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Naked City

July 19, 2011

Critiques of Treme abound. It’s brilliant. It’s abysmal. Too much music—fast forward through it. Nothing happens. It’s merely a delivery system for David Simon’s politics that, hey, isn’t—multiple choice for you—a. As good as The Wire, b. Isn’t thorough like The Wire, c. Isn’t the damn Wire. (Please don’t misunderstand. I am a total Wire fan, own the box set and number Omar among my personal heroes. I even have a signed post-it note wherein I accuse Mr. Simon of killing the above mentioned Omar. One of my prized possessions.)

Let’s just get that part over with. You’re correct. Treme is not called The Wire and that decision was made on purpose. It also wasn’t titled The Wire: Port of Call New Orleans, and not just so that it wouldn’t be mistaken for a part of the Port of Call movie franchise. It was never set up to take on Central City corner boys, then move on to the Avondale Shipyards until we finally ended up inside City Hall, the Recovery School District and the Times-Picayune. Just sayin’. So now that that’s out of everyone’s system, let’s go back to the various critiques. There’s plenty to say about all of them, but I’m just going to focus on one.

One that I didn’t mention above is one I’ve not seen in national reviews, but one I’ve heard mentioned here in New Orleans in bars and coffee houses. It’s one that I have been baffled by from the first time I heard it way back in Season One: The show shouldn’t have been made, it’s not telling the story right, it’s not depicting our population correctly, it’s not. . . .aw, hell, there are several “it’s not” statements along those lines, and frankly none of them make a lick of sense to me.

When I was a kid I remember going to bed and hearing the tv still on in the living room. My parents were watching for a bit without us kids nagging for Lassie or some such. It was a voice, male, steady. I’d be almost at that drift off place before sleep completely takes over and I’d hear him. “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one.” I’d try to stay awake to hear what that one was. What story? Tell me. TELL ME! Then I’d fall asleep and ask my mom over breakfast to tell me what the story was. She’d inevitably say that it was a story for grownups and that would be the end of that. Oh I so wanted to hear that story, whatever it was. And there were eight million of them. The man said so. I could possibly go my entire life hearing one a night until I died and maybe not hear them all and that idea was as enticing as a chocolate cake that couldn’t be touched til the relatives arrived.

I have given a lot of thought to the “it’s not” categories of critique and have come to a conclusion that many will no doubt disagree with: Some of the people maintaining that it shouldn’t have been made because it’s not telling the story to their satisfaction are upset that it’s not telling THEIR story. Okay, there. I said it out loud.

According to most of the statistical sites I’ve looked at, the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans (within the city limits, excluding the metropolitan area) was about 485,000. While not the eight million that the Naked City narrator tempted me with, that’s still a lot of stories. Those of us here know that each and every one of those almost half million people have a story. We heard them in restaurants and on street corners. We heard them in lines at the FEMA processing centers. We heard them in television interviews, telling their story from Atlanta or Houston. We heard them from the barstools next to us, both sides of us, with the bartender’s story thrown in. We heard them from our friends and neighbors as they returned home. Many of us wrote our own stories down as we were living them. Stories and stories and more stories. And those stories continued to be discussed for a year after the cataclysmic upheaval of our lives, or two years after the trauma of death and loss and hopes and hopes dashed, because some people couldn’t even go there then. Some still can’t. The truth is that even now, hearing someone’s story can make some of us burst into tears.

In addition to the individual stories was the story of the city itself. Politicians, government agencies, contractors, insurance companies, displaced families, closed schools—the list there could go on for a very long time. However, something that the “it’s not” folks seem to be forgetting is the sheer number of columns, articles and comments on those columns and articles that passionately, and in some cases callously, voiced the opinion that New Orleans was a below sea level cesspool that made Sodom and Gomorrah look holy. That New Orleans contributed nothing whatsoever to our nation, and further, that its inhabitants were no account good for nothing morons who chose to live there and why in hell should they reach into their pockets to help a place and people of that ilk to rebuild anyway.

In the novella, The Duel by Anton Chekhov, one of the main characters describes himself as one of the “superfluous people” who are forced to “look for an explanation and justification of my absurd existence in someone else’s theories. . .” During that period just about everything we read put us on the defensive. We found ourselves feeling that we were indeed superfluous people, and we spent a lot of time justifying our right to live here, to be who we are, where we are, after reading someone else’s theories. We overwhelmingly found explanations and justifications denying our “absurd existence.” At issue was our definition of absurd vs. the rest of the country’s. We thought it absurd that anyone could give a second’s thought to not rebuilding an American city, while they thought we were absurd to think we warranted such an effort.

