I just finished reading Dan Baum’s superb multi-person biography Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans. It stopped me in my tracks. I was captivated by the stories of these nine people, a tapestry of New Orleans, as I followed their journeys from the gut punch of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, to the vice-grip death roll of Katrina in 2005 and the uncertainty of the aftermath.
As with most great writing, you are reading one story, but being told another. Huckleberry Finn was no more about a voyage on a raft than Moby Dick was about a whale, and in this regard, Nine Lives is no different. While the individuals’ tales, whether separate or intertwined, serve to inform the events, make no mistake about it, New Orleans is the Story. Heroic and tragic; regal and destitute; profoundly good and morally devoid; the final testament and the resurrection — it is all New Orleans — the gravitational center holding nine lives, like planets, in its orbit.
Maybe orbit, however, is the wrong metaphor. Maybe it is more like a black hole, inescapable, ineluctable, for those who have been born in, drawn in, or ventured too close.
Or maybe it is both.
Some reactions only happen in the presence of a catalyst, some thoughts pried out not through force of reason, but through the persistence of memory, things awakened in your chest, seemingly vestigial, that do in fact serve a purpose.
For those expecting a book review, I must apologize now — you are instead getting a soliloquy. The thoughts and feelings touched off in my head and my chest by Baum’s book are extensions of both the book and the city itself. It is the kind of organic love, the zeal, felt equally by those returning from exile, and those wandering in from the wilderness, discovering their promised land for the first time.
New Orleans, ostensibly, is indeed a strange promised land. By any metric it is poor, often desperately so. It has the highest murder rate in the country. Deep-rooted, longstanding corruption — graft at all levels — choke the city like the vines of wisteria wrapped noose-like on the necks of the better angels of the marble mausoleums. In fact, on some days the cops and robbers are indistinguishable from one another.
These problems are compounded by a crumbling and unwieldy infrastructure. The city is gashed by the monolithic I-10 which severed New Orleans’ heart from her soul, destroying traditional black neighborhoods and delimiting “good” neighborhoods from “bad.” The streets, even in the finer neighborhoods, can best be described as lunar, as crater-like potholes are commonplace; abandoned, run down, and flood damaged buildings sit in overgrown lots becoming crooked tombstones in a forgotten cemetery.
And then there is the issue of the levees, the tenuous flood-walls that protect the largely below sea-level city of New Orleans. Ostensibly, they have been shored up, yet problems persist, and the Corps of Engineers still isn’t confident another “Federal Flood” isn’t imminent, despite the positive spin.
So, where do I sign?
If you’re scratching your head, I don’t blame you. I often think I’m crazy myself. I guess, in the end it comes down to love, purpose and people, which is what New Orleans means to me.
As someone who has lived the entirety of my life in the Northeast, and the majority of it in the shadows of New York City, New Orleans is a revelation, and a glorious contradiction. I have often said that New York City survives in spite of its people. It is buoyed by its libraries, museums, and parks, grand institutions and iconic buildings. It is spectacular, built on a scale that defies humanity, constantly aspiring to be more, to be greater, and in constant flux. These traits are mirrored in the people who gravitate here. Endless aspiration, solipsism, and constant reinvention.
New Orleans, on the other hand, survives in spite of its public institutions. It survives on the kindness of its people and the depth of its culture. It clings to you like a worn seersucker suit on a Louisiana summer day. It gets in you, and holds you like a treble hook, and will shake your faith even as it fills your soul.
New Orleans is not a city that lives by the numbers. It is counterintuitive. What other city in the United States plans its year around a party? Where else would a Friday lunch at Galatoire’s — a lunch that turns into dinner — be acceptable? New Orleans is as indebted to the food, music, and cultural traditions of its poorest and most dispossessed citizens as it is its wealthiest, and on Mardi Gras day those traditions blend in a beautiful melange of sound and color, sweat and alcohol.
There are some that look upon this place as backwards, frivolous, and anachronistic. And I can see that. I also know that nothing I write here will change that. You either feel it or you don’t. But when you feel it, you can’t shake it.
Which brings me back to Dan Baum, and Anthony Wells, one of the nine lives profiled in the book. Wells, living in exile in Tennessee, observes that “in New Orleans, you walk around. You sit down. You see people. You talk.”
This statement is ineffably profound, and probably sums up New Orleans better than I ever could: You see people. For me, it is the people. Joy and sadness; cold beer and second lines; the opportunity to help and be helped; to find solace and inspiration in life and death; to be part of something bigger than myself…
Forty years later, I have found the higher ground I have been looking for, it just happens to be at eight feet below sea level…