EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE YOU GET the chance to see Houston reveal itself with a bracing, eager purity. Its anxious to please, we-belong-in-the-big-leagues nature was fleetingly evident during the premiere of Urban Cowboy, in 1980, when almost every socialite in town threw herself at John Travolta, and again during the global economic summit of 1990, when honchos recruited five thousand civilian volunteers to clean the streets, and yet again, during the 1992 Republican Convention, when the planting of red, white, and blue flowers reached daffy proportions. But for my money, Houston—the complete Houston—has never been so apparent as it was during the week of Super Bowl XXXVIII. The event played to Houston’s natural strengths—its zeal for girls, booze, and sports—while simultaneously enabling its upwardly mobile persona: its expansiveness and its self-consciousness, as well as its ambition, its devout capitalism, and its deep but unexamined worship of undeserving demi-celebrities. During the week before the game, Houston seemed so overwhelmed by itself that it teetered on the brink of madness and almost took me down with it.

MONDAY, JANUARY 26: I feel a little like an impostor; the last time I sat through a football game was during high school, when the Vietnam War was raging, and I still know more about demilitarized zones than end zones. Still, it’s seductive inside the George R. Brown Convention Center, currently ground zero for the Super Bowl elite. I pass through several layers of security, and someone hands me press credentials and an embroidered badge with eBay potential, inducing an instant case of smugness. I’m in! Then I realize that everyone around me has more badges than I do. The semiotics are easy to grasp: The more badges, the more important you are. Then there are people too important for badges, like Astros owner Drayton McLane and Texans owner Bob McNair, who stride imperially through the building, trailed by beefy, reverential sportswriters.

The status virus is in its early but virulent stage. For many weeks before, telephone lines and e-mails have been clogged with gossip about who is going to whose parties given by which corporate sponsors. I’ve heard several times that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry will be in town for soirees, the locations of which are as secret as the sites of Saddam’s WMDs. Not everyone is buying the celebrity rumors, however. “Some parties say they’ve got invited guests. We’ve got confirmed guests,” a representative for the Mercury Room, a hip Houston downtown club, assures me. I experience a twinge of high school-like desperation: It’s the big game, and I don’t have a place to go, much less a celebrity date.

This feeling recurs a few hours later, when I stand on the red carpet (“media access”) of the Reliant Arena with about one hundred other reporters and no civilian spectators to watch Houston’s sports heroes arrive for the week’s opening ceremony—a Super Bowl first, thanks to Houston’s penchant for innovation. The event is also characteristically self-referential: a salute to the city’s greatest athletes, featuring, inexplicably, musical accompaniment provided by Yanni. Here is stocky former Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini, looking weathered, with his wife in a fuchsia waterfall gown topped with a mink stole; there is former Rocket Calvin Murphy, jumping jauntily out of a burgundy Escalade—the car of the week, whether in burgundy, beige, or black—with three women in tow. Sheryl Swoopes is here, and so is a chipper Mary Lou Retton (“Houston is a city filled with phenomenal athletes”) and a dour Moses Malone. (I think his exact words to reporters are “Ain’t gonna talk about no Rockets.”) A fevered, boyish nostalgia greets the retirees from some of the middle-aged men in the crowd, a reminder that even the greatest champions have fleeting careers. Warren Moon, Marcus Allen, Nolan Ryan, and Clyde Drexler stroll up the red carpet to this particular tune, and then Texans quarterback David Carr saunters in, more handsome and vital than Tom Cruise, and everyone else is forgotten in a tsunami of envy and awe.

This night isn’t supposed to be about individuals, however; it’s supposed to be about Houston’s collective, can-do spirit. As CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, a University of Houston graduate and tonight’s impresario and MC explains, this Super Bowl is a Houston Super Bowl, meaning that it will be more fun and more egalitarian than those in years past; as proof, he references the musical events that are supposed to transform downtown into a cross between Mardi Gras and Times Square on New Year’s Eve. “Until now, the Super Bowl was all about private parties,” Nantz says to several mikes aimed in his direction, “but Houston has opened its doors to everyone.” Having made his point, Nantz promptly departs for the VIP reception, where he rubs shoulders with all the sports greats and George and Barbara Bush, who eschew the red carpet in favor of a private entrance. They aren’t wearing any badges.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 27: A cold front has come in, bringing with it the stiff winds of capitalism. Planning for the Super Bowl has been years in the making, and even though the Houston Chronicle published a cautionary tale suggesting that most of the money that comes to town never quite stays in town, the warning goes largely unheeded. As restaurant chain owner Tilman Fertitta tells Channel 2 News, “We’ll always have a party week during Super Bowl week, and it has nothing to do with the game going on. This is for the Fortune One Thousand CEOs to come to this city and say, ‘This is a place that I want to do business.'” Hence, local designer Vanessa Riley, asked to make several gowns for a Super Bowl week fashion show, starts sewing on spec for actresses like . . . Angela Bassett and Kim Cattrall. “It’s difficult to say no,” Riley tells me, anxiously assessing the silks she’s bought with her own money. “I’m just putting my neck farther and farther out in order for something to pay off.” She’s not the only one: The alternative Houston Press, which prides itself on its outsider status, has sold its cover to Budweiser, and Fertitta opens all three floors of his downtown Aquarium restaurant to the media, who gawk at the sawfish in the tanks and the girls shivering in scanty mermaid costumes, all the while consuming, absolutely free, what looks to be every shrimp that once inhabited the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s absolutely un-be-lievable!” a reporter hollers into his cell phone.

