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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June 19, 2015

The Beautiful South at its Most Ugly

The South is sweet and gentle, until it is cruel and brutal.  The South is hospitable until it is genocidal.

Northerners know most about the ugly South — the racism, the poverty, its sad legacy of slavery and oppression, the higher rates of obesity, illiteracy and teen pregnancy in certain areas.  And these are certain measures of the South, things one ought to know but that the South as a whole would rather forget.  Before I ever moved South, I knew about the Klan, the dummies with teeth missing, the abundant tackiness of certain Southerners.  But then I traveled to Mississippi and saw beauty that astonished me.  I saw poor people in the Delta, but where they lived was a beautiful landscape.  As a New Yorker, I had never seen poor people living in beautiful places.  I was delighted by the intense courtesy, even of gallantry, shown to me as a white lady.  I was charmed, seduced by the music, the food, the leisure, the heat that takes one breath away in mid-Summer, the magnolias and the honeysuckles, the sounds in the night of bull frogs and crickets, and the depth of the darkness no Manhattanite has seen on that island except during blackouts, and even then, the darkest of dark nights, punctuated by slivers of moon and fireflies clustered like gleaming pearl brooches on a mourner’s taffeta dress.

The South, I discovered, is beautiful, with its Spanish moss hanging like a bridal veil over venerable oaks, the sweeping hills of green crops budding, the long empty roads stretching as far as the eye can see.  What a beautiful place to live — until it suddenly isn’t beautiful at all.  Tornadoes hit.  Locusts eat crops. Neighbors back-stab. Rumors spread. Reputations get ruined. People get shunned.

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

We see in the horrible massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston a contrast in the great, stately beauty of the South and its deepest ugliness.  A room full of accomplished people, contributors to their community in deeply meaningful ways, came together for an evening of peaceful prayer, like many other nights, in a beautiful old Charleston church, white-washed and elegant.  They came to read the Bible and its beautiful verses together in a spirit of love and fellowship.  This wasn’t Sunday, so these weren’t people who were half-committed Christians, back-sliders who might believe or might not — these were the faithful, the dutiful, the deeply committed, who had gathered together.  These were mostly older ladies, the kind with the best advice to give, if the young would but listen.  These were women whose lives already demonstrated virtue and wisdom.  The pastor, Reverend Clem Pinckney, was an elected official, a father of two, an articulate advocate for the community.  These people were beautiful.  They welcomed in warmth the young man who came in, a white man, an unusual visitor to a weeknight bible study at an African Methodist Episcopal church.  He sat with them for an hour, and they were kind to him.

Then, suddenly, like tornadoes hit, like clouds burst, like fires destroy barns, like fortunes change — this man revealed his intentions and murdered people, accusing old ladies of rape, of families that may have been in the United States longer than his own of “taking over America,” and in cold blood, to inspire terror and a new civil war, he killed these saints, these martyrs.  He calmly left, seeming to make no effort to disguise himself, to hide, to run from what he had done, to have no horror at it, to be entirely unrepentant, to believe ugly lies about the humanity of his victims.  He may not have planned this alone.  He assassinated an elected official.  He came to kill black people, he said.  He drove away in a car bearing confederate flag plates, He believes in apartheid, in slavery, in murder, in hatred.  The love he was shown when he walked in did not dissuade him from his premeditated purposes.  He saw no humanity in that room except his own.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming, this storm of murder.  The FOX Network churns like an overloaded washing machine in the background of many households, spewing out perpetual paranoia and false racially-charged claims.  While most of America seems to have accepted the national project of a diverse society, whether they like our current president or not, perhaps one fifth of us, more of us in the South, I think, have become radicalized, and new hate groups spring up regularly, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was inevitable that some people from houses of perpetual propaganda would believe the lies.  It was inevitable that with such easy access to guns, some of the propagandized people would obtain guns. It was inevitable, with such rampant drug use and insidious isolation in our culture, that someone propagandized and armed would tweak his brain enough he would lose his soul to the narcotics and the malevolence. While the Internet allows us to select our own news sources, however uninformative they may be, and to fall into chat rooms with people of shared beliefs, it was inevitable that this tweaked, armed and propagandized one would find a fraternity of evil thought online or in person.  Eventually, one of these people steeped in falsehood, hatred, drugs, and disenchantment would become this monster, a category-five inundation of Southern ugliness.

