New Orleans Henry Butler, the well known New Orleans piano player, and his music were featured on the Treme episode in the regular HBO Sunday slot. Early in the show, he said it was “good to be home.” In the real world of post-Katrina, Butler had showed up with thousands of others on the porch of the ACORN building at the time on Elysian Fields near the corner of St. Claude. He had waited his turn. ACORN was one of the few places open and able with crews of workers and volunteers and running a home “gutting” program that ended up handling close to 6000 houses before all was said and done. There was no FEMA money, city money, federal money, or anything but what people put forward or what ACORN had raised. Butler got all of this. He didn’t mince words. He wanted ACORN to do the gutting, he knew his place on the list, but was desperate to get home and be sure that his house was declared more than 50% damaged and therefore ineligible for recovery monies from the state Road Home disaster. The real cost of gutting each house down to the studs so it could dry out and be prepped for rebuilding was $2500. Butler paid it gladly and the day the work was finished came by and gave CD’s of his music to all of the workers and staff around the building. He has been quoted frequently by reporters and others speaking about how much ACORN, the gutting, and its work fighting to rebuild the city meant to him. This will never be a part of the story in the tourist version of Treme.
I loved David Simon’s The Wire, set in Baltimore. I was never confused that it was “real” or some kind of docudrama about Baltimore. It was good drama in an urban setting that was filled with straight talk, bent angles, and people from unions, politics, crime, and throughout the city that were multi-dimensional, complex, and felt real. ACORN organizers and some other commentators in Baltimore felt slighted by the show because it didn’t depict the part of the world that included community organizing. I got that, but I was a fan.
I’m having a harder time with Treme. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the show is on the air, and I’m delighted to see it set in New Orleans. When they film in front of my house at Fredrick Douglass High School or elsewhere in the Bywater neighborhood where I live, I’m happy to move my truck out of the way. I’m friendly to the caterers, truck drivers, security and duty cops. I shake hands and give the thumbs up at local bars and restaurants featured as background for the action. On that score it’s all good and thanks, Mr. Simon.
With The Wire I knew it was all just made up stuff, but I liked the gritty slices of the Baltimore we knew being part of the action. Simon doesn’t know New Orleans, but in Treme he tries to compensate with more “historical” and “contemporary” references to substitute for the real New Orleans, the city he seems to like, but can’t quite grip, except from a tourist perspective, which just grates on me. Even as great as New Orleans music is and as much as I like the exposure given to some of the local players as a stalwart citizen of the hometown, I often have trouble with the one-dimensional minstrel show aspects of all of this, which sometimes are just painful to watch.
One of the things that worked in The Wire was the nuanced and complex way that Simon, a former police and beat reporter up there, handled the bad guys. They were real people. He drew you in. You rooted for some of the guys and against other guys. There is no day in the streets of any city where I wouldn’t want to make sure that Omar had my back and was a block or two behind me.
New Orleans is a violent city, even more so that Baltimore, but after a year a half it is amateurish how Treme deals with this intrinsic part of the patter n of the city. One of the main characters is the Indian chief whose struggle and cultural rectitude is supposed to attract some of our sympathy despite the fact that he is invariably a cranky son-of-a-bitch. In the first season we watched him lay in wait and then beat up a young fellow within an inch of his life, and possibly to his death, who had stolen his tools. Nothing more on that…it was all just left hanging and random. In Treme the cops are plastic, tinny, and nothing more than crooks with a badge, save for one hero, who seems largely our hero because he gets along with the sniveling, heart on her sleeve lawyer, who is so committed to the truth that she can’t tell her teenage daughter about her father’s suicide.