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

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

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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.

January 27, 2011

Entering the Jungle Room — Why a Visit to Graceland is a Requirement for American Citizenship

Americans may not like the decor, but we somehow all meet here

Elvis Presley was the embodiment of the public social experiment which demonstrates what happens when someone without education or what Europeans would call “refinement” gets a lot of money and wins a social position that puts him above the kind of ordinary criticism that most of us endure daily.

Good friends will tell us when our clothes are too gaudy that they don’t flatter us.  That happens because we’re not iconic rock stars.  No one told Elvis that it was absurd to wear jewel-studded suits and enough bling to make Liberace blush.  No one even whispered that in so heavy a regalia he might come off gay — perhaps because Elvis carried himself with an unmistakable heterosexual cruising swagger, procreated with Priscilla, and never, ever lost screaming female fans.  That said, if your average straight man, even if he were handsome in the way Elvis Presley was undeniably handsome, were to show up at a party rattling, jangling with jewelry the way Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie remembers him from her early childhood, he would be met by the howling laughter of his best friends.

Nobody ever laughed at Elvis, at least not to his face.  They also didn’t stop his pill-popping, question his excuses for not attending church but only watching Rex Humbard on television.Perhaps if someone had said to him that loving thing, so common in New York City, so rare in Memphis, apparently — “What are you, stupid?  What’s wrong with you?  Have you lost your mind?”  — He might have survived his uncensored excesses.

People who knew him really did love Elvis.  Over and over again, in documentary after documentary, colleagues remember a soft-spoken, almost-shy man who had the fortune and the misfortune of a great musical range, a handsome face, a smoldering sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to phrase a song so that an audience would never want to hear it any other way again — this gift of his, the thing that made Elvis Elvis and nobody else — without a genius for money, for negotiation, for contextualizing his fame and success in a larger picture of a more complex world.  As a result, he made dumb decisions, and nobody somehow dared tell him that despite the jumpsuits studded with semi-precious stones, the emperor often had no clothes.

He took his money, overspent for a medium-sized house, and with the ministrations of a wife with no decorating sense at all, overspent for some of the tackiest furnishings the world has ever seen, bar none.  The living room with its wall-length mirrors and incongruous peacock stained glass panels screams a dollar amount without even the sense one gets at Versailles — that the rococo gilding has produced a unified effect.  Here, in Graceland, where the shiny things are  disjunctive, the living room announces as one enters the house  that the occupants are nouveau riche, uncultured, and somewhat spiritually adrift.

I was at Graceland a few days before Elvis’ birthday, an anniversary still celebrated by an unyielding group of faithful fans, painting a hagiographic picture of the man buried out by the kidney-shaped swimming pool, complete with miraculous sightings of “The King.”  In his tacky living room, there was one of those all-white tinsel Christmas trees with blue balls on it — something from which I doubt Elvis ever suffered, given these hysterical fans throwing themselves at him non-stop.  To his credit, Elvis would not allow his fans to call him “The King” to his face, even once refusing to sing when a group of them held up a large sign that proclaimed him king.

Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not Jesus.

“Jesus is the King,” He said, to his credit.

The fans, though, never stopped trying to grab off a piece of him in every sense of the expression, as if he were the Cross, a type of shroud, a holy relic of an unnamed mystery.

The worst by far of all the rooms on public display at this shrine to the uncanonized Southern Baptist saint is the Jungle Room.

Both the ceilings and the floors are carpeted in avocado green.  The expensive furniture is artificially wrought to look rustic — think of Marie Antoinette’s hameau, only less quaint, more horribly, unspeakably tacky.

Elvis used to entertain here, and apparently, nobody dared stage an intervention for him in it, neither for the drugs, nor for the style.  He recorded a later song in the room.  His voice might have bounced off the walls of this monstrosity, but it is a shame now, and shame on us, all of us, for not stepping in and dissuading him on any count of his over-reaching.

A man with gifts without genius, a man with money without sense of how best to create a lovely home for himself or to clothe himself in dignity with it — this man is a perfect allegorical figure for the prosperous but often lost United States of America.  We are still too much of a superpower for those close to us to dare tell us to stop with the fries and the pills that affect our serotonin levels.  Our flashy guns and our flashy war planes — no one told us in a way we have listened to or obeyed that we should buy an education for ourselves instead.

