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

June 18, 2016

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of New Orleans

Not long ago, New Orleans bandleader  Jean Baptiste filmed a Late Show segment with Stephen Colbert, whom he showed around the French Quarter.  Jean stood casually in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, not breaking a sweat, as he is from Louisiana, his family having lived there and played jazz there for numerous generations.  He was showing Stephen how to “hang” on a street corner, looking casual and cool.  Colbert was neither casual in a summer-weight suit, nor was he cool.  He said just standing there for a few minutes he was sweating so much he was experiencing “swamp ass.” I think “swamp ass” would sound much more elegant in Cajun, as it would translate into, “cul de bayou,” but it is not a phenomenon Cajuns regularly experience, accustomed as they are to the heat down here.  The rest of us, though, who might even be used to Southern heat (Stephen Colbert grew up in the South), are ill-acclimated to avoiding cul de bayou, cuisse de bayou (swamp thigh), or couilles de bayou (swamp testicles).  It’s hot and muggy in New Orleans.

cold drinkThat weather mojo works both ways, by the way.  Yankees are much more able to handle cold.  Every Southern lady I know who doesn’t ski owns only thin jackets, nothing at all from the Northface Catalog, and the second the temperature dips below forty degrees, they shiver as if it were going out of style.  I married my husband in an old antebellum mansion which had served as the Yankee headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  The night before our January wedding, the fountains had frozen over in the garden.  I walked around getting ready in a t-shirt and jeans while the majority of guests on his side of the aisle trembled violently and stomped their feet to keep from getting frostbite.  My years walking between skyscrapers in Manhattan while the wind shot ice pellets at my face made a breezeless thirty-degree chill feel like a cool day hardly worth noticing as cold.

Come June that year, of course, my experience changed radically. I remember when the headache started — three a.m., and it was the middle of June, and it was eighty degrees outside.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I took the dog for a walk, and I saw bats flying overhead, catching the many bugs in the air.  I also saw my neighbors out for a stroll with their dogs, as this was going to be the coolest moment for at least twenty-four more hours.  The headache lasted through July.  I remember the early days of the month, sitting in a gazebo I had set up in our back yard, staring at the ice melting in a big plastic cup of mint tea I had filled to drink out there, my head throbbing so hard because my blood didn’t know what to do with the intensity of the heat that would not quit.  By August, the headache had dissipated with the murky-smelling mist off the Mississippi that had wafted over our back lawn every morning during the hottest summer days.

I have never had a heat headache in any subsequent summers, acclimated as I am to Southern heat.  Still, though, New Orleans heat is not for wimps.

I cannot imagine how slaves harvested rice in this weather.  They almost all died young, it seems, according to a plantation tour I took once.  I don’t know how anybody survived New Orleans heat before air conditioning. It’s impressive to imagine anybody trying to put on a corset in this weather. It would take a particular admiration for martyred saints that a good Catholic homily might inspire, as no Protestants would see the merit in suffering like that just to have a wasp waist. The French doors everywhere in New Orleans are a relic of the era when the only hope anyone had of enough air was to make certain that the house was no stuffier than the outside air, in  the vain hope of some kind of cool breeze emanating from some virgin martyr’s icy breath. Sinful city as New Orleans has always been, the hot-blooded women of the metropolis could offer no icy virginity to pair with martyred sainthood recognizable to the Vatican, so people suffered in this town.

I admit it. I can’t stand the heat.  I have left New Orleans for a few weeks of respite six hours due north in northern Mississippi.  It isn’t hot enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat here, now with my acclimated sweat glands. I am writing my dissertation, and it is good to sit in a library with the air conditioning on full blast, drink a diet coke, and to think of nothing but knights and Middle French and Middle English works of literature that describe them. I am sweating, but there is no cul de bayou. There is no headache, except from squinting at faded letters in old books. But I admit it.  I am a mauviette de bayou (a swamp wimp),  a faignant de bayou (a swamp weakling loser), and it would take a miracle de bayou (you’ve got this one on your own) to acclimate me to this tropical sauna before next June, when there will be no escape from the impressive humidity and heat.