We bought books like Tom Piazza’s “Why New Orleans Matters,” and Chin Music/Rutledge’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and read them cover to cover delighted that someone got it. Got us. We wrote blazing comments in our own defense in those columns and articles. We were angry that no one seemed to understand how much we had already lost and how much more we stood to lose if there was no support for us. We wanted those idiots who were living ten miles from defective levees in their own flood prone states to have some compassion for our plight. We were delighted that Spike Lee stayed and stayed, interviewing real people no matter if we agreed with all of them or not. He rolled miles of film recording some of those half million stories and didn’t care how long the damn film was as long as it was the story—or at least some of it. We were furious that neither New Yorkers nor San Franciscans had had to justify their continued existence or make a case for rebuilding after the catastrophes that had struck them.

We continued to hope that some people out there, who assumed we were all non-stop party people and that none of the women here ever wore shirts, would hear some of the stories and understand. We knew that although they’d not heard every story from every soldier who ever served, they’d heard some, seen some depicted in movies and yes, even novels, and respected them for having weathered their ordeal. We hoped that the images of people on roofs or dead in wheelchairs at the Convention Center, coupled with stories of survival in the face of the rising water would not so soon be dismissed but would instead morph into a respect no matter how grudging.

It didn’t by and large.

Treme’s writers have done that for us. They have told the story that in my view needed to be told. They’ve done it with honesty and sensitivity, with harsh realities and sweet joys. They’ve done it through characters that we care about. And we care about them because they ring true. I’ve watched an audience watch an episode and nod in assent or holler out a “yeah you right” or groan “that’s what happened to my sister with her house.” These are New Orleanians who are saying this, or quietly dabbing their eyes in certain difficult to re-live scenes, or singing along with a favorite song.

I went through a little list of the characters in the last couple of days, even re-watched that wrenching last scene from Season One to get confirmation on some of their storylines. It’s a pretty good cross section. We have property owners: Janette, the Burnettes, Albert, LaDonna’s mom, LaDonna’s bar, Antoine and Desiree, Davis, and probably Colson as he’s got a trailer out in front of his house. We have renters: Jacques, Sonny, Annie. The property owners are from varying neighborhoods, races and economic levels. We know some of their backstories (if they’re necessary to their story arc), others not so much (where’s Colson’s wife for instance, or did LaDonna and Larry live with her mom prior to the storm—we don’t know and it’s so far not been relevant.) They are business owners, professionals, academics, musicians, kitchen workers and DJ’s, teachers, kids and cops. If you add in the big name musicians who were busy working every where but here during that time as they’d lost their homes and instruments in many cases, Treme has a large number of stories being told, even in the little quick exchanges as one musician passes another in the street.

Okay, ya know, that’s not everyone. Not everyone in New Orleans falls into one of those categories or job descriptions. Not a secretary in sight for instance—although we could kind of count Toni’s assistant who’s moving with her family and sees it as her only choice. But let’s put her aside.

For those who say the story shouldn’t be told, at least not in a fictional format, that the show shouldn’t have been made, I have to ask why? Weren’t you the same people ranting in the comments sections in defense of New Orleans? I think you were. For those who say it isn’t realistic, come watch the show with an audience and you’ll see how much, how very much, it rings true. Albert’s 495 dollar insurance check got big groans and a multitude of post episode stories of paltry sums from insurance agents. Do you think the person watching the show in Idaho realizes how often that happened? Probably not, but maybe now it will occur to them because they care about Albert.

For those who say that it doesn’t tell their particular story, I’ll buy you a beer and listen to yours. I’ll commiserate and maybe cry, I still do that too easily. Then I’ll tell you that while it may not be your particular story or your face on that screen, what the writers of Treme have managed to do is put faces on the people who lived through the nightmare of nearly six years ago. They gave us a voice through those characters, they changed us from a faceless horde on CNN to real people, maybe composite characters in most cases, but real people that we recognize as our neighbors or friends or yes, even ourselves. Those writers have managed to capture the frustrations, the anger, the hurt, the loss, the gargantuan task of rebuilding a house with no help and the labyrinthine hoops many of us are still jumping through. They wrote the joy of survival and the pain of injustice. They wrote the reality of a lot of folks. And many of them, many of us, are grateful.

