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

April 10, 2011

Southern Motherhood, and why you’re glad your momma lives up North

In Union, South Carolina in 1994, a young woman — white, church-going, apparently loving mother reported to police and  the world, that her two adorable boys had been car-jacked by a black man.  She tearfully plead in front of cameras for this black man to release her children.  Finally, after long, tense days of  interrogation, she finally admitted to having killed these  kids, driving them unimaginably into a lake and letting them drown in the back seat of  the car.  She might have gotten away with it, too, because she fit the model of a perfect Southern lady mother — neither too educated nor too little educated, dress-wearing, Bible-quoting, knickknack collecting, and outwardly demure.

Susan Smith -- murderess and somehow typical Southern Mother

I submit to you that Southern motherhood is both powerful and dysfunctional — sometimes demure, sometimes outspoken, but always given great license even when no one should give it any.  Southern women may not all be feminists, but the culture has carved  out a significant power, however martyred, to the cult of Southern motherhood.  I submit that power over small children is no substitute for power over one’s adult self, one’s emotional life, one’s economic destiny, and that some women I’ve seen or heard of down South wield this power like a sledge hammer  — the problem is that the only thing that sledge hammer can really hit is the heads of  their children, bashing  out brains.

I am not providing statistics here, only anecdotes.  However, I do have some tales to tell of Southern motherhood gone  horribly wrong.  No names are offered, so if the picture isn’t yours, make no assumptions that it might not be your next-door neighbor:

1)  I know of  one mother who had a beautiful teenage daughter.  This girl was not astonishingly intelligent, but she had good enough looks to almost, not quite, be a model.  In high school, her mother had no particular ambitions for this  girl.  They lived in a trailer park near the Gulf of Mexico.  The mother  had a job at Wal-Mart — one of  those low-paying jobs that Wal-Mart is trying to  fight getting sued for, even though the store most certainly did practice a pattern of wage discrimination against women.  She was busy a lot.   They talked about Jesus but never read the Bible, never went to church for more  than a special occasion.  This girl was enrolled in school, but the mother never cared much what grade the daughter  got.

As she grew older, she became prettier — too pretty for her own good.  The mother was too busy to care much about the parade of boyfriends, paid no attention to  drug and alcohol use,  turned the other  way when the girl was out late, never asked questions, never talked about AIDS or birth control, never gave her standards by which to evaluate the quality of any boyfriend or boyfriends, just let the daughter careen brakeless down a steep hill.

This girl moved in with a man — what a Christian who was dedicated to traditional church teachings would call living in sin.  The mother raised no objection, even though the man was much older and was without visible means of support — an unlicensed electrician.  Three months later, the daughter was pregnant, and  this man tossed her out on her ear.

She turned  to her mother for help.  The mother suddenly chose this moment to raise a traditional Christian-sounding sentiment.  She told this eighteen year-old girl that abortion was murder, that it was against their religion.  Note that she had never once told  her that it was against the Bible to sleep with a man out of wedlock, to do drugs, to do any of the other  bad  things that she had ever done in her whole short life.  So  given  what her mother said, this girl carried the baby to term and kept it.  Had she remained unpregnant might have ended up, given her looks, despite her education, the receptionist at a well-heeled business in a town like Baton Rouge,  which while not a perfect life was far better than what she already knew in the trailer park in the small, dirty town.

However, because the mother, the Southern Mother, said so, this daughter had a baby with a man who is bad news, she lives in the trailer with her mother, who sometimes helps with the baby, but no better than she helped the mother of her grandchild, the daughter-newly-made-mother works two thankless jobs, one of them at the oppressor of women Wal-Mart, and she has no ambitions.  Her youth is effectively gone.  Her looks  remain.  For how  long?  We don’t know.  The mother has contributed much to their destruction by indifference to consequences in all cases but one.

2) I know of another mother, again — this might be your next door neighbor.  She  has done what the mother did in Bastard Out of Carolina — she has chosen her abusive boyfriend over the daughter he abused.  She sided with him when the cops were called.  They made no arrest.  The girl is in a safe place now, but because her mother has made her  feel so guilty over  the years when it suited her  to put hooks  in  the child, she has the girl thinking  that if she moves back in,  if only the boyfriend dumps her, which he inevitably will, all will be well again.  What she doesn’t see clearly is that this is something that has happened before in her mother’s life — she abandoned her children for another man’s love.  She will find  someone to cling to again — I can’t bring myself to imagine this woman is capable of love — and this poor girl will be cast aside again.

Are there good mothers in the South?  Of course there are plenty.  Are there also bad mothers in the North?  Yes.  But the berth that is cut here down south seems to be a wide one.  Mothers are generally trusted.  Mothers are not always worthy of the trust.  People think of  the institution of  motherhood  as sacred, but it is only as sacred as the women who practice it.

I can’t help but think that Susan Smith and the two anonymous mothers I told  about here would have been capable of being better at mothering if they had first learned to harness and rudder their own personal power — psychological, spiritual, economic, and political.  In the South, motherhood is encouraged, celebrated in superficial ways that show superficial  respect.  It is often the only power that women think they have.

