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Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleansby Dan Baum
Ronald Lewis walked past one ruined cottage after another. Miss Hattie Guste's yellow bungalow with the gingerbread trim wore mildew like a three day stubble on a drunk man's chin. The Moseses' place seemed to have been dredged in slime like a piece of useless garbage. Miss Odette's immaculate cottage had become a spooky old hollowed-out skull. Miss Pie's swaybacked shotgun was knocked clean off its bricks so that the porch seemed to be kneeling in the mud. These were Ronald's sacred places, he now realized; he'd been in and out of these houses his whole life. Desecrated they were. Thoughtlessly trashed.
Ronald had seen bad luck before. Houses caught fire, men lost their jobs, children drowned in the canal. Each time, neighbors had given the stricken a bed for the night or a few dollars' help, offering strong backs and consolation. This time, though, bad luck had carried its bucket of bitterness through every house on every block, ladling an equal dose to all. How was anybody to rise out of it, with nobody left unhurt to lend a hand?
Ronald Lewis was fourteen years old, and he'd finally encountered a force of nature more powerful than his mom.
Rebecca Wright was born on the Abbey Sugar Plantation in Thibodaux half a century after emancipation, but not so you'd know the difference. She came up in one of dozens of identical unpainted shacks alongside a cane field, carrying water on her head from a communal pump and listening to her uncles being beaten for the crime of being too sick to work. She had her first baby, Walter, at thirteen, put him on her hip, and lit out for New Orleans. There, she married a quiet man named Irvin Dickerson and had four more children.
When Ronald was born to Rebecca's troubled niece Stella Mae in 1951, Rebecca took him, swaddled in a Charity Hospital blanket, and folded him in with her own born five, becoming the only mama he would ever know. She took him down to the tidy house Irvin had built her, across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Life across the canal was heaven for newcomers from the country. The lots were jungly—big enough for chickens, pigs, and even horses. The streets were made of rolled pea gravel and crushed oyster shell: easy on bare feet. Neighbors understood each other. You took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church. No need for all that parading in the street like the city people and the Creoles on the other side of the canal. None of that fancy dressing up and drinking until all hours. It was the best of both worlds for Rebecca—a quiet country life right there by the good waterfront jobs. Irvin worked close by in the sugar factory. When a banana boat was in, the whole neighborhood smelled sweet, and it was bananas in the bread pudding, banana cream pies, and fried bananas for breakfast all week long.
By the time Ronald came, big brother Walter was off at sea with the merchant marine, but the compact house on Deslonde Street was still plenty crowded. Ronald shared a room with Irvin Junior and Larry; Dorothy and Stella shared one down the hall. When they got around the kitchen table every evening, it was all shoulders and elbows. They ate eggplants, corn, and tomatoes from the garden, and eggs from their chickens. Mama bought flour, rice, and grits by the twenty-five-pound bag and, for breakfast, baked biscuits this high before everybody got up; they'd sop them in cane syrup poured from big cans. Dorothy, thirteen years older than Ronald, had a good job by Lopinto's Restaurant and brought home sacks of fishbacks that still had plenty meat on them. The family would crowd into the kitchen late at night, rolling the fishbacks in cornmeal, frying them crisp, and sucking off the flaky white meat, while Mahalia Jackson sang from the radio.
Cousins showed up often from Thibodaux, looking for a better life in the city. Ronald knew times when five or ten might be packed into the house, covering the living room floor at night like dead soldiers, standing around the table at mealtimes, spooning up Mama's rice and gravy, and talking in plantation accents that struck his ear like music. They'd tell of hog killings, alligators long as Cadillacs, and hot pones sticky with molasses. Everybody would be shouting and laughing until Rebecca, standing over the stove with her spatula, hushed them all by snapping, "When I die, do not bring me back to that place."
She created for Ronald a tiny, exquisitely textured world, like one of the snow globes that Walter brought home from sea. Ronald didn't cross a street on his own until first grade, and even then the known universe extended but a few blocks. She would send him as far as the dago's on Claiborne Avenue with a nickel for a stick of butter, but she'd spit on the floor and say, "That better not be dry when you get back." There was laundry to stomp in the bathtub and run through the wringer, a garden to hoe, chickens to feed, and always plenty of dishes—Lord help Ronald if he left them in the draining board. If word came up the street that he'd failed to say good morning to Mr. Butler or Miss Pie, Mama would send him out back to cut her an alder switch "as long as you are" and wear him out with it.
