“The Bible Belt” used to be for me just a bunch of states that I had to drive through en route to Spring Break. Armed with a wad of cash and a long list of quantities and brands by those who could afford to fly, but not to buy cigs in Chicago, I was to stop in what my college friends called “The Tobacco Belt” to buy cartons of cheap, low-tax cigarettes for my smoker friends. Nasty habit, which I now cannot believe I ever enabled. Nevertheless, that was my take on the South.
Until a few years after graduation, when a dear friend and former room-mate moved there, bought a house and invited me to her house-warming. Little did I know when happily accepting, that this would involve a long week of moving furniture, unwrapping boxes and cloroxing mildew where no mildew should be, before the actual party, where the guest list consisted of … well … just me.
Flying from Chicago to anywhere was no longer an option. Ever since 9/11 the airlines had become oddly adamant about no longer allowing dogs to be stowed in the over-head bin or under the seat in front of you. So, puppy and I prepared for a road-trip. Yay! This was a time before filling a tank didn’t cost me X amount of books sold. This was also a time when I didn’t measure everything in amount of books sold. Life was so simple then… Sigh…
My friend had married a good ol’ Southern Beau and in rapid succession had a baby, bought a house and moved to Nowhereville, Bible Belt. Since her wedding she quickly became Southernized. She consistently dropped the “G” at the end of words, referring to her weddin’ where her cake had a puddin’ fillin’ and everyone was dancin’ and she wore that dahlin’ gown. “Y’all” started sneaking into her vocabulary, even when she was talking to just one person. “Y’all drive safe, now, Anne!” And when questioned about seemingly simple choices she had to make (leaving her house without her hair/nails/make-up just so, saving the bacon grease or -God forbid!- what to do if she wasn’t invited to the Junior League something-or-other big deal!) she’d simply say “It’s the South, Sugah. You wouldn’t understand.” She’s right. I don’t.
The first part of my road-trip was uneventful. Then we hit the Appalachians. Driving where no one from Chicago should be driving. Where speed limits have lost all meaning. Where one who uses the horn in synchronization with the brake will be shot. Needless to say, I was petrified. Had they changed this road since my last Spring Break? I bought my car from a dear old neighbor when I turned sixteen. My first car, bought with my own money, now had over two hundred thousand miles on it. It had crossed twenty-six state lines since I bought it, and now simply died in the middle of nowhere, on a winding Interstate, in the Appalachians. I had just been dive bombed by a car with a frayed rebel flag on the antenna and bumper stickers that read “Dead Yankees tell no tales”, “My Coonhound is smarter than your Honor Roll student!” and “Don’t blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis”, when smoke started pouring through the dash board. Then the engine simply gave up. I was in the middle of a steep curve, uphill, but somehow managed to coast the car onto the side of the road. Within minutes I was talking to someone from my insurance company, saying a silent thanks that they hadn’t outsourced and that I was talking to an American on this continent.
“What exit are you by?” the voice said.
Disregarding the grammatical error in her query, I tried to stay calm, and explain that no person in her right mind would memorize the exits as they pass them, and also, that I’m in the friggin mountains, there are no exits here! (This, of course, was a time before GPS’s and OnStar-technology, if anyone still remembers that.) But before I knew it, a car stopped. Say what you will about Southerners, they have an inbred need to be helpful. By then, my insurance company had promised that a tow truck would be there in twenty to forty-five minutes. Twenty to forty-