Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans.
by Dan Baum
Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2009
New Orleanians are hard to offend, but they are used to things not working, to bad roads, to poor schools, and to corrupt politicians (they had to vote for a crook to keep a Klansman from becoming governor). However, Katrina proved to most of them that their state and federal governments don't work very well either. When Mayor C. Ray Nagin was asked at a meeting in Dallas what his plan was, few were surprised when he replied, "I do not have a plan." New Orleanians had a right to expect more from the Feds. So after the storm, many people who lived in New Orleans were finally offended. Nine of those people not only worked hard to help out but also had been working hard for the city long before Katrina, and they, too, were offended. Dan Baum in his book Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, pays special tribute to those people and by extension to many others who worked and continue to work to give New Orleans back its soul,
The book is really a collaboration between Dan Baum and the nine people who tell their stories, not just their Katrina stories, but the stories of their lives. The book begins as Ronald Lewis views the wreckage that Hurricane Betsy inflicted on the Lower Ninth ward in 1965. Lewis was only fourteen then but he knew, "that Betsy had only broken the levee in the Lower Ninth Ward, and [that] had only confirmed the rest of the city's sense of superiority." The neighbors knew nobody cared about the Lower Ninth, so they simply got to work and rebuilt what had been destroyed.
The nine people come from all strata of New Orleans society; they are black and white, rich and poor. They include an elected city official, the king of the Rex Carnival Krewe, a cop, an ex-con, a cross dresser, a high school band instructor, the wife of a Mardi Gras Indian, a streetcar track maintenance worker, and a woman who spent her life looking for a place with a white picket fence. They emerge through the years and the pages of the book with their dreams and disappointments, finally to confront the horror of Katrina. What connects all these people in the pages of Nine Lives is their love and understanding of New Orleans.
Baum starts his book in 1965, and the characters tell the story of New Orleans, a city, "that by the rules of modern America has no right to exist. In the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyper-efficient self-image of the United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience." Maybe that is why the army, the State, and the Federal government were not all that enthusiastic about helping after Katrina. The people of New Orleans would have to depend upon each other, not on government agencies if they wanted to get anything done. That realization shaped Ronal Lewis's life as he spent his working years as a streetcar track repairman. He joined a union, forced the city to give better pay to Black workers, and, after Katrina, spoke to National Public Radio about the storm and its political aftermath. His museum of Dance and Feathers is a tribute to the people of the Lower Ninth Ward.
All nine of Baum's subjects were radically changed by the storm. Frank Minyard, once a popular gynecologist to uptown women, spent his years until 1969 partying, philandering, and being the charming doctor to the rich. An epiphany changed his life, and, in the late sixties, he ran against the incumbent coroner, Carl Rabin, whose job as coroner was also to treat prisoners in the New Orleans Parish Jail. He would not let Minyard treat New Orleans prisoners with methadone because he thought they were all junkies: "Once a dope fiend, always a dope fiend" was his philosophy, so Minyard ran against him and took his job. After winning the election, he began his term as the longest serving elected public official the state of Louisiana has ever had. Baum not only shows us the life of a serving coroner, but he highlights Minyard's love of music, the collapse of his marriage, his friendships with cops, ex-cons, and with the poor of the city. After Katrina, Minyard was determined to give every person who died during Katrina an actual cause of death and a decent burial.
His struggles with the army, the National Guard, and the state police to retrieve the dead are legend. When no federal, state or local organization would do the job, Kenyon, a subsidiary of Service Corporation International, the biggest private funeral home operator in the United States, got the bid. "Let me see if I've got this straight," Frank said... "Dead people rot on the streets of New Orleans for a week and a half so the feds can sign a private contract." That revelation made Frank even more cynical about government and more determined not to let down the dead.
As Baum followed the lives of his nine subjects, he also did interviews with their relatives, friends, and neighbors to get a more complete picture of each person. Those pictures follow the subjects into the second phase of their lives and their jobs. Readers see John Guido, a resident of Metairie with a Hallmark store becoming more and more convinced that he should be a woman, not just a fetishist about wearing women's clothing. When his wife finds out his secret, she divorces him,
Later, when John has become JoAnn and is running Kajuns, a bar on St. Claude Ave, his ex-wife and her new husband help out with fixing up the apartments above. The three stay through the storm, but are forcibly evacuated after Katrina. The army and the police treat them as if they were criminals, and the true nature of the prejudice against the people of New Orleans is personalized. But so is the nature of relationships in New Orleans.
