*If you haven’t read anything I’ve written before… Sarcasm is always in play. Good talk!
Observations of Southern America
Our current president skyrocketed to fame in 2004 when he told us that there was no such thing as a “red” America or a “blue” America – that we are just the United States of America. It was a truly touching statement – so much so that it helped launch him to the presidency with almost no prior political experience. It’s just too bad that it is entirely incorrect. There ARE two Americas. Hell, there are FIFTY different Americas. Travel across any state border and those that are perceptive wanderers will notice different customs, different rules, different accents, and different cultures. Some countries in the world can be driven through in the time it takes to get from Jersey to Ohio. America is vast in size and, thus, vast in its differences. To quote an overly inebriated Englishman that one night at a pub in Faversham was trying to explain to me why parts of America can be so drastically different – “your country is big-guh… our country is small-luh.”
If I were going to stereotype and lump together a large portion of the country based on relatively little time spent in that region, solely for the purpose of writing a short essay that virtually no one will read… I would stereotype Southern America. So I’m going to.
A little background – I was born in New York. I spent my formative years living in the woods in Maine, only to move to the Amish paradise of Pennsylvania just in time for high school and college. I am a northerner. The only place in the south that I had been to was Disney World – and there were enough northern transplants, retirees, and tourists in the Orlando region to make it feel like I was on Long Island.
My “knowledge” of the south included visions of Jim Crow segregation and how it had drawn to a close just fifteen years before my birth – and only after a protracted legal fight that in some situations required the use of federal troops and massive outbreaks of terrible violence. I thought of the pictures I had seen in school of Emmitt Till, or what was left of Emmitt Till, after he had made the mistake of making the insulting comment “hey, baby” at a white female. I knew that the south had literally fought a war to keep slavery alive as an institution.
Yeah, yeah… sure. You fought for “state’s rights” in the face of federal government oppression. I get it. Just know we in the north think that is a euphemism for wanting to have the right to own human beings.
The sight of a Confederate flag, to this day, still makes me shake my head. When I see it used as a belt buckle on a high school student, a license plate on a truck, or I drive through rural Pennsylvania and see it proudly waving from a large flagpole – I get chills. We have all read and seen examples of how the “Old South” still lives on in any number of ways. Headlines about occasional racial violence, school proms being integrated for the first time, and states refusing to take down their rebel banners from their capitol buildings had done nothing, up until this year, to dissuade my overriding thought that I genuinely despised the south. I assumed that every white person in the south was a racist (turns out I was wrong), and that every white person in the south wishes they had won the Civil War (turns out I was right). I even at one point instituted a personal travel ban – I would not cross the Mason-Dixon for anyone or anything. Southern America was my Cuba.
Over the last few years I began to slowly evolve as all humans do as they get older. I’d use the term “mature” at the end of that sentence, but I’m pretty sure all that know me realize that word would not work there. I became very close friends with several people who were both born and raised in Southern America, or had attended college there. They all seemed relatively normal. I could understand what they said, they had no Klan hoods in their closet (that I’ve found as of this writing), and perhaps most stunning – they all could read. Having traveled extensively out in the western United States, it gradually became time to take a chance and lift my trade embargo with Southern America, and head off to the land of abject poverty, illiteracy, racism, high infant mortality rates, and David Duke. I was genuinely excited!
In the last two years I have crossed the international border with the country below us on eight different occasions. I visited parts of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas… so I guess that, for now at least, I get to continue to stereotype Louisiana as a bunch of French Cajuns who throw beads at topless women and watch the Weather Channel religiously from July through September.
It turns out I was wrong about Southern America… sorta.
The South is DEEPLY proud of their past. It is damn near alarming how proud the south is of “their roots.” You almost have to hand it to them – for a country that lost a war, they sure don’t hold back their praise for the players who cost them the big game. I grew up in the north – ya know, the side that won the Civil War – yet you never hear us gloating or bragging about the victory. Almost immediately after entering Virginia, and in every secessionist state that follows, you see signs on the highway for a plethora of Old Confederacy tourist destinations. There are Confederate flags, pins, bumper stickers, and shot glasses for sale quite literally everywhere.
