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

August 22, 2010

Pledging the Southern Sorority of Sassy Omega

The founding mothers of Sassy Omega the week they invented the air kiss

Sisterhood  is powerful — unless it is accompanied by back-stabbing rivalry and hazing.  I am learning, having lived down South for some months now, that sororities have an enduring influence — often discouraging free thought and encouraging with every turn more and more group think.

Perhaps living in a house with other young women, wearing the  same haircut, attending numerous mixers with group-think boys in order to “snag” one, and engaging in the occasional community service as a substitute for real political engagement sounds more appealing than the bohemian and often solitary intellectual and artistic pursuits in which I have engaged ever since I saw the B-52s perform on Saturday Night Live and started dressing (back then, not now) New Wave and spiking my hair up (again, now I wear my hair unspiked).  I was never cut out for sorority life of any kind, at least until now.

One of the advantages of sorority life is an instant and institutionalized circle of friends.  I am a stranger here, and I find myself alone too much of  the time.  When I have managed to snag an invitation somewhere, I feel like a pledge about to be blackballed.  My haircut is just not standard issue, and neither  is the worldview under it.  I have been thusfar utterly NOKD — Not our kind, dear.

This all changed when I went to the Mississippi Writers Guild conference and met my Dixie Doppelganger — Lauretta Hannon. There I met a sister of a sorority I would LOVE to join  — the  one that has been occupied by women like Politico  Molly Ivins, Comedienne Brett Butler, and the shockingly frank and original girl gone wild Rosemary Daniell — that of incredibly funny and iconoclastic Southern women.  Let me call them the Ha-Ha sisterhood.  No, because it’s a  form of political subversion, not just empty laughter, the sharp collection of words these women have written, let me call them the Southern sorority of Sassy Omega.

We Northerners, Lauretta discussed in brief during her lecture at the conference, have the misconception that women down here are either manipulative and archly feminine a la Scarlett O’Hara or Super-cheerleader Republican Femmebots.  In fact, there is another breed of woman down here who dances between the expectations of ladylike behavior and subversive liberation.  They are funny in ways that men down here find a bit intimidating, unless they themselves are really, really cool.  They are sexually and politically demanding.  They are  not generally mean.  They are, however, stubborn.

The Southern sorority of Sassy Omega would appreciate my manicure and bodacious blondeur.  However, they would love it more that I’m funny and naughty and smart.  I  am pledging this Sorority.  I am willing to be hazed if necessary.  Please, oh sisters, please, invite me to the next tea dance!

Lauretta is about my age, spent time in Europe, as I did, and she, too, coped with her family’s dysfunction with bad 1980s  hair dos.  Later, like I did, she became a writer, publishing and promoting the bejeezus out of an autobiographical  book of humor and pathos entitled The Cracker Queen.  Lauretta is wickedly funny — called by one magazine “the funniest woman in Georgia.”  While I’m beginning to believe  that being the funniest woman in Georgia, given the general lack of irony present at most Greek Life functions, may be easier than being the funniest woman in Brooklyn, where unladylike funniness is generally encouraged, I nonetheless see this as quite an accomplishment.

Here’s a photo or two of  her from back then, and I think she looks marvelous.

Lauretta Hannon, a.k.a. The Cracker Queen, before she was ever a biscuit.

Okay, the hair is NOT spiky, but today, she has short, stylishly feathered hair that COULD be spiked, and today, my hair looks enough like her hair in Amsterdam, that — well — it sort of fits the matching haircut paradigm for sorority conformity, despite the time warp.

What is definitely in conformity is the sense of humor.  She is,  as some would say up North, a pissah.  She’s not a little bit funny — she’s hugely so.  She made me laugh so hard I almost fell off my chair.  I apparently have made her laugh, too.

I tried to scan in my photo just now of my bad hair days from Paris, not spiky so much as bright red and frizzy, with my white leather bomber jacket and my absurd combat boots, but my scanner is not cooperating.  Just take it from me — I am also stocked up on silly photos from the same continent and era.

Lauretta looks like this now:

Lauretta recounting a drole episode with all her Sassy Omega charm

If she looks hilarious, well, she is.  She tells her stories about her completely redneck and utterly provincial childhood in small-town Georgia in such a way that she makes the poignant absolutely side-splititngly comic.

Her stories, in the oral tradition of the Southern tall tale, are at least as much about the spoken word as about the page, but that said, run, don’t walk to your local independent bookseller and buy at least twelve copies of  The Cracker Queen (2010, Gotham).  Make my sorority sister rich so she’ll let me wear identical dresses with her at the cotillion — and then we can take our husbands, doubtless both brothers from the fraternity of Messy Mu Delta, out on the dance floor and give each other the thumbs-up and the okay sign over their shoulders during the foxtrot.

Lauretta and I laughed a lot at the conference at each other’s comments, and she impressed me to no end when she told me  she  was having lunch at a snooty tea salon with Rosemary Daniell before the end of the month, that they intended to “defile the temple” of Southern smug womanhood that this institution constituted with its cucumber sandwiches and sweet tea.