Motherhood is no substitute for self-direction.  Self-abnegation is inherently unreliable.  The unacknowledged self sometimes pops up in monstrous ways — three cases in point.

April 4, 2011

Rock n’ Roll or Miss n’ Sippi?

The Goo Goo Dolls gave a free concert in the Ole Miss Grove tonight

Question: How does an American in the 21st Century know he or she has hit midlife?

Answer: When responsible parents bring their kids to see a rock band they dig.

Tonight, the Goo Goo Dolls gave a free performance in the Grove at Ole Miss, and the crowd, at least for Mississippi, was packed.

What was surprising was how many families came with small children to hear the band.

I have surely lived long enough to have some rock n’ roll fantasies fulfilled.

I danced one night on stage in a go-go cage in Paris on stage with Elvis Costello and the Attractions.  I had a front row seat, was inches away from Alison Moyet when she sang at the Olympia.

I also have had a few awful rock ‘n roll experiences as well.  One night at La Courneuve in France I went to see David Bowie perform, and there were violent skin heads in the crowd who started swinging spiked knuckles into the crowd, terrifying most of us and starting a near stampede.  The movements of the crowd were so intense, they unbuttoned my blouse, not in a sexy way, and I nearly got trampled to death.  I remember after things calmed down being close to the stage, where Peter Frampton, still with good hair, was playing his guitar in Bowie’s band, and he was fantastic, but I was sobbing so hard I could not fully appreciate his masterful licks.  Later that dawn, my brother and I caught a ride back to Paris in a butcher’s truck making pre-dawn deliveries to restaurants.  I remember we were crowded in with lots of kids wearing the same black bomber jacket (I had one, too), and we were nearly overpowered by the smell of raw beef.

Rock n’ roll is kind of like pizza.  Even when it is bad, it’s still wonderful in its own junky way.

Tonight, though, was a first.  It was a major band playing a college gig, but there wasn’t one bomber jacket in the crowd, neither any black of which to speak.  There were a bunch of women with small children, diaper bags, dogs, hula hoops.

Maybe it’s midlife, or maybe it’s Mississippi.  Maybe this is, despite being the birthplace of Elvis, not really rock ‘n roll territory.

Me at the Grove earlier tonight. Am I losing my edginess?

I barely smelled any marijuana at this concert.  I remember the first rock concert I went to at age 12 — the smell was overpowering to the point I thought I would pass out.

There was not a mosh pit.  I was never much of a mosher, anyway — but I was all about the edgy message.

Maybe I was watching a band that the regents of the University of Mississippi were pretty sure would not trash the stage or knock up any co-eds.  After all, the lead vocalist of the Goo Goo Dolls pointed out that they have nine studio albums.

“That makes us old,” he said before he launched into tracks from the latest release.

I admit I did not dress in black, either.  I remember days when my girlfriends would dress sexy and get as close to the front of the stage as possible in the hope of attracting the attention of the band members.  I remember how gorgeous my friend Liz Coy was the day she went and saw the Rolling Stones when we were high school freshmen — long, naturally curly red hair, a low-cut halter top, and tight, tight jeans on her utterly perfect body.  I remember my friend Silver, who now goes by Sarah, so utterly perfect in her beauty that she was once photographed for Vogue, and she told me how she ended up giving Iggy Pop an onstage dirty handshake while the crowd looked on.

Me in the gogo cage — well, Elvis and I were on the most civil and platonic  terms. Diana Krall has nothing to worry about.

But there I was,  sitting on the grass at the Grove, no makeup, a t-shirt, and I was text-messaging my step-daughters, 16 and 20 years old, wishing they were with me.

Yes, it’s Mississippi, and no rock ‘n roll fantasies have taken place here since Elvis moved to Memphis.

But I seem to have moved on, too.  I’m happy with who I am, but I miss my go-go self, in no way evoked among the Goo Goo Dolls, who delivered their brand of blaring guitar sentimentality, urging us to let it just slide.  And so we did.  And so I must.

March 19, 2011

Health Care Is a Right in Mississippi — why the Affordable Care Act Matters Around Here

When I was an activist with ACT UP in New York, we would often chant, “Health care is a right!” while picketing government official‘s fundraisers who refused to help men and women dying of AIDS or even acknowledge them with a comment more civilized than “good riddance.”  The thought that health care might indeed be a government-acknowledged right, not just a universal necessity, was relatively new in American discourse.

However, a year ago this week, I watched the congressional roll call on CSPAN on the vote for The Affordable Care Act, sometimes called pejoratively Obamacare, as if “care” were somehow a dirty word, and I remembered my dozens of friends who died from AIDS in the 1980s, sweet, young  gay men who might have been by now honest bankers, elected officials, scientists on the way  to important discoveries, and tenured faculty members.  I cried imagining how different their lives would have been if only there had been such a bill in place for them when they were in crisis.

But this isn’t New York — this is Mississippi, where I live now.  ACT UP is a distant memory.  The people around here, not activists, not fabulous urban gay men in the big Northeastern Cities, but ordinary working folks with families — they are the ones who are being told by the new Republican congress that the Affordable Healthcare Act is unnecessary, an invasion of their privacy and a stripping of their freedoms.  Can this be so?

