The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

December 24, 2017

A Christmas Letter from Swamp Country

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Dear Occupant,

I write this Christmas letter to brag to you about the various accomplishments of this year in my family in the hope of producing envy and covering up the severe dysfunction that has long-plagued my existence.

First, allow me to tell you about my perfect Southern husband.  He works at a petrochemical plant in an area with flooding, so rest assured, they used his body as a sponge to soak up all the chemicals that might have otherwise overflowed from vats. Then, speaking of sponges, he cow-boy-ed up all that pain of his work week into a beer guzzle down at the local pub that is too seedy to feel safe to women around here. At seven a.m., drinking in a bar in Louisiana is legal, so after a graveyard shift, my husband could tie one on, I tell you what. The good news is that because of the heady chemicals on his work clothes, I can never tell if that is PBR I smell or PCB. When he gets home and feels amorous, he starts singing that old Charlie Rich song, “Behind Closed Doors,” and that’s my cue to put on that lacy thing he got me out of some catalog years ago and blink my false eyelashes at him.

At my job at the library, we are pleased to report the number of death threats we got for carrying books that “make you queer” was not as high as the local television news reported. In fact, two of the people who called from burner phones who at first sounded menacing, it turned out that they just wanted to find out if there was a book where they could make somebody else queer (asking for a friend).  If they had not blocked the numbers they were calling us from, we might have introduced these two lovelorn boys to each other. The library is still the leading place in the Parish for the homeless to sleep during daylight hours, and old folks ask me to help them find the tax forms. We have children’s book clubs with a couple of kids in every grade, and we even have some adults check out books, too — mostly Stephen King novels and books on how to repair boat motors. Actually, those two category of books get checked out together often enough I wonder if somebody jammed up their motor in the lake while fighting off some kind of lost monster manatee loose and bloodthirsty in our local swampwater.

Meanwhile, my pit bull, Cruiser, just graduated with honors from LSU in developmental psychology and has been accepted as a therapy dog at Johns Hopkins, where he will take on the role of pediatric psychiatry resident, assisting clinical therapists in their important work with troubled toddlers. We just bought him a lab coat and stethoscope (see enclosed photo) in anticipation of this.  We weren’t terribly surprised by his career starting off so well.  After all, it wasn’t that long ago that when we were training him to play dead, he fetched us a copy of The Times-Picayune turned to a full-page article on the state legislature, so we knew he was gifted. We couldn’t be more proud.

We are equally pleased to report that our Daschund Oscar was acquitted of all charges in that double homicide at a liquor store on Tchoupitoulas Street. The defense attorney was able to demonstrate to the jury that without opposable thumbs, Oscar was incapable of loading and firing the shotgun found at the scene of the crime covered in his paw prints. The surveillance collar he was forced to wear has now been replaced with a flea collar. We are so proud of little Oscar, who has now sought therapy for his anger issues and very well may have inspired our other dog’s career choice. We continue to fully support his Second Amendment rights, especially in times like these.

Meanwhile, we have prepared the shack here with traditional Christmas decorations.  We fished out a log from the tide water here and have sprayed it with glitter paint from the craft shop.  We have hung nautical ornaments made with old fishing flies and a glue gun. Tante Suzie brought us her annual Christmas beignets, and we are making Uncle Pierre’s Christmas shrimp gumbo as we listen to Michael Doucet sing us “Trinquez Trinquez.”

Christmas is such a great time!  We can forget who voted for who and why.  We can forget that Congress just raised taxes on people in the Bayou to line the pockets of the Koch brothers.  We can forget lots of other things that I have already forgotten — one involved a broken bottle and a cracked head — I don’t remember whose. I’m sure I wasn’t even there that night.

So Merry Christmas.  I hope you sent out a letter with as many tall tales as this one. Make people hate you on the day we remember our Savior’s birth.

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December 22, 2011

Yes, Bubba, there is a Santa Claus

There is the perfectly tasteful Dixie Christmas (see above)....

There is Christmas, and then there’s Dixie Christmas.  There are entire towns whose displays are utterly tasteful.  I think particularly of Oxford, Mississippi, where the decorations are classic, and the carefully appointed historic homes are utterly elegant — lots of red velvet ribbons, evergreen branches and tasteful white lights.  Vicksburg has a lovely tradition, where they place candles along a number of roads in bags (think Martha Stewart craft project, not a fraternity practical joke), and people drive down the streets without their lights on at five miles an hour, following the path of these bags of light.  That is far better than any Far Rockaway household’s dancing santa doll.  However, there is the other Dixie Christmas, the one that is fraught with reasons that Jesus cannot be held responsible for the season.

Understand that there were plenty of tacky iterations of Dominic the Christmas Donkey in New York City, but there is a kind of a boundless high-end rococo kitsch that is entirely unironic and completely unconscious expressions of tastelessness that cost money in the South.

