May 25, 2013
Larry Blumenfeld on New Orleans After Katrina
Posted on Jul 24, 2009
I first met Ronald Lewis, a retired streetcar-track repairman with a homemade culture museum in his Lower Ninth Ward backyard, on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He told me he didn’t care much about anniversaries. “But if it helps people understand my life and the lives of other people here in New Orleans,” he said, “if it makes them think about why we’re here and we won’t leave, let ’em have an anniversary.”
Yet much of the coverage of New Orleans since 2005 has been about anything but the lives of Lewis and his neighbors. I’ll never forget the Rev. Charles Duplessis of the Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church, standing not far from Lewis’ place—wife by his side, baby in his arms—watching an anchorwoman in a setup shot framed by their devastated home. “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” he told me.
Those ruined homes made for good, needed copy and stunning background; the deeper stories, often overlooked, are the lives lived in them. Real concern for what may be (or already has been) lost in New Orleans neighborhoods begins with appreciation of what was there to begin with.
Lewis shows up on the very first page of Dan Baum’s “Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans,” as a 14-year-old boy growing up on Deslonde Street in the Lower Ninth, trying to make sense of the devastation of an earlier flood resulting from a levee failure, after Hurricane Betsy, in 1965. (“These were Ronald’s sacred places, he now realized: he’d been in and out of these houses his whole life,” Baum writes. “Desecrated they were. Thoughtlessly trashed.”)
“Ask someone for directions in New Orleans,” singer Irma Thomas once told me during an interview, “and you’ll get a life story.” It’s true: Everyone’s got a compelling narrative, rich with both idiosyncratic personal details and the city’s essential truths. Better yet, more often than not, each is told devastatingly well. Baum, a former staff writer for The New Yorker, here collects and interweaves nine such tales, in part to relate what he found largely missing from the many column-inches of post-Katrina coverage—“the essentially weird nature of the place where it happened.” This book is nothing like Baum’s gripping and often insightful reporting from New Orleans, which nevertheless failed on that count too. Here, his voice subsumed within these lives, Baum gets at that weirdness, not to mention his own deep affection for the place.
Including Lewis, Baum’s characters span the extraordinarily disparate lives lived in New Orleans and trace the contours of the city’s political and social structure.
Joyce Montana, a shy woman with a squeaky voice, is the proud wife of Alison Montana, better known as “Tootie” and revered as “Chief of Chiefs” among Mardi Gras Indians. Billy Grace, who was born into a privileged Uptown existence, but whose father, a former bank teller, “never let him forget they were relatively recent arrivals,” ends up King of Rex, a Mardi Gras parade krewe that defines the fabric of Uptown society. Wilbert Rawlins Jr., whose father hauled sacks of coffee by day and played drums for Irma Thomas by night, becomes surrogate father to dozens of students as a high school band director. Belinda Carr, who as a little girl in the Lower Ninth Ward dreams of college and wants “out of this life so bad she could taste it.” (Somewhere in the book’s midsection, after two failed marriages, she meets and marries Rawlins.) Dr. Frank Minyard, a successful gynecologist and a baron of the city—“welcomed like a son in all the best places of the Quarter, known to everybody, loved by all”—finds deeper meaning as a civic-minded coroner who occasionally plays trumpet. We first encounter Joann Guidos as John, a high school football player with a passion for his mother’s underwear: After his marriage unravels following an incident involving a vibrator and an overnight hospital stay, we follow the transition to Joann, a pre-operative transsexual whose neighborhood bar, Kajun’s, becomes a lifesaving outpost after the flood. Tim Bruneau, a tough-minded cop who revels in “boot-in-the-ass” police work, discovers a measure of compassion via a life-threatening injury and his own Katrina experience.
After a childhood in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley with “a big house, TV, nice clothes,” all courtesy of a hard-working dad with roots in New Orleans, Anthony Wells bounces from temporary job to prison and back. His is the most authentic voice in Baum’s because it comes unadulterated—straight quotes, in italics. And why would any writer dilute or transmute such a colorful telling of one’s own life, punctuated when needed with a “you feel me?” Wells describes his first trip to New Orleans this way:
“It’s all jam-packety, pretty old houses lined up one beside the other, each one a different color, with curlicues and flowers, and, man, streets just full of people. White people, black people, mixed-race people, all jumbled up together and walking. Music right out on the sidewalk, and I don’t mean like one nigger with a guitar, but a whole band and drum set and everything, like the whole city is a big party. I’m looking out the window, eyes as big as saucers—eight years old—and I’m thinking, this is a whole different way to be a Negro; I’m thinking, this is where daddy gets his groove.”
Each story traced by Baum addresses in some way the question that often goes unasked: “Why come back?” On this point, Wells is especially instructive:
“I was connected, you feel me? It was like living in the Bible wit the begats: ‘My auntee is married to your mother’s auntee’s second cousin.’ Then I go home to San Fernando, and I’m a stranger. Nobody knows my name. Life is all cut up.”
For the first 60 or so pages, Baum’s narrative seems similarly cut up: He presents it in the fast-paced, jump-cut fashion familiar to fans of filmmakers John Cassavetes and Robert Altman, or to anyone who’s watched MTV. Let’s face it: Such strategy can annoy. And so it seems here, until gradually the pieces begin to sing, individually and in unison, with a common rhythm and drive, not unlike the brass-band music that underscores a good deal of New Orleans life and pops up in references throughout the book.
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