"Like very few other great cities around the world, the price of admission to New Orleans - what qualifies one for citizenship, so to speak - is simply a deep and abiding love for the place; a need to live there no matter what."
-Anthony Bourdain, from his foreward to Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans
January 2006 - driving down Tchoupitoulas on my way to the Winn-Dixie on my way home from work
I pull into the one space in the Winn-Dixie parking lot and prepare for the inevitable long line and the fact that I will probably only get two or three of the things on my list of ten. I walk into the store, see the lines and the harried faces. I can feel the start of a panic attack beginning. I turn around and walk out the door. I sit in my car for a few minutes, calm down, and drive on to the Sav-a-Center. The parking lot is less full so I'm hopeful this means the store is less full. I walk in, see the same lines, and audibly sigh. A lady, who I didn't notice come in at the same time as me, pats me on the shoulder and says, "Honey, it's going to be okay. Go get what you need to get." And she smiles. I know she's right and I follow her into the store and get my groceries, wait in line, and go home. Pumpkin is waiting for her dinner and I go about the process of making mine too. I watch some tv, get annoyed during the news, and go to bed.
This was not an anomaly of living in a post-Katrina New Orleans. The easiest of tasks, going to the grocery, getting a prescription filled, getting gas, all became monumental exercises that usually ended in frustration. The simplest task took twice as long and probably meant you had to drive all over town just to complete it. If the mundane task took twice as long, consider what it must have been like for those trying to rebuild homes and businesses or put loved ones to rest. Imagine doing it all from far away because you weren't able to come home yet. This was the New Orleans I left in July of 2006.
Flash forward to January 2011. I was living in Alameda by this time and had returned from my Christmas visit with my family in Virginia. I finally decided to sit down and watch season one of Treme, HBO's show about post-Katrina New Orleans. As I watched the first episode, the memory of that trip to Winn-Dixie immediately came to mind. I binge-watched the entire season in a day and a half. I hadn't lost my physical home (some minor damage) nor any relatives but I had lost home in other ways. It's always been difficult to describe those eight months in the city after the storm to people who weren't there. I know I bored people to tears with my stories and rage and complaints so I just stopped talking about it. When I watched season one of Treme, it was like being home again with people who got it. I didn't have to explain anything; it just was.
The first season of the show is the New Orleans I experienced and left: I went to that Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. I drove past refrigerators lined up on the neutral ground waiting to be hauled away. I kept track of what was and wasn't open and when was a good time to do things like get groceries or do laundry at the laundromat. I learned to live without regular mail service or garbage pick up. I had to call the police on sketchy neighbors who moved into the basement apartment in my lovely building and made me wary of coming home at night (something I had never felt in my neighborhood). While all those things were going on, I was also working at the university and reading essays from students who wanted to come home. Some still stick with me: the boy who went to Dallas and struggled to find a toothbrush in the first days after the evacuation and used that to describe feeling lost in an unfamiliar place. Or the girl who wanted to come back to New Orleans to rebuild but also because she wanted to be near where her sister was buried. She didn't want her sister to be alone. It was a struggle to be positive and make it work. Ultimately, I lost that struggle. I left the only place that I've ever felt at home in because I couldn't do it anymore.
I needed to leave and my family wanted me to leave. I know now that it was the right decision to make. Professionally, the move was a smart one and personally, I needed a break. But for years I've had leaver's guilt (probably not a thing but whatever). I visit as often as I can and I shop New Orleans and I support the Saints no matter what. I try to keep New Orleans in my heart and be a New Orleanian wherever I am. But it's exhausting to have to explain New Orleans to everyone who reduces it to beads, booze, and boobs.
And that's why I love Treme so much. I didn't have to explain anything to anyone while I watched it because David Simon and company understood. I felt at home watching the show and I felt in the know on so many things. I fell in love with every character in some way. Even the characters I disliked (like Sonny) still had something to love or at least like enough to get by. Each one reminded me of home and often of a specific person I knew and missed. So many shows and movies set in New Orleans resort to caricature and Treme never did. If you're not from New Orleans, you might think they are but they're not. I know Janette, Davis, Annie, Creighton, Antoine, LaDonna, Toni, Terry, and Albert personally (not the actors but the characters). Every musician I love made an appearance and the chefs and other characters of the city came out to make the story real. It made me laugh (so loudly I think my neighbors thought I was crazy) and cry and rage and every other emotion you can think of and that was just during one episode.
I was able to catch up on season two almost immediately after I finished season one (I do love tv on DVD) and when I moved back to Virginia I got HBO just so I could see season three as it unfolded. The fourth and final season finished up at the end of December. While I understand the show had to end sometime, I just wish it wasn't now. Granted I have the first three seasons on DVD and can watch them whenever I want, but it's more because I've become so attached to the characters and I wanted to stay with them for a bit longer. I won't spoil anything for those fans who haven't seen the end of the show yet, but each person's story is wrapped up, nicely for some while others seemed to rush toward their conclusions. I do think it ended in the right spirit of each character. So I'm pleased with the end; I just didn't really want it to happen.
My favorite characters are Davis, Albert, and Terry. Each one represents something different about the New Orleans experience - the oddness, the tradition, and the contradiction. Davis has been a favorite of mine since season one. His attempt to get Janette to stay in New Orleans was priceless (it even involved John Boutte bringing beignets to their house to start the day) and his rage and zaniness balance each other nicely. And Albert. I think his relationship with his son, Delmond, is the closest thing to a metaphor for the story of the city after the storm. Theirs is a constant struggle between tradition and new and what responsibility to home means. I doubt most people, including myself, knew all that much about the Indian tradition before watching Treme. I appreciate that much of it is still a mystery as much as I appreciate how the shows handles preserving the tradition. I get chills every time I hear the version of "My Indian Red" from the first season.
Which brings me to Terry Colson. I've always enjoyed David Morse, the actor who portrays Colson, but this role is my favorite of his. He's an NOPD detective who becomes disgusted by the corruption and inefficiency of the department after the storm. I knew from his first appearance at the tail end of season one that he and Toni would end up together even if just briefly. I spent much of season three worrying he would be killed or maimed. All I wanted him to do at the end of the series was turn around (this will make sense if or when you watch the last episode). There are a lot of contradictions in Colson; just like New Orleans. I think that's what I like best about him.
There's a lot more that I could write about Treme. The show helped me move past my leaver's guilt and understand that I had to leave in order to eventually go back. I appreciate my home and the people that make it what it is. And I care less and less about the people who don't get it. Frankly, I don't need them in my life.
For now, I will simply sit back and think about a time when I will drive through Mississippi and be able to tune my radio dial to the WWOZ signal. And I'll know I'm that almost home.
Other photos by me