Waist-deep.

For a while there, I wondered whether “Treme” was shaping up to be David Simon’s “Stardust Memories.” The second-episode emphasis on a trio of do-gooders from Madison, Wis., who descend on New Orleans after Katrina to help “the lower nine,” which they freely admit they’d never heard of before the storm — I squirmed a little.

Every disaster has do-gooders, and most of them are ignorant of the authentic geography or cultural rhythms of the place they’re seeking to help, but what’s the alternative? People who text HAITI to a number on their cell phones? The ones who buy a ticket to a benefit concert, or tint their Facebook profile picture a certain color in a gesture of solidarity? (Maybe so. Ever since I watched a collection of relief items for Hurricane Hugo victims, and saw car after car of people apparently using it as an excuse to clean out their basements, I’ve made my personal do-gooding a cash-only deal: Send money, and await further instructions.)

The characters in “Treme” were there to build houses with their church group, and people certainly needed those. And while they were daffy and ignorant and didn’t know why it costs extra to get a musician to play “Saints” — and were almost certainly big fans of “The Wire” — they got their wild night out in the real New Orleans, and maybe that was the point of those characters after all. They were there to demonstrate that like all great cities, New Orleans will transform you if you let it. You arrive a cheesehead and leave something else.

And it’s not like Simon spares the natives, either. Another daffy douchebag, the local DJ/layabout Davis McAlary, is one of those guys who has no qualms about lecturing his gay neighbors — gentrifiers! the nerve! — about this or that obscure musician who grew up around this or that corner, figures of towering importance they are somehow diminishing, simply by their presence and their skillful home decor. Of course McAlary, played by the fabulous Steve Zahn, is white himself, but he’s a different kind of white guy. He’s a musician, and even though the sole composition of his we’ve heard is ridiculous, that gives him a license to live there that the gay men lack. He’s the opposite of an Oreo, black on the inside. At least he seems to think so.

(Bonus in-joke: He’s a Goddard College graduate, alma mater of David Mamet and attended by our own J.C. Burns. Ha.)

Treme is a neighborhood, and isn’t in the ninth ward, but the series isn’t as narrow as that. It’s shaping up to be yet another Simonesque look at a suffering city, asking how it got that way, why it stays that way and why we should care. So far, it’s pretty clear: It got that way because a terrible storm collapsed badly constructed and maintained floodwalls; it stays that way because the local civic culture and institutions tolerate and foster incompetence, and the federal government can’t seem to make them change; and we should care because of the music. Music is to “Treme” what drug dealing was to “The Wire,” in this case the literal rhythm of daily life. Brass bands parade down the street. Every bar has a stage, and buskers sing on every corner. Anyone with a tambourine or something to bang on can pour out their joy or misery at the drop of a hat, and does.

I had to watch the third episode twice before I grasped that the uptempo song Dr. John sang near the beginning of the hour, “My Indian Red,” was the same as, or based on, the a capella dirge the Mardi Gras Indians were singing at the end of it, mourning the loss of one of the tribe, whose body had only recently been found. Music is everything in New Orleans, and all it takes is a key or tempo change to take it from joy to sorrow. Or to anger, something you clearly hear in Sonny the street musician’s pissed-off “Saints” for the Madison trio. (And they were right — he was the one who suggested it, not them.)

With four episodes down, you can see subtler themes emerging — the way lopsided success can strain a relationship, the corrupt nature of institutions, the satisfactions and sorrows of personal responsibility, and — that Simon biggie — Why Cities Matter. Although the most interesting character of all, Clarke Peters’ Albert Lambreaux, is working his own thematic agenda entirely, and I’m not sure what it is. His might be a slow-motion crackup caused by PTSD, or maybe just the mystery of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which everyone refers to frequently — “the tradition” — but never actually explains or illuminates. More will be revealed, I’m sure.

And then there’s the Ashley Morris stand-in, Creighton Bernette, who delivered the coup de grace in episode four this week — a version of his best-known rant. (There were so many to choose from.) I can now die happy. I hope Ashley, wherever he was, saw it too. If his own heart hadn’t given out two years ago, I’m sure he would have died of awesomeness, right there.