Fifty years from now, some kid will stumble onto this show as it travels through the paths of the internet, or whatever will pass for the internet by then, and they’ll be as touched by it as we were the first time we ever saw Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s story and Fonda’s Tom Joad put a face on the downtrodden Dust Bowl travelers, showing us their camps and their struggles and their dreams. Maybe Treme will do that for that kid and he’ll be amazed by the fortitude of those absurd, superfluous people who lived in New Orleans when the Federal Flood came.

If I count just the characters that pop into my mind, I come up with 18/19 without counting peripheral characters. So tonight, as I’m going to sleep, I’ll hear John Boutte sing and then I’ll imagine him saying, “There are a half million stories in the naked city. These are 18 of them.”

  1. July 19, 2011 8:30 am

    thank you for offering. I’m glad you said it and articulated it in such a poetic manner.

    The Tom Joad/Grapes of Wrath analogy is apt, and people’s biggest problem with “Treme” is that it isn’t “Gone With The Wind”, its “Absalom, Absalom!”……plodding, difficult to fit in a box, without easily digestible characters, and drenched in an introspective mirror of ourselves.

    Many of the criticisms of the program stem from “ingrained” defenses of the Katrina period. You can’t tell a sympathetic post-Katrina story without also casting an indicting statement on politics. Unfortunately, in our kabuki-politics that resembles an OSU-UM rivalry fervor rather than civil issues of substance, the reactionary ad hominem to discredit or displace Katrina culpability.

    There are two facets of “Treme” critiques are either its politics or its story format. The latter I can abide, because it certainly doesn’t fit inside the box we’ve been indoctrinated to receive television. It certainly does not lend itself to concision or a casually lazy participation. The former I find petty, ignorant, and almost evil and symptomatic of what lead us to the (Katrina) disaster in the first place; a social toxic dismissal of your fellow man.

    For all its “faults” – the show is a healing and helps us address emotional scars, if not for anything else but to lend a voice. Spike Lee’s “Requim” and “God is Willing” are just as healing…. Netflix has a wonderful story to capture much of what “treme” does (in extremely graphic flood coverage) with “Trouble the Water” – a homemade movie from a No-Limit genre rapper during and after Katrina.

  2. July 19, 2011 10:58 am

    Just re-watched Season 1, while Xy saw it for the first time, and found myself thinking something very similar. It doesn’t tell my story. But that’s OK. I’ve told my story my own damn self. The 18 stories that are told certainly have to carry a lot of freight, don’t they? It’s a hard balance to strike, between symbolic iconography and realism, but I think the show succeeds in that.

  3. virgotex permalink*
    July 19, 2011 12:09 pm

    “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas of which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals.”

    George Orwell

  4. July 19, 2011 4:34 pm

    A colleague and I were discussing New Orleans and she said, “I like New Orleans because of its food and walking around amongst the architecture, but I’d never live there. How could you?” I said to her, “New Orleans is a temporary destination to you, just a place with relaxation and entertainment options. To me, New Orleans is full of my friends, people I love, my people. Do you get that?”

    What I was trying to tell her that what is concept for one group of people is reality for another. That there are folks who live there who have never been to the Quarter, don’t watch the Saints or last attended a Mardi Gras parade in 1977 but couldn’t dream of leaving their home, their city.

    I hope Treme has been able to get across that life-burdened humans, just like all other people on the planet but quite often not at all like them, live in New Orleans. One of my hopes for next season is they show the inside of Colson’s FEMA trailer and how he has conducted a family life in there for years (this is where we keep the cereal, this is were we iron the school uniforms, this is where the toilet paper and video games go).

  5. July 19, 2011 5:44 pm

    I don’t understand why it’s so hard for so many to grasp the reality that New Orleans is HOME to so many people, no differently than their home is to them. I just don’t get that.

    Maybe New Orleans tourist reputation militates against that idea, since the majority of tourists. visitors and conventioneers never get out of their hotels and the center any further than Bourbon Street? Living where we do too, which is over-run by international and national tourists, none of them have any awareness that all around them are living people for whom this is their home, where they do their shopping, go to and from work — and work right here too — do laundry, eat, sleep, LIVE. Not an iota of awareness. Are all tourists always like this throughout history?

    So many people we ecounter, no matter what they’ve heard us say over the years, still believe Mardi Gras is about the Quarter and tit flash for beads.

    On another subject, isn’t Colson divorced? And his sons live with her most of the time? That’s the impression I got, anyway. I recall him saying, when his job was getting to him, that all his job got him was a wife who left and child support, something like that.

    Love, C.