And he did this in plain sight, this appropriately named Mr. Storm Roof.  Uncles saw him lost, and gave him guns.  Friends saw him pop pills, and they did not stage an intervention.  Everyone heard him say harshly racist things, but they took this as a joke — as if those jokes were ever funny.  But by then, Mr. Storm Roof had identified an enemy, and that enemy wasn’t his joblessness.  It wasn’t a family that misunderstood him.  It wasn’t a lack of education.  It wasn’t an economy where the jobs a man like this could get could not pay his bills.  It was innocent black church-goers.  What did he think would change if there were only white people in America?  What part of his pointless life did he honestly think would improve? Why didn’t he understand that his presence in a purely Caucasian nation would only demonstrate all the more that he was poor, uneducated, drugged out, and shiftless?

He just got arraigned today on nine counts of murder.  In the court room, the family members of the deceased beautiful Christians forgave him because Jesus says to forgive our enemies.  The beautiful South looks beautiful again in light of their total commitment to the principles of their faith.

But then, here’s the truly most deceptive part of the South’s beauty — it covers over scars.  Once the flotsam and jetsam after the hurricane are hauled away, and the houses are rebuilt anew, it’s like the storm never happened.  Most days, there’s not a cloud in the sky.  The South forgets, like a woman sobered up after a night of debauchery, who declares with a Southern drawl, “I had so much bourbon last night, I don’t know WHAT-ALL happened!”

The beautiful South forgets and attempts to make us forget.  But if we forget the ugliness, we are doomed to repeat it.  If we never confront the racism in white communities and the propaganda machines that perpetuate it, we are doomed to live with it forever.  Most of us in the South are pursuing beauty.  However, the fifth of folks who aren’t, we need to have ugly confrontations with them, show them the falsity of lies they have believed, and then we must help them understand that a South rising again is a diverse South, an egalitarian South, and a South that actually remembers what really happened in the dark night of its soul.

April 27, 2011

Shakespeare in the basement

It was a dark and stormy night.

New Yorkers are not scared of muggers, really, but they are unprepared for this.

Actually, the dark was punctuated by bolts of lighting filling up the entire field of clouds directly above my head, not sending a bolt downward but rather knitting electric filaments into a spiderweb pattern above my head with loud thunderclaps.

The sirens sounded, wailing so loudly my skin vibrated.  Not a drop of water was hitting the ground yet.

I found my way to the nearest building with a basement, the student union at Ole Miss.

I am from New York — we don’t have tornado watches, warnings, or witches.  We have muggers, we have terrorists, the occasional small whirlwind, but no such thing as a twister that could drop Dorothy’s house in Munchkinland.  I have learned to walk with my keys clenched outward between my knuckles in a fist when I’m in a neighborhood where a mugger might be.  I have learned to call the police if I see a mysterious package left unattended in the subway.

This tornado stuff is new to me, and it freaks me out.

However, I noticed that the young people who come from this area take it more or less in stride.  A group of young women in the basement posed for a group picture, smiling.  Others sat around and told jokes.  I was sitting next to Loy Scott, an Ole Miss freshman from Hickory Flats.  She told me her mother lived in a trailer, hence no basement, but she shrugged, knowing somehow she would be okay.  We were near the basement entrance to the campus bookstore, and she told me if all nature broke loose on us we could loot the Ole Miss memorabilia.

“Coffee tastes better out of a stolen mug, anyway,” she laughed.

The kids are used to this.  I’m the one worrying about the whereabouts of Toto, who leapt out of my basket as I was following the yellow brick campus path.  For these kids, this is not a perilous era.  This is just a slight inconvenience.  Wi-Fi is not always accessible in the basement, and so it’s only intermittently that we can check to see if the howling funnel is right above our heads.

This morning, the alarms went off again during my 8 am Shakespeare discussion section.  We were in a building with a basement there, too.

The students volunteered, without my asking them to, to recite their assigned Shakespeare monologues in the basement.  We heard scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream while the sirens blared through even layers of concrete, where the thunder was still audible above us.

A girl got up and read Shylock‘s question, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

I wanted to respond, “Yes, and if there is yet another tornado warning, with storms all around us, does the chancellor not cancel class?”

The answer to that one was, “No.”

This is just a day at the office.

In New York, the day after 9/11, the city went back to work, except where the buildings had been destroyed.  So it is here, not with terrorists but with twisters — if your classroom is still standing, you teach in it.  If not, the basement has good enough acoustics for dramatic monologues.  Shakespeare matters more than the flooding, the sirens, and the possibility that somebody is losing a house, a car, a life directly above our heads.

I remember reading how many children who grew up during the Second World War kept their sanity in air raid shelters by reciting poetry.

The sirens stopped sounding.  We eventually dispersed.  The basement had begun to flood, anyway, and there were no twisters in the immediate vicinity.  We were as sane as we were when we descended the stairs an hour or so earlier.

How does anybody get used to this?  Tornadoes distract me from literature, even as literature distracts me from tornadoes.

Ole Miss students in a storm shelter last night waiting in the basement for the storm to pass

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