Elvis owned three large televisions — one for each major network — but not one book, not one.

We have gifts, we citizens of Graceland, but we are not as good at everything as we think we are or that we wish we were.  We love God, but we don’t act like penitents.  We are inventive, but more often than not, we are just plain tacky.

Because I have visited Graceland, entered the Jungle Room, and because I, too, remained silent in the wake of its evidence of one bad decision after another, I am an American now, like any other.  Like Peter betrayed Christ, I, too, have betrayed Elvis in that I secretly thrill as much at his emptiness as at his whole, rich voice, a voice that made every song into a hymn, a private confession of adoration, even though the lines were out the door at the tacky house on Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandising was always in season, even at a time when penitents remember the poor, not the wealthy.

This is not Elvis’ fault.  It is ours.  With our culture, we crucified him, and we are hypocrites, all, who visit to gawk or even just to hear the unending plea to love him tender.  His death is the consequence of our excesses and indifference to those who need the truth from us.  In an era of global warming, of war, of closed American factories and foreclosed American houses decorated in better taste than this one, he is the symbolic but ineffective expiation of our wrong-doing.

Elvis has stopped singing.  Jesus is the King.  May He have mercy on America.

November 20, 2009

My second act

“There are no second acts in American Lives.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Every Jane Austen novel ends at the marriage altar.  Dissatisfied wives in literature end up dead — like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary.  Satisfied wives end up obscured in fiction, without their own narrative, accessories to the real plot.  Unmarried women barely exist at all.  When things go wrong in literary plots, women end up strangling themselves with their own bridal veils, like Antigone, or they end up obliterated some other way.

A couple of years ago, when my life fell apart, I wondered which dramatic death I was destined for.  I did not want to die, understand, but where did I have an example of a woman who picks herself up, dusts herself off in her forties, and starts all over again?  I had a couple of television-world examples, less than half an inch thick.  I had CJ Craig from The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin imagines a second act for one woman

, who becomes the White House Press Secretary after a failed Hollywood career in PR.  I had Samantha Jones from Sex and the City, who at a perpetual 39 seems to have no regrets.

Sex And The City imagines a second act that ressembles act one precisely, only with the possibiliy of Botox.

In fiction — well, I had Scarlett O’Hara, shaking her fist at heaven, swearing that as God as her witness, she would never go hungry again.

After marriage #2, Margaret Mitchell imagines a still-feisty Scarlett getting engulfed by Rhett Butler's embrace.

I did a great deal of soul-searching, of Internet searching, of job searching, of PhD searching, but I dare say I have drummed up a second act in this American life, no matter what Fitzgerald thought:

  • I’m getting remarried
  • I’m becoming a not-so-wicked stepmother
  • I’m getting my PhD
  • I’m working part-time while I do so and my future husband pays the bills.

The one thing, though.  Perhaps Fitzgerald could have said, “In New York lives, there are no second acts.”  However, in other places, I find that I can have one.  Scarlett gets hers in Georgia.  Mine, it turns out, is in Mississippi.

Yes, I’m moving from Brooklyn to Mississippi.

Horrified?  So are my New York friends.  They imagine Klansmen.  They imagine a total lack of Sushi — which, I admit is a legitimate consideration.  They know that Mississippi is the number one  state for teen pregnancy, illiteracy and  obesity.

Don’t they get it?  Down there, I’m skinny.  What dieter wouldn’t want to go?

Seriously, here is a photo of my second act:

That smiling woman is me. That cute man is my fiance.

I corresponded with my old writing teacher from my Freshman year in college — Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All — a Southern writer if there ever were one.  He told me that he thought my adjustment from New York to life on the Mississippi would be more dramatic than my adjustment were I to move to the Belgian Congo.

He may have a point.

This blog, which will document my adjustment weekly, will examine just that.  Those of you  who like Jeff Foxworthy jokes, or  remember fondly The Beverly Hillbillies, feel free to watch in  morbid fascination as I document all that I find to love about the South, all that I find cumbersome or odd.

Intermission is over.  The house lights dim. Enter our heroine, stage left.  We see a ranch-style house in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  There is a small dog yapping.  There is a man seated outside, sipping a can of beer, smiling.  The woman is carrying an armful of books,  and she is  dressed in black.

The second act, written by my hand and the improbable divine hand, begins.

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