At no point did I want to go to New Orleans. Everyone I knew that had a desire to go lit up when they spoke about it, either with nostalgia or fantasy. I was never that person. In fact, I didn’t understand it nor did I want to. To me, New Orleans represented nothing more than a parade (so to speak) of consequence-free excess. That sort of chaos, the celebration of chaos, unnerved me. Throngs, drunks, drugs, boobs, beads, hedonism – if I ever was comfortable with those things en masse those days are gone never to return, not even in memory.
It’s not about race, poverty lines, being in the minority as a white female Yankee and given that I’m not Catholic I’ve never really understood the “go nuts today, get your ashes tomorrow” element to Mardi Gras. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like jazz, I don’t really even like fruity drinks or beignets. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, about New Orleans that spoke to me. To say I simply didn’t get it, was an understatement.
Several months ago, I began to see advertisements for a show on HBO called “Treme“. It radiated New Orleans (inserted: obscure musical pun) and hit that old familiar dull nerve that it seemed everyone else had firmly implanted in their spines, alive and well. I shrugged it off, it didn’t matter to me.
Then I set up house and decided against cable. After reaching the end of my own collection including the entire ‘Mad Men’ series twice, I went to the library and acquired a card, completely forgetting its liberal DVD rental policy. I scoured the shelves and picked up both old and new films. A thwarted attempt at two seasons’ worth of Sopranos left me near the ‘T’ section. My eyes fell upon ‘Treme’ and I decided to pick up the first disc of the first season.
The opening credits were like nothing I was prepared for. The sound, the beat, the lyrics, the joy of them – juxtaposed by total devastation of a city. The credits play against the backdrop of moldy walls, but even though that’s what they are, the designers chose to make those walls beautiful. The entire story is about the struggle and attempt at rebirth of the city, and those whose ties to it washed away with entire neighborhoods. It’s about generations at odds, citizens furious at their government, life amongst ghosts, the effort to rebuild against amazing opposition and threaded through all of it is an incessant breath of life and musical rhythm that refuses to be stamped out by a media determined to make an undermined caricature of their city. Did I mention that this is a fictional show?
It got to me. I had goosebumps through most of the first episode. By the fourth and fifth episodes I began to see very clearly why anyone would want to go there, though even less why anyone would want to go simply to party. It’s not about the food though the show has a few chef writers on staff to make sure that bit’s authentic. It does get political as it should, but it’s not about that either. Music is a huge part of the show, authentically, and it’s music that I’ve started to really enjoy but it’s only one element. It’s the people. Yes, it’s about resilience and spirit, but it’s moreover a snapshot of a sort of people that exist there and maybe only there. I think I get it now. Or at least I get it better than I ever did before (admittedly, there was only one direction to go). I wouldn’t go during Mardi Gras, at least not for the first time, and I wouldn’t go to the flooded, bombed-out neighborhoods until the very last day. To wander around feeling pity from first-hand viewing would be a disservice to them and me, though I do believe it needs to be seen and made real.
So here lies a public apology to the city and people of New Orleans, via a library in Ohio and a show on cable. It is by far the least of the apologies you’re owed and I do hope you get them one day.
The opening credits can be seen here, on repeat.