10 December 2009

Screw the South / Dig the South (2 of 2)

I have now passed the one year anniversary of beginning this post - it was one of the first that I started - and it's time to finish. (Not finishing has been holding up some of my other writing, so this might be one I just need to move off my mental plate, as it were, to make room for the next course.) Criticizing the South has been very easy for me; finding things to praise, Sisyphean. Whenever I'd get some momentum on this I'd come across a story like the town in Alabama with two proms, one for whites and one for blacks; or the Justice of the Peace in a Louisiana parish who wouldn't marry blacks and whites; or the tweaks made to Ole Miss fight song so that their students - their STUDENTS - don't chant "The South Will Rise Again" at its conclusion; or the mayor of a small southern town shows the world his particular brand of crazy as he posts the following on his Facebook account: "Ok, so, this is total crap, we sit the kids down to watch 'The Charlie Brown Christmas Special' and our muslim president is there, what a load.....try to convince me that wasn't done on purpose." (And no, I'm not making that up.)

Yeah. Fish in a barrel for the "I hate the South" post.

But it's been more than that delaying me, too - I have had to countenance my ambivalence about the South, and Southerners, and fundamental aspects of my character and what I believe. I possess many of the traits of a stereotypical Southerner, and though I revile the region's fetishization of a simulacra of history there is much about the region and its people that I admire and even share. In undergrad, playing euchre one time with roommates with the Indigo Girls singing "Southland in the Spring Time" on in the background, the line "When God made me born a Yankee he was teasin'" made one of my roommates say "That's you, pal."

And he was right, I do have a Southern sensibility. I was raised to always answer a question from my parents or any grownup with "Yessir" or No sir," "Yessum" or "No'm" - it was so engrained as to be almost muscle memory, and a hard habit to break when we moved into town. Our speech was Southern - or mine was as I spoke like everyone in Fowler spoke, speech languorous and laden with diphthongs (mayzhure), and long "e"'s where most people pronounced clipped "e"'s or "i"'s (passeengers, deeshes) and strong emphasis on initial syllables (INsurance, XEErox). There was a strong deference to authority, and a clear sense of how to behave in public and in public interactions. When a lady enters the room, you stand. You hold doors open for whomever is behind you. You take off your hat inside. Bad manners would get you sent to the car. But those aren't really Southern traits, are they? I suspect many Midwestern boys, or California boys or any American boys growing up in the 1970's had at least some of the same shared parenting and manners; maybe it's just that the south is more conservative in this as in everything else, and more of it stuck there?

Recently when I was having breakfast at the little restaurant up the street from my office in downtown Palo Alto. Two lovely, grey haired women of a certain age came in and were a bit befuddled by the ordering protocol. When speaking to each other, not loudly or in an emotionally exhibitionistic sort of way, but with their indoor voices, it was clear they were Southerners. The young woman behind the counter was deferential, sorted them out, and then asked "Do you mind if I ask where you're from?" The ladies were from Tennessee and the barista was from Texas and there was an instant bond. They were soon talking like old friends, yet there was a ritualistic form to their exchange almost: the younger woman making her query, making a claim to a shared cultural membership, making small talk about their trip - it was unhurried and generous. (The following Saturday the Tejana was working and a lovely, grey haired lady of a certain age ordered right in front of me - and couldn't have been ruder. She didn't make requests, she made imperious demands; she was brusque and loud; she was unsatisfied with the answers to her 63 follow up questions; the exchange could not have been more different. The barista, after the Palo Altan empress had moved to her table out of earshot, visibly slumped and said to me and in general to the air around her, "Why couldn't she just be a little nice?" Excellent question.)

I have been in the South more since I started dating J (June '08) than in all of my previous life combined, if we accept that coastal Florida isn't the South. I've now been to South Carolina for the first time, and I've driven through non-interstate parts of Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee as well. I have a 1992 Road Atlas - a Marquette graduation gift - in which I've highlighted every road I've driven in the US, and before this year there were huge swathes of the South with no color. Airports? Yes. Driving? Not until recently.

And I have found I really loved it. My skepticism would melt when I'd walk into a diner and be called "hon", or when I'd hold a door open for an elderly lady and she'd pause on her way through and look up at me and say "thank you, young man," or when I would revert to childhood habits of appending "Ma'am" and "Sir" to the end of most replies and get no funny looks. It's how I was raised to be, and it's comforting to be in a place where those manners are reciprocated and where social interactions are facilitated with an expectation of the acknowledgment of the other.

And what I've learned from these past two years is that of course the South is not monolithic; that there are some Democrats and even Liberals; that the races do mix in many places without enmity; that gay folk can be out in more places than just Atlanta, New Orleans and Memphis.

In Columbia, South Carolina, out for a nice dinner with J, I saw more inter-racial couples and more mixing of white and black folk generally than I remember seeing in Milwaukee or Chicago or Indy; and on top of it I had one of the best meals of my life. We were at Diane's on Devine, a place I found by doing a search for "romantic restaurants Columbia, SC." (If you're in Columbia - GO! Great, great meal.) We got there late-ish, most tables were at the dessert and coffee stage when we got our menus, and we got a table in the middle of the room as all the booths were taken. No one rushed us, no one gave us attitude.