Not according to a Mississippian named Kelly, who was kind enough to show me a  photo of her lovely family and  to allow me to tell a bit of their story in relation to this wonderful piece of landmark legislation.  Let me share with you Kelly’s family photograph right here  — a shout out to the Jacobs family, who are — Chase, Graham, Paul, the one the folks lovingly call “Mamasita,” Jennifer, and  Kelly herself :

The Jacobs family needs the Affordable Care Act passed by congress last year -- don't we all?

This typical, American heartland, apple pie family has benefited, Kelly tells me, from the Affordable Care Act in the following ways:

  • First, Paul, the fifty-something guy in the beige hat and sun glasses wearing a pretty hip t-shirt for a guy his age — he works full-time and has insurance, but he suffers from Lupus, which if untreated might end his life.  The so-called Obamacare has made him able to stay active and working because he has not had the Lupus called a “pre-existing condition” by an insurance company, and as such, he can afford medication and doctor’s visits that might otherwise be out of reach.
  • The despised Obamacare has also allowed him to have the kind of humane security we all need — to know that if we ever need to or want to leave a job, we can take our insurance with us or find other insurance in a manner that we can afford, even if we have suffered in that job change a drop in income.  This goes for Jenny and Kelly, too, of course.
  • Mamista, the lady next to Paul who looks beamingly proud of her tribe, holding the family kitty cat, she is still covered under her Medicare benefits — despite the rumors to the contrary fueled by insurance company activists, who see this law as a loss in profits, nothing at all has been taken away from her, and she has the peace of mind of knowing that these people who are literally surrounding her in love, her support group through her golden years, won’t have to give up their own health to take care of her in years to come.
  • Chase and Graham, both college students at the top of the photo, looking young and rowdy — their momma doesn’t have to worry — they can be covered on her insurance because the Affordable Care Act makes it so they can stay on her insurance until they are 26 , whether or not they are in school.  That means that the Jacobs family, which is doubtless making significant sacrifices to have two sons in college right now — Kelly didn’t tell me this, but that’s surely only because people from down here in Mississippi are a whole lot less whiny than they are in Brooklyn where I used to whine — they can better afford to pay tuition and college-related expenses and don’t have to worry about Chase breaking his arm on the hockey team (honestly, I don’t know if Chase plays hockey) or Graham slipping on an icy stairwell and hurting his knee because GOD FORBID these things should happen, they can see a doctor and get treated as needed.
  • Jenny is able to know that she can work freelance if she wants to and still buy into a community pool insurance, a whole lot cheaper than trying to buy insurance as an individual in the pre-ACA days, where a woman of childbearing years might as well have tried to insure a luxury yacht moored in pirate-infested waters near Somalia as buy herself some regular, don’t-make-me-lose-my-home-and-car-if-I-need-an-MRI health insurance.

Many people on the Left were hoping for a single-payer plan in the mix  of Obamacare — I know I was.  Many people on the Right have not fully absorbed the idea that — chant it with me — health care is a right, health care is a right — but ALL of us benefit from a healthy America, one where people don’ t go to the emergency room with a stroke because they didn’t have insurance to afford, say, cholesterol drugs.  We were the only developed country on the planet that had no particular governmental plan to handle this universal need, and now we do.

It is an important part of our evolution as a nation that Americans can get treated for ailments without losing the family farm now, and we have the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress (like my rep, who is just fabulous, The Hon. Bennie Thompson, D-MS) to thank for it.

I remember my friends who died of AIDS fighting for an evolution in our thinking about healthcare with a particular wistfulness this week, but I am glad that the law that has come about does not just benefit an urban gay male population — rather it is for every one of us, whoever we are, whether we would have picketed as I did or not.

Chant it again, and call your Senators and remind them — health care is a right, health care is a right.

March 7, 2011

The White Trash Anchoress of Oxford

 

blessed are the deliverymen, for they shall see the anchoress

Behold the Anchoress of white trash hacking and wheezing.  Write a new beatitude — something like “blessed are the cough, for they shall see sneeze” — for me.  I am living a life set apart unto God, or at least a life set apart.

Last week, as part of the “Generations of Feminism” 30th anniversary of the Isom Center for Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi, I participated in a roundtable discussion about anchoresses in the Middle Ages.  Chiefly, but not exclusively, women with contemplative holy callings were walled up in ancillary chambers in churches for at least a time in the Medieval period in Northern Europe, with windows that generally only looked upon the Host, the wafers transubstantiated as the Body of Christ, with some small portals on other people.

A movie was made in the 1990s about one such anchoress, and we discussed it.  Never did I think that one week later, I would be living as an anchoress myself.  Rather than being like Christine Carpenter, Anchoress of Wisse, or Hildegarde Von Bingen or Francis of Assissi, who were both temporarily anchored thus, I am more of a secularized anchoress, holed up in my apartment bedroom near the campus of Ole Miss, with a tiny portal allowing me to see nothing so sacred as the mystical body of the Lord, but rather the bus taking students to and from class.

I am Anne Babson, white trash anchoress of phlegm.