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November 3, 2015

On Southern China (Not Kowloon, But Plates and Cups)

The Bible Belt is not a place particularly welcoming to astrology, due to scriptural admonitions against witchcraft and all, but there is one cultural equivalent to asking a lady if she is a Leo or a (pardon the presumption) Virgo.  That would be the time-honored practice of discerning personality by selections of wedding china and silver patterns.  Marilynne Schwartz, in her Southern Belle Primer, offers a look at wedding silverware patterns as a map of a bride’s heart.  Allow me to say she is not wrong.  One can tell a lot about a girl based on how she sets a table, more than most Yankees think.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

Allow me to confess I am the Yankee exception to the rule — you can tell EVERYTHING about me if you know how to read my china, not the tea leaves in my cup but the tea cup itself.  You can tell my heritage, my erogenous zones, and the probability or the lack thereof that I would commit a crime.  Victorian culture believed that phrenology, the study of the shape of skulls, could tell one whether or not a certain individual had a predisposition for criminality.  The Nazis used this pseudo-science to justify their claims to master-race status.  But the skull men had it all wrong.  You want to tell whether or not I am likely to join Bonnie and Clyde on a shoot-out filmed by Arthur Penn?  Look into my choice of Spode Blue Italian and see a woman capable under wartime conditions of something akin to undercover Mata Hari moves but a total lack of inclination to direct acts of gunpowder-fueled violence.  Some girl who chose Villeroy and Bosch’s Basket Pattern for her wedding china, on the other hand, if pressed by enemy troops, she could lob Molotov cocktails out her dining room window, no prisoners, no quarter.

Other indicators in my china pattern are complicated by my Irish-American heritage.  I come from a family willing to fight over flatware and crockery, not to break dishes but to break heads over dishes.  I inherited my mother’s austere china pattern — a Danish mid-century eggshell-blue silver-rimmed affair, about which I wrote this award-winning poem, which appeared in Grasslands Review:

WEDDING DISHES

Given to you in exchange for the breaking of the saucer between your thighs,

The set of bloodless-blue silver-rimmed mirrors, salad-, bread- and dinner-sized,

Enough for twelve guests, you

stashed them under tea towels and in earthquake-proof canisters,

afraid of what a jury of your peers might do to them,

promising yourself their use for some grand occasion, grander than your wedding,

than the births, the anniversaries, the prize-winnings,

the high holy days, the moveable feasts, the raises, the graduations,

the leave-takings.

You never once set them out.

Don’t touch them, you warned me.

Those are for special days, days impervious to the passing of the hours,

the cycle, then the cessation, the graying of hair, the drooping and wrinkling,

the liver-spotting, for special days, not today, you told me.

Then, you got the news — you were waning,

and still you left them under heavy wraps, cryogenically sealed for some future

where you would not partake in the breaking of bread.

They sit now in my cabinet.

I inherited them all virginal, still uncrossed by a single butter knife.

I set them out like flat full moons every twenty-eight days or so.

Though they are the ice blue for which you registered,

I heap on them my roasted red peppers, my scarlet bruschetta, my berry sorbets,

my purpling beets, my bloody meats, my ripe nectarines, my marinara and my moussaka.

They have finally entered the coursing stream of the family, a place where at last the

good things are fed to the good people who waited so long to be invited to the table.

You see?  My mother’s inherent reticence and distrust of joy is evident in that wedding china, now mine, now repurposed, or rather, purposed to original purposes.

I also inherited my great-grandmother’s dishes, German plates made before World War I in Bavaria, white with Tiffany blue trim and gold rims.  It’s elegant, no longer manufactured, and precious as a symbol of female power in my family.  My mother’s funeral was not attended by one female relative who coveted the plates.  After the funeral was over, she had the temerity to send her son to ask for them for her, claiming they ought to be hers by right, never mind that my mother left them to me.  I told the man to tell his mother that if she wanted those plates, she could come see me about it — translation: come and look me in the eye if you dare; my mother just died, and I am in the mood to cut a b#!(h.  She never came.  The plates are still mine. She is still alive.