You can go to Robert E. Lee’s home. You can see where Stonewall Jackson was born. You can visit where Jefferson Davis went to school. Keep in mind that the signs advertising these places are posted by the state government, making them official “must-sees” in the eyes of local tourist bureaus. I even saw a sign on one highway for the “STONEWALL JACKSON SHRINE.” Really?! A shrine? Not just a memorial… but a shrine? Aren’t shrines reserved for things that should be worshiped? I would hope to god that my country – the north – would never be in a situation where we need to build a shrine to worship a man whose claim to fame is that he won a couple battles for the losing side of a war and then got shot and killed by his own men by mistake.
Yet the tradition is pervasive and living on. I am willing to wager that 96% of high school students in the south would be able to describe who Robert E. Lee was. On the contrary, I am willing to wager that less than 15% of high school students in the north would have any clue whatsoever who Ulysses S. Grant was. I hate to break it to all of the graduating seniors down there in Dixie… this wasn’t the “War of Northern Aggression.” You fired the first shots. It’s okay to be proud of your heritage… just not when that pride causes you to brag about how you should have won a war that would have extended the enslavement of an entire race of people for who knows how much longer. You don’t go into Germany and see swastikas for sale in gas stations and pictures of Herman Goering hanging in people’s living rooms.
And to all those people that are offended thinking that I just compared slavery to the Holocaust… Relax. I didn’t. The Holocaust lasted like 10 years – slavery in America lasted for hundreds.
The people are friendly. Very friendly. The expression “Southern Hospitality” definitely applies. I’m not sure if you will find a friendlier, more polite group of people anywhere in the world. Peoples’ manners are impeccable. You even notice this while driving. I’m not sure that road rage even exists in the south. No one seems to be in a rush; if you make a mistake while driving, the driver in the car that you almost killed just smiles and waves in a forgiving manner. Everywhere you go you are greeted with a warm smile and a “how ya’ll dewin’ this mornin’?” Even when a person answers them with a northern accent, the charm does not go away. All of my preconceived notions about the south and its people were melted away within minutes of entering my first southern diner. People sitting around you will even engage you in conversation, and seem genuinely interested in what you have to say. Try doing that in any city in the north – they will look at you like you’re an absolute asshole, and may even tell you that you are one.
Mississippi can suck it. I was worried about someone from Mississippi reading this and that I might hurt their feelings… then I remembered that Mississippi has the highest illiteracy rate in America. A friend and I once drove the Natchez Trace national scenic highway, cruising through rolling hills, windows down, staring out at the peaceful southern scenery. We saw parts of Tennessee and Alabama that were strikingly memorable for their beauty – and then we got off of the highway in Mississippi. The shock and awe campaign in the Iraq War had nothing on the mental impact the sight of a “town” in Mississippi caused. To say that it felt like we had just entered Deliverance Country would be putting it mildly. I was genuinely concerned that I was going to be pulled over by some rogue cop for having a northern license plate and the audacity to drive a Prius in pick-up truck territory. I had visions of my body then being found four months later buried in a swamp with a bunch of college kids who had made the poor choice to register minority voters for their summer internship.
Don’t order nachos in Virginia. Unless in a Mexican restaurant… just don’t. And even then that would be a risky move. Trust me.
I’m pretty sure that they have an issue with drunk driving. If it is after 6 pm on any day of the week, I would guess that if you pulled over a random car you would have a 20% chance of finding a driver who was drinking while driving. Not drunk driving – drinking WHILE driving. I am willing to wager that around 30% of the drivers would blow over the legal limit. This percentage of course rises if the license plate on the car says Mississippi. The fact that they sell beer in gas stations should be a dead giveaway that this is occurring, but yet I doubt that they have the same issues in other places like Vermont. It just seems like it is an almost accepted part of the culture. I saw numerous digital signs at gas stations encouraging people to not drink and drive – the signs at gas stations where I live are trying to get you to die from lung cancer. I pulled into one in South Carolina for an emergency 5-Hour. The man in front of me was purchasing two six-packs of Bud Light and the attendant asked him if he wanted her to bag it. When he said yes, she did – and then asked him to please be sure to drive safely. How many times have you heard a gas station attendant tell you to drive safely? If you answer more than zero, you must live in a state where they sell you beer and know full well that you’re about to crack open a can the second you pull out of the parking lot.
