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

February 16, 2016

The Genesis of Elvis: What Origins Tell Us About Where We Go

I taught a student at the University of Mississippi who is a cousin of Elvis Presley.  As Ole Miss is less than an hour’s drive away from Tupelo, where the Presley family has long lived, this was not so surprising, really, but as a Carpet Bagger, I was charmed by the

Elvis birthplace 2

Elvis was born in this shack during the Great Depression

implications of my encounter with Elvis’ DNA, still responsive — not an Elvis sighting but a confirmed Presley sighting, surely.  This Presley was blond, almost exactly the King’s height and body shape, and he had piercing blue Presley eyes. As he took his final exam in my modern American Literature section, I silently tried to will him to burst into a chorus of “Hound Dog,” but to no avail.  If he had for some odd reason fallen prey to rock n’ roll hypnosis, it would have been the second-most rock-fantasy-fulfilling thing that ever happened to me, second only to the time I danced onstage in Paris for a half hour in a go-go cage with another band leader named Elvis, this one with the last name Costello.  But Elvis of Tupelo’s cousin did not once seem all shook up.  His hands might have been twitching and his knees weak, but that wasn’t because of love or music.  He might have been concentrating on the essay question of the exam. So despite wishing fervently for this young man to jump up on his desk and start throwing scarves off his neck into a screaming female crowd, instead I realized that we could not go on together with suspicious minds, and I gave him his semester grade and said adieu.  He wasn’t Elvis, and no amount of hoping could make him so.

elvis birthplace 1

Seventeen dollars gets you what they call the birthplace experience.

As it turns out, I found myself at a car dealership last week in Tupelo, getting my tires rotated, and I realized I really ought to go visit the birthplace of the American icon.The museum isn’t like the Met, where one donates as one chooses, and then one sees masterpieces. They wanted seventeen bucks to tour a diorama room, the two-room shack in which he was born, the relocated and renovated Assemblies of God church building in which Elvis first sang hymns, another chapel built for those who wish to marry in — let’s admit it — a more authentically Elvine Elvis Chapel than the one they have in Las Vegas — and to watch some films.  They had life-sized cardboard cutout Elvis dolls, they had a multimedia presentation of Elvis’ church services which were almost exactly like the church services I regularly attend, only people dress like it’s the twenty-first century and there are microphones, and they had a film  to let me know what any listener knows — that Elvis was influenced by both African-American blues traditions and Country music.

But the epicenter of the museum was the humble house where Mrs. Presley gave birth to a

Elvis birthplace 3

Elvis emerged here.

boy.  There was neither electricity nor plumbing.  Elvis’ father was not a financial success, even by the standards of the Great Depression, and they soon  lost the home and had to move elsewhere.  Looking at the metal bed in which Elvis crowned, I was somehow reminded of my trip years ago to Bethlehem, where I saw the birthplace of Jesus, which monks who had never witnessed an actual birth marked with something that looked like a large gilded dinner plate on the floor. And I realized then that the Elvis  I was seeking in this poorly ventilated shack was no more discernible than the golden Middle Eastern floor platter made Jesus appear in the flesh before worshippers there , alas for the worshippers like me of the King of Kings like Elvis and like me.

After all, what had I come to see? Down the road, there were somewhat updated versions of the same two-room shack’s architectural design, surely home to people of the same class as the Presleys during the 1930s. Today, they have plumbing, electricity, and aluminum siding. Is there rock greatness in those shacks?  At least they contain the living, not the dead. The Elvis I sought in his cousin and in his kitchen is dead — and yet, I say long live the King. The King is gone. And yet he is everywhere. All Americans are heirs to Elvis countrythe kingdom of Elvis — the bad fashion sense, the fatty foods, and yes, the rhythm, if we let our insides shake like a leaf on a tree, as he sang to us. Elvis might have lived in a shack, but he became as prosperous and as lost as any American can. He is the style without the substance, the default position of portions of American life, the gender performance, the hazy-eyed side-burned hunka-hunk of us burning.  We burn like Elvis burns.  There are sightings to this day. Elvis is not a saint but a relic, touch the reliquary, and what a chill I got — we are all shook up.  We are shaken.  We are seeking out a dream of ourselves, of who we have meant to be or who we have accidentally become. The genesis of Elvis, his birthplace, is like the rock at Plymouth, Massachusetts — we visit it to find America but find ourselves instead. The King is dead.  Long live the King.  Don’t look in the platter, look in the mirror for the next Elvis sighting.  If you were born here, right here on this platter, on this gold  record, then you are an American.