In a hermit's cell with my anchor-hound-dog -- the white trash anchoress of Oxford

You see, the day we had the roundtable discussion, I got caught in a downpour, then sat for hours in too much air conditioning.  As a result, I caught a very, very bad cold.  Since Thursday night, I have been sealed in my room with boxes of tissue and delivered food.  The Bible says, “Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,” and I do say so, but I also say, “let the redeemed of the coupons give discounts, as I am not getting out today, either.”

I hate being sick, but I’ve been doing more than I should, and it was a virtual inevitability that I would start hacking and wheezing.

A room of one’s own is a necessity in such times.  I am less of a burden on the population at large this way.  I wonder, however, that they have not yet started to come to me seeking the prophetic word of the Virgin Mary as happened in the movie we discussed at the round table.  Perhaps it is because I have not sealed myself in here with any Madonna statuettes, nor have the residents of Oxford, Mississippi been kept from all forms of literacy.  Perhaps it is because my secular view only affords a glimpse of untransubstantiated human flesh, making me a source of limited wisddom.

All I know for sure is that I  am glad this is not my permanent state of being, that the seal is not hermetic.  I’ll be out and about tomorrow.

January 11, 2011

The Mysteries of Messy Mu

A Messy Mu Mixer circa 1939

I have learned that down South, fraternities generally have arcane and odd rituals related to them.

A year and a half ago, my husband Chuck and I were at a wedding of a friend of his.  The man belonged  to a fraternity that had a series of rituals that they enacted at the reception, including the singing of a lovely song to the bride that doubtless dates back to around the 1930s.

My husband hasn’t fully admitted this — think Skull and Bones — but he surely has every sign of belonging to a secret Southern fraternity — I am convinced he’s a member of the venerable order of Messy Mu Delta.

How do I know?  All his activities point to the initiation rites of the group, as they have been exposed in the media by people who live to tell the tale.

For instance, I go outside in the morning, and I see that Chuck has turned the cushions on our lawn furniture upside down, and on the ground, I find beer cans strewn — were they positioned to spell out an ancient Greek message?  Perhaps, “Clean me up?”

I think so.

Often, he shouts from the next room, “Honey, where’s my other shoe?”

But he knows where it is.  Surely one of his fraternity brothers has taken it as a pledge for him to attend a clandestine meeting where the men swap shoes as a sign of everlasting fidelity to the group.

One day last summer, I saw a heap of clothes near the back door of our house.  I reached down to get them into the laundry, wondering what they were doing there.  A frog hopped out, making me scream in surprise, then laugh hysterically.  Don’t you see?  This is the Messy Mu Delta form of courtship.

I mean my husband is ALWAYS showing me he loves me — he leaves his underwear within three feet of a hamper without picking it up.  That says, “I’m your hunkahunkaburning love” in Messy Mu speak.  I find his smelly socks waiting for me on the kitchen table.  That’s Messy Mu for, “not only do I want you to smell my feet at breakfast — I also want to wake up every morning to your pretty face on the other pillow.”

Isn’t he sweet?

I come home and find the vacuum cleaner is spattered in mud.  When I ask Chuck how that happened, he claims he has no clue.  Surely, this is a sign that he has been promoted in the Messy Mu ranks to grand master mess.  I know he can’t tell me, but I’m so proud of him.

Perhaps your husband is a Messy Mu Delta member, too.

Here are some signs:

  • He loses his shoes, his belt, his pants, and can’t remember where they are even when they were on him only moments ago.
  • He thinks it appropriate to wear nothing but his underwear to the dinner table when a sporting event involving his alma mater is on television.
  • He leaves sweet nothings for you — torn up envelopes, crumpled Kleenex, and peanut shells — everywhere.
  • He uses things for purposes that any non Messy Mu would never use them for — feeding the dog in your wedding china but feeding himself out of his lap, Using your Wusthoffer knife as a screwdriver,  Using his t-shirt as a napkin.
  • And the number one sign your husband is a member of Messy Mu — he is entirely unable to account for his actions, or he offers wholly implausible reasons (e.g.  “I had to use the cat as a car chamois cloth because the gas station is closed.”) for whatever he has done that points to the secret fraternity.

We ought to start a support group for women who know their husbands are part of the secret fraternity but cannot get a confession from them.  Perhaps we could sit around like the female characters in Gone With the Wind while the Yankees wait for our husbands to come home — reading David Copperfield from the beginning as we knit and try not to look nervous.  Perhaps we could find something less ladylike to do — let me know when I can come over.  That way, our husbands can leave us sweet nothings, spell out Greek words in beer cans on the lawn, and engage in acts of brotherly fidelity while we find ways to amuse ourselves.

November 10, 2010

Drinking an “Autumn Collins” at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi

Autumn along the Mississippi River

Every New Yorker knows that there are times to worry, or at least where worry might be a first impulse.  In Mississippi, I am learning that there are times to relax, and autumn is definitely one of them.

As I drive down Interstate 55 toward Memphis, my I-Pod plays me this lyric sung by the Dixie Chicks:

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

By the time they hit the three part harmony for “Wide Open Spaces,” I’m singing along with them, and yes, in a state that has only 62 people per square mile, I do indeed have room to make my big mistakes, as the song goes, but I don’t think I’m making any big ones right now.