These are best typified (look for reruns) by HGTV’s astonishing special Donna Decorates Dallas.  If the title of this show reminds us of that 1970s porn flick Debbie Does Dallas, so much the better, as it really is a triple penetration of bad taste over at Donna’s high-end Dallas clients’ houses.

I suppose I am a taste class bigot.  I have no problem understanding the person who has limited choices because of limited income and decorates as best they can with the Dollar Store tchotchkes they can afford, but when the rich, and the smug, and the altogether Republican, display a phenomenal lack of good judgment in design choices when they are willing to spend enough money on their expensive abominations to feed a dozen hungry children in the Ozarks for a year, and these are the same people who will probably vote for candidates who will cut the school lunch programs in their area, I am morally as well as aesthetically offended.

In a season where we should be remembering the homeless — no room at the inn for the Holy Family — when people turn to Donna, she offers the gilding of the lily in so many iterations.  Why not hang animal print ornaments on your two-story Christmas tree?  I am not kidding.  Why not have a  nativity scene where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are decked out as if they were headed for Mardi Gras?

...and then there's Dixie Christmas with animal print ornaments, for which this woman will charge you an arm and a leg.

Donna and her two daughters look like ex-Cowboy Cheerleaders.  Each is blonde and pretty in that particularly expensive Texas way that is lovely without being elegant.  One of the daughters had trouble identifying the figures in the nativity scene — and Donna said they should go back to church.  I agree.  Donna and her daughters decorate a peacock colored Christmas tree.  Donna seems to decorate everything in peacock colors, including herself. See her photo here.  The tree reminds one of nothing more than Priscilla Presley‘s bad taste in decorating Graceland — there is a peacock room there, and the tree is as bad as the one in Memphis, with nothing to do with the lovely preening bird but a plastic imitation.

People pay her a lot of money at her Dallas Boutique called That’s Haute to do this kind of thing for them, and they think they have bought something that makes them look refined.  Admittedly she hasn’t used false advertising in  the name of the boutique.  What is haute, after all?  Is it haute couture or haute vulgarite?  She doesn’t tell us, and people who have clearly never learned that bedazzling doesn’t make a person look wealthier, only more desperate, can’t tell.  Donna is convincingly former homecoming queenly in her sales pitch, so I guess the real housewives of Dallas don’t know that they are getting a sequin tiara instead of a diadem for an imprimatur in taste.

During the rest of the year, this is just part of the conspicuous consumption of the filthy rich — the Enron executives who cashed in before the fallout, the Halliburton shareholders who have profited from the blood of G.I.s — you know, the American dream, Republican Texan style.  It seems crueler, however, when this same esthetic and  philosophy is applied at Christmas to the veneration of the man whose first words of ministry indicated that he had come to bring good news to the poor.  Instead of the soup kitchen, this money went toward things to be torn down in a month, and they don’t even confer the nobility that the buyers hoped they would to onlookers.  They remind me of the homeless, the hungry, and the underserved in our country and how utterly contemptible the attitudes of Donna Moss and her clients are to these honest people.

There is an old Latin maxim:  “De gustibus, non est disputandum” which means, “There is no disputing matters of taste.”  However, in Christmas decorations, it occurs to me one might say, “De gustibus, non est habenandum.”  The translation roughly would be, “There is no having good taste,” at least around here.  I want to embroider this sentiment in peacock colors on throw pillows and put these words on the sofas of all of  Donna’s clients.  I’ll tell them that the phrase comes from the Bible, and they won’t question this or look it up.

Again, this is not everyone’s Christmas taste down South.  Some people are tasteful and remember the poor.  I find that these two qualities tend to go together, too.  Tacky is as tacky does, it seems, down here.

Let’s remember the poor this season.  Let’s be grateful for things that cannot be made with a glue gun — friendships, relationships.  Peace on Earth, even in the gun-toting South.  Goodwill toward men, even toward women.  God rest ye, preferably in a tastefully appointed room, but God rest ye, wherever you are.

December 1, 2010

Searching for Kosher Chicken in Porkchop Country

One of my old neighbors in Brooklyn. Where would he shop around here?

Hospitality is a Southern tradition, but apparently only one that anticipates fellow Christian guests.  When Lylah, my fabulous feminist Muslim friend, came down to Mississippi to be my maid of honor last winter, I went looking for things to cook for her.

You see, Lylah practices Halal, the muslim dietary laws, outlawing pork but also outlawing certain forms of cruelty to animals in butchery.  Observers of Halal are free to eat not only things produced by Muslim butchers but also kosher ones, as the same butchering practices are observed in both Islamic and Jewish traditions.

