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Giving It Away

April 10, 2010
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The premiere is almost upon us, and I have to admit I have been feeling more and more uneasy about it for the last week.

I don’t worry that Simon will get it wrong.  From what I’ve heard from people I know on the show, from what I’ve learned reading between the lines of the various media reviews, it’s gonna totally rock.  It’s gonna be the best portrayal of New Orleans to ever make it to the screen.

No, what worries me is that this is obviously turning out to be big.  Like, nationwide big.  Wire big.  Sopranos big.  The hype for this is as big as the hype for the Sopranos finale, the Wire final season.  And it hasn’t even aired yet.

It is going to be a big fucking event.

And I don’t want it to be.

I want this city’s story to be told, I want everybody to know why it matters and why we matter.  But in telling it so thoroughly and so dramatically, I am worried that in the telling, we’ll be giving a piece of it away.  And I don’t want to give any of it away.

Within a few weeks we’ll be deluged with HBO-educated “experts” on New Orleans (it’s already starting, actually).  Fan-boys who will have an opinion about a culture they’ve never seen, a city they’ve never been to, and people, actual people, they’ve never even met.  And unlike in 2005 and 2006, I don’t have the energy or the will to go around straightening them all out.

I’ve been ignoring a lot of the Treme coverage lately, and sometimes when I do see it, I feel both excitement and dread at the same time.  Like on Colbert last night, when Simon mentioned Ashley Morris as the source for a lot of John Goodman’s dialog.  And I know why Simon mentioned him, and I know it is important that he do so, and yeah, part of me thought it was really cool.  And part of me thought…well, I didn’t know what to think.  Because I thought about thousands of Colbert fans wondering who this Ashley fella was and deciding to learn about him and start becoming experts about him, and I thought of legions of Ashley fan-boys who didn’t even know the guy existed until this week, and it eats at me a little.  Ashley was my friend.  I don’t want all those people to have a piece of him, I don’t want all those people to think they know him the way some people think they know, say, the real Jay Landsman or the real Fran Boyd, because they don’t.  It’s already happening a little, Colbert people showing up at Ashley’s blog to comment about how cool he is, largely oblivious to the fact that they are actually leaving comments for his widow to read.

And the way I feel about Ashley is the way I feel about the city.  Are people gonna throw around Indian chants the way we used to throw around the names of drugs brands in Baltimore?  “Pandemic!  Red tops!  Too-way pockaway!  Spider bags, a na ney!  A na ney!”  Alli tells me the Parkway is getting almost too impossibly crowded for the locals anymore because it’s been in the New York Times so often there are always busloads of tourists there.  Is the same thing gonna happen to Thursday night at Vaughan’s?  Is Super Sunday going to join Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest as a big tourist draw?  If people start wearing FYYFF t-shirts like they wear shirts with Omar or Tony Soprano or Che Guevara…I don’t know what I think about that.

I don’t want to be like that busker character in that one scene, hating on some innocent kids from Wisconsin just because they don’t know everything there is to know about Katrina.  On the other hand, the thought of lefty-blogger blowhards like Yglesias ”n’em passing judgment and making pronouncements about a city that the lefty-sphere has gone out of their way to ignore all these years…it irks me a little.  I feel like we’re inviting the carpetbloggers in to come and appropriate whatever they want, for whatever purpose, and fuck the deeper truths lived by the actual people who are from here.

I’ve always enjoyed educating people who show a sincere interest.  We were out drinking with some new work buddies a couple of weeks ago and the subject of New Orleans came up and somebody said, “why didn’t anybody have the good sense to just put New Orleans where Baton Rouge is” and I said “cause Baton Rouge doesn’t have easy access to the lake which would’ve made it a shitty port 200 years ago when silt clogged the mouth of the river 95% of the time”.  And their ears perked up, and they wanted to hear more.

People who want to come and help and listen and learn, I want to hug them (Scout can vouch for having been on the receiving end of Ray hugs many times).  But opening up the city gates to anybody who wants to come and take…I don’t know, some of this stuff is very very personal, it’s very precious, and I don’t want to see it cheapened like so many shitty Bourbon Street t-shirts.

I am by no means accusing Simon or HBO or any of the other great people associated with the show of exploiting it.  They’re telling an important and essential story in the best way they know how, better than almost anybody else could tell it.  But once you tell it, once you put it out there to a national audience on a mainstream outlet, you don’t control it any more.  The story becomes, at least in part, the property of the audience.  And what right do they have to our stories?

I have trouble sorting out how much of this is legitimate fear, how much of it is selfishness on my part, and how much is just that I am both too far away (I miss my home) and too connected to the show (I miss my friends), and I just can’t sort out my personal feelings about my friends from the fiction that will be on the screen.