I hit the cruise control button on my husband’s new car — he has given it to me to drive because he loves me — and I take my foot off the gas.  I take a deep breath.

I see trees everywhere I look.  The trucks on the highway are distant.  I motor through a canyon of gold, brown, touches of red, some splotches of green.  The cows ignore me as I whizz past.  The haystacks, rolled round and bound with wire, stand sentinel in the field but don’t fire.

The Dixie Chicks continue:

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test

I don’t have any tests to take, but I am leading a panel discussion at a conference this Saturday morning at the University of West Georgia.  I need to turn in about 50 pages of text in a week or two, and every time I think I’ve finished my research, I find more to read on my subjects.

While this feels a little pressureful, it honestly is a walk in the park compared to other experiences in my life.  It is a cruise toward Graceland and Sun Records compared to a bad day in Brooklyn.  While there are certainly days in Mississippi where everything goes catastrophically wrong for some individuals, usually one at a time, in comparison to a semi-annual disaster that almost every New Yorker experiences — a burglary, a near-rape, a you-just-got-fired-right-before-Christmas, a your-husband-is-sleeping-with-your-friend and she sees no reason to hide this from you — in Mississippi, where there is right and wrong, where the roads are empty, where lines in government offices are short, where if you failed to fill out form 42 that was required, they might actually have a copy on hand that you can fill out right now, don’t worry — a bad day is not often a catastrophic day.

In Mississippi, my colleagues go out for drinks and tacos.  Last night, after a class discussing the implications to Victorian mores of the novel Dracula, instead of fearing rustling in the dark that might be from vampires, I joined a group of them around a long table at Snackbar on North Lamar, and I had an absolutely delicious cocktail they called an “Autumn Collins.”  Actually, I had two of them.  They had some kind of artisanal sweet potato liqueur in them.  I used to take vodka martinis at Dorothy Parker‘s old haunt — the Algonquin lounge — and I miss the dry martinis there, the tuxedoed waitstaff, and the cat named Matilda.  However, I wonder if the Autumn Collins might not become my seasonal drink from now on.

The Dixie Chicks wrap up:

She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes

The words are ominous, but the melody of the song, the song of my open road, it is blissful, and I stretch my leg out.  The cruise control works fine.  I am thinking deep thoughts and writing them down.  However, I might just find my way to a good conversation in Georgia, a juke joint, a falling leaf, a sizzling catfish in a pan, a hug, a hymn, a “momma says it’s gonna be alright.”

I’m learning to relax.  I might just set a spell.

November 5, 2010

A Farewell to Freak

Freak --we hardly knew ye

I never shot the Freak, and now I never will.  I loved him too much to open fire.   To the Freak, I turned the other cheek.  He is my brother.  And now he’s out of a job.

Whenever I had complicated problems to solve when I lived in New York, I would take the N Train to the end of the line, buy a hot dog at the original Nathan’s on the corner of Surf and Stillwell on Coney Island, and walk down the boardwalk with it.  I liked this especially when it was cold and windy, when nearly no one else was around.  I would walk to the Aquarium or Brighton Beach, turn back and walk down to where there used to be a roller rink that used to be a beer hall before that.

If I ever had a moment where I thought, given the sound of the ocean, that I was in a natural setting, fostering romantic reflections like a cloud of blooming daffodils, I was reawakened to how urban my setting was by the booming voice on a karaoke-purloined microphone set, with a man who shouted, over and over again, “Yo!  Shoot the Freak Ovah Hee-yah!  Right Hee-yah!  Come on!  Ya gotta Shoot the Freak!  He’s Freaky!  He’s Beggin’ for it!”

This man, shouting in a vernacular that let me know that Brooklyn was in the Freakhouse, had a partner — a man wearing an X-File alien rubber mask, who would wear a little bit of protective gear and allow himself, in cold weather and hot, daytime, evenings and weekends, to get shot at with paint balls.

Here we see him on his vacant lot by the Boardwalk, a few junk yard items to hide behind, some milk crates, an old washing machine, and a pastel splatter of sublimated aggression from people who needed to let off some steam.

As I said, I never shot the Freak.  I loved him too much.  If I ever thought my existence was the worst one out of eight million people in the Metropolitan area, I looked to him for affirmation that things weren’t as bad as they might be, my job was not the worst one in town.

After a walk down the boardwalk, after a greasy and delicious hot dog, after the Atlantic had spat its salt in my face, and after a harangue about shooting the Freak, I inevitably had the answer to my most pressing and complex problem, whatever it was.

When problems in my life became legion, I moved to Coney Island.  I loved its delicious seediness, its tattooed-artist-and-carny-Bohemia, its bubblegum-and-rusting-cog ambience, and the Freak was my neighbor.  I loved him as myself.  The salsa music blared off the pier.  The bells rang on the carousel.  A few screams emanated from The Cyclone, and always, always a man sounding like he was straight out of a DeNiro art film shouted at me, “Yo!  Ya Gotta Shoot The Freak ovah Hee-yah!  What are you — chicken?”