Baum captures the sense of superiority that outsiders have in their dealings with New Orleans in their treatment of the bar's clients. JoAnn, however, has cojones, and won't be kept from returning to reopen the bar. Then the craziness of the city comes into play when she tries to get a building permit for the restaurant she wants to put in the building next door. She cannot get a permit without putting in a handicapped ramp, but she cannot put in the ramp because the building has been designated historic.
These frustrations almost drive her out of New Orleans until, one night a young man comes into the bar and confides that he wants to be a girl. JoAnn realizes that she can't leave the city. "Every penny, she now understood, had to go toward fighting off the creditors, opening the restaurant, fixing the apartments, and keeping Kajuns open. Her mission is the bar. "The weirdos, the outcasts, the forgotten--they needed her refuge here in St. Claude Avenue."
It is this spirit among most of the nine that makes the book such a triumph of the spirit. Ronald Lewis, against all odds, salvages the wreckage of his museum and reopens it; Wilbert Rawlins Jr, the band instructor who is in Beaumont Texas trying to give Beaumont High's lackluster band some soul, returns to O. Perry Walker High School, what everyone referred to as "that bad school." His return makes his wife Belinda, also one of the subjects of the book, finally understand her husband's commitment to the poor, uneducated children of New Orleans who only have "two dollar parents."
Only one person, Anthony Wells, was not born in New Orleans. He grew up in L.A., but his father's family was from the city, so he spent time there as a boy. He is also the only person who tells his story in the first person, so his sections are italicized. His odyssey to New Orleans, through the storm, his forced evacuation to Knoxville, Tennessee, and his return to the only city in which he has ever really felt at home, is full of streetwise insight and righteous anger. He sees what the world is doing to the city, and he resents how others view him and his people. When the Mayor of Knoxville steps on the plane that has evacuated him and others to Tennessee and sees what Wells describes as a "plane full of stinking crazy-looking niggers. We got dogs, we got cats. We got that dude with his mother-fucking hedgehog. One dude with the big gold grill, had a big-ass boa constrictor around his neck. This little white dude in the suit [the mayor] he must have thought his world had about ended." Looking at himself and his fellow evacuees as people outside might see them, he crystallizes all the frustrations, conflicts, anger, and humiliation that the people of New Orleans suffered as a result of Katrina.
Baum knows that, even before the storm, "New Orleans was by almost any metric the worst city in the United States--the deepest poverty, the most murders, the worst schools, the sickest economy, the most corrupt and brutal cops." Yet even with all that, "a poll conducted a few weeks before the storm found that more New Orleanians--regardless of age, race, or wealth--were 'extremely satisfied' with their lives than residents of any other American city." His book reveals why through the nine lives and also through the history of the city, the neighborhoods, and the long-standing traditions of the city's citizens.
Anthony Wells' father told him "You go at something from one angle, and then another, and then another until you find the way in, till you find a way that works. That's the New Orleans way. You get what you want without sweating yourself or anybody else." It wasn't just the storm that made Ronald Lewis determined to rebuild the Lower Ninth, or Frank Minyard determined to respect all the dead, or JoAnn Guido intent upon finding a place for "the weirdos," or Wilbert Rawlins, Jr. and his wife Belinda determined to make their marriage work, to rebuild their house, and to serve the children of New Orleans. It was a part of their history, a history that is quite different from the individualistic focus of many American cities.
The people of New Orleans know they need each other, so even when they are fighting over Mardi Gras permits, over who can march in what Krewes, they are working together to make fantastic Mardi Gras Indian suits. Tootie Montana, one of the most celebrated Mardi Gras Indians, whose wife tells his story, is determined to make beautiful suits that the Indians would not want to destroy by violence, and thus he changed the whole tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians with one bright orange suit. Then the city council changed the tradition of Krewes by refusing permits to segregated Krewes such as Comus and Momus. After the storm, even though the Archbishop closed St. Augustine's church, women like Joyce Montana kept up the spirit of the Parish. Even after the closing of Charity Hospital, the Mayor's gaff about a "chocolate city," and the complete bollixing of the Road Home Project, New Orleans refused to die.