Talking out my ass in the middle of the night, ’cause these two short stories I should be working on just refuse to be written.

Feel free to ignore.

St. Augustine

19 Comments
  1. April 10, 2010 7:53 am

    I’m glad you wrote this, you eloquent bastard.

  2. April 10, 2010 9:13 am

    Big ((((((hugs)))))) to you from me on this one. These are legit fears. This town does have a way of welcoming the people who are truly open to it and firmly turning away those who would use it for their own ends. I personally have faith that that’s gonna work its mojo again over the Treme hype.

  3. April 10, 2010 9:29 am

    The world is already full of New Orleans experts from Cleveland, who stream ‘OZ from their I Phones between trips to Jazz Fest, the people who make it impossible to go out during Jazz Fest. We all like to pick at them a bit, but we will need those people (the ones who stop for a minute reverentially in the cutout statues, not the ones coming to see Simon & Garfunkel. We’re going to need them because they do care. Remember Sam came here because she fell in love with this city over many visits of many years.

    We’re going to need them the way the show needs Creighton Bernette, to act as a Greek chorus and explain the action and the setting to the world. It will introduce millions to the secrets I wrote about long ago, to the reason we have not relocated to somewhere upriver, the reason there will be a city here until the last flood comes and takes us all.

    Jazz Fest may finally be unbearable once the new acolytes have been through their DVDs of Treme — First First Season one time to many. I hope that Super Sunday remains a mystery to them, simply because it comes at a rainy time of year and the date can’t be known far enough in advance for a two week advance purchase ticket.

    I hope it brings some more people, people who fall in love with the city the way Sam did, the way my children have, the way Ashley did. People who will come to visit until they simply decide: we have to live here.

    The problems we have today are still many of the same problems I wrote about back in WBG days: a third-world economy, schools that would embarrass the poorest developing nation, you know the litany. If it brings some more bright young people down–not the disaster capitalists who are here to save is by leveraging reconstruction funds and Twitter but people who came because they fell in love, then I say let them come. This was once a city of 600,000 and that was before much of the East was built. There’s room enough.

    We may not be able to get into Vaughn’s or Parkway for a while but as people move here there will be more clubs, more restaurants, more of everything. And if they came out of a love that begin with Treme, they will not settle for the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood company. They’re going to want the real thing.

    In the short term we will have to deal with the poseurs, with the why rebuild New Orleans people, all that shit we thought we mostly have put behind us, all in a Big Number anniversary year in which Anderson Cooper will lead us all down a very unhappy stretch of memory lane. We know there kind. Let them come. We’re ready.

    I hope that the show itself is ultimately one of the things that buoys us up through all that, that its Ken Burnsian reverential tone, that the food and the music and that laughter against those backdrops, will keep us away from the place we all were when they staged Godot in the Ninth Ward and Gentilly.

  4. April 10, 2010 9:59 am

    The ones with short attention spans, the ones there for all the wrong reasons, will go away as soon as they came. Those who care will stay a while. Remember that not all of us were born there or lived there all of our lives even if we were, and “being a local who gets it” is a pretty fluid thing.

    New Orleans is a grand and magnanimous city, older and more durable than all of us and our so-called expertise combined. Forget the jokers, she will endure.

  5. April 10, 2010 11:14 am

    If for no other reason than the explosion of writing that’s happening on this blog, it’s already worth the risk. Y’all continue to rock the world.

  6. April 10, 2010 12:32 pm

    I feel what you’re saying about Ashley. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t ever refer to FYFF any more. He was so much more than anger and I’m tired of hearing about him popping his cork when the man would do anything for a friend. Anything. Hell, you know that already.

    As to the other stuff, I don’t begrudge the Parkway more business. It’s seasonal anyway. The locals can go back there in August when they really need the business.

  7. Kevin permalink
    April 10, 2010 1:52 pm

    This is well-thought-out and well-said, Ray.

    I do think that New Orleans may be at some tipping point for fake-cool, like Portland and Austin and Asheville and some other cities before it. It has all the elements: relatively inexpensive housing compared to other urban areas; enough liberal politics; and a reputation for artsiness which draws the so-called “creative class” (who are neither creators nor classy, but that’s a different rant).

    “Treme” may be part of that, but it’s a whole bunch of things converging at once: Landrieu’s election, the Super Bowl, white hipsters discovering New Orleans bounce, the growth of the indie music scene in the city, and a lot of other factors.

    What I imagine will happen is that “Treme” will become obsessed-over by some people in the way “Mad Men” is — there are blogs analyzing every reference and product and atom in each episode of “Mad Men,” and I imagine there will be some that do the same for “Treme,” explaining how WWOZ moved to the French Market after the storm, explaining Vaughan’s, plotting out where the fictional Uptown restaurant in the show is located.