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October 5, 2015

Down Home Homes — The Flamboyant Cowboy Vernacular of Chip and Joanna Gaines

Why do we go home?  I mean, why do we bother?  In New York City, given the price of an apartment, most of us live in confined spaces with the purpose of being able to fall out of bed and hit the clubs, the trendiest restaurants, and most importantly work.  We live in New York to work.  Home is an afterthought ,a place one arrives late at night and which one leaves early in the morning.  Life is at the gym.  Life is in the office.  Life is at the amazing cultural event where we saw the cultural icon and actually said hello to her, and she nodded in a vague recognition — yes, she nodded at us!  Home is a closet with a bed that pulls out.  It is a refrigerator more for wine than for food.  It is a window that shows a brick wall in front of it but which lets the light in.  If we are wealthy enough to own a space in New York where others might be invited for a gathering, the chief purpose of the space is to impress others, not to be a great comfort.

The rest of America, particularly the South, understands home quite differently.  When Southerners go home, they go to a place that comforts.  Home is a place where food falls off the fork into the mouth of the laughing family.  Home is a place where the couch gives a hug to the potato. Home embodies a set of values that work could not contain, however worthy that work is.  Home is the place in the South where facades come down, where real conversations happen, where some powerful truth is lived.  It is not a hangar for a plane itching to take off and away.  The adventure of life happens in the Southern home, not outside of it.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

Into this philosophy we see inserted the design discourse of Chip and Joanna Gaines, renovators and decorators unapologetically from Waco, Texas, not New York.  They have restored a lovely farm for their growing family in a style that embraces the American ranch house traditions of Texas, the celebration of cowboy and Rodeo, of football elevated to sacrament, of Lone Star and encouraging scripture rendered into logo as well as sentiment.  They understand the black light velvet posters of Elvis and Jesus that somebody’s granddaddy put above his work bench out back.  They understand the room turned into a shrine for a team.  They understand Indian rugs, bull heads on walls, wagon wheels, and saddles as art pieces.  That said — they reject all that is tacky in the aforementioned design choices.  They understand that all those choices, while idiosyncratically Texan, rendered the home-owners provincial and narrow-minded.  They reject the stereotypes of architectural Texan sprawl and interior design that looks like the owners of the home are insular hicks.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

Instead they remove popcorn from the ceilings in Waco.  They expose brick and original beams.  They do the thing that Willie Nelson famously sang in an anti-litter campaign long ago — they treat Texas like someone they love, all the houses in Texas that they touch like a place of love. Instead of being a cautionary tale of tastelessness — remember that Willie Nelson warned mommas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys — they transform people’s homes into welcome embraces of Texan personality without any of the Texan stereotypes.   Instead of bull heads mounted on walls, we see antlers transformed into chandeliers.  Instead of a wagon wheel coffee table, we see a kitchen that uses a vintage tin sign over a farmhouse sink.  Everything is big in Texas, and the Gaines keep it that way — all the sofas are ample, the chairs wide-armed and overstuffed, and yet the rooms feel airy and uncrowded because in their Texas, less is more. ranch-house long tables become family dining room statements under farm lamps.

elegance without pretense

elegance without pretense

This decor is not ostentatious in the way that a New York townhouse can be ostentatious, and neither is it a Bauhaus-inflected austerity, as a penthouse may be in the City.  Rather, the Gaines’ welcome us home at the end of every episode of their HGTV Show Fixer Upper, and the design has the aspiration of a New South that keeps the comfortable but eliminates the ignorant, that keeps the hay but makes nobody a hayseed.   When they fix up, they repair our broken American dreams.  They somehow eliminate bigotry along with rotting floorboards (the Gaines’ are a mixed-race couple with a non-sexist-yet-traditional marriage partnership).  They make home a place a modern person can go to without being painted into a corner.

They are why I like living in the South, why apartment life, though exciting, can not easily tempt me back again, and why I want to curl up with a good book on a large couch and pet the cat while I look out into a warm space filled with light. Let us aspire as their design aspires, to be chic without pretense. May we all be so fixed up and so rehabilitated as the old ranch houses they gut and remodel.

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

October 19, 2010

Roy Herron for Congress — Tennessee’s 6th district — as a litmus test for my adjustment here.

In today’s New York Times, a marvelous story about Southern Democrats quotes Roy Herron, who says in order to win, he has to convince voters here he’s a  “truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, Gospel-preaching, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy.”

He poses on his campaign website with his mother in a photo that could be the inspiration for a Country Western ballad.  Loving your Momma and treating her right is more important down here — even if she’s (and I’m sure that Mrs. Herron is a lovely lady) an old battle axe.

