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  • New Orleans is home to jazz and government neglect and other American traditions. New Orleans is hot. When people think of New Orleans, they think of heat, a vivid electric swamp heat that gets into your lungs like smoke. After the heat, most people associate New Orleans with brass bands and booze and catastrophe, which is a shame because this city is shaped by a strange modern tension. The future lives here and sometimes there's no weather at all.

    I discovered these things when my ears began to ring. Tinnitus, they said. One doctor told me it was caused by degenerating discs in my neck. Another said it might be bad nerves, my anxiety closing in. This high-pitched whine sent me out of closed rooms and into the street. I began taking midnight walks through the city and the sounds of New Orleans harmonized with the ringing in my ears: the buzz of a busted streetlight, the drone of a cicada and somewhere in the distance, a siren. Always a siren in this city of music and noise.

    My body, falling apart amid a city in elegant decay, a city of iron balconies and gas lanterns, of hanging gardens and secret courtyards. “Elegant decay” is a term of art for the idea that the degradation of certain cities produces a unique beauty due to their historic significance. A city planner told me that the entire nation will soon be in a state of elegant decay and New Orleans is leading the way. Yet every other block is filled with carpenters and filmmakers, people building new things while others film the old things. The trailers and cranes of construction teams and film crews are scattered everywhere and I often get the two confused.

    At the bottom of the nation, I walk through a schizophrenic city filled with snapshots plumbed from the American psyche. Oil refineries burn in the Gulf while the coastline erodes. Old ballrooms and old men in tailored suits overwhelmed by thousands of men dressed like children, wearing shorts and sneakers and baseball caps. Lavish wealth sits across the street from shocking poverty. This is a city of deranged streets with shattered pavement and frightening potholes, of sidewalks choked with tropical mayhem. Little kids in phenomenally talented marching bands practice in frightening parking lots while unwashed punks on two-story bicycles ride by.

    There are places in this city where time crawls, maybe even reverses. Dim antique shops filled with stone lions and gold chandeliers, a curio house stuffed with the inventory of the nation's first pharmacy. I pay close attention here, seeking a cure for the ringing in my ears and the pains in my neck. I learn that lavender was used to freshen linens as well as to revive ladies who had swooned. Lemon juice should be added to bath water during a full moon to purify the body and spirit, according to Cunningham's Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs. One possibility for the name "heroin" was that the drug gave its users a "heroic" feeling. I read stories about leeches, bloodletting, shock devices, and rusty knives.

    These are the nights when I walked the city, convinced I was dying, feeling strange tremors in my spine and thinking that an iron balcony with ferns dripping over the railing might be my last sight and that'd be just fine. My ringing ears sent me into the city at night and I found myself in a complicated town that's lurching into the future while coming to terms with its past and present condition. I decided to do the same.
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