The New York Times reported this weekend that certain businesses on the Boardwalk near the now-defunct Astroland will not receive a renewal of their leases.  I’m sure that running the Shoot the Freak sideshow in the vacant lot it occupied was not expensive.  However, real estate developers intend to gentrify the Boardwalk, charge more money, and create a more upscale environment than the man asking for cash for his next fix in the nearby parking lot, the old portly woman muttering to herself in Russian as she wrestles with a rubber swim cap, the skate rats trying to jump the iron-arm-wrest benches, and the Freak and his business associates.

They misunderstand their own investment.  The Freak is the holy icon of Brooklyn, her martyr.  The crier of the Freak is Brooklyn’s prophet.  The Freak is begging to be shot at in bright colors.  His alien mask is a metonymy for corporate facades required by the employed in middle management.  The vacant lot is the spiritual wasteland of an American dream turned to wig heads and mismatched bowling pins.  They have bought the cornerstone of what it means to be an American.  They cannot read the cuneiform in which the message is written.  Let me translate — it is begging for you, begging for you to try better, to know you will survive the catastrophic, to imagine smashing your idols and starting over with better intentions, a watchword that the mighty have fallen, that all is lost — long live all, and you are still standing.  You are not the freak. He has taken the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune upon himself for you, and by his paint splatters, you are (at least in part) healed.

One day, I was walking by the shoot the freak show in the morning with my husband Chuck, before we got married.  The haranguer’s microphone was on the ground.  He was getting himself a beer.  The paintball guns were not loaded yet.  There was no Freak in sight.

“This is where the guy with the worst job in New York City works,” I told Chuck.

A man, shirtless, wearing padding on his legs, but no alien mask, jumped up from under the boardwalk’s edge.

“Speak for yourself!”   He shouted at me.

“Man, I’m telling my fiance you’ve got the hardest job in town!”

I really didn’t mean to insult him.

“No!” He told me emphatically,”I’ve got the best job in the whole world ovah hee-yah.  I’m in show business.  Nobody ever seen anything like me.  I give them something to remember forever.”

Freak, you spoke truly.

I will remember you forever.  Thank you for the chastisement of my peace upon your recycled football gear.  Thank you for dovetailing with my recovery from 9/11, from midlife crisis, from domestic violence, from wishing I were dead.  Thank you for bearing  the malice of capitalism, of divorce, of all things embittering.  Thank you for taking one, for taking a million and one, for the team.

Freak, without you in Brooklyn, I can return to see a gentrified Coney Island, but it will not be the same without you.  One may never enter the same river twice.  One may never shoot the same Freak twice.

I can never go home again, Freak, if you are not there getting shot.  Brooklyn will go on, but it will be someone else’s Brooklyn, not mine.

Freak, I will remember you forever.  Long live the Freak.  Blow out your candles, Freak, and so good night.

 

 

The Carpet Bagger’s Store is now open!  — http://www.cafepress.com/TheCarpetBaggersShop

October 27, 2010

Freedom of the Pressure — on being pushy down South

Confederates don’t haggle.  They rarely wag their fingers.  They walk demurely toward the end of the line, rather than trying to find their way around it to the secret back entrance.

In New York, I was never the pushiest woman I knew.  I was always somewhere toward the sixtieth percentile in pushiness — not a wimp, not Ophelia drowning, but neither boorish nor crass.  I was tenacious but not a bulldog.

a graphic for my 10.0 on the Richter Pushometer down here in Mississippi

Down here, I’m so darn pushy in comparison to others that I might as well be belting out, “I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Rose!”

An example — I went to my local Home Depot.  The website of the franchise was offering free delivery for yard furniture last spring, and I wanted to buy some.  My local Home Depot had a policy of charging an $80 delivery fee.  I talked to three managers, was never rude, but I insisted that the policy didn’t make sense, that they should waive the fee so that the store could get credit for the sale locally, keep everyone employed in town by having such sales, just give me the discount.

As I said before, people down South don’t haggle. They think it’s impolite, pushy, to ask for any kind of a discount.  Never mind that they are underpaid in comparison to their professional equals up North, never mind that capitalism is always, always the art of the deal, and they believe in capitalism.  Never mind that in New York, people just know that only chumps pay retail, that asking, re-asking, and re-re-asking for a bargain doesn’t cost a penny.

Solemnly and reluctantly, the head manager finally gave me the nod after two hours of tense negotiation — tense on their part, not mine, because for me, this was just business as usual.

Whenever I come in there, store clerks still, almost a year later, tell me, rather in awe, “I remember you! You’re the lady who got free delivery!”

They don’t say it admiringly.  They say it respectfully, fearful I’ll ask for something new once more.

I ask for jobs.  I learned this in New York.  I walk up to people who have the power to give me work and just plain ask, whether there has been an advertisement or not.  If they say no, I’m surely no worse off.

Down South, this is rare.  And yet — let’s look at their absolute all-time favorite archetypal heroine:

"As God as My Witness, I'll Never Go Hungry Again," (and I don't mind being pushy wherever it suits my purposes.)

