A crawfish is a strange-looking creature. The easiest way to describe it might be to say it’s a tiny lobster, and learning how to eat one is, it turns out, one of the subtle markers on the path to understanding, or at least enjoying, New Orleans. It took me a while, but I finally got the hang of it. Standing in the middle of a block party outside of Restaurant Patois, a fantastic place in Uptown, I transition from the realm of merely understanding into the realm of delight. In this town the boundary between competence and pleasure is one you’re encouraged to cross. It’s a kind of New Orleans bar mitzvah in which, instead of becoming a man, you become a sensualist. No one writes you a check. But you will suddenly possess a whole list of predilections and wants, and right now I want more crawfish.
At this block party everything is free. The crowd feasts on crawfish, pulled pork, hot dogs, burgers, and beer. It’s a thank-you party thrown by the producers of Treme, the HBO series that has been shooting all over New Orleans for the past couple of months, including at Patois. Supposedly we’re being thanked for tolerating the shooting in our neighborhood. But to live here is to be aware of the other meaning of “shooting in the neighborhood,” though movie sets are a common enough sight in New Orleans, which has recently been dubbed Hollywood South. Green Lantern, a big-budget action picture, is also being filmed here. They come because it’s cheap and it’s a location scout’s dream for interiors and exteriors alike. Gorgeous and cheap are excellent recommendations, whether you are making a movie or just want to feel like you’re walking through one. Then there are the high-profile figures who have moved in—most recently, Sandra Bullock; most famously, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Bullock is in a mansion in the Garden District; Brad and Angelina are on the second floor of a French Quarter walk-up. Shortly after moving in, Jolie reportedly spent two hours chatting up the patrons at the Abbey, on Decatur Street, a few steps from their place. The friend who relayed this legend describes the Abbey as “our most violent bar” in a tone of rueful fondness. Pitt has devoted a great deal of energy to the city; his Make It Right Foundation has commissioned a slew of new houses in the Lower Ninth Ward.
It’s an early spring evening. The sky is a lovely shade of pale blue, and the street is filled with people, children, dogs. Everyone is in a good mood. This sort of improvised communal happiness is something New Orleans does effortlessly. Walker Percy, one of the city’s poet laureates, wrote that New Orleans, for all its problems, including crime, is blessed with a “certain persisting non-malevolence.” It comes from the architecture, the embrace of the huge live oaks overhanging the street, and the town’s central metaphor, Mardi Gras, the multiday celebration during which the city throngs the streets to watch itself in costume and on parade.
I tell the person next to me that I’m from New York. He turns to the person across from him, a woman deeply concentrating on removing the crawfish’s tail from its body, and says, “Are you from New York?”
“Hell, no!” she says, looking up in alarm. “Do I look like I’m from New York?”
I ask my neighbors what they think about Treme. Everyone agrees they like it, but some people worry it is too New Orleans for the rest of the country. This is the ambivalence of New Orleans culture, at once proud of its unique status and lamenting that no one really understands it, or cares.
Treme is dark—in mood but also literally. Many of its scenes are lit in such a way that faces appear as apparitions, most memorably when a Mardi Gras Indian chief dresses in full regalia and does a dance outside his bar to solicit help for cleanup. What is remarkable about Treme is how faithful it is to the reality of New Orleans and its citizens in the aftermath of Katrina. The anger, despair, sadness—and the accompanying use of music as salvation, the wild bursts of joy. How unreal it all feels—and yet, how real.
Video Tour: The New New Orleans