The Last Day: Thoughts on the Treme Season Finale
On August 28, 2005, I was 24 and I had a dream that was New Orleans. And to a smaller extent, a dream that was being young and creative and hopeful in America. Oh, I went to a liberal arts college and did enough critical reading and writing to know that that “dream” has a lot of bullshit involved. But it’s hard not to feel it anyway, just a little. You move across the country. You say you’re going to write a novel. During the days you work a stupid job you don’t really care about, it could be any job. The nights take you, rambling, random, around the city. And oh, what a city.
It’s always the Last Day with capital letters, in my head. The Last Day was the last time I believed even slightly in the version of America I’d always been taught existed. The last day I believed you could ever be safe. The last day I believed that certain things were constants, were a given, like traffic lights would work, and the power would come back on soon, and you could make a phone call anytime you wanted, and your identity and records were safe because the government had them somewhere, and there would be people to help if bad things happened and fix things when they needed to be fixed, and agencies were there to protect people, and paying for something meant you got it, and there would always be somewhere open to eat or buy food at 5 PM, and things would turn out fair in the end, and your job would be there for you to go to on Monday.
See, for me there is Before and there is After. And certain things that I used to believe, I can never believe again because of what I’ve seen. There is an abandoned school in my neighborhood with plastic letters still up on the sign board that spell out “Registration 8-11-05.” I still have the three videos we rented that Friday, in their thick plastic boxes, because the video store was never there again to return them to. Sideways, and Anchorman, and I forget the third. They sat in the top shelf of the entertainment center for years. And I remember the meal I secretly think of as the Last Supper, the last place I went out for dinner in New Orleans, Before, at that Thai food place in the Marigny. And I remember sitting in front of NOLA.com for hours, just reloading the page, in the days when no one knew what was true and what was exaggeration and what had flooded and what had burned down. I remember the moment when I saw the picture of the man outside the Convention Center, with his mother’s dead body sinking flatly into a wheelchair, covered in a blanket, asking why no one was helping him, and how that was the moment I knew I was nowhere I recognized. And I think about being stopped at two checkpoints before they let me in, ducking and dousing the flashlight when the national guard rolled by in their trucks and I was in my house, where I wasn’t supposed to be, after curfew. Nothing is safe. I think I bought a house in New Orleans because there is a part of me that cannot live in a place where other people do not understand this. Where people still have a vague patriotic dream that is America and it was not horribly, horribly betrayed for them in September 2005.
But we didn’t understand then. That’s why Treme hit me so hard last night. I didn’t see a single local person on my Twitter feed who wasn’t similarly sucker-punched by the last 20 minutes. We’re at Daymo’s funeral, and someone’s phone rings, and suddenly, without warning, we’re in the past. Not just the past but the Last Day. Seeing the characters, back before they knew. I was just sitting on the couch, frozen, like, “No no no no.” (In the end, my leaving story was the most like Davis’, with a bit of Antoine’s thrown in. Now I know not to leave your car and get in someone else’s if you want to see it again– well, in my case, see it intact again.) But you knew what was going to happen. Because it already had.
Who stops to blog in the middle of packing? In the middle of a mandatory evacuation, of trying to figure out which shit to throw in the bag, of wrapping up photo albums in plastic and trying to hide them in sneaky places like the back of drawers where they wouldn’t get wet. The power was still on, because the sun was still out. It seems incongruous now. But, just as fiction says Antoine Batiste tried to pick which records meant most to him and wrangle his grandma’s lamp or whatever into his skeptical girlfriend’s car, history says that I stopped packing and sat down at 12:52 PM on Sunday, August 28, 2005, and wrote this:
This morning we woke up to sun shining through the slats of the blinds. The palms and magnolias on my street are swaying with the strengthening breeze. The heat bakes the slate roof tiles on the house next door. I look out over roofs that have been there for a hundred years. The cars are parked on the neutral ground. The streets are ominously empty.
We meant to ride it out, but…
Mandatory evacuation of Orleans Parish. It’s a Category 5 storm with winds of 175 miles per hour. The officials are saying there’s no longer a question that the levees will be overcome by the water. It’s so strange, really. It just seems like a pretty Sunday. Last year they said Ivan was going to be The One, and it wasn’t. They said the city would full up like a giant fish bowl. They said this was the price of living in the past.
I don’t know. I know I don’t want to leave, because, no matter how I want to deny it, there is a very real possibility that it won’t be here when I get back. I suppose at a moment like this what you feel is admiration and wonder: at the persistence of the people who settled here, who braved malaria and ungodly heat, who watched the river swallow their homes and then improbably built again in a swamp, at the women of two hundred years ago who did it all in floor length skirts. At least that’s what I think about. Goodbye to my green streetcars. Goodbye to the sweet still air that smells like flowers. Goodbye to the grand old ladies of St. Charles Avenue, with their iron lace and graceful tall shuttered windows and delicate porches, to whom my heart belongs. If this is your end, I am glad I won’t see it. Stubborn old city. It’s funny, somehow I see it making it… It’s very quiet outside now. I’ve taken the pictures down from the walls. We’re evacuating north to Nashville.
Goodbye, city. Good luck.
And you know, if I wrote that, maybe I knew after all. Maybe we knew.
That was how Treme got me: the inevitability of it. When I realized what I was looking at was Daymo, fate hurtling toward him, as he takes the call from Jacques and heads to the restaurant. And Antoine tries to decide how high up is high up enough to put his best records in case it floods. And LaDonna stands at the gas station surrounded by a sea of cars, calling her brother, but she can’t get through. And Davis, watching the news, quietly gives in and packs up his guitar. And Sonny and Annie walk the street in that eerie quiet, which was definitely real. And Toni and Creighton and Janette are glued to the TV. I close my eyes as Daymo runs the red light.
And I wake up, sun on my face, on the grass at a rest stop somewhere south of Birmingham. People are moving quietly, sprawled out over the lawn in blankets and sleeping bags, gathering plastic baggies full of toiletries to go brush their teeth in the crowded restroom, leaning on their cars staring at nothing and smoking a cigarette. And the sky is coming up clear like it’s any other day. And it’s August 29, 2005.