And that seems the best note to end on, especially as a little investigation yesterday by Sue turned up the sad news of what’s become of our once-regular commenter, Whitebeard, aka Duncan Haimerl. Died of a heart attack while recovering from cancer surgery. One of the obituaries noted:

Duncan’s wife, Nancy, takes solace in the fact that Duncan’s mind and sense of humor never failed him. We saw that as he filed columns a few hours before surgery and soon after he began recovery, joking about the details. Duncan found something he loved – cars, and writing about them – and he never stopped doing it, never lost the pure joy of it.

Nancy would like Duncan’s old colleagues and friends to know about the news, and that his suffering at the end was minimal.

RIP, pal. If there’s an afterlife, Ashley’s there, and this week, he’s buying every round.

Posted at 10:17 am in Television |
 

27 responses to “Waist-deep.”

  1. velvet goldmine said on May 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I wish you hadn’t buried the lede about Whitebeard. He was one of my favorite commentators. Far be it from me to criticize the organization of your NNC pieces, which are flawless. If this were a fictional piece, it would be a great gotcha punch in the gut. But Whitebeard deserves his own sendoff, and not just in the comments. He’s not a P.S. to a David Simon teevee review.

  2. Julie Robinson said on May 4, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Does anyone have a contact for Whitebeard’s family? It occurred to me that they may not have known that there was another community out there cheering for him and missing him.

  3. Laura Lippman said on May 4, 2010 at 10:58 am

    My condolences, Nancy and to all the commenters here. (Although I pop in from time to time, I don’t think I’m here often enough to qualify as part of the fambly.)

  4. brian stouder said on May 4, 2010 at 11:08 am

    I don’t think I’m here often enough to qual­ify as part of the fam­bly

    Hell, LL – you’re Aunt Kitty; aka – the FUN aunt!

    Every lucky fambly has one; and through it all, we here at nn.c are definitely a lucky family. (I think I’m the long-winded uncle; the one that the moms always tell their kids to NOT get started on ‘current events’, when they’re on the way to the gathering)

  5. Jeff Borden said on May 4, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I am thoroughly bummed out. Whitebeard always had something interesting to say. Godspeed to him and kind thoughts to his family.

  6. Deborah said on May 4, 2010 at 11:29 am

    And Jesus is making the drinks.

  7. 4dbirds said on May 4, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I’m so sorry to hear about Whitebeard. It was apparent from his comments that he was a good and caring grandfather.

  8. Mark P. said on May 4, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I wonder if anyone actually knows anyone who actually went down to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild. There was a lot of damage in places not nearly as glamorous as NO. Those places didn’t get much press. No jazz there. Some people went into those areas and did some good that the federal government didn’t, and I doubt that they had any wild nights. If it hadn’t been for them, nothing would have been done. Nothing. Not “just a little” but “nothing.”

    But I suppose anything is legitimate fodder for dramatic effect.

  9. brian stouder said on May 4, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Mark – several people I work with did indeed go south to help with the recovery process; and several more people of our acquaintance that attend my mother-in-law’s church loaded up goods and went down into the region to spend a few weeks lending their hands to the effort.

    Not sure what your point really is, but in answer to your statement that you “won­der if any­one actu­ally knows any­one who actu­ally went down to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild”, my answer is “yes, I do”

  10. nancy said on May 4, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Me, too.

  11. moe99 said on May 4, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    me three

  12. Jean S said on May 4, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    so sorry to hear about Whitebeard…..

    I also know someone who went to NOLA to swing a hammer for a day. She was very impressed with herself.

  13. LAMary said on May 4, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    >>>Hell, LL – you’re Aunt Kitty; aka – the FUN aunt!<<<

    Completely off topic: Lately when I've been shopping for clothing I am worried I'm starting to dress like Aunt Fern, the aunt with delusions of artsiness. The one who writes poetry.

  14. Peter said on May 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    That’s just very sad about Whitebeard – and it appears it happened several weeks ago, so I don’t know what round he and Ashley are on by now…

  15. Jim Neill said on May 4, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I know several people who went to Gulfport to assist after Katrina.