I believe I feel about that old china the way that the “best” Southern families take pride in beat-up flatware, which they proudly announce was hidden in the well when Sherman’s troops marched through their plantations.  In those dinged-up forks, they see a big fork-you to enemy looters from their great-great grand-mommas.

While most women in the South don’t inherit plates and spoons hidden from the Yankees, the choice of the pattern of such items is as important a choice to most women as the choice of college they attend.  When one receives a guest, it says everything about the hostess, if one can read.

Of course, divorce happens in the South, alas, as frequently as it does in the North, and then the meaning of the wedding china becomes bittersweet for some belles.  I think that in a society that believes that no matter how many times the bride has been married beforehand, a big, poofy white dress is never in poor taste on a new wedding day,most women of the South find a way to live with the old plates after the marriage ends.  After all, it is usually the woman who has chosen the pattern as a representation of her own proclivities.  However, I know at least one Southern woman who hates the china that reminds her of the broken covenant.

I prefer to see all plates hidden from Yankees, exes, or bitter female relatives as a sign of feminine power, a sign that the bearer of the cup is not so much a Kappa Kappa Gamma as a Cappa de tutte cappe, or as a friend of mine and I once coined, a “chippie de tutti chippies.”  A woman who lets go the man and keeps the bone china has perhaps gotten the best of both worlds in certain cases.  The china pattern then becomes the emblem of the matriarch, the one at whose table one must take Thanksgiving dinner and Easter brunch.  A woman with multiple china patters inherited or remaining after divorces, don’t mess with her.  She will fork you up.

June 25, 2015

Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful — and Why Taking Down the Confederate Flag Constitutes Substantive Change

Southerners have so much about which they might be proud.  I adore the South, truly, and I appreciate Southerners.

I started this blog having moved from Brooklyn to marry my husband in Mississippi.  We consummated our marriage on a bed that was slept in by Ulysses S. Grant in his antebellum mansion headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  That means our wedding night was practically a historical reenactment of a Confederate surge against Yankee defenses.  So with a sense of Southern heritage, my sojourn here began, and with respect for Southern traditions, my sojourn continues.

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

But what Southern traditions do today’s Southerners really want to embrace?  Is the average Southerner thinking that slave auctions ought to be brought back?  Do today’s Southerners believe in lynchings?  No!  The vast majority of Southerners are against what William T. Thompson, the creator of the Confederate Battle Flag, said about his stars and bars, namely, that his flag represents the struggle to “maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”  The majority of Southerners have intellectually accepted the idea of equality for all races under the law, and as for heaven, I am fond of the words that one Southern preacher, Kenneth Copeland, said: “If someone says he loves the Lord but hates another race, question his salvation, as the Word says he who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”  Southerners are capable of prejudice and of racial bias, but intellectually, the vast majority of Southerners don’t want institutionalized racism and violence.  They want things to be fair, though i wonder how clearly they imagine an equitable South.

When I talk to many white people here in the South, I sense they are hesitant to talk about race because it feels like a topic off-limits, though the racists in their midst are not at all timid.  Most white people I meet are not ugly racists, though their contact with people of color is limited by a de facto system of segregation that persists in many parts of America, even though the de jure system is officially abolished.  However, they all have at least one racist relative.  They often love that racist relative.  And in the South, it is considered very, very rude to contradict someone over the Thanksgiving turkey, especially if that someone is older than you are.

That said, it needs to be done. White Northerners are more likely, I think, to tell that racist relative that his or her comments are offensive.  I am definitely going to open my mouth when such a thing happens.  In fact, here’s a story of how I did one afternoon, and it will demonstrate how I have come to certain views about the quiet beliefs of Southern white people on the whole:

****

I had backed my car into a pole in the Ole Miss stadium parking lot, and I needed a new bumper.  I found myself an exceedingly honest auto body shop, Kenny’s auto body shop on University Avenue on the outskirts of Oxford, Mississippi.  Kenny told me I could wait while the work on my car was done by him and his several junior mechanics.  His is the kind of shop that attracts a number of middle-aged or older men who hang around and comment on the work being done, give unsolicited advice, or on the day I was there, stare at a Yankee woman’s chest and try to flirt with her in unctuous and illiterate ways.

