To call it a hole in the wall would be generous. Its interior was as well distinguished as it’s dilapidated, ivy-covered exterior, and was lit only with strings of Christmas lights, hence its name. It’s sobriquet were five nonsense words, printed on its sign post and on the $1 beer coozies it sold: Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, followed by the city in which it was to be found: New Orleans, Louisiana, where I earned my Bachelors Degree cum laude in English. It pains me to recall the name of one of my best college friends, Adam Cola, who was murdered there in February, 2019 in some kind of traffic dispute; just another black kid, one amongst many of NOLA’s victims. While there has never been a place like New Orleans, and never will be, to romanticize it would be to do it a dis-service. I came to be thinking of these things while watching David Simon’s HBO drama Treme, which, among other things, addresses the difficulties of life in NOLA post-Katrina, focusing particularly on the legendary music scene there. I couldn’t get through the whole thing. I found it a frustrating experience unevenly executed. I liked the second season, but couldn’t stand the third and fourth, in which Simon seemed intent on depicting New Orleans as magical and accepting. The characters took their traditions so seriously that they seemed hardly to live any lives outside of them. I, for one, do not remember Mardi Gras as an annual, inspiring outburst of creativity, but rather as a kind of drunken tailgate without the sports. Of course I could be wrong. Tulane University, my alma mater, was known for existing in its own bubble. Still, watching Treme I came to wish to correct the misconceptions Simon perpetrated, and to offer my own crack at a treatment of New Orleans, LA, numerous as those are. Admitting that it’s hard for me to resist such a temptation surely serves to validate Simon’s somewhat pretentious fascination with such cultural heralds as the Mardi Gras Indians, but I can’t help it. Chief among Treme’s crimes of inaccuracy was the impression that everyone in New Orleans seemed to love living there. In this series the ugly specters fear, racism and prejudice hardly rear their heads at all, but I experienced these as defining characteristics of the city, and I think they should be acknowledged. That is the only way we can ever hope they will be expunged, by regarding them with unflinching honesty.
I can see the temptation to make more of what you see. There is certainly a visceral beauty to the city, even, or even especially, as it emerged from its post-Katrina wreckage. Yet one must resist the temptation to sacrifice story and character development in favor of over-explaining that process. The show should concern itself first with the people trying to live their lives, second with the environment around them. They should talk to each other about romances and frustrations and ideas, and only get to the rest of it when they feel like it.
I was in New Orleans from spring of 2004 to the fall of 2008. In this time I only attended one Mardi Gras, and I didn’t feel particularly guilty about that. In Treme the holiday figures heavily in each and every season, almost as a religious observance: to put on weird costumes and run around the city indulging in odd edicts and as if performative eccentricities. I’m not positive, not being a local, but I think this is not exactly accurate. I’m pretty sure that plenty of New Orleanians found Mardi Gras a colossal pain in the ass, and some even went so far as to make themselves scarce on its worst weekends. In the French Quarter the crowds are all tourists, but that’s true of the French Quarter at any time of the year. Me I found Mardi Gras a bit idiotic: you line the curbs of St. Charles Avenue shouting at the parade of floats, contrived of admittedly creative sculptures of wire and cloth, and manned by impenetrable social clubs called Krewes, exclusively peopled with New Orleans’ white elite, who throw you strings of plastic beads that become absolutely useless ten seconds later. I thought it mostly a white holiday, except for the Zulu parade, which traverses some of the city’s rougher neighborhoods, and is manned by black people. I never went to this one either: I believed, while living there, that, as a white person, you truly approach New Orleans’ black social gatherings at your own peril. I don’t think I was alone in this sentiment, although from watching Treme you might come away believing I was.