Dad passed when Ronald was eleven, and it was left to Mama to see to it he come up a man. She watched from the screen door the day husky Euliss Campbell came round to bully, and called Ronald inside. "Either you beat that boy," she said, "or I'll beat you." From that day on, Ronald was more likely to get a whipping for not fighting than for fighting; she'd rather have him bruised than fearful. As for the white world, she'd come home from doing day work for the white ladies a block away on Tennessee Street and tell him: Look how I do. I do their work, but I don't sing and dance for them.
Mama was only five feet tall but solid as brick, and she strode his world like a colossus. But on the night of September 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy whipped in across the Lower Ninth Ward, and Ronald watched her confront something bigger than she was. They all huddled together on the couch, screaming to drown out the wind, feeling the shudder and crack of their wooden bungalow in their bones, keeping their eyes on the TV till the room went black and the picture shrank to a glowing pinpoint. Then came the pop and hiss of the oil lamp and its pale yellow halo. Larry banged through the front door, voice cracking, "Water in the street!" and a dark parabola emerged under the door and stretched across the living room—Ronald would remember that as long as he lived. They crossed Deslonde Street, shoulder deep in inky black water, faces bent low to the stinging wind, and clawed their way up the steps to the Alexanders' second floor apartment. When Ronald awakened in the sunshiny calm of the morning and looked out the window, there was the roof of their home poking through a shimmering floor of green water and a family of mallards swimming calmly around it. Mama, sobbing on the Alexanders' sofa, looked to Ronald half her normal size.
The weeks after Betsy were a miasma of heat, discomfort, and irritating little injuries from exposed nail heads and sharp linoleum edges as the family struggled to set the house right—gobbling cold suppers on the porch, sitting hunched up on nail barrels. Mama never stopped moving, as though standing still would allow despair to reach up through the floorboards and drag her under. It was usually well past dark when she'd turn off the hissing oil lamp and they'd retreat across the canal to rented rooms at the Crescent Arms on Poland Avenue.
Lawless Junior High had flooded with the rest of the neighborhood, so Ronald spent most days riding around the ruins on the back of a city owned flatbed, loading up sodden furniture, fallen oak boughs, and floppy sheets of lath coated in wet plaster. The city paid him ten dollars a day, but he'd have done the work for free; it was better than hanging around the wrecked house, mining mulched clothes from the bottom of a closet, or pulling up wet carpet under Mama's grim stare. With no radio, the silence in the house was awful.
Ronald knew the people across the canal looked down on the Lower Ninth Ward, with its hogs and unpaved streets and its hodgepodge of square bungalows and skinny shotguns on brick stilts. It was as far downriver—as far down the social ladder—as you could go in New Orleans. That Betsy had broken only the levee into the Lower Ninth Ward had only confirmed the rest of the city's sense of superiority. Well, he told himself, we just got to live with that.
It was the ruined two story house across from Ronald's that opened the biggest hollow in Ronald's chest. The Alexanders hadn't yet shown up since leaving the storm, and Ronald didn't know when, if ever, he'd see his buddy Pete.
The Alexanders had moved in to that upstairs apartment when Ronald and Pete were in first grade, and the two boys had always had their best adventures together—stringing tin can telephones between their houses, tying towels around their necks to become superheroes, digging machine gun nests up under Mrs. Butler's star jasmine, and, lately, trying to get up next to that girl Janice who whooped and hollered in the Morning Star Baptist choir like Aretha Franklin herself.
The Alexanders were different—city people, Sixth Ward Creole Catholics a little lost among the vegetable gardens and chicken coops of the Lower Ninth Ward. Pete's mother, Miss Jerry Dean, didn't linger on the sidewalk talking to Mrs. Payton or Mrs. Williams the way Ronald's mom did. She kept to herself, upstairs. At first, she didn't much like dark skinned Ronald bulldogging up her front stairs to bang on the door, and she'd unhitch the screen with a reluctant sigh to let him in. As for Pete's dad, he worked at Godchaux's Department Store on Canal Street and came home every night with two quarts of beer—not Dixie or Falstaff, but Miller in those dazzling clear bottles, like a white man in a commercial. Every now and then a two-door Ford would pull up to the Alexanders', and a white man wearing a porkpie hat and sunglasses would climb out and walk right up the front steps and inside—Miss Jerry Dean's uncle. To Pete it was the most normal thing in the world to call a white man kin.