Near my home in Vicksburg, there is a large Kroger supermarket.  It is stocked with numerous international foods.  I can get cornichons and wasabi there.  However, we went all over the store, to the fresh and frozen meat sections, and the only thing that Lylah could eat that was a dead land animal was found in a Hebrew National hot dog package.  I asked the manager of the store where he kept the Kosher products, certainly thinking that Halal was out of the question in the middle of the deep South but that Kosher products must certainly be available.  He asked me to repeat the question.  I did, and then he told me he had never heard of Kosher meat — what was it?

As a New Yorker, I had never once imagined that Kashrut would not be practiced by somebody in my community.  Here is a picture of a man from my old neighborhood, the Seagate section of Coney Island, standing near a plastic palm tree on the beach.  Brooklyn is a thriving and diverse place, but Jews are particularly numerous in the population.

When I visited Israel, I ended up touring the various sites with a British photographer.  People would stop us and ask us where we were from.  When he said he was from the UK, they nodded politely, but when I said I was from Brooklyn, over and over again, the response was, “Brooklyn!  Maybe you know my cousin!”  Truthfully, maybe I did.  Maybe, even if I didn’t know the individual’s Jewish cousin, I had ridden the same trains, eaten in the same restaurants, bought meat at the same counters. Kosher meat is clean meat.  I often bought Kosher chickens because they are less bloody.

Jews are part of the fabric of New York to the point where the mainstream culture gets a lot of its slang from Yiddish — plotz, schmuck, schlep, kibbutz, shmear, and schmooze are all words used by people from every ethnicity in town.  When I use those words here, I have a fifty-fifty chance of being understood.  Antisemitism, while it exists to some small degree in New York City, is a form of anti-New York self-loathing.  If a New Yorker happens to say he hates Jews, whether he is Jewish or not, he is really saying he hates himself and his whole community, because the town includes most distinctly all that is wonderful about Jewish culture and tradition — a profound commitment to commonweal and social justice for the poor, a raucous sense of humor that defies every hardship, a respect for learning as something sacred and inviolate, a complex system of negotiating shared space between diverse peoples who get along for the most part without any violence, a profound sense of busy and vivacious commerce that is supple and willing to negotiate to fit the needs of the customer — all these New York things are also first and foremost Jewish things, and anybody who doesn’t think so has simply not done his homework.  Likewise, New York foods are often Kosher foods — I spent months when I first arrived here salivating at the memory of a chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli, of their Kasha Varnishkes, of their soul-affirming chicken soup.

When Lylah first arrived here, I honestly thought it would be no problem to find her some meat, especially since I knew that Vicksburg had a history of having a certain number of Jewish residents.  One of the grandest buildings in town where one can host a wedding used to belong to the local B’nai B’rith.  One day, when we were driving through a town that is absolutely lovely and not far from where we live, I saw a synagogue of messianic Jews.  I heard that there was another one in town as well.  I have only recently discovered that these are supersessionist Zionist Christians, most of them people of African-American descent who have converted to a false Judaism layered with an odd, legalistic Christianity.

The Jews have mostly left Vicksburg.  They were there largely before the Civil War, back when Mississippi had more millionaires in it than New York did, and while there is no evidence to suggest that the Jews of Vicksburg numbered among those richest people of the nation, they were often engaged in an international commerce of cotton, one where Vicksburg was a hub.  However, today there are few Jews in town.  Most have moved elsewhere.  To the best of my ability to see it, I find no particular incidents of antisemitic discrimination drove them away, only the same forces of commerce that compelled lots of people to leave the South in the early part of the twentieth century.

That said, the Jews are missing.  Lylah is coming to spend Christmas with us.  I need a Kosher butcher.  According to Superpages.com, there is not one Kosher butcher listed within hundreds of miles from my town.  The Jews are missing.

This makes me sad.  It explains the total lack of Kafkaesque irony in humor around here.  It explains the total lack of haggling.  It explains the work ethic, which is, let us say, moderated by a sense that if one moves too fast one might bust a button of one’s work shirt.  No one would ever say, as one hears fairly frequently in New York in business, “You pay me enough, I’ll finish the job yesterday.”  This is a New York sentiment, one entirely compatible with Jewish business practices.  The Jews are missing, and commerce runs, to borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara, “as slow as molasses in January.”  The Jews are missing, which means that any notion of commonweal is subsumed under what Republicans tout as Christian  family values — one that forgets the Bible’s admonition to care for the stranger in the land, something, according to my reading of the Bible, a nation does at its own peril, for God judges the nations, per my reading of all the prophets, according to the way it treats widows, orphans, strangers, and whoever else is vulnerable.  I am very sorry the Jews left Vicksburg, whatever it was that took them away.