Shortly after we'd been seated, a gentleman standing by the bar saw someone he recognized across the restaurant and strode to greet him. "HOW YA DOIN', OLD FELLA!" he boomed, before dropping back to his indoor voice. Seeing my eyes widen, JTB said "That's one thing I'm going to miss about the South, that hearty greeting and friendliness."

Our servers were absolutely fantastic - one was a Colts fan who was enrolled at Univ of South Carolina, the other had just moved back to her native South Carolina from San Francisco. The diners over behind J were out for their anniversary dinner, the couple behind me had been married 38 years and had just celebrated their anniversary the week before, and the young couple over my right shoulder, well, now they've got a wedding to plan since she said yes. An unusual set of circumstances (and one that led me to a peremptory and joking "don't get any ideas..." from me), sure, but the way that folks were getting along and talking story, as they say in Hawai'i, was beguiling.

At the other end of the dining spectrum, the Waffle House off exit 55 in Lexington, SC, is where JTB and I had breakfast the morning I left. Everyone knew each other and there was a lot of heartiness and jawing. One regular, smoking in the corner, ordered jam for his toast and a waitress yelled back at him from 15 feet away "What happened, Wheeler, you fall off the jam wagon, too?" Wheeler didn't look like he said no to much. It was the kind of place to which I bet I could go twice and people would recognize me, three times and I'd be "their Yankee." A few tables cleared and one of the employees who was working our area asked about J's ring, first, and then lowered his voice a little bit and asked "Are y'all family?"

"Yup, we are," I said.

"I thought maybe. Y'all in town for Pride?"

"No, we're not. " Pause as I thought about how to explain why we were in Lexington, South Carolina, and then, "Wait. Columbia has a Pride?"

"Yup, it's a big one, too - RuPaul performed at it last year!" His personal pride and excitement was evident.

You coulda knocked me over. And then he told us about his boyfriend, who was working back in the kitchen, and their house, and if we hadn't had to leave I'd'a bet we'd'a had invitations to a barbecue before long.

I like that friendliness, and as I've thought about these things and my feelings about the South over the past year in an attempt to write this, I've realized that by temperament I am not ironic or detached; that my intellectual and social stance is engagement, les mains sales; and that my default setting for public and social interactions is conservative - manners, respect, and awareness of communal expectations. This has surprised me, given my deep distrust of class and class markers (I once inveighed for 20 minutes on how wearing nice clothes to an event like a wedding reinforced socioeconomic strata, and I still believe it - and don't get me started on college bumper stickers; in most cases I find them as tacky as the guy in the 90s who would wear a different Hard Rock sweatshirt every week - "Reykjavik" or "Nagoya" - to show his ability to spend money).

Maybe it was all of those years in Japanese and Hawaiian culture - where one avoids being direct to avoid being rude, where knowing the social markers and how to behave is important - that has affected my perception of these things. There are similarities to Hawai'i, I've thought that before, particularly with New Orleans and Hawai'i. Food is important. Work is a means to an end. Neither culture is linear or time-based, they are relationship based.

In any event, I do believe that in the South people know how to behave in the public sphere. And no, it's not just in the South where you can experience this. My buddy Dave, a native Minnesotan, and I were in Milwaukee recently, and we both commented how if we were in Cali or South Florida the food would have been twice as expensive, half as good, and served with a side of surly.

I don't mean to idealize it. There was a reason that server at Waffle House was so excited about Gay Pride, a reason that a Californian may have forgotten. That crazy mayor in Tennessee has a lot of supporters. Some of the worst service I've had in the last year was at Rock'n'Bowl in New Orleans (much mitigated by the cheapness of the beer and the quality of the Zydeco band and, let's face it, being able to bowl).

The flip side - well, I've already written about parts of the flip side, but Southern culture can be tribal, insular, suspicious, superstitious and mistrustful.

But there is a strong regional culture that has been maintained in this national media age, and there are things about it that unquestionably contribute greatly to our national character. And in spite of myself there's a lot about it I really like.

But for now, I'll keep Senators Boxer and Feinstein, thanks.


hina333 said...

I also love the screwed up South- bless its heart!

CFox said...

Rock'N'Bowl was the worst service you've had in a year?!?! You need to come to Logan, my friend. The servers don't know the "new" liquor laws & serve beer as if it were snake venom; we often wait 20 min or more for a bar order; servers always reach across your plate to get someone else's or to refill the water glass; they don't know anything about the menu; they can't open a bottle of wine; and about 2 minutes after you get your food, they ask, "how's everything tasting?" It's the dumbest question. Yes, of all the things you wrote, this is what I must address. :-)

Anonymous said...

i have lived in the south for 3 years now. im originally from NH. people are very nice here, but also incredibly stubborn. the speed adjustment was hardest. majority of the time i want to trample on walkers in the mall.