If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, you know that sometimes I talk about why football matters but there are many things around which cities gather. Here, one of those many gathering points is HBO’s Treme. Mostly, people bond over complaining about it being so dark. This week was one of the darkest episodes yet but it was an important one and got me thinking about why we need to stare into the face of all that happened here.
I love the show for introducing the rest of the world to more of the many layers of this city – the musicians, the food, the culture and, despite the destruction left in the wake of Katrina, the beauty of this place. I’m glad for the details whether it’s a line about high schools here having a volunteer requirement or the newly formed band with the wisdom to choose a mature woman and know that she’s sexy, silver hair and all. But, I have been asking myself why I watch a show with so much ugliness and pain in the story. This week’s episode, it finally hit me.
When the levees failed and I saw my beloved New Orleans deluged while I sat in Los Angeles, I could not turn away. As people stood on their roofs holding up signs begging for water, I stopped sleeping and left the TV on 24 hours a day. When they remained trapped in attics, on roofs, in the Superdome and Convention Center for day and night and day after day after day, I could take it no more, I had to do something. Maybe someone watching Treme will realize how much more there still is to do, how important it is to build safe levees throughout our country, what the people here endured, and be moved to action. Maybe they’ll vote for more infrastructure or donate instruments to a school or find compassion for human frailty. But every cloud has a silver lining and I think I may have found one I hadn’t thought of before.
In a strange way, watching the post Katrina agony play out on the news cemented for me that I needed to move to New Orleans sooner rather than later. Nothing lasts forever and I didn’t want to take NOLA for granted. Since moving here, I’ve met a lot of people who came to NOLA to help after the storm then decided to stay. It occured to me that in Hollywood, they say there’s no such thing as bad press and being on the news incessantly for weeks put New Orleans in the mind of people who knew nothing about the place. In a strange way, it brought a whole new wave of tourists and residents here, both those who came to look at the train wreck and those who were drawn to this place’s magic and endurance.
The show also serves as a bookmark for where the city was and how quickly it has overcome a mountain of obstacles to start to rebuild. In half the time since 9-11, the people here rebuilt a school system, a criminal justice system, hundreds of structures and dozens of roads, one of the world’s best football teams and so much more. A lot of work still needs done, but it is truly remarkable how much has been restored, renewed and rebirthed.
Bottom line, if the people here had the courage to live it, I can have the respect to look at it.
The lawlessness in the episode may seem foreign to many but I think most major cities are vulnerable to so much of what happened here. I’ve asked myself what I would do if there were no water or electricity for months, no work, no money, no doctors and no schools for far longer. I’ve wondered if I would steel food or tampons if there were no one to sell them. And the things people remember most can never really be portrayed on TV, chief among them, the smell. There was no trash removal, mold grew rampantly and the bodies of both citizens and their pets rotted in the relentless heat. I can’t even really wrap my head around it all. And with no work and no TV, there was nothing to do all day but stew in fear, confusion, loss and anger. No wonder the show’s dark.
Which is why the music is so essential. It’s why parades matter. It’s why festivals and celebrations and second lines and great food and the Saints mean so much. Not just because they are a part of the culture and history of this amazing place, but because without them, there’s no will to rebuild. I like that the show attempts to show the intertwining of the dedication to the city’s culture and the rebuilding of the city itself.
I’ve mentioned before that the people of this region embrace ALL of the past of this city as I have attempted to own ALL of my own history, mistakes and triumphs alike. I found it interesting that Councilman Oliver Thomas decided to play himself. He never did become Mayor, as we now all know. Recently released from jail then house arrest, Thomas pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2007. I respect it when people save the tax payers the trouble and just plead guilty and it seems to me that it speaks to a realization and ownership of someone’s choices.
Lastly, there’s the New York chef who exclaims, “Do I have a life? No. This is my life!” In the cities where I’ve lived (D.C., N.Y. and L.A), I’d say his exclamation is a goal and he meant it as such. In L.A., people are dying to trade in their anonymity for being hounded by the press, having people go through their trash and all the other lunacy that goes with stardom. They want their careers to be so “successful” that they become consumptive. Maybe it’s because I’ve known “successful” people of all walks all my life and seen what it cost, but I haven’t longed for my career to be my life. And I wouldn’t consider myself “successful” if my life was so out of balance that all I had was my career.
Maybe we lack ambition here, but I don’t think that’s it. I think our ambition is directed toward being part of a family, a group of friends, a community, a story, a place. I think people here strive to find enjoyment everywhere. Maybe it takes a little longer to move a line of people through a checkout when we take time to visit, connect and laugh with strangers, but I like it that way. I like that smiles and conversation come free with purchase and are more important than meeting quotas. In L.A., the grocery store down the street from me didn’t even have people at the check-out. You scanned your own food, bagged your own groceries and rang your own sale. Today at the store, my frozen corn sat sweating as the two women in front of me got the checkout lady laughing to tears, but I liked it. I like people. I like life. I just turned to the two women behind me and got them laughing. The party’s where I’m at. And I love my job but I don’t live for it. It is not my life or my identity, it’s what I do. That is, when I’m not listening to live music, eating amazing food or attending parades…