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.
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.
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.
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.