  16. brian stouder said on May 4, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I am wor­ried I’m start­ing to dress like Aunt Fern

    No worries, Mary; the gatherings are never as much fun, when Aunt Fern’s always-full datebook precludes her attendance. Remember the time she devoted herself to ballroom dancing lessons?; and dragooned Uncle Marty into dancing with her at cousin Frankie’s graduation party? In those pre-Youtube days, couldn’t decide if it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, or the most sublime. Some people might laugh at Aunt Fern, but really – she always laughs last.

  17. Deborah said on May 4, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Is Aunt Fern a character on TV or did you just make all that up Brian?

  18. LAMary said on May 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Brian and I just know the same Aunt Fern. She wears a lot of drapey things and her eye makeup is always a little off.

  19. Deborah said on May 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Brian, LA Mary, you guys are a riot. I don’t have an Aunt Fern, but I know a lot of them.

  20. Laura Lippman said on May 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Mark,

    I admit, I was thrown by the line “anything is legitimate fodder for dramatic effect” because I inferred a certain grudging quality to that sentiment, as if you are noting a creative loophole of which you don’t wholly approve. (Please do note that I said “infer.” It’s on me if I’m wrong.)

    Yes, good people went to the Gulf Coast AND New Orleans to help rebuild. Houston took in refugees and later took a pretty bad hit itself from another hurricane. All duly noted. Treme is allowed not to address those issues not just for dramatic effect, but for sound aesthetic reasosn. It’s not part of the story the writers are trying to tell, yet their story does not argue that these things never happened, or that they don’t matter. You can’t have everything, as a famous comic once said. For one thing, where would you put it? And where would one put every single fact about Katrina? How many hours of television would it require? For every mention of a pothole, should there be a corresponding shot of a street without a pothole? (Rumor has it that they exist in New Orleans, although I’m dubious.)

    Finally, a word about POV. Sonny sees the tourists and mocks them. Davis sees them and sends them to a hip place off the beaten track. I think Nancy gets it, but I will add: Maybe they were there to show us that different people see different things when confronted by the same set of facts. (Three nice white people from Wisconsin, come to build houses.) Don’t we learn more about Sonny and Davis in those respective scenes than we do about the volunteers?

    By the way: David Simon’s sister-in-law of almost forty years is a very nice white woman from Wisconsin and a proud owner of a cheesehead.

  21. Sue said on May 4, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Nancy, Mark and Laura, if I may just jump in here:
    I have to wonder about the nice people from Wisconsin thing even though I haven’t seen the episode and can only base this on what you’ve seen and discussed. If the Madison location was chosen specifically for this storyline, you three are missing a component of the Wisconsin Personality. If they wanted someone from Wisconsin, but also wanted a somewhat clueless liberal stereotype-ey flavor, they would choose someone from Madison or Dane County, home of the Capitol and the University of Wisconsin flagship school and seat of lots of liberal attitudes. So I’m wondering if Madison was purposely chosen.
    Now if you wanted nice people from Wisconsin who could drink anyone from N.O. under the table while asking the musicians to switch to polkas so we can dance, dammit, then have your do-good characters come from anywhere else in the state, the Northwoods being probably the best choice.

  22. Dexter said on May 4, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks for your take on “Treme”. I think the only two major US cities I have missed visiting are Miami and New Orleans. My biggest kick-me-in-the-ass moment happened when the car I and a baseball teammate were riding in while hitchhking to NOLA stopped at a bar just short of Lake Pontchartrain where we got stranded and had to hitchhike back to our team motel in Slidell. So…never did make it to N’awlins.
    I have been amazed by Treme, the whole thing, the story lines, the acting, the sets, the music…I just love the whole damn thing. The closest a person can get without being there, or reading “A Confederacy of Dunces”, which I have raved on about here before.

    I know a few people who went to NOLA to help. I was invited, but these guys are all really handy with construction skills and I am not. They were with a large contingent under the direction for deployment by a church command post.
    These five guys with tools and readiness, wanting to go swing hammers, were instead ordered to the mess tent to cook soup and stew to feed the crews who were assigned to the building trades. No complaints, at least when I talked to them upon their return.