Katie Scarlett O’Hara Wilkes Kennedy Butler is the most pushy woman in American fiction, barring no Yankees.

Here are some pushy things that, just off the top of my head, I recall Scarlett doing:

  • She demands Rhett Butler take her out of a besieged Atlanta and slaps him when he tries to kiss her.
  • She shoots a Yankee renegade.
  • She throws dirt on Emily Slattery and her Carpetbagger husband (I forgive you, Scarlett, and I would have done the same).
  • She steals her sister’s beau (and a bunch of other girls’ beaux as well).
  • She starts a lumber mill and beats the male competition by starting a rumor mill about them as well.
  • She gets convict laborers to make her business more profitable, because the overseers of the convicts can legally push them to work harder. (not nice, but incredibly pushy.)

That’s just off the top of my head.  I’m sure if I re-read the novel, I’d find out another dozen examples worth mentioning. Scarlett seemed to believe the axiom “Nice girls go to heaven; pushy girls go everywhere.”

So why — if this is the idealized and celebrated picture of a Southern belle, are all the people around here not pushy, often even push-overs?

Older people say around here, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

The New York Yiddish diction in me comes out and I say, “What?  You want I should catch flies?”

Flies are attracted to garbage.  Forget flies.  Give me a job.  Give me a discount. Pay attention to me.  Take me to your leader.

I am honestly trying to adapt here, but if there are people in the South who think that it is better to be forever Miss Congeniality rather than Miss I-Got-Exactly-What -I-Wanted, I’d like them to explain to me why.

I see people down here who are surely better liked than I might be –although I think honestly that most people think I’m an interesting character and are very, very kind to me — who are never insistent or aggressive in going after particular rewards or restitution.  Honestly, they remind me of the Reconstruction-era dowagers depicted in Margaret Mitchell‘s novel in contrast to Scarlett — the women who starved in gentility, who lost everything but their demure penury, trying to make a lady-like living by hand-painting china.  And yet, perhaps I am more like Scarlett O’Hara than any of the ladies I meet in that I insist, I demand, I just won’t take no for an answer.

If this is wrong, I hope someone writes a comment here and explains to me what I’m missing.  If someone can explain to me why pushiness isn’t Southern but Scarlett O’Hara is so celebrated, I want to know that, too.  It is my general observation that those who ask not receive not.  Why don’t Southerners generally go after things the way New Yorkers do?  The motto of the State of New York is Excelsior — “Forever higher,” where we want our profits and hopes to go.  In Mississippi, it is Virtute et Armis — “By valor and arms,” but what by valor and arms?  Which victory? I don’t think passivity is very valorous, and arms can be borne, but what are you shooting at?

Wasn’t it a Southern Civil Rights worker who said, “If they’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right?”

I exhort you, Mississippi.  I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Scarlett!

September 19, 2010

Don’t MAKE me come up there, New York City!

So here I am, New York, one of your expatriates,  now living in Mississippi, forever assuming that  I had left the place of ultimate tolerance for a place still wrestling with civil rights issues.  While I’m off minding my business down here, I find out from Farah Akbar of The Gotham Gazette and others — the sweet elderly couple down the street at CNN, those crazy neighbors of ours at Fox News, and basically everybody else — that you’ve gone and pulled a switcheroo on me, New York City.  Down here, I’ve yet to witness a hate crime or hear about one recently committed in my environs, but up there, you’ve gone all Klannish on me!

Farah Akbar wrote the following:

“A 37-year-old Queens resident, who does not want his name used, thinks that he may have been the victim of a hate crime. On a warm August evening, he was taking the routine four-block walk home from the Jamaica Muslim Center after completing his prayers. He was wearing a traditional outfit from his native Bangladesh, which consists of a long overflowing shirt that reaches the knees and baggy pants. Two blocks shy of his home, five men surrounded him began punching him.

‘I kept saying, ‘Don’t hit me. Take what you want, but don’t hit me,’ he said. The men did not ask for money or for his watch. In fact, they did not say a word to him throughout the entire ordeal. The victim, an information technology professional, had to take two days off from work to recover from his injuries.

Officials from the Jamaica Muslim Center believe that this was a hate crime. ‘He was wearing Muslim garb, he was not robbed and he was only two blocks away from the mosque,” said Junnun Choudhury, general secretary of the center.'” — The Gotham Gazette, September 2010

And then there’s the guy who drunkenly took a whizz on prayer rugs in a mosque in a different part of Queens, a part of Queens where I organized a pro-diversity literary reading within a year of 9/11 that was well attended!

Why are the people of Astoria, Queens, in what must be the most diverse portion of the most diverse county in the whole world, seemingly more angry at Islam today than  they were in January, 2002?

Is this what you do, New York, when I leave you alone in the house like a grown-up?  If I had discovered you had thrown a wild party with a lot of friends over who broke stuff, that would have just been business as usual for you, and we wouldn’t be having this talk right now.  This is a sad surprise, to say the least.

And then, let’s take a look at this winner, who celebrated September 11th by protesting the Islamic center they want to build at Park 51:

Wait -- I'm in Mississippi and THIS GUY is in New York?

