The Expert Outsider
“These guys are intent on getting it right,” Elie said of Simon and Overmyer. “They have a real knowledge of the city, and also something that I daresay most (locals) don’t have. (We) learned about the effects of the flooding by living through them, which means you suffer from the imperfections of memory. David and Eric learned about much of this from reading about it, meaning the chronology. They can put the facts in chronological order and into perspective.”
I was recently re-reading this nola.com article and the above quote jumped out at me. It reminded me of the discussions we’ve been having about outsiderness vs. insiderness, “from here” vs. “from elsewhere”, who has the right to tell our story, who even knows enough to tell our story.
It reminded me, really, of Antoine’s friend and benefactor, Koichi Toyama.
Koichi is not from New Orleans. He did not grow up in a jazz family. He never marched with St. Aug or Mac 35, never sat in a ladder along a parade route, never had a second line pass by his front stoop, never played his horn on the street corner for spare change. He didn’t “fall in love with the city and move here” either. He has visited only as a tourist. His knowledge of the city and of jazz comes primarily from books and records. He doesn’t know what it feels like to be a person like Antoine, to live in a place where music is not just entertainment but an intrinsic part of the environment, ubiquitous as the humidity, almost literally part of the air you breathe.
And yet he is truly a scholar of New Orleans jazz. He rattles off musician’s names like a fantasy baseball player quoting stats. Name a tune and he will tell you the label, the lineup, the recording date, and how he felt the first time he heard it. He’s stayed up late studying til he can puzzle out solutions to historical oddities like a photograph of Louis Armstrong playing a trombone (“slide trumpet!”). He knows the music so well, from book-learning, that he often has to correct Antoine’s memory, Antoine who has learned it merely by living it.
He knows what most tourists do not, that the sazerac is the definitive local cocktail — yet he lacks the experience that would tell him that a corner bar in the 7th Ward is probably not the place to order one. As an “outsider” (for lack of a better word), he is inherently one step removed. No matter how many books he reads or records he listens to back home, he’s not really a part of the thing he studies. There is always a gap that he cannot quite cross. Like an anthropologist, maybe. Or a journalist.
Which makes him a perfect stand-in for David Simon. His character dramatizes the expert outsider role that Simon can’t entirely shake. No matter how many books or records or films a person consumes, there is going to be a gap between knowledge learned and knowledge earned, between the book-smart student and the street-smart master. I think what makes Treme special compared to previous shows about the city is that Simon is acutely aware that this gap exists and spends his days focusing on narrowing it as much as possible.
I’m aware that there are degrees of outsider-ness: sixth generation born and raised here, just born and raised here, not born but raised here, lived entire life here, grew up here and moved away, moved away but came back. And there are even degrees of outsider-ness within the city; I’d argue that Simon or Overmyer or any other writer on the show probably has more theoretical and real-life experience with something like North Side Skull and Bones than a person like Davis McAlary’s mother, no matter how old her Uptown money is.
Toyama-san is there to remind us that one can be a knowledgeable, passionate, respectful lover of New Orleans while still being, by and large, an “outsider”. And every once in a while, that outsider can teach a thing or two to those of us who like to define ourselves as “from here”.
A funny aside: While working on this post, I googled “Koichi Toyama” just to see if the name had been swiped from real life, like so many other names in the
Lovecraft Simon Mythos. And the search turned up this Koichi Toyama. A street musician and nihilist turned fringe activist and would-be anarchist politician, who gained notoriety by posting foul-mouthed YouTube rants in which he called for the destruction of the Japanese nation and blasted American culture, among other things.
He’s the exact opposite of the fictional Toyama, the dapper, polite, respectful lover of America’s greatest cultural export.
He’s actually a lot more like Creighton.