  8. Peris permalink
    April 10, 2010 4:38 pm

    Maitri has it. I’m sure the masses will cycle on to the next shiny toy as soon as their eyes wander to it. And for them it won’t even be about New Orleans per se, but New Orleans as a type of thing of which they will always find another instance, but which there cannot be.

    Mostly harmless, I think. New Orleans will remain a sanctuary from popular culture long after the finale of this series airs.

  9. April 10, 2010 6:07 pm

    Thanks, y’all.

    Katy Reckdahl covers some similar territory in the T-P today:

    http://www.nola.com/treme-hbo/index.ssf/2010/04/treme_meet_treme.html

    Every once in a while when I’d be in the Treme for a second line or something, I’d think, “y’know, I’d like to live down here some day”. (OK, I also say that about the Quarter and the Marigny and Mid-City and Algiers Point….) But then I think that I don’t want to be one of “those people”. I’m an Algiers/Uptown kid by upbringing, and unless I dig my horn out of cold storage and get back to where I’m not embarrassed to be heard playing it, I don’t feel like I have a “right” (no, not a right, something like that but not as strong) to live there. I don’t want to move down there just to “take”, which is what I’d be doing if I just moved in to live there.

    I guess that’s what I’m getting at. I don’t want people who just want a piece of New Orleans. I just want people who want to bring something to contribute.

  10. doctorj2u permalink
    April 10, 2010 7:58 pm

    Many may feel they know New Orleans, but the few that fought for her in the dark low days will always hold a special place in her heart. We now join the citizens of the Yellow Fever Epidemics, post Civil Wars days, the early fires. It is not a group I would have picked to belong to if I wanted an easy life, but it is an importaant group because they stayed and kept the heart of New Orleans alive. It is something to be proud of.

  11. rickngentilly permalink
    April 11, 2010 12:10 am

    yo ray, it’s just a t.v. show at the end of the day.

    of course i dont have the dynamic of having met ashley or knowing him as a friend.

    the beauty of our city is that it’s a port and we get all kinds of folks looking and learning.

    i thought it was quite telling when you wrote

    “I’ve always enjoyed educating people who show a sincere interest. We were out drinking with some new work buddies a couple of weeks ago and the subject of New Orleans came up and somebody said, “why didn’t anybody have the good sense to just put New Orleans where Baton Rouge is” and I said “cause Baton Rouge doesn’t have easy access to the lake which would’ve made it a shitty port 200 years ago when silt clogged the mouth of the river 95% of the time”. And their ears perked up, and they wanted to hear more.

    i have worked in the 1/4’s my whole life and the visiters pay my mortgage .

    some are here for to be the ass that they cant be back home, and some are here because they love us but dont have a clue, and some actually get it.

    it’s all good, i guess.

    seems like im not really making a point here.

    i’m just trying to say take this show with a grain of salt.

    next time you are in new orleans give me a hollah and i will take you to a joint that has the best roastbeef po-boy i have ever eaten in my 50 years.

    the gimmick is they dont do the sloppy gravy how many napkins did it take you to eat it.

    it’s with a beef ju that …………. thats it no more gentilly neighborhood secrets. hollah next time your in town and it’s my treat.

  12. lb0313 permalink
    April 11, 2010 8:52 am

    Well said Ray. I’m glad Oyster pointed me back to finding you.

    Thanks for the scout hug – btw

  13. downtown riverside corner permalink
    April 11, 2010 7:12 pm

    This struck me as ironic:

    “Are people gonna throw around Indian chants the way we used to throw around the names of drugs brands in Baltimore?”

    We–the way we–you know, meaning, “we did this to Baltimore, too.”

  14. Pete permalink
    April 11, 2010 8:34 pm

    yeah, I liked New Orleans’s first 7″, but now that all these newjacks are into it, it’s totally lame.

  15. April 11, 2010 8:51 pm

    Yay, the metafilter yobbos are here. Wish I had $5 so I could buy a comment on their site.

    I completely get the irony, Riverside, and I did when I wrote it, but it just kind of proves my point, don’t it now.

    Pete, if that band’s first 7″ was put out by your best friend and now he’s dead, you’d kind of be in the ballpark.

  16. April 13, 2010 7:21 pm

    Well, I’ve always felt that New Orleans changes people, not the other way around. And as someone who wasn’t there, then was (for 10 years that felt like 30), and then isn’t anymore….well, I’m hoping TREME fills in that hole just a little bit this year.

  17. April 14, 2010 12:15 am

    Yeah, you right. This is exactly what I attempted to express on mine. Nail. Head. Well, said.

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