  23. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on May 4, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Count me among the many who salute Whitebeard on his passing, and who will wait to see “Treme” when it’s available to me on some kind of disk (and I can’t imagine he would have minded being front, centered, or following a trenchant media analysis, actually). But there’s a bazillion stories of the hundreds of thousands who have gone down to not only NOLA but the Gulf Coast and over to Galveston & Port Arthur with various church programs — UMCOR and Samaritan’s Purse and Habitat have made a major impact in our neck of the woods — and the parishoners back home almost always hear, the Sunday after they return, a “sermon” that is the work team lined up in their t-shirts, passing a mike along, telling stories one at a time in their own voices. Thousands of churches have had this experience, and a huge percentage of people who make one trip are compelled to go back for a third and more weeks as they can swing it.

    So the story is getting told, and in a very immediate, personal way, with the limits of their viewpoint usually part of the telling. I’m delighted to hear that David wedged a bit of that experience into his telling of the Treme tale, but to say more about it pulls the viewpoint off of what I perceive/infer him to be doing, i.e., away from the lived experience of those who are living through the awkward reconstruction of a city and a way of life. Unsurprisingly, Laura already noted that the point is how the different Treme characters respond to the presence of these well-meaning interlopers, and I can say that many of those — even the fifth and sixth time down folk — wonder exactly how they are impacting the people in their attempts to aid while being from somewhere else to which they are returning.

    On the other hand, I know one Ohio pastor of my tradition who took a church in southern MS which they never in a million years had ever thought to do, after a work trip transformative experience (and invitation from the church where she stayed with her team, which didn’t think she’d do it, but she’s been there two years now as pastor), and another team leader who has moved down there, planning to return someday, but has lived in Aurora now for four years coordinating work teams from the Midwest. That’ll be its own narrative someday.

  24. Mark P. said on May 4, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    I have enough disgust with the way the Gulf was treated that it spills over. There was a lot of media attention to NO, but there was tremendous devastation in other areas that was and is largely ignored by almost everyone to this day. Of course the original target of my disgust was the federal government. They didn’t give a damn about NO, or at least the darker residents of NO, but everyone else was beneath even their contempt; they did not even exist. So my inclination is to verbally kick anyone’s ass who even hints bad things about the few individuals who cared enough to do something. Maybe I kicked too widely.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that my brother spent a couple of years in Mississippi working for the Presbyterian Church. And now, even they have pulled out of that area, leaving a great deal of work undone. Now it’s unlikely the work will ever be done.

    You could say I’m pissed.

  25. basset said on May 4, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Cleanup continues in Nashville… haven’t been in position to hear much about the rest of the city, but on my street everyone seems to have friends, volunteers, whoever coming by to help dump the contents of the house out into the front yard.

    My house and the one next door are only 35 yards from the Harpeth River, which is normally down a little hill, the other side of a treeline and down maybe a ten- or twelve-foot bank. Sunday morning, though, it was counter-top high through our place, and I just added a few pictures of the result to my stream here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/85749853@N00/?deleted=4579798347

    So… we lost lots of books, all the furniture, all electronics and major appliances, clothes, so on, so forth… but I have been amazed by the level of help and support we’re receiving. Friends are putting us up and feeding us, co-workers are coming by to help shovel out, a total stranger walked up to me as I was getting into my storage unit and gave me stacks of boxes, tape to stick them together, and a dolly, all the wet clothes out of our closets are piled in a friend of a friend’s garage and they’re letting us wash them,
    visitors came down our street handing out food and drinks… really helps make it a lot more bearable.

    That said… our house will have to be stripped to the bare frame from about eye level down to the ground, doors, windows, and HVAC replaced, it’s gonna take awhile and be expensive. We have insurance, though, and an apartment, and a storage locker… we’ll get through it.

  26. moe99 said on May 5, 2010 at 1:05 am

    Basset, Is there anything we can do from long distance? Just say the word….

    Moe

  27. Holly Haimerl said on June 14, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Duncan Haimerl, aka Whitebeard was my Dad. It is very heartwarming to keep finding positive comments about my Dad on the net. If anyone would like to post a comment there is a online obit/legacy page set up by the Hartford Courant – here is the link:

    http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/hartfordcourant/obituary.aspx?n=duncan-haimerl&pid=141307914

    R.I.P. Daddy

    best regards to everyone in this community,
    Holly H.