Last night, my husband Chuck and I found parking behind some horse trailers in an alley a walk away from the Jackson State Fairgrounds. We walked between stands selling cowhides and saddles and stands selling lariats and posters of country music legends to the north entrance of the coliseum. I was wearing brown boots, blue jeans, a red gingham blouse with a kerchief, a denim jacket under a sheepskin coat. We met two other couples there, both living in Vicksburg like we are, and we were planning on buying cheap seats up in the rafters so that we could watch the bull riding, the barrel racing, and who knows what-all.
However, when we got to the box office, we realized that they had sold all the tickets already. We were not going to the rodeo, after all. Instead, as a sextet, we went to a Japanese restaurant down the street and had a lovely evening, anyway.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, but the experience the rodeo promises to people like us, people with graduate degrees and uncalloused hands, would be unattainable even if we had seats so close we could feel the breath of bulls on the back of our necks.
Almost the second the West was won, America developed a sentimentality about cowboys. Buffalo Bill ‘s Wild West Show was just a show, not wild at all, for people who would never be cowpokes, unless poking a cow can be extended so far as slicing into a New York strip steak.
The people who back their trailers up to the Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi may indeed have learned to straddle the agrarian image of America that Thomas Jefferson gave us and the contemporary realities of cell phones and Facebook status updates just like they wrap their thighs around the back of an angry bull, but the rest of us, the ones buying, or trying to buy the tickets, we have no such capacity. We are products of a society that dishes us up true grit on a salad bar where we can pick and choose between morsels of culture. All six of us, the ones who went out to dinner instead of the rodeo, we are all white folks, so we are no more Japanese than we are cowboy. So to what do we really and truly belong?
One of the women who ate teriyaki with me last night told me she was from a small town called Hot Coffee, Mississippi, and I am sure that she comes from more rural digs than I do in Brooklyn, but she and the other woman lamented the disappearance of a sign welcoming outsiders to Hot Coffee that looked like someone was pouring coffee off a sign post. The other woman remembered that her father used to woo women by walking around where he came from with a pet goat, and somehow, in the vocabulary of this particular rural region, that was like having a nice ride in Hollywood.
But we, the educated people — lawyers, professors, computer scientists, chemists — we don’t have goats. We may come from Hot Coffee, but we are not stuck there by land battles or other forms of economic necessity. If we use a lasso, it’s not for livelihood — it’s a rope trick, nothing more. So who are we?
People often say of those who move away and move back that they can never really and truly go home again. I furthermore say that any of us who refine our minds can never truly be present for The Dixie National Rodeo. We are too aware of other things, and our options are too many. People who get up to milk the cows at 4 am usually do so out of necessity, not out of romantic transcendental ideologies. As for Dixie, that country no longer exists; indeed Dixie, as opposed to the real Confederate States in secession, was as mythological as Atlantis, for no one who has picked cotton for no money sings happily about how they wish they were back in the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten — look away. So moving South — which I undoubtedly did — it has not made me any more a Southern Belle than Teddy Roosevelt made himself a cowboy when he bought guns in Manhattan at Tiffany & Company (Yes, that Tiffany’s used to sell guns, silver plated, apparently, along with the rest of their jewelry) and moved to the Dakotas. Teddy Roosevelt mastered the skills of a cowbpoke out on the range very impressively, but he always could count on other forms of income. He managed to inhabit the rough neck culture, but he himself remained a city slicker inside. He could hunt in the land of grizzlies, form the rough rider brigade in the bar of the luxurious Hotel Menger, but this was a bit like Marie Antoinette building herself a Hameau to play at being a peasant girl.
I will never be a cowgirl. I might learn to shoot a gun, Tiffany silver-plated or otherwise. I might learn all the manners of a Kappa Kappa Gamma. I might learn to inhabit this culture with thorough fluency, but somehow, I’ll end up eating foreign cuisine, reading a marvelous book, investigating arch Machiavellian realities or corn pone frontier humor from a consumerist, internationalist, twenty-first-century intellectual distance.
It’s a shame we missed the rodeo. I think we would have had a terrific time. The truth, though, is we missed the rodeo over a century and several libraries ago.