When I was contemplating my move down here, New York City, didn’t you warn me that if I went to Mississippi, I would run into a pack of half-wit racist scumbags with horrible taste in men’s hats?

Is this your idea of a joke, New York?

New York, it’s not just the ninth anniversary of September 11th when this guy was walking around like this — it was during FASHION WEEK that he was looking like this, too. Have you no shame?

New York, my Irish great-great-great-grandmother would have said the following to you:

  1. You’ve gone “beyond the beyonds” — which means pack your bags, no Carmelite nun’s prayer can save you — this is the kind of behavior that lands you straight in Hell.
  2. She would remind you of the controversy that existed during her lifetime about the building of  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, as one wouldn’t want to encourage all that anti-American papist hooliganism supposedly inherent in the worship practices of that upstart immigrant group, the Irish Catholics.  I refer you to Martin Scorcese’s film, The Gangs of New York, for a reenactment of another jingoist protest against an immigrant group’s house of worship being built.
  3. You have abandoned your wonderful principles.
  4. Osama Bin Laden wins if we become hateful or even distrust our own ideal of a diverse society.
  5. Given that this man has “Guinness” written on his tacky cap, there’s a pretty good chance the guy in the photo is Irish-American.  What would  his Irish great-great-great grandmother have to say to him?  Irish eyes would not be smiling.

New York, what’s going on  up there?  Are you just acting out because you miss me so much?  Have I really  moved to a place of greater tolerance for difference and individual choice than your overcrowded streets?

Don’t make me come up there, New York City!  If I come up there, and I don’t see things back the way they were when I left — a reasonable attitude between all groups of people, a total rejection of the attitudes that inspire hate crimes, and — don’t forget — the best-dressed men in North America, you will have to answer to me.  I remind you of the many demonstrations I organized when I lived there.  I remind you of the several makeovers I performed.  You don’t want to get me started again, do you?  Don’t make me come up there.

September 11, 2010

Who is really King of the Hill?

The cartoonish pair of us on our wedding day

I have come to a shocking realization — my husband and I are suspiciously cartoonish, or rather we suspiciously resemble the cartoon characters of Mike Judge — Hank and Peggy Hill.

Might we be two-dimensional caricatures of the American dream?

Here’s the evidence that compels me to bring this possibility to the attention of  local authorities, such as yourselves, of the bloggosphere:

  • Chuck and I are living in the South.  Peggy and Hank Hill live in a different part of the South, but Arlen, Texas and Vicksburg, Mississippi are the same size.
  • My husband speaks with a slow Texan accent, and so does Hank.
  • Hank sells propane and propane accessories, and my husband, as a petrochemist, makes propane.
  • Peggy Hill is a substitute teacher of Spanish in the Texas public school system.  I teach English in Mississippi colleges.
  • We have a ranch-style house that resembles, but for the surrounding landscape, the Hill house in King of the Hill.
  • Hank has an old hunting dog.  We have a yellow lab.
  • Chuck has been known to hang out with guys, not say much, and drink beer, although not in some alley near the house.
  • Peggy is a Boggle champion.  I am a poetry slam semi-finalist.
  • Hank played high school football, then quit football afterwards.  So did Chuck.
  • Peggy wears a large shoe size.  So do I.

There are dissimilarities, of course.  Between the two of us, we are better educated than the Hills.  We would not squash the creative ambitions of a son to be the greatest prop comic of all time.  We do not have a Lu-Ann, Laotian neighbors, a friend who is an exterminator, and when Chuck mows the lawn, he does so with an upright mower.  Peggy actually can’t speak Spanish worth a dang.  I speak French fluently.  I pray to God that my hair is not a tenth so bulbous, even on my worst hair day, as Peggy’s. The house may  be ranch-style, but we are surrounded by land, and I’d like to think that the interior design reflects my devotion to HGTV and exquisite taste — not Peggy’s completely irony-free mid-century rut.

How little or much are we like these two-dimensional figures?

Perhaps the “coincidence” here is only that Mike Judge is clever and insightful.  Perhaps the series’ success stems from his keen eye for real Americans.

Still, I don’t know if I can accept that answer.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I wonder, somehow, if I am a figment of Mike Judge’s imagination.

Mike thinks, therefore I am.

For all this this time, I have been on a quest to be a better person.  Perhaps, like Jessica Rabbit, whatever my flaws, they are not my fault — I am just drawn that way.

Our cartoon yellow lab, here in Vicksburg/Arlen, is chewing on a paper cup she found in the trash.  In a minute, my t-shirt clad, bespectacled propane-knowledgeable husband will come in here, his jeans oddly low on his body, and take it from her mouth.

Perhaps the proof of my non-cartoon existence comes from my politics.  Chuck and I voted for Obama.  Hank and Peggy Hill wouldn’t have probably done that, I think, at least not Hank.

I admit it would take a lot of pressure off us if we turned out  to be cartoon characters.  PhD-level deconstructionist theory readings would  become existentially sound, as I, too, would be fictional.  A lot less would be messy if we were animated instead of lethargic but life-like.

I had better get back to my readings of literary theory.  Perhaps an end note to one of my assigned articles will point to me.

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