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  • There’s an enormous tree near City Park draped in Spanish moss with thick boughs that scrape the ground. A faded plaque says that “hot-blooded young blades” once fought duels here. “Gentlemen settled their differences with swords and pistols,” says the plaque. “This was the field of satisfaction for wounded pride and dishonor.” An elderly couple snaps pictures of each other in front of the tree. “I’m a history buff,” the husband explains, and he eagerly tells me about the famous men who died here back when people slapped one another in the face with gloves and shot each other beneath the trees.

    Several hot-blooded young blades died the other night. Hundreds died last year and more will die this year, mostly young men settling disputes with pistols. An altercation in front of a fast food restaurant. Somebody looked at someone the wrong way. Last week two bodies were found in a stripped truck in the parking lot of a discount department store. Satisfaction for wounded pride and dishonor. Will the city install a commemorative plaque?

    I’ve been studying the plot-lines of 1980s action films. In Savage Dawn, a biker-revenge fantasy from 1985, the hero is a veteran named Stryker. While fueling his bike in a small Texas town, two thugs named Spyder and Meatrack start trouble with the gas station owner; Stryker dispatches them before visiting his old friend who works in a mine. They talk about old times. They realize how much things have changed. They save their little town from a marauding gang by killing the bad guys with spikes, grenades, rocket launchers, tractors, and a grain elevator. This is the heart of Rocky, Rambo, Death Wish, and dozens of other Reagan-era films in which the realization that things ain’t the same compels our hero to strip down to the waist and spray his nation's enemies with machine gun fire. 1980s action movies formed the template for today’s angry talk radio.

    When I think of anger, I imagine the braying faces of the parents in Florida who picketed a six-year-old girl with a peanut allergy, demanding that she withdraw from school because her dietary needs interfered with their children’s right to eat peanut butter and not wash their hands. These parents will tell you that they’re fighting for more than peanut butter—they’re fighting to save us from a slippery slope into cultural relativism and a society that favors the needs of the few over the desires of the many.

    J. Edgar Hoover was fond of pointing out that “it only took twenty-three Commies to overthrow Russia.”

    If you walk to the Mississippi River, sometimes you’ll catch a grizzled old man sitting cross-legged near the levee, screaming “fuck all of you motherfucking cocksuckers, man, I want to see you fucking people die, man, and all of you fuckers can rot in hell forever, man, none of you fuckers deserve to live” and so on without pausing to take a breath. Each time I hear this guy I want to give him some money because it’s a thrilling performance. But he’s not begging, he simply wants to rage. Sometimes people stop to rage back at him and it’s difficult to tell who is mentally ill. I’m struck by the way this guy organizes his murderous profanity around the word “man,” which creates a melody with lovely cadence if you tune out the hate.

    In the 1940s, black jazz musicians started calling each other “man” because they were usually called “boy” by everybody else.

    A family sings in a narrow alley. They sit on crates against a brick wall, mom and dad and two little girls, singing about coming up the rough side of the mountain, all four of them clapping with hard-earned soul. They sing about going down to the river. New Orleans is defined by water. Levees, bayous, lakes, canals, spillways, and rain. The water is always out there, sitting in the dark.

    Water drips from plants on the balconies overhead. Somebody wrote "Sack your inner Rome" on the wall. Last night a two-year-old was shot in the head. A chopper beats though the night sky, the cone of a searchlight sweeping the city below. Maybe there's a parade. Maybe it's a police action.

    One afternoon I was reading by the river and a woman sat down next to me and said, “I’ve had other near death experiences," she said. "I've had a gun to my head and I've overdosed but I've never felt anything like this.” I asked her what was wrong but she kept staring into the water and mumbled something about needing to get back to Kentucky before she walked away. I forgot about this until just now. I should have done more to help her.

    Sometimes I think empathy and civility are disappearing. Then I realize I’m romanticizing the good old days.
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