I have asked her for absurdly precise details about the lunch.  She has, much to my great honor, promised to include me in the conversation — at this point, possibly given this blog entry, preceded by the comment, “I have this odd Yankee stalking me,” but I’m hopeful they may just let me decorate the float with them this year for homecoming.  I can crumple tissue paper with the best of them.

I am pledging.  I am baking cookies.  I am hoping they will let me clean their peau de soie heels with my toothbrush, then give me a Sassy Omega pin in a ceremony involving a rubber chicken and some Jack Daniels.

I am ready, girls.  I am desperately ready.

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August 3, 2010

Wine without the Snooty

drink the very best -- but expect no social distinction from the Schlitz crowd

This Mississippi heat will slap the snooty right off your face.  I could have steamed broccoli outside yesterday.  Even the habitues have rushed indoors where it’s cool.  Some of them grabbed a beer.  Others of them decanted a glass of fine wine, but the bouquet did not waft upwards with a snooty inflection.

In fact, Mississippi seems to be in the snooty-slapping-off-your-face business, especially when it comes to things that New Yorkers do with an air of smugness.

Wine is my example.  The best wine dealer near Vicksburg, Mississippi is across the Louisiana State line.  They carry the finest and best French wines, the most palatable Italian bottles, the trendiest Australian and Californian wines out there, truly, but don’t expect them to make you feel like a connoisseur as you sip.  Let me tell you about this store — Delta Discount Wines & Spirits.

You see, in 2007, Big Al and Little Al Kitchens, who had owned a small grocery in nearby Bovina, decided to open  up a fine wine store, so they did the locally logical thing — they crossed to Louisiana, where the laws regarding many things — pornography, lottery, and alcohol, to name a few — were less Baptist than Catholic, and they bought the convenience store at a highway Chevron station.  Here it is:

The only place for miles and miles to get the just-shipped Beaujolais Nouveau

They hired a guy who knew something about wine, but who Big Al and Little Al could relate to — you know, a good ol’ boy who looked like  a trucker more than a sommelier.  That would be K. Chris Barkley, a fabulous (by New York snooty standards as well as good ol’ boy standards) Director of Wine & Spirits.  He was the kind of guy who could tell whether the Shiraz  had had a good year or a bad one without making the guy in overalls who got off his tractor to buy lottery tickets feel funny.

They let Chris (or K. Chris?  Like K. Fed?) make the choices — he purchases what the market will bear, but he pushes the envelope, too.

At a recent social function where Chris was promoting the store, he told me that he thought the palate of Southerners was sweeter in general than Northerners, but it is clear from the wine he stocks and decants that he is an educated man in his profession.  He understands the best marriages between various wines and various foods, and he has probably read every page of Wine Spectator for years.

He has started a mailing list for Big Al and Little Al that he has called The Blue Jean Wine Society.  I joined it.

Big and Little Al Kitchens own the best darn wine shop in the Delta.

He seems to sell plenty of the good stuff, too, but the store website says, “Delta Discount is truly a one stop shop offering Louisiana Lottery tickets, gas, diesel, ice, groceries, Subway sandwiches, beer, wine, and spirits!”

This is the way that things happen down here, I am learning.  You can have your fine wine, but you can’t have your snooty, not even snooty on the side, not even a snooty chaser.

In New York, fine wine is snooty because so much is snooty.  The velvet rope makes the dive bar appear like a phenomenon, not a roach motel.  New Yorkers not only like what they like, they like to have what other people want but can’t have.  I was pleased, I remember, when I had floor seats for Ricky Martin at the Garden at the height of his fame, not because I loved Ricky Martin, but because I had better seats than Donald Trump and Barbara Walters that night, and I had gotten them for free.  That is a New York state of mind.

In the South, that would be rude.  Competition is veiled.  Sharing is neighborly.  Hospitality is more important than snob appeal.  Why would one want to alienate a guest who did not appreciate an oaky white wine from Sancerre with a smirk at his glass of Jim Beam?

In fact, Delta Discount is currently offering its Jim Beam drinkers a special — purchasers receive a concert download of Kid Rock songs with every bottle.

It’s odd, in fact, that New Yorkers find fine wine snooty.  I visited a winery — not one with group tours, but a working private winery in France — with my friend Jean Levielle years ago.  New Yorkers have forgotten, perhaps, that wine growers are farmers.  I met the owner, who was very gracious, but he was covered with grape stains and dirt clods.  People down here, in this agricultural country, they, too, get covered with juice and mud.

I find it oddly disorienting, nonetheless, to recognize that I can drink whatever  I want around here, but I won’t impress anyone.  Some people in New York used to find it a bit surprising that I drank Jack Daniels — not a very ladylike or pretentious drink at all — as well as Kirs Royales.  I have always liked plebeian as well as patrician libations.   I’ll take a glass of chilled Gewurztraminer with my chicken tonight, in this steamy heat, and nobody will care one way or the other.

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