The older man kept staring at my chest as he told me about how big his car was, and I ignored him as best I could until he told me in some manner I only half remember that he was better than those “n” -s (not using the word he used because it is so offensive.)

That’s when I turned to him and asked him how he knew I wasn’t an “N.”  He looked a little surprised.  He said, “With yer blonde hair and blue eyes, you caint be one.”

I told him I was a white “n,” and so was my husband — he, too, is a white “n,” and I told him that we liked souped up cadillacs, watermelon and fried chicken, and he’d better stop using that “n” word to stereotype us and insult us.

“Hey!” He protested, “I didn’t say all that!”

“Sure you did,” I said, “What else could you have meant by using a disgusting word like the N-word?  You brought it up, so let’s talk about it!”

He felt challenged in a way he was clearly unused to, and he left in a huff.

As the door shut behind him, I realized that all work by the men in this body shop had stopped some time ago.  All these guys were white, looking more than a little like Larry the Cable Guy, the kind of guys who chew tobacco and hunt on weekends, all Southerners, all white — and I admit I wasn’t sure what would happen next.  Would they send me away?  How would I get back to campus without my car?  Was I potentially in danger?

After a moment where you could have heard a Teitlist cap fall to the ground out of a blue jumpsuit back pocket, they came up one by one and shook my hand, congratulating me on finally serving up what this creepy man had been dishing out in their presence for many years, while they had stood silently and put up with what they, too, found offensive language.

“Why didn’t anybody say anything to this guy before, if everybody seems to feel the same way about him?” I asked.

They didn’t have a clear answer.  The man wasn’t a customer in their shop, just a guy who came to hang around and talk like that, they said, so it wasn’t exactly about customer service.

One finally offered, “Well, it’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody else, and nobody wants to be rude, because it will stick around as a story forever.”

This may be so, but the story that wasn’t sticking around forever was that this guy was a massive racist creep who deserved to be shunned.

Southern manners seems to allow the few truly rude Southerners to stay rude.  Southerners might live happier lives if they decided to stand up to jerks more often.

*****

So finally, Governor Bentley of Alabama decided to quietly take down the flag without a debate, and everybody is still who they were before — or are they?  Is this a cosmetic change?  Or is this a change that materially changes the discourse of the South?

The reasoning behind the decision to take down the flag is perhaps best expressed by AL.com writer Kyle Whitmire, who writes, explaining to other Southerners, “For the South, the Confederate flag has been what a face tattoo in a job interview is for everybody else. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what it meant for us if it scared the hell out of everybody else.”

A lot of people in the South will tell Northerners and each other that the Confederate flag only represents pride in one’s heritage — but this symbol got hung over State capitols again during the period of the inception of the civil rights movement, some time shortly after Brown v. Board of Education in most instances. The pride expressed was in a segregated South.  The symbol has been used as recently as last year in the lynching of the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  Meredith, who was the first African-American admitted to the university, whose presence caused a race riot at the time instigated by white supremacists, had his image defaced last year by some racist frat boys who left a noose around his neck with a Stars-and-Bars-emblazoned flag hanging from it.  What was the nature of the pride expressed there?  And more importantly, do most Southern white people want a share of that pride?

While writers like Nicholas Kristof of The New York TImes are right to exhort the South to make material changes, it is easy for outsiders to the South and its manners to miss the enormity of this change.  Maybe the Southerners haven’t told their racist grandmothers to stop insulting people of other races at Christmas dinner yet, but this gesture is a step in that direction.  It says that Southerners realize that wrongs have been done recently using a symbol of the past, and the South most Southerners want to live in isn’t violent toward people of color, and it’s fair, though the parameters of that fairness have yet to be defined by most people.

So I rejoice at this news.  When I heard that Governor Bentley had taken down that hate flag, I turned on the Lynard Skynard and danced, thinking about where the skies are blue, singing songs about the Southland — and does your conscience bother you?  If you are from Alabama, your state has taken a weight off its collective conscience.  Congratulations, Alabama!  I agree with your sign — Alabama is the beautiful, and your banner is one of United States, not divided states and divided people.

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