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

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!

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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