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Dan Baum's Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

Triumphant Narratives

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Nine Lives Death and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum

Image of Book Cover for Nine Lives Death and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum

Spuegel and Grau
Tim looked through the liquor cabinet, decided against whiskey, and fetched a twelve-pack of Budweiser and a gallon of water from the fridge. As he was loading his unmarked Crown Vic, a neighbor drove by in a Land Cruiser. "Where are you going?" Tim shouted.

"To the overpass! In case the water comes up."

Tom looked at his beloved Ford pickup sitting with beefy oversized tires. "Mine'll ride it out," he called back. "It's an F-150!" (p 210)
Dan Baum came to town as a reporter for the New Yorker to cover the aftermath of Katrina, but, as he explains in the preface to Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, he became more interested in the story of New Orleans itself.
In the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyperefficient self-image of the United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience (p xiii).
"I did not come to New Orleans as a tourist," Baum explains in a phone interview. "My first time in the city, it was full of water.

"Six months into my reporting for the New Yorker, I was having to concentrate so much on the commissions and -- as big as an event as it was -- Katrina wasn't the biggest story about New Orleans.

"I kept running out of words before I could get to the good stuff. I had finished writing about Katrina and the recovery, and now I wanted to write about this amazing city.

"And by saying it's the city I wanted to write about, I mean the people."
It was the best kind of bar -- neither gay nor straight, black nor white, biker nor punk. At any given time you'd find tall, skinny black men playing pool with tattooed white chicks; a couple of nellies leaning on the bar, drinking cosmopolitans out of plastic cups and laughing loudly with a big yat in coveralls; a pair of well-dressed black women working the video poker machines for all they were worth; a longhair with a Chihuahua in his backpack taking cash from the ATM... (p 207)
The power of Nine Lives isn't just that the book "gets" New Orleans. It's that Baum's work embraces the biggest challenge of any historical account. There is no "one" version of our city, just as there's no one version of what it was like to live through Katrina. There are only people and their memories.

Nine Lives is made up of nine different life stories spanning the decades between the devastation of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rather than attempting to reveal some objective "truth" about these forty-odd years, Baum puts the reader firmly behind the eyes of his subjects.
Ronald Lewis was fourteen years old, and he'd finally encountered a force of nature more powerful than his mom (p 3).
The nine people in question are diverse without being representative: a millionaire Rex, a "jailbird from the Goose," a high school band leader, a woman who struggles to get out of the Lower Ninth, a non-native police officer, a transsexual, the Orleans Parish coroner, a streetcar-track repairman, and the man who created a new future for the Mardi Gras Indians (as told through his widow).

Nine Lives is made up of details, some familiar, and some not. It is at once intensely personal and broad of scope. It describes the triumph of surviving tragedy without a single coating of sugar. It serves as both warning and inspiration, and yet it's a really fun read.
The suite was full of women, or people who looked like women, waving drinks, touching each other's hair, pivoting for inspection. "I'm just running down the hall for some ice," the woman who'd opened the door said. John must have looked terrified, because the woman's face softened and she said, "Oh, no. I guess I won't." (p 102)
Of course, there is a tenth narrative in Nine Lives: Dan Baum's.

"New Orleans is kind of a country unto itself," he explains on the phone. "Every place else is more about money than time -- what life is about in New Orleans is having time to spend with your friends.

"It's not about getting stuff done, it's about enjoying every minute."

I make the observation that some tourists and college students come to New Orleans with the attitude that the whole town is some sort of never-ending frat party.

"The city is not a frat party," Baum responds, "but it is one big cocktail party. It's not that it's drunk all the time. The point of life in New Orleans is to get up in the morning and look for a more entertaining life for the day. You spend your day drifting around the city looking for entertaining encounters. There may be alcohol involved."

Baum acknowledges his own geographical bias. "I never spent much time on Magazine St. The action of recovery was elsewhere. I'm more a downtown guy than an uptown guy."
Darryl took her hands in his. A guard blew a whistle and pointed with his nightstick, and Darryl recoiled in a way that made Joyce think he'd felt that nightstick before. He clasped his hands to his chest. "Before they sent me up here, Tootie told me, 'Boy, you need to get some feathers on,' and I wish I'd listened. I might not be here if I had." (p 113)
"I remember telling my brother about New Orleans," Baum says with a laugh. "How in New Orleans, nothing is none of your business. There are no personal boundaries in New Orleans. People will stand there and listen to you talk about how you love their shoes. You can be in a restaurant and say, 'Hey, what's that you're eating?'

"I told him that in New Orleans, people make eye contact, and he goes, 'Oh, my God! I can't think of anything worse!' He likes being left alone, and most Americans are like that. The way they use their cars -- you're sealed up by yourself. New Orleans doesn't do that."
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