Watching “Treme” in New Orleans Tuesday, Jun 21 2011 

It should be little surprise that I am a big fan of the HBO series “Treme.”  Well into its second season, the show focuses on the people who give New Orleans it character: the musicians, the chefs, the neighborhood folk and, well, the characters. The second season mirrors the second year after Katrina; it is ominous, dark, and violent, but in the midst of it all it is doing a masterful job of exploring the essence of creativity, whether it’s music or gastronomic delights or rapacious business dealings.

Mardi Gras Indian moccasins.

I usually sit in my living room on Sunday nights waiting for my latest injection of New Orleans to take effect, but this Sunday was a problem: I was in New Orleans. Well, on the West Bank in housing provided by the agency I’m working for. The price is right (free), but there is no television, cable, wireless, and the electricity is a little spotty. There are reputedly ghosts, but their entertainment value is nil.

I got in on Sunday, met my student who is working here during the summer. We had a shrimp po-boy and visited a home-grown Mardi Indian museum over in the Ninth Ward. It was the consummate start to a visit to the Crescent City. Even though my student and her friend are about forty years too young, I took them over to the Spotted Cat for a Sunday afternoon of jazz standards. It is standard operating procedure for me and maybe they were they were lying, but they claimed to enjoy it.

During the intermission, I talked to Yvette Voelker, the lead singer for the ensemble and member of the Pfister Sisters. The conversation turned to “Treme”   She told me about a “Treme” watching party at Buffa’s on Esplanade. Not only do the residents come to watch the show, they usually have musicians perform beforehand who have appeared on the show. And this week it was Holley Bendtsen, one of Yvette’s fellow “sisters.” Who could resist that?

So I said goodbye to my student and her friend, drove across the river, and moved myself into the “Haunted Mansion.” I went back and walked around the quiet, residential corner of the French Quarter before settling in at Buffa’s. I had some red beans and rice and yes a couple of local beers, and then the show began.

Holley Bendtsen and Harry Marrone, Jr.

Oh yeah, Holley’s set was wonderful and her accompanist, Harry Marrone, Jr., was great; but the real entertainment began when they dimmed the lights for the show. The crowd starting shushing each other like a third grade class trying to reclaim rights to an outdoor recess. Once the episode began, they watched intently, with occasional outbursts of laughter, applause, gentle cheering, and heavy sighs. It was an emotionally tough episode and unease permeated the room as the lights went up.

Someone from the bar got up then to say a few words and announce future entertainment. It was clear that he had been brought to tears, as was true for a sizeable minority of the crowd. Many sat quietly or offered hugs before paying their bills and heading off into the neighborhood. I quietly paid my tab and headed back across the river. The drive back gave me some time to reflect.

Crowd at Buffa's before "Treme."

I appreciate the show because of my occasional visits to the city and to what I feel is an accurate portrayal of the people. These folks lived it. They were displaced by the flood. They struggled with their local governments and FEMA. They watched the violence return. They are witness to the economically and politically induced gentrification in parts of their city. And they all know neighbors and musicians who act or play extras in the show.

So, David Simon and his colleagues, among other things, should be praised for the verisimilitude of their endeavor. And this isn’t just coming from critics in far-flung cities or pretenders like me; it’s coming from the people who love and embrace a flawed city so much that they came back from ruin and sadness. They live here and make merry once again, but the pictures and memories remain.


The Dirtiest City in America…But There’s More! Tuesday, Jun 14 2011 

There it was. Headline. First thing this morning: The Ten Dirtiest Cities in America: New Orleans Tops the List. Needless to say, I had to investigate. Not because I thought the charge erroneous, but because I knew there must be a back story.

For one, it is clear that cleanliness is not necessarily linked to popularity. As it turns out, New Orleans has some good company in the top ten of America’s dirtiest cities: among them are New York, Memphis, Las Vegas, and Miami. Not exactly vacation backwaters. They are all among the Nation’s favorite vacation destinations. But I figured there must be more to the story.

After a couple of clicks, I got to the Travel+Leisure web site. It led me to the requisite, attention grabbing dirtiest cities story. And there I found that source was the 2010 America’s Favorite Cities survey. There was more to the story.

Cleanliness was one of over 50 different criteria. And needless to say, New Orleans, a favorite tourist destination did equally poor on some and exceptionally well on others.

Sidney's Saloon, Treme, New Orleans.

The survey topics where New Orleans rated poorly were quite obvious: New Orleans is not a good place to visit in the summer; pizza is not a first choice for food in New Orleans; New Orleans is not a center for fitness freaks; New Orleans is not clean, quiet, or safe; and, New Orleans is not a choice for a family vacation.

And while all of these help make New Orleans a singular place, it is the positive stuff that leads us to go back again and again. In times to visit, New Orleans ranks number one for New Year’s Eve, which is quite surprising. Under food and restaurants, it ranks number 1 in neighborhood joints and cafes, number 2 in ethnic restaurants, and number 4 in big-name restaurants. Visitors also like New Orleans’ B&Bs and boutique hotels, noteworthy neighborhoods, and shopping for antiques and vintage items.

Of course, New Orleans excels in a number of other areas. It is ethnically diverse and ranks number 1 in people watching. And, it should surprise no one, that New Orleans is ranked highly for a place to go for a wild weekend, and for live music, and is number 1 for cocktail hour and for and the singles/bar scene.

So, it pays not to go  just with the headline. There is often a lot more to the story.