But as often happens here, the desire to make money—lots of it, in a hurry—conflicts with the desire to make a good impression on visitors, which will hopefully translate into still more money later on. With the collapse of Enron and uncertainty in the economy, Houston has stepped up its search for more convention business and for corporations that might hanker to relocate. The Super Bowl affords an opportunity to show the world how friendly and unpretentious (read: ready to deal) we are. The standard-bearer for this approach is our new mayor, Bill White. White may have busted heads as Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of Energy and as CEO of a global investment firm, but the persona he has adopted with both the hoity-toities and the hoi polloi this week is that of a winning Sunday school teacher. White debuts in a commercial during the ten o’clock news that’s heavy on personal responsibility. “Put your smile on,” the ad counsels. “Company’s coming.” I pull a blanket over my head and hope that I am dreaming.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 28: I’m already jaded. Another party hosted by Tilman Fertitta, this time a private fete at his gargantuan River Oaks estate to honor the Super Bowl Host Committee—largesse for the locals who made this whole thing happen. Once a mere restaurateur, Fertitta, along with his wife, Paige, has managed, in a short time, to grab and hold the social spotlight, thanks to his ever-expanding business empire (Landry’s, the Rainforest Cafe, and so on) and his generosity (meaning his willingness to pony up political and charitable contributions and to lend his mansion when it counts, like now).

Tonight his yellow Lab gazes dolefully from the guardhouse while jackbooted Houston police officers patrol the driveway; a Rolls is parked under the front portico of the mansion, which in size and brocade level closely resembles Versailles. The message to out-of-towners, intentional or not, is “You want Giant circa 2004, we’ll give you Giant circa 2004.” Cameramen have taken up positions in the foyer, so when you enter, you feel like Cameron Diaz, who is rumored to be in town but not at this venue. Instead it’s the Pastorinis, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, and the senior Bushes again. (“Make sure my daughter’s room is clean,” Fertitta whispers to an aide. “The Bushes want to see upstairs.”) The security cameras roll in the master bedroom and in the family room, so that you can watch guests, their mouths agape, from several locales. The garage has been converted into a Louis XIV ballroom, where the fare tonight includes “bone-in filet mignon” of a size and thickness not consumed since 1960, followed by a special performance by Clay Walker in a specially constructed Texas Super Bowl Saloon, followed by a special “dessert extravaganza” that includes pralines, chocolate-dipped strawberries, vanilla bean cream puffs, lemon raspberry tartlets, coconut cream pie, Rocher truffles, grenoblois truffles, crème brûlée spoons, and white-chocolate cheesecake. What else do they have? I wonder.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 29: It is very clear to me that I don’t own the wardrobe for this week. I should have known it as early as Monday, when I spied a female sportswriter dressed in tight pants, spike-heel boots, and a cream-colored sweater that kept slipping off her shoulder. Houston is the town that invented the gentleman’s club and the silicone breast implant, so sex as an adjunct to business has been the norm here for quite some time.

But now it’s supersized. Tonight at a cavernous bar called Drink Houston, for instance, I attend a Miss Hawaiian Tropic Super Bowl contest. VIP tickets to the party cost $225, though many have been handed out as favors to lucky clients and friends who are slack-jawed at the prospect of seeing fifty or so twentysomething females compete for $1,500 cash, a $500 cell phone, a Wittnauer watch, and a trip to Hawaii. The reason for all this fuss is obvious to an entertainment lawyer named Mitch Ver Voort, who works the door. “You don’t get a bunch of girls to get together and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Super Bowl,'” he says. But guys need a premium to encourage pre-Super Bowl spending, and that premium is girls, specifically girls in lingerie. They are currently pouring through the door in hot-pink bustiers trimmed in black lace, fishnet stockings, and see-through stilettos. It’s hard to tell the real hookers from the hooker manqués.

Judging from the Hummer, Jaguar, and Lincoln limos circling the parking lot, no one really cares much about reality, anyway. (“We’re out of VIP passes!” a doorman wails.) Inside, the VIP reception commences at nine-thirty, and the contest follows at eleven, as the crowd’s impatience crests. “They’re taking the SATs. They’ll be right out,” someone suggests. Finally the girls appear, parading nearly nude before a grateful, mostly male public who rewards them with accolades like “Show us your tits!”

