Curmudgeons in the City

Not Treme. The French Quarter.

Not Treme. The French Quarter.

It got a little warm in Seattle this past week. There was virtually no humidity and were it in the 80s in Indiana with no humidity, it would be considered a nice summer’s day, but here, it is too hot. I believe you are familiar with my policy on summer and heat.


Few people here have air conditioning because it’s needed so rarely, and those who do don’t use it right, which leaves a girl clammy and gasping for breath. How we know it is hot in our place is if we have to open the bedroom window, which remains shut about eleven months out of the year because evenings here are generally cool. It’s been a week with the window open.


Our bedroom window is next to the intercom for the building. When Z moved in, the old intercom was loud and made horrible honking noises, so we were excited when they replaced it, but the new one is worse. For no good reason, it makes an electronic beep—like an alarm trying to wake you—as a guest scrolls through each name trying to find the person she knows. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. And then, finally, blessedly, the sound of a phone ringing and the longer beep that lets the person in. Most of the visitors seem to be friends with people whose last name begins with V and the names are sadly listed in alphabetical order, which means a whole lot of beeping. It’s a very inefficient system both for the buzzee and for the people trying to sleep next to the buzzer. In the winter, it’s just kind of a distant mosquito wing of a sound, but when the window is open, the intercom might as well be attached to a bullhorn.


The surprise of this summer when I opened the window for the first time to prop the fan in it was that our screen was missing. I have this idea that someone who wanted a screen performed some acrobatics to jerk it out of our crooked windowsill. Z has this idea— and probably the correct one because his world view is less dark and twisty than mine—that the screen became loose, fell out, and the maintenance woman removed it from where it fell. We have one of those accordion-style fans that sits in the window, so it’s sort of like having a screen, but I swear, it makes everything outside even louder because we’re down one layer of mesh between us and the noise of the city.


Z and I have been binging on Treme episodes this past week. We are late coming to the show, so there won’t be any spoilers here, wrecking anyone’s goodtime. While watching it, I’ve been feeling envious of the folks in the show, which is no mean feat because post-Katrina New Orleans where the series is set was no kind of place to be. But there is something about the uniqueness of New Orleans and all that place-specific culture that makes me extra envious. They have a parade, I feel envious. They eat a bowl of gumbo, I feel envious. They have a jazzy funeral procession, I feel envious. I didn’t eat gumbo when I was in New Orleans three years ago, I don’t particularly like jazz, and a funeral, no matter how festive, is still sad, so I’m not sure exactly what I’m envious of other than this very specific sense of belonging and culture that seems to come from the location. You’ve heard me whine about Indiana and how much I miss it, but a lot of the things I miss from there would be the same in Ohio or Northern Kentucky or Illinois. I can’t even get ten Hoosiers to agree with me that John Mellencamp is a better musician and lyricist than Bruce Springsteen. Z is used to having students who hear him and say, “I wish I had an accent” or who say, “I wish I had a culture” and he always laughs and points out to them that they do have accents, they do have a culture. At the risk of sounding like one of his students, when I watch Treme, I feel the same way. I wish I had a specific, discernible, place-specific culture.



For those of you who don’t know, much of Treme is set in a neighborhood of the same name that is musically and culturally rich. It’s a cacophonous place where you shouldn’t plan to find peace and quiet. There is music. There is hooting and hollering. There is life being lived, loudly. In one scene in the first episode, Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, a New Orleanian musician-cum-dj, turns his speakers outward to blast his neighbors, a couple who have recently moved in to gentrify the neighborhood and whom, he believes, have called the cops on him. He gets in an argument with the couple about the justification of the noise, explaining everything he believes they don’t know about the neighborhood they’ve moved into. He says to them, “You’re living in the Treme. Gotta deal with that shit.” Because we like the character and we are suspicious of all the ways our own neighborhood has “gentrifically” changed in the eight years since Z moved in, we both felt a sort of righteous kinship with Davis and his speech. That’s right. The city is about tolerance of other people. Amen, Davis.


And then later that night, the people sitting on the stoop right outside our bedroom window showed no sign of moving their party indoors. It’s a favorite place for our young neighbors to hang out with friends, smoking the cigarettes they don’t want stinking up their apartments and talking animatedly as they sip on beer, stroking their own neck tattoos thoughtfully while they solve the world’s problems. It’s mildly annoying at 10 p.m., but at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday night, it feels criminal. So Z pulls on his relaxi pants and stuffs his feet into his Crocs and shuffles out to the front door to tell them, very dad-like, that it’s time for their party to move indoors or quiet down. They apologize and start whispering, which was, frankly, not the scenario I was imagining after hearing Davis blast his neighbors for being uptight fuddy-duddies.I thought, perhaps, there would be vocal retaliation.


The next day, Z and I walked down to the waterfront. It was a gorgeous day, as most days in the summer are. Blue, clear skies. The Olympic Mountains showing themselves in ways they rarely do in winter. Everyone happy not to be under an umbrella, avoiding puddles. But it was hot. And there were so many tourists, gawping in the middle of the street, so we had to navigate around them as if it were an obstacle course. People were hacking and spitting and riding skateboards right in front of us. Everyone seemed dirty and sweaty and loud. I complain too much about Seattle, particularly to Z whose general dispensation is about ten clicks more content than mine, so I was determined not to whine about how much I hate the city in summer, how much I hate not having a car so we can escape it when we want, how much I think if I hear one more siren or horn honk or late-night howl from a drunk that I will lose my mind. So I sweated and huffed and puffed as we started our assent up the hill to home. A man we passed hawked a loogie on the pavement in front of us.


Z looked at me and said, “I’m not loving the city today. It occurs to me, that we would not be happy living in Treme.”


I’ll probably always get a thrill when I hear John Boutté’s Treme Song playing. I’ll always have this idea that if I lived in the Crescent City I’d embrace it and feel fully alive there (and those four years studying French would finally kind of pay off). But the truth is, I’m thinking we need to start buying more lottery tickets so we can have a small fuel-efficient car and an island house where we can spend quiet, peaceful weekends. Some place with screens and neighbors on our distant margins.




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