Sunday, June 27, 2010

Treme - A Good Man Slips Beneath The Water

Photo courtesy HBO
If you're watching the HBO series Treme and haven't made it to the final two episodes of season one, you might want to stop reading. There are spoiler alerts ahead.

It's been a struggle at times to hang with Treme as the first season unfolds. Much like New Orleans itself, Treme has a languid approach to developing the core characters and the settings in which they exist. Change comes slowly in the bayou, except when it doesn't.

Most of us have a preconceived notion of NOLA, how it existed before Katrina and after. That cognitive bias bumps against a fictionalized portrayal that includes video snippets we've previously seen on newscasts and documentaries. Newsreel footage transitions to actors on film, seamlessly.

Coming to terms with what we know to be true, what we wish was true, and what actors playing locals painfully demonstrate is true in their world can be both enlightening and draining. Treme isn't a show best enjoyed by passive viewers any more than New Orleans is best experienced by looking out your St. Pierre Hotel window.

John Goodman portrays Creighton Bernette, an English professor at Tulane University who is alternately saddened, enraged, and hopeful post-Katrina. "Cray", as he was affectionate called by his friends and family, was quick to express his outrage and contempt with the federal response to the hurricane, recording YouTube videos with his webcam, equal parts professorial and Lewis Black. But it was obvious that his city was slowly dying, with all efforts to resuscitate the Big Easy mostly ineffectual and in many ways prolonging the agony of the patient.

As Cray searched for hints of a comeback in local music, food, and even in the cleanup, he was stung by a thousand arrows of disappointment. It's like attempting to replicate a food or drink from your youth - even if the exact recipe is known, it's never quite the same, because the food chemistry needs the accompanying cultural anthropology to be complete. It wasn't the peach ice cream you made as a kid. It was everything that led up to making it, and the experience of savoring the flavors at that time, in that place.

Cray's frame of reference had shifted even as the locale remained. People were dead, or in Houston, or displaced. Suffering and hardship ran as the undercurrent of the city, at times more powerful than the Mississippi. Being knocked on your ass is one thing, but when everyone in your support network is knocked on their ass too, where do you turn?

Especially for a writer, an educator, one who has built a career herding thought and emotion into a chute that spits out powerful prose, enlightened and evocative, like the authors he foists on freshmen to get them to look beyond a book as merely something with a beginning, middle, and end.

There are some things in life that just can't be fixed, no matter if you have the original blueprints, or a collection of artists who helped build it the first time. Sheer desire to reconstruct an earlier time isn't enough when the force of change was so massive that it disrupts not just a city, but a way of life. Katrina wasn't incremental change. Katrina was overwhelming destruction of buildings, culture, and psyche.

For Cray, the multi-threaded beauty that was pre-Katrina was lost, and with it, his ability to recapture the passion for a life made more rich by all the city was. There's a good chance New Orleans will never again be what it was. My last visit, nearly two years after the storm, was a stomach-punch, and I'm not a resident, my life-blood forever linked with the city. The despair was palpable even as those who remained did the best they could with reduced hours, manpower shortages, and tired, sunken eyes.

Cray urged his wife to "kick some ass" on that final day as she left for work, pulled the earbuds from his daughter's head to make sure she heard him say that she was looking particularly beautiful that day. His students were released early from class, encouraged by Cray to go read in the bright sunshine of a glorious day.  He had a bowl of gumbo and a bbq shrimp sandwich with his two Abita beers at lunch, and headed toward the ferry. Bumming a cigarette from a fellow passenger, he stood by the railing, inhaled the nicotine he had abandoned years before, and watched his city slide past as the ferry chugged along.

Then, out of camera frame, he slipped over the rail, under the water, and was forever lost, like so many others since August 29, 2005.

Left behind was a wife and daughter, devastated and inconsolable, faced with hanging on day to day as the only way to survive such a great tragedy. Such is New Orleans.

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