome, the place is not a symbol of anything, but just plain big.

The world's biggest supermarket is two stories high, mostly one room with wide dirty aisles. There are hot dog vendors who go up and down the aisles, and in addition to food, you can buy guns and dogs and prescription medicine and furniture there. More staggering than the variety, though, is the amount of the kinds of things you'd normally find at a supermarket. Instead of a refrigerator case full of beer there are aisles of beer and islands of beer at junctions of aisles, huge mounds of cans spilling out onto the floor. If you wanted to buy orange juice you would go to a 25-yard-long shelf with gallons and quarts and pints of the stuff, and all different brands.

A man named John Schwegmann owns the store. He is a Louisiana politician in addition to being a supermarket owner, and he's something of a maverick: he opposed the Superdome, he charges low prices, and he runs ads for his supermarkets in the daily paper that include a column he writes about politics and what it's like to be a self-made man and things like that. Shopping bags at his supermarket have VOTE FOR SCHWEGMANN printed on them, probably on the theory that he's usually running for something so the slogan is almost always applicable.

The largest supermarket in the world is always jammed with people, all of whom walk around purposefully, looking for bargains and talking to one another. The vast space is easy to move through, and doesn't weight them down. Somehow they have gotten a grip on the place, and it doesn't frighten them to shop there. Everything there works as the customers expect it to work, and that a place can be so big and manageable at the same time seems to make people happy. I tell people that it's sort of a monument to the human spirit--but furtively, because I don't want word to get around.

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