I’VE resisted weighing-in on the HBO series Treme for awhile now. There are a lot of reasons, but the one that pulled at me most was that I was quietly rooting for it, just like I’m rooting for the city of New Orleans itself. But last night changed everything: I finally felt pieces snapping into place for me.
My New Orleans is a collage, scattered: people, moments, sounds, smells, voices. Something happened last night that made me not just see and hear it, but made my heart ache.
I was born in the West, in California. My mother migrated from New Orleans in the 50s, part one of the many “LA to L.A.” waves and she took New Orleans with her. I grew up with pieces of New Orleans here — the fish market near the Avenues, places we knew we’d find CDM coffee, file, and even for a while, Creole cream cheese. The parties that so far away from “Home” would sometimes even still sprout an impromptu second line. I’ve spent formative, steamy summers in New Orleans where I went each year to visit, from August into September, a time of year known for its swampy humidity, its sudden rain deluges. My grandfather lived in the Treme, on Miro Street, so this show hits close to home and at the same time, a little too close.
Eerily, the bar, Poke’s, where steely Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux (played note-perfectly by Clarke Peters) has squatted and has his gang at work on their costumes is situated, as it turns out, on Miro.
Miro looked like nothing from my L.A. youth — green-grass lawns and tall, skinny palm trees and space — a city full of pauses. Here, narrow “Creole cottages,” shotguns, most painted white as fresh-laundered shirts, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. It felt like another universe because it was. My grandfather held court at more than a dozen places around town — oyster bars, dive bars, po’boy joints, fancy sit-down restaurants, and more. My grandfather always salted his glass of Falstaff just before he’d lean into a story. “Here come Frank.” And he’d answer back with a sing-song, “Howyoudo?” I remember sultry music swaying out of jukeboxes in the middle of the day, the beans on the stove no matter where you went — public and private merged — people fed you. You could count on red beans on Monday as far as the city would stretch. They all knew Frank — or “Dink” — and he always had a story about what had been on that corner or who “usta stay over there,” but would be equally awed by someone elses remembrance, a different take on things. There was no one-upmanship; it was answered simply: “Well, I declare.”
Although there have been sly, insider touches all along — the “8th Ward /9th Ward cultural divide; the changing meaning of “laignappe” –there was something of all of this in the last episode, “Wish Someone Would Care” that finally truly felt like the New Orleans I know. Two things I think that struck me in particular were the way music moved in and out of this episode without effort or announcement. This time it was less “Let’s stop the narrative to showcase which great artist we have here with us this week” and more the way it feels to actually move through the city — the French Quarter, Back of Town, the Treme, Faubourg-Marigny. Rooms might be lit or painted a color, but that’s not what you remember in New Orleans. It’s the music and how it bleeds from one place and one style one mood one rhythm into another.
The the other missing puzzle piece for me has been John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, a Tulane University professor. Something has felt a little off: a lot of fire but rooted in what? A shift has happened, however, as moves toward a dark epiphany. For most of the series he’d been talking about his pride of New Orleans — and that’s just it, it felt like talk, an overlong monologue. Pride came off as pedantic: This is mine not yours; you would never understand. But that’s not New Orleans. (Even the way you’re corrected in pronouncing the city’s name: not New Or-LEENZ but New-OR-lens — is done by example, polite repetition as not to offend.) This time, however, as Creighton makes his way through the city sampling its signature delights, and we are to presume, his favorites — a bowl of gumbo, barbecued shrimp po’ boys, begniets at Cafe du Monde. Something else is revealed. The bliss he feels standing on Frenchman Street listening to Annie soar on her violin opens his heart. He drops a twenty into her open case. They cut back to the sun in his smile. This level of love is difficult to access and portray, I understand, but there was something in these moments — him sitting waiting for a po’boy in that dark hole-in-the-wall, knowing what he wants. Without a beat. Decisive. That was Dink.
When I think of who most closely resembles the New Orleneans I know, grew up with, it would be Lambreaux. Big Chief isn’t quite Dink, but he has some of my grandfather in him. The back-straight pride, the I’ll-never-leave attachment (Even after much of his primary family left, my grandfather remained. He died in New Orleans) You have to understand that dug-into-the-marsh passion and what’s behind it to be able to form some sense of empathy for any of these characters. I feel that has been the problem with Treme. With Creighton and gadabout Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) — often they are “announcing” what New Orleans is, was, stands for, is poised to lose — without really allowing the audience deeply into the magic, the rituals, the rhythms of the city (without its “special cameos,” without its quick-dash verisimilitude). That’s always been the beauty of New Orleans: its own step, own language, own rhythms. A place out of time. What we needed to feel was what the bubble was before it burst — even if it is in moments. New Orleneans bring that with them, in their hearts, in their actions: we needed more of Davis’ ragtag, impromtu Treme parties (“No stereo!” — all live music), we needed to linger and eavesdrop in the half-darkness of a cafe; we needed to see that poetic big river never too far away. It’s the dream — or perhaps more accurately — the illusion — that you don’t want to wake from — when real life, so inelegantly, barges in.