Pete himself had copper-colored skin, wavy hair lying in oiled squiggles along his scalp, and the long straight nose of his Cherokee grandmother. There was none of the sugar plantation in Pete Alexander, none of the earnest country ways of the Lower Nine. He was sly and crafty, with a jazzy way of moving and veiled street smarts. He liked to play with hair, of all things. One day Ronald had let Pete straighten his, and when it was done, it lay across his skull like a Rampart Street gigolo; Mama had about died from laughing. Hair was a way to a girl's heart, Pete always said. Let me do Janice's, and I'll be halfway there.
Ronald couldn't remember a day without Pete Alexander in it. By third grade, Miss Jerry-Dean was as good as Ronald's second mother, and if Ronald went home crying from one of Miss Jerry Dean's whippings, Mama sent him out back for a switch to give him another. The hole they left in his life was bigger than the gap in the levee. Every day since the storm, Ronald checked the Alexanders' house for signs of life a dozen times. But since the morning of the flood, the two-story house loomed over Deslonde Street as silent as a tombstone. The Alexanders were gone, maybe back forever to the Sixth Ward.
No cars moved along Deslonde Street. Easy chairs and sofas that Ronald recognized from paying calls with Mama lay sodden on the curbs. Flower gardens had been flattened, and the air was a heavy green musk, not healthy and alive like pond slime but dank and mildewed, foul with gasoline. Deslonde Street smelled like death.
Before Betsy, life had rolled by on a great, slow-moving wheel—every pebble, every live oak, every fiddling cricket as familiar to Ronald as his own hands and feet. Now that world was gone. He'd been sleepwalking before. He was awake now, but it was too late.
cor jesu high school
John Guidos Jr. wanted nothing more at fifteen than to be invisible. Unfortunately, he was big—with a heavy square head and blocky across the chest. So he compensated by staying quiet, speaking only when spoken to. And he prayed a lot.
His was an all-Catholic world, and Hurricane Betsy had given his parents, his priest, and the brothers at Cor Jesu High School a lot to talk about. Was the storm divine retribution against the sin and squalor of New Orleans? And if so, why had God chosen to wipe out the homes of those poor colored people in the Lower Ninth Ward and leave standing those dens of iniquity in the French Quarter? The consensus was to accept the storm as evidence of God's infinite grace and mercy, which was fine by John. He didn't like thinking too much about sin. He wondered constantly about his own.
He was built for football, and he enjoyed it. Football let him hit people, a much more comfortable means of communication than speaking. It was the locker room that made football hard. He never knew where to put his eyes. And the talk—tits and pussy and wet dreams—kept his burning face turned into his open locker.
"Faggot" was another word that got thrown around the locker room a lot. He had a pretty good idea what it meant, between the locker room talk, paragraph 2357 of the catechism with its talk of homosexuality being "contrary to natural law," and Leviticus 18:22 calling it an "abomination." If he was a faggot, he was going to hell. But as he walked up Elysian Fields Avenue toward his father's store after school, John wondered if it was really true. No matter how many times he ran all the pieces over in his head—which was constantly—he couldn't make them fit. Sometimes he wondered if he wasn't some third thing, something neither the catechism nor Leviticus knew about, something maybe even unknown to God. A memory forced itself up: one of the wicked nuns from St. Louis King of France Elementary School gliding among the desks like an iceberg, tapping a wooden yardstick on her open palm. She'd caught a couple of the boys fighting at recess and as punishment had dressed them in the plaid skirts and hair bows of their female classmates. The other children had laughed and taunted as the boys sobbed in shame, but John had felt an unexpected rush of envy. He'd slammed the door on the monstrous feeling, and had brayed like a donkey along with everyone else.
From the Hardcover edition.
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