The candidate and his Momma

Roy Herron served in the Tennessee State Legislature and State Senate for some years.  He is the author of three (I’m guessing self-published) books, including one called God and Politics.  Yet he is fighting an uphill battle in his district to convince people that he participates in the following activities — let me list them down here once more:

  • Truck Driving
  • Shotgun shooting
  • Bible Reading
  • Gospel Preaching
  • Crime Fighting
  • Family Loving

These sound not only like a list of things that people in the Sixth district of Tennessee might want in a candidate but a pretty good litmus test for Southernness in general, at least for a man.  Allow me to add a few more items:

  • Grits Eating
  • Elvis Adoring
  • “Y’all” yowling
  • Whiskey swilling
  • Football flinging
  • Yell whooping
  • Denim sporting
  • Hound-dog hoarding
  • Knee slapping
  • Neck reddening

I would like to propose the list above — Mr. Herron’s and my own — as a Southern Democrat’s litmus test.  I would like to go over it one item at a time to see how I’m doing at adjusting to living down here.

  • Truck Driving — As a woman, truck driving is optional.  Trucks are to manhood in the South what the Red Porche is to midlife Manhood in the North and the West Coast.  Hence, I’m going to substitute “pie baking,” a very traditional Southern women’s activity.  I have baked so many more pies down here than I ever did up North.  I give myself an “A” for that one.
  • Shotgun Shooting — Men and women both do this.  I am so willing to learn how to do this.  My future son in-law has promised to take me out to a place where I can fire off a few rounds, but this promise has yet to be fulfilled.  I give  myself a “D-” since I have not done it, but I get a couple of points for willingness.
  • Bible Reading — I read the Bible.  I even teach it in the context of courses at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.  I get an “A.”
  • Gospel Preaching — I have not, I admit done a lot of this, so here goes:  Everyone within earshot, know that Jesus loves you and died for your sins.   Accept him into your hearts and spend eternity in Heaven and the here and now in a transformational liberation from cynicism and bondage to sin.  There — okay, that’s a “C” effort.
  • Crime Fighting — I wonder what image Mr. Herron is trying to evoke here.  Is he the Sheriff at the OK Corral?  I have done none of this, but perhaps my ladylike womanhood allows me to substitute another activity — say, Home Decorating — my total  home makeover  in Vicksburg earns me an “A.”
  • Family Loving — Southerners, as I mentioned before, seem to love their families without questioning the dysfunction within them.  Bourbon substitutes for Freud.  I’m a New Yorker.  Years of needed therapy after dysfunction would give me an “F,” but loving my husband and my two step-daughters would give me an “A,” so I’ll average that out to a “C.”
  • Grits Eating — I aced this!  “A.”
  • Elvis Adoring — Although I really like Elvis, I have been getting a PhD approximately 75 miles from Graceland and have yet to visit.  I think I’ve got a “C-.”
  • “Y’all” Yowling — I am in remedial classes for this criterion.  I have graduated from “You guys” to “You all,” but “Y’all” remains out of reach and “All y’all” is a distant Willie-Nelson-Soundtrack dream. “F.”
  • Whiskey Swilling — Hello!  My Irish-American ancestry prepared me to excel in this area. I get an “A,” with a Summa Cum mention for Sour Mash Tennessee No. 7: I am eligible for the Jack Daniels dean’s list.
  • Football Flinging — This is a manly attribute, although women can participate.  I will substitute for “Football Player Tutoring,” which I have done — think Cathy Bates’ role in The Blind Side.  I’ve done that and am doing that. I get an “A” for this.
  • Yell Whooping — There’s a Rebel Yell and a Lady Rebel Yell.  I have just learned the Hotty Toddy Ole Miss Rebel Cheer.  I get a “B-” here.
  • Denim Sporting — Because of mud and dog slobber, jeans are a more practical choice in Mississippi in my wardrobe than black pants of non-denim material.  I get a “B+” here.
  • Hound-dog Hoarding — I now have a hound dog — a yellow lab named “Baby” by my Step-daughter.  I have a Daschund named Oscar.  Do two dogs constitute a hoard?  Just barely.  I get a “B-.”
  • Knee Slapping — I am indeed an afficionado of Southern humor.  However, I lose 200 points for using the word “afficionado.”  Hence, I get a “C+.”
  • Neck Reddening — Having fair skin and no sense at all when it comes to when I’ll be spending any time outside, I am actually, much to my horror, watching my neck turn red.  If I were looking in the mirror, I would have a red ring beneath my head from time spent at a Bill Clinton rally and a trip to the Mississippi State Fair.  I get an “A+” for this one, alas.

So what then are my mid-term grades for Southernness?  Add to the mix of  the above that I did some extra credit — I wrote a piece that got picked up on Y’all Politics and there’s a website for the book The Cracker Queen that has a link to this blog.  Combining these two, I give myself another “A,” and averaging it all out, my mid-term grade for Southernnness is: C+

I’m still a Yankee, but not a “Damn” Yankee anymore.

As for Mr. Herron in his Mid-term elections, I wish him every success on the first Tuesday in November.  He loves his Momma, and I’m just betting that lady will be voting for him.  Honestly, how many other people really might live in the Sixth district, anyway?  If he can get his cousins on board, I bet he has a real shot at Congress.

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