The winner is Olga Vybornova, a tall, blond Moscow immigrant in a red jumpsuit with strategic cutouts. She’s a veteran, having previously served as Miss Flirt International and Miss Bikini Bowling Team USA. She also tells me she’s been Miss Hawaiian Tropic for a year already. Olga says she’s never been to a game before. “In Russia we don’t have football,” she explains. Oh well. As someone on the TV news mentioned earlier in the day, “It’s not about the game; it’s about the event.”

FRIDAY, JANUARY 30: Celebrity hysteria strikes. KHOU tells viewers that someone saw Britney Spears shopping at the Kmart near Reliant Stadium. Vuitton supposedly closes its store because J-Lo and Cameron Diaz want to shop. Pamela Anderson allegedly lands at Hobby airport in a private plane. Madonna maybe drinks coffee at the Starbucks at Westheimer and Post Oak. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston might have bought dinner for a couple celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

As the hallucinations grow, the whole city seems to have the same idea: to head for the Galleria in search of stars. We pretty much wind up staring at one another, though Olga clones are out in force, as are delegates to a simultaneous hip-hop convention, which includes a contingent of very large men in letter jackets from an Atlanta label called Grand Hustle. (They could be NFL executives; it’s hard to tell.) The biggest traffic stopper is Buffalo Bills safety Lawyer Milloy. He’s nearly surrounded by hundreds of people pointing their cell phone cameras at him in front of the Emporio Armani store, and I worry that the adoring crowd might accidentally force him over the rail and send him crashing onto the ice-skating rink below. I’m not sure that this is the kind of hospitality that Bill White has in mind.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 31: Like many locals, I’m getting a little prickly about the criticism being leveled at Houston by the national press. The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times land a few blows (Houston, reportedly, wants “to move beyond its image as an oil town shrouded in a haze of smog”). One dig reported in the Chronicle pokes fun at Houston’s tendency to bill itself Space City. “C’mon,” I gripe to my husband. “We haven’t called ourselves Space City since the sixties.” Then I look farther down the page and note a big ad from the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Welcome to SPACECITY, USA,” it says.

The black market in scalped tickets is exploding. As the price soars to $2,000, dips to $1,500, and then surges to $3,000, I meet a friend to celebrity hunt. While we’re gawking at limos, my pal’s cell phone rings. Yesterday this amateur scalper made $12,000 selling extra tickets; now the take is up to $17,500. The phone rings again, and another $500 rolls in. “Are you going to the game?” I ask. “Are you kidding?” my friend snaps. “Capitalism rules at our house.”

As evening sets in, I’m in a social swivet. There are too many parties, all starting simultaneously: Vanessa Riley’s Super Celebrity Fashion Show, where the Reverend Jesse Jackson is supposed to show; the Celebrity Starwalk, at the Mercury Room, where the mayor is supposed to give Beyoncé Knowles a proclamation; and the Playboy party, allegedly the hottest ticket in town. By ten o’clock, downtown Houston is a sea of limos and a roiling mass of humanity. I push my way past the crowd to the Celebrity Starwalk, where the stars include the NFL mascots (who all exit the same limo), rapper Ludacris, Mrs. Texas in a tiara, and Kelly Rowland, but no Beyoncé. Andrea White, the mayor’s wife, introduces me to a tiny, beaming, elderly woman at her side. “Meet the Queen of the Gypsies,” she says.

I rush to the Playboy party down the street, but it’s too late; I’m shunted into a surly mob who are all screaming that they are “on the list.” The only people who appear to be getting in, however, are babes in lingerie. “I brought ten girls!” screams one outraged man in a Hefner-esque bathrobe and ascot. “They’re sleeping in my hotel room!” The Playboy hosts leave Rockets chief operating officer George Postolos on the street (maybe he shouldn’t have brought his beautiful wife), while granting access to Pauly Shore and Kato Kaelin. The great lesson of Super Bowl week seems to be that there’s always a better party somewhere else, until you get there.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, PLUS MONDAY-MORNING QUARTERBACKING: Game day is rainy and cold, and I go to the grocery store to stock up on inedibles. My choices include a turquoise Panther cake, a red-white-and-blue Patriots cake, and the last remaining can of bean dip on the shelf. “Do you notice there are no planes flying overhead?” my neighbor asks ominously, and in fact, one flight scheduled to arrive in Houston during the game is cancelled.

The threat of terrorism does not deter the good feelings at the game, though, and the NFL has done its bit for world peace by forcing a few local warring corporations to share private boxes. The locals think Beyoncé did way better than Janet Jackson, Vanessa Riley gets a few Oscar dress nibbles, Olga moves to L.A., and the Chronicle prints a story headlined “NFL Chief: City Rates Encore as Super Site.” It’s all we ever wanted.