When Lylah comes, I’ll have Kosher meat flown in from Long Island — Kosher.com has a site that will FedEx me some good chicken, lamb sausages, and beef good for stewing.  Then, she’ll go back, and ham will again be on my table.  When I want a certain kind of ironic humor, I’ll watch The Daily Show.  When I want things done more quickly, I’ll have to take a breath and remember that a New York minute is something I left above the Mason-Dixon Line.  When I want justice redolent with mercy, I’ll pray.  I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, just as the Bible instructs us to do — all of us, Jew and gentile alike.  I pray for peace.  Lots of families around here have young people in the military sent overseas to Afghanistan.  I pray for peace.  As for any complex negotiation with other peoples of shared space — not a problem in a black-or-white-divided community where people stick to themselves.  No space needs sharing — we all have room.  My husband and I integrate an otherwise black church.  I pray for peace.  I miss the Jews.

January 1, 2010

Christmas at the Casino

I spent Christmas in the casinos of Vicksburg.  I would have rather spent it ministering to the inmates on  death row. They would have been cheerier.

The last place I would have chosen to remember my Lord’s birth would have been at the slot machines, among those who are too soulless to imagine donating their gambling losses in advance to the poor and too disinherited to spend their holidays at home with loved ones. I went to the casinos during my waking hours, and at night, I wept and dreamt of nuclear apocalypse.

Here’s how it happened:  My future mother in-law asked my future husband if she could spend Christmas with us.  Understand I knew my stuff would be in boxes, having just moved from New York, but how could I possibly say no?  My future husband, oblivious, really, to the implications, dutifully told his mother that she could come but that we could not possibly provide her with Christmas dinner. That was absolutely no problem as far as she was concerned;  she is the absolute Grinch, anyway.

What this woman likes to do is gamble.  Then, she likes to  gamble.  Finally, she likes to gamble.  When my fiancé was little, they never had warm, fuzzy Christmases. His parents were effectively atheists, and they didn’t have a Frank Capra moment within them.

Vicksburg, my new home, has several casinos.  Mississippi law permits “gaming,” – not called gambling, although the stakes are the same – on riverboats and on the banks of the Mississippi.  They  serve food that is generally better than  the fare at the local restaurants for not too much money, and while nothing like Vegas,  they have the occasional has-been guest entertainer —  Jewel recently played here, as did REO Speedwagon.

So I was powerless to change the course of events, unless I was prepared to move back to New York City – after all, I could not produce so much as a glass of water out of my boxed-stuffed kitchen,  much less a meal, and forget about a tree or even a sprig of mistletoe.  My future mother in-law wanted to gamble.  My fiancé tends to appease his mother on all counts.  I think he would not contradict her if she told him that the name of the capitol of Mississippi – Jackson –was named for Michael Jackson, not Andrew Jackson.  He just doesn’t bother – she never listens to him.  She is not inclined to listen to anyone, I found, and she does not so much engage in conversation as blurt out various non-sequitur opinions the way a  six year-old does, only she’s too old for anyone to correct her with a, “Sweetheart, the group is talking about something else right now.”  She is not doddering – she has merely always had her way in this manner.  Hence, when she was not at the penny slots, I was regaled by a series of trite observations from the stream of consciousness of an undeveloped mind.

I would speak differently about her if I thought she had loved my fiancé even a little bit.  I asked her to tell me everything she could remember about his childhood, and she could not come up with a single cute story.  She remembered times he broke the rules and times he was injured – I swear Hitler’s mother surely could have come up with a cute story about little Adolf and his watercolor kit and his funny way of marching around the living room – but no, she had no such memory.  We spoke to her about her grandchildren, and she seemed largely disinterested –she hasn’t seen them in years, not for lack of opportunity, and is in no hurry to visit them.  I might also write differently about her here if she seemed even vaguely inclined to read this blog,  but she thinks the Internet, she told me, is for fools, and why would she care what I have to say when she  doesn’t even care about her eldest son?

I intend to make up for many loveless years in my fiancé’s life.

Anyway, I stared at the sad, empty faces at the casino – men who looked like they were lost; old women grimly hitting the same button over and over again like pigeons in some Skinnerian experiment.

My fiancé clams up around his mom. Hence, I was largely alone in this place.

The best conversation I had over Christmas was with a drunk girl at the buffet.  She was tall, like me, and she told me I reminded her of her sister – I could tell she missed her sister right then.  She was half passing out when her boyfriend, or whoever he was, came up to take her to her seat.  He was half her size.

“Weren’t you taller last night?” She slurred in a Mississippi drawl.

If he felt insulted, he didn’t show it.

“Oh, I remember,” she sighed, “You were standing on top of your money.”

I assured my future mother in-law that at the wedding next week, we will give her a nice corsage.  She didn’t attend my fiancé’s first wedding, not because of any objection to the woman he was marrying, but rather a general lack of motivation to go, but I don’t think she cares about the corsage.  I apologized for not cooking her Christmas dinner, but she didn’t seem to mind that, either.  She seemed distracted, perhaps thinking about getting back to the machines.

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