As I recently remarked to someone, New Orleans is definitely a “you had to be there” kinda thing. HBO’s Treme helps illuminate some of why that’s so. There are actually 2 Tremes, the show and the neighborhood in which it’s primarily set. The actual Treme is the oldest black suburb in the United States, the home of Armstrong Park and Congo Square where jazz (and most American music) was born. This weekend, New Orleans celebrated the neighborhood’s 200th year with a bicentennial festival complete with concerts, food and second line parades.
We wandered over to Armstrong Park as Corey Henry and the Treme Funktet were onstage. In a moment of the HBO show and the actual neighborhood colliding, fallen City Councilman Oliver Thomas (and recurring character playing himself on the show) followed up, encouraging applause. If you don’t live here and attend the hundreds of concerts we have here, it might not strike you as rare, but the band came back for a few-and-far-between encore. Afterward, we headed toward the gospel stage, checking out the many artists’ booths and the Bacon Fried Hot Dogs stand.
In this week’s episode of HBO’s Treme, they discuss bringing back Armstrong Park. The jazz center never did happen but Armstrong Park is back better than ever and I feel spoiled by all the many free concerts and festivities the park now hosts. The episode also visited many places I’ve mentioned before including the Columns Hotel, Tujagues and Preservation Hall.
There were plenty of great local actors again including the returns of J.D. Evermore as “Detective Silby” and Ann McKenzie as Steve Zahn’s “Uptown Matron” mom. Ann and I worked together on the movie, Brawler, and J.D. and I worked together on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown.
Guest star, Isabella Rossellini, reeked of disappointment as her daughter (Lucia Micarelli‘s violin-wielding “Annie”) told her of her new life in NOLA. With St. Charles streetcars passing behind their perch on the front porch of the Columns Hotel, a waitress dropped in for a drink order. Annie pointed out that, “it’s never too early” for a cocktail in New Orleans and Rossellini ordered a Brandy Milk Punch. Other than the occasional cold beer on a hot day, I’m not much of a drinker but I’ve actually tried this tasty brunch-appropriate beverage. Years ago, before The Storm, I was visiting family and stopped to wait for my cousin in the restaurant/bar next to St. Louis Cathedral on a Sunday morning. Cafe Pontalba is located on historic Jackson Square in the oldest apartment buildings in America. The bartender was a third generation bartender and rightly proud of it. I met a nice older couple who’d been coming every Sunday since courtship. Every week, they would have a cocktail before church, then return after for lunch. I was catching them during their before-church cocktail and they absolutely insisted on buying me a round. It was my first and only Brandy Milk Punch and it was darn tasty.
Sometimes, it’s hard to explain the magic of New Orleans, the magic of finding yourself sharing traditions that existed long before you came along. I can’t tell you exactly why I never forgot that Brandy Milk Punch shared with a well-dressed couple decades older than I am, served by a third generation bartender in a centuries-old building. I only know that I felt part of something charming and ongoing. Like so many things after The Storm, I don’t really want to know if they made it through, if they still sit on those barstools every Sunday. Rosellini’s character points out, “You say that a lot around here, ‘There used to be…'” Maybe it’s true that the South clings too tightly to its own past but when magic can be found on a barstool on a Sunday morning, “used to be’s” fill up with meaning.
As the show now so amply points out, The Storm destroyed a lot. The aftermath threatened to wash even more away. As Phyllis Montana LeBlanc‘s “Desiree” discovered, even the family home is up for grabs. That said, the characters on the show, like the citizens on which they are based, are indomitable warriors. Though it may not thrill non-locals to see Chief Alfred Ducette of the Flaming Arrows and Chief Howard Miller of Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians, certainly we all gasp at the splendor of Chief of Chiefs Tootie Montana’s suits. What a privilege to enter the Montana home and see all that creativity and workmanship. So fiery fierce and so Pretty!
A quick word on the high school band dancing to The Cupid Shuffle. I couldn’t help but giggle thinking that they certainly didn’t have to teach any of the kids those moves. If you live in NOLA, chances are pretty good that you know every step. When I first moved here in 2009, I wandered down to the French Quarter before a Saints game. I didn’t know anyone so I was alone in a bar when a nice couple offered to buy me a beer then proceeded to teach me the dance. I’d been here just a couple months.
I didn’t mention the music much on this episode but you can find plenty of information at the Music of Treme website. Though the site’s author is no longer listing every song of every episode, he features links to other sites that do. If you’re a fan of the show, check it out.
And the Saints won again. Who Dat!?!