Segregation is still in play – just not legally. There are no signs remaining from the Jim Crow era. There are no city ordinances prohibiting things like whites and blacks playing poker together. But I couldn’t help but notice a few things that made me realize that perhaps the population in the south is segregating themselves. Drive around the south. Visit different towns and places. See how little blacks and whites interact. I think you’ll be very surprised.
Respecting your elders is a way of life. Several of us sat in a small restaurant in North Carolina on a Saturday afternoon, eagerly anticipating any sort of calorie intake after having just summited Mount Mitchell. We watched the families all around us – enjoying their food, their conversation, and their time together. At the table next to us sat the quintessential “little old lady” – seated alone, hunched over her meal. We began to notice that every single worker that walked by, including bus boys and managers, stopped to talk to her.
“How ya’ll dew-in’, Misses Kay?” They would greet her with a hug, listen to her talk to them about her grandchildren – all as attentive as elementary students. Well… early elementary students. Other families stopped and talked to her on their way out, giving this sweet old woman the appearance of town mayor. Our waiter was a dead ringer for Spicoli, with his long shaggy blonde hair and his slow, stoned manner of speaking… if Spicoli had a southern drawl. We gave him our order, accepted his advice when he warned us that the one choice “tastes like dogs—t, man”, and went back to listening in on the conversations with Misses Kay. She noticed this… and there went the next twenty minutes of our lives.
“I had six sisters, and every single one of them was almost six feeeet tall. Look’ee at me – I’m barely five foot. Baby of the family, always have been! I guess that’s why I decided to teach ballroom dancin’ on roller skates.” She must have realized that in us she had a captive audience. With our orders placed we were committed to staying at the table – there was no escaping her. Despite every effort we made to start our own conversation, nice little old lady Misses Kay proceeded to tell us a life story that, by length alone, would have made Homer proud. She told us about every single one of her children and where they all ended up. She rambled on and on about ballroom dancing and her knees and how she needs to drink a shot of Jack Daniels every night at bedtime. She talked about her late husband and how he played for the Red Sox. She talked about working as an accountant during World War II, because the men of the family business had gone off to take down Emperor Hirohito. Gradually I found myself completely enthralled in the conversation. Here we had a genuine time capsule – alive, lucid, and willing to spill her guts.
We found out a lot that day about Misses Kay – but we also were reminded that there really is merit to the idea of respecting the people that came before you. The people in that restaurant that paid homage to her table, at which she evidently sits every single weekday and most weekends, had the right idea.
I was reflecting on all of these lessons and memories on my drive home from my last foray into the mystic of the south. For all of the negative thoughts and emotions I once harbored towards the southern United States, I found myself genuinely appreciating the cultural differences and the charming and friendly people that I had the pleasure of meeting. The beautiful landscape, the wildlife, and the relaxed lifestyle made for the perfect mental cruising zone as I hurtled up I-95 towards my homeland. As I rounded a sharp bend, the highway exited the bucolic section of forest and presented a welcoming vision to the north that is awe-inspiring every time you see it – the massive structure that is the Pentagon. The Washington Monument rising high above in the horizon. The capitol building in the distance with all its patriotic majesty. I smiled to myself and soaked in the view of what is still my favorite city in America… barely noticing that the car behind me was following a tad too closely. The car then shifted to the right lane suddenly, trying to pass me despite the fact that the right lane was actually exiting the highway. Realizing their own error, the driver slammed on the brakes and was affixed to my tail again in an instant. I looked at my speedometer and saw that I was going exactly five miles per hour above the speed limit. The driver behind me looked animated – it seemed my being on the road was insulting his very being. He swerved to the right once more, for a split second looking like he was going to attempt the very illegal “shoulder pass.” He must have reconsidered, for again in an instant he was behind me. I heard the horn. He then found an opening in the lane to my left, swerved in, and flew by me – graciously extending to me the opportunity for a clean line of sight at his favorite finger of his right hand. I just smiled and waved as if he was a cousin I hadn’t seen in years – my favorite way to piss off a jackass on the road. I waited for a glimpse – sure enough, the license plate showed that the car was from New York.