Saturday, April 21, 2012

Day 20: Pobject's highway mileage sign

It took some time to get used to seeing signs pointing the way to places like Memphis, Chattanooga, and Birmingham. Such storied cities offered exotic enticement, as alien as they were to me. Before the move to Vanderbilt, I'd never been to the South aside from a stopover or two in the Miami airport. (Furthermore, as I know well now, Florida doesn't count.) I'd been no nearer to Nashville than the novels of Faulker or Harper Lee, and for all I knew you couldn't pass a day in the South without sipping a mint julep on the scuppernong arbor.

Ah do declare.

I had a lot to learn. Some of the "truths" were true: barbecue is big here, and many folks do say "y'all" (though just as many don't). Things here do move a bit more slowly, more leisurely. There's a bit of git 'er done, but there's not a whole lot of git 'er done this. very. second. "You make such a good Southerner," our old department assistant once told me. I'd come to her office five minutes before to ask her help on some administrative task or another, and it had taken me three or four minutes of small talk to get around to asking for my favor.

Not everyone adapts to this new pace equally well. One friend once told me, "when I stop in at Krispy Kreme I don't want to talk about the weather, and I sure as hell don't need to know about the clerk's grandson." She's since moved back north.

I like the pace, and I like the friendliness. We wave at each other as our cars pass on small side streets. "You know them?" a visiting Yankee friend once asked.

"Nope. Just thought I'd say hello."

Don't get me wrong: the South isn't perfect. But it's a damned sight less hellish than folks from up north will have you believe. We've got our share of hatemongers, but no more or less than anywhere else: when it comes to bigotry I'd put money on upstate New York over upstate South Carolina any day. Moreover, we've got plenty of our own charm and history down here, and there's unbelievable cultural richness. After all, some of the most authentically "American" literature, music, and cuisine calls the South its home.

I've lived in the South for eleven years now, all told. I can't defend all that she's done, and I can't defend all that she's stood for. And I do miss the snow, truth be told. But there's something about the forests and the foggy bottoms, about the old tobacco barns and towering kudzu-covered hills, and about the cicada songs and pawpaw trees that speaks to me. There's something, too, about the people, people who seem to know, though it goes unspoken, that they, all of them, white, black, brown, red, or yellow, have got a tougher row to hoe than folks from most anywhere else in this great country of ours. I love these people.

I can't call myself a native of the South, but I'm proud to say that I feel at home here.

The highway signs are insistent: we all have new roads to run.

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