  6. July 19, 2011 9:06 pm

    Foxessa, have you seen the latest tourist commercials for New Orleans? Quarter, Bourbon St., partying, music, food, people here to serve you. It is the dominant industry and something that the New Orleans marketing department itself perpetuates. It’s the same in Rio, Quebec City, Rome, Munich and every other major tourism-first city that I’ve visited and studied in the last few years. Something New Orleans taught me is to be respectful of other people’s surroundings when traveling (I know I just LOVED being run into by tourists walking in hordes and photographed when dirty and sweaty from cleaning windows and raking magnolia leaves off my front porch).

    Then again, how aware are we in general of Other People? See Sam’s post above about how wrapped up we are in ourselves for the most part and complain about Not My Story. Reminds me of the friend who refused to watch Treme because he didn’t need some outsiders to tell the story of his city.

  7. July 20, 2011 10:24 am

    Sam, you express this all so well, including the petty jealousy and misdirected hurt under and in between some of the criticisms of Treme.

    And folks seem to understand what Home means when they speak about themselves or their area/hood. It is simple coldheartedness and lack of character not to extend to others what you assume for yourself.

  8. July 20, 2011 1:06 pm

    Long, long ago, on my first travels to the Caribbean — and, reading Jamaica Kincaid — now there is a woman who can Do Angry! — I came to the conclusion that an economy dependent on tourism is a terrible economy, and it holds the people of that economy in a perpetual condition of fiefdom.

    So we recognized the exact point when NYC joined those economies. And the mayor thinks this is just great, he keeps promoting it. We continue building new hotels — 12 more are projected to open in the next year, and the price of the rooms keeps going up. But we shed in the many thousands other kinds of jobs every year and nothing is being done to replace them.

    Among other things a tourism economy does is encourage hiring undocumented labor rather than the people who live there to whom you SS and etc. — and who presumably can seek recourse if they are treated too badly.

    Love, C.

  9. doctorj2u permalink
    July 20, 2011 6:45 pm

    Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, was more hurtful to me about Katrina than my own country, a country my father fought for in WWII, a country my grandfather died for in WWI, deserting us after the worst of the worst happened. I do not like to even go there because the hurt and the anger only harms myself. It is “there” always.
    Not all deserted us. I realize that. But far too many people (and politicians) did. Anybody see the new Emmylou Harris song “New Orleans”. Not all deserted us. I need to remeber that.

  10. doctorj2u permalink
    July 20, 2011 6:51 pm

    Embed not working. Here is the link to Emmylou Harris “New Orleans”

  11. 3Suns permalink
    July 21, 2011 7:19 pm

    Great, insightful post, Sam.

    While fiction, I too believe that Treme (and The Wire) will be useful to others years from now in understanding the phenomena and people these shows present. 18 stories indeed!

  12. July 21, 2011 10:20 pm

    Very eloquent and insightful post. I do know people who won’t watch Treme because their memories of the post-Katrina period are too painful. I know others who find it slow and boring. Me, I love Treme, every minute of it, every character, every song, every frame. No, it isn’t my story by a long way, but it’s a wonderful story, beautifully told, with great performances, and characters who seem like real people, like New Orleans people. It has its own reality, which may not be reality for some of us, but is Truth nonetheless. Long may Treme endure. Thanks.

  13. Davis Rogan permalink
    July 22, 2011 8:08 am

    On a somewhat tangential note, what ? Me? tangential? The Naked City is a great show. I got into it because (A) I was about to start working for television (B) I read Paul Burke’s obit in the Times Pic. Burke was a New Orlenian who was involved with Connick Sr. in some kinda scandal in the 70’s. DVD’s of Naked City include the original ad spots and there’s a classic TV chanel, somewhere in the 50’s, that reruns Naked City too.

  14. July 27, 2011 11:01 am

    Thanks for all your kind words. A quick note: evidently not only are some people upset about it not being there story, but I saw a rant this week that made it clear that some people are somehow mistaking the title, Treme, for the ONLY location in New Orleans that should be discussed. I read a bit of a screed this week that made me realize that some people thought and continued to think that the show would be about ONLY the Treme and not be inclusive of other areas of town.

    Again, missing the point. Treme’s writers are telling stories of people here in New Orleans, not just in one section of town.

    Perhaps they need to put a disclaimer in after the song: Some scenes in this show will be disturbing to people who don’t understand that we’re depicting a range of experiences throughout post-Katrina New Orleans.

  15. 3Suns permalink
    July 27, 2011 5:34 pm

    LOL No doubt. How grateful are we that the creators of The Wire were equally liberal with the use of that title!

    Sam, I think it is time to stop reading the dross. There was a jar collecting coins for that kind of surfing, wasn’t there? 😉

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