Adam Cola was black. He grew up in New Orleans and was one of my roommates from Fall 2004 until Fall of 2006. He grew up in a neighborhood located somewhere between New Orleans East and middle class Gentilly, though even he didn’t seem completely positive which neighborhood it was. I think I remember him once even saying it was the Ninth Ward. He was a good guy, easy-going but insightful, smart and unaffected. After Katrina his dad ended up in Washington, D.C., where Adam spent some of his post-Katrina semester. I came back to the city in December, 2005, a few weeks before Tulane’s campus opened. I stayed with a leftist collective called Common Ground, which focused on setting volunteers to work gutting flooded houses — that is, tearing out their walls’ ruined drywall — and delivering supplies to those that needed them. This was my sophomore year, and my first significant foray beyond Tulane’s bubble, so-called because it was entirely possible to attend school there without interacting at all with the rest of the city. Through Common Ground I got to know parts of New Orleans I surely wouldn’t have had Katrina never happened. I’m proud of the work I did there. I did more of it after classes resumed, as there was an untapped sentiment among my fellow students to help out in some way. The university didn’t offer any volunteer opportunities. Me and my friend Jim thusly organized students to go down to Common Grounds’ warehouses on the weekends to get some work done. I like to think I made a difference, that I helped, because it was such a disgusting thing that happened there, so unfair, and neither the local nor federal government seemed either able or willing to do much about it. Certainly shows the meaning behind one of New Orleans’ many monikers: “The city that care forgot.” Everyone around the world saw as much on television. I was glad to put shoulder to the idea of proving that sentiment wrong. However, again, as a white person, I do not believe my attitude of wishing everyone able to come back home was universally shared. There was a brief period of time when the whole city was safe to enjoy at all hours of the day, and all night if you wanted. That changed dramatically, and suddenly. Again, “the city that care forgot.” No one had a plan. Crime was out of control. The police were mean, incompetent and unhelpful. Treme does a good job dramatizing these problems in its second season, which I think was the show’s best. But then here comes the fourth season, which begins with 2008’s election night, the launch of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the strange sight of seeing black and white people celebrating our first black president’s victory with equal fervor. That’s just not accurate! I know as much from my vantage here in Oakland, where I witnessed black people who, for once, didn’t seem to mind being around white people very much. I don’t think it was as big a deal for white people. Racism in the crescent city is impossible to ignore as soon as you leave the French Quarter. From my perspective I saw two sides that did not easily mix to say the least. Worse than it is in Oakland, which, of course, is bad enough. I found black New Orleanians downright scary a lot of the time, and I think this was by design. Treme seemed to have completely missed this ugly facet of life completely. One white character’s wealthy parents exhibit some prejudice, but it seems almost an idiosyncratic affectation, not the symptom of an intractable division lacking all solution. Most of Tulane’s blue collar employees, that is, the administrative staff, the cleaning men and women, and the cafeteria workers, were black. You know what the cafeteria workers called the cafeteria they worked in? “The Plantation.” New Orleans used to be known as the worst place in the U.S. to be a slave: Being “sold downriver” was a serious threat. That’s the history NOLA comes from, and, in the 21st century, I challenge you to find a place where the gap between rich and poor, black and white, was more extreme. You could feel the weight of all that memory, particularly in black neighborhoods. The place was tragically, impossibly flawed, like every American city is, though, in my opinion, more so. I was so sad to hear that Adam had become a statistic. Another friend of mine almost joined his company too: some crazy person wielding a hammer attacked him one night in the French Quarter and bloodied him up; certainly gave him something to think about. Me, I only lasted a couple months after graduation before coming back home. I do not think I would want to raise a family there.
It is interesting how often NOLA appears as if at random in so many instances of popular culture, from Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun to a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The place oozes with originality and creativity. It’s kinda fun to live amongst so much adversity. There were a couple months in early 2006 where it was actually safe to walk around at night. Adam and I did this once, traversing the neighborhood North of Tulane which, at any other time, is infamous for its patrols of muggers looking for easy college-student targets. This was probably the peak of our friendship. We even hit up Snake & Jake’s, this essay’s namesake. Walked around all night without worry. Two months later this would have been impossible. That year there were 162 murders, almost 80 per 100,000 people. If that had been Oakland it would have come to 320. That number rarely cracks 130 here (not that this is a small number, of course, but I’m dealing in relatives). Perhaps part of NOLA’s beauty is, despite its troubles, its citizens’ fierce defense of the culture and traditions that make it so unique. You certainly don’t see Mardi Gras Indians anywhere else. And even amidst their garish feathers and embroidery they always have such serious looks on their faces, as if they have no idea how odd they look. Treme, in my opinion, seems to have made this practice into a humorless obsession of several of its characters. Me I bet the Indians have a sense of humor about themselves, and that’s why their expressions are so serious. They are pretty awesome to see, and I can imagine cheering them on with a smile on my face. The last time I was in New Orleans, April of 2019, I saw a couple of them walking down the street while I was having a smoke. To this day I regret not running down the stairs and taking a picture of them. They also make really good music. Of course, there is plenty of that to be found, which is why I believe that the Jazz Fest weeks are the best time to visit, not Mardi Gras.
I’ll always be mad at New Orleans for taking one of my best friends, but who to blame? How to fix it all? It will always have a special place in my heart. I believe I’ll make a point of seeing Jazz Fest. If only we could just wave a magic wand and make everyone get along with each other. If only… right?