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Treme Watch: David Simon on Pity and Tourists

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If you’re reading this, it means that I’m traveling on assignment right now and didn’t get around to doing a writeup of the second episode of Treme. Instead, you can use this thread to discuss the episode yourselves. (Nutshell: I thought it came together more tightly than the long, impressionistic pilot; Lambreaux’s confrontation with the looter—which violently expressed his determination to fight for his home—was stunning; and Davis got significantly less on my nerves this outing.)

And while I’m away, here’s a little something different. While I was working on my Treme feature last month, I emailed David Simon for his thoughts on a couple of scenes, in this episode and next week’s (it’s not especially spoilery), that show some characters’ attitudes toward the tourists and rubberneckers of post-Katrina New Orleans—who figuratively, arguably, are not unlike us watching the show.

Here’s the query I e-mailed Simon (again, there’s a not particularly spoilery reference to an episode three scene that I described in my review earlier):

In ep 2, Sonny has a hostile reaction to the college kids from Wisconsin who
come to NO to work on houses, asking them (I’m paraphrasing) if they ever heard
of or cared about the Lower Ninth before Katrina. And at the end of ep 3,
Lambreaux’s [song] is interrupted by the Katrina tour bus, which they shoo
off. “People want to see what happened,” the driver says.

Now it’s obvious why Lambreaux in particular would be pissed–he and his
neighbors are being treated like human safari objects. On the other hand, is
there a certain meta-irony here? Plenty of viewers, I’m sure, are more
interested in Treme because of Katrina; and Katrina having happened made it
easier to get the series made at all. “People want to see what happened,” right?
And the opposite problem, as you said in our interview, is that by that
December, the “klieg lights came down from Jackson Square” and people were
starting to forget.

I guess I’m just wondering if there’s some kind of tension you’re trying to
capture in these scenes: between not wanting to be forgotten but not wanting to
be defined in terms of Katrina either?

And here’s Simon’s response (edited slightly for punctuation, &c.):

No one wants to be pitied.

And at the same time, conversely, when Katrina happened, there wasn’t enough genuine, open-ended pity to go around.

Much of the national reaction was either simplistic (calling it a natural disaster when New Orleanians knew better) or cynical (well they shouldn’t have built it below sea level) or well meaning, but tinged with a kind of Sally Struthers Third-World pity  (oh those poor people, left behind to drown in the lower ninth ward).

New Orleanians got tired of defending their city’s right to exist (the old city being above sea level and other American cities existing with problematic natural risk factors (San Francisco, earthquake; Phoenix, water use, etc.).  They were disgusted with the folks who wanted to write them off or talk about the opportunities Katrina presented  (God got rid of the housing projects when government couldn’t, from a certain congressman…)  And, too, there was overwhelming, almost pornographic curiosity about the lower ninth ward, as if it was the only place drowned by the waters.  New Orleanians, black and white, recognized that the focus on a singular narrative — the poor people got left behind to drown — was very satisfying to outsiders who wanted to make a particular political point.

But the truth was more complicated.  Many locals did not leave not because of economic issues, but because New Orleanians have gotten used to toughing out storms. Rich, middle-class, working-class, poor — lots of people from all over the city stayed because that’s what they do here when a storm is coming.  (See the lyrics of “Hurricane” off Davis Rogan’s “The Once and Future DJ” CD.) There was no conscious or indifferent abandonment of the poor by the rest of New Orleans.  Everyone always makes their own individual decision on a storm by storm basis.  (I stayed for Betsy and I stayed for Camille, and I’m damn sure not gonna…)  And while the lower nine was certainly devoured by the storm, so was affluent white Lakeview or middle- and working-class black Gentilly, or middle-class black New Orleans east, or racial and economically integrated mid-City.  New Orleanians came to resent the simplicity of the national narrative of the storm and its aftermath and the use of the lower nine as symbolic of the whole city.  For someone from the lower nine to talk about it to other New Orleanians — no problem at all of course.  But when outsiders spoke of it as a metaphor for the storm, you could sense locals — black and white — bristle a bit.  It was reductive in that way.  So Annie, being less inclined to cynicism, she thanks them for coming down to help, which indeed they deserve.  And Sonny, weary of certain narrative reductions, calls them on it, perhaps even a little unfairly.  After all, they meant nothing by it.  He’s hearing it with the ears of a New Orleanian three months after the storm, so…

Make sense?

What do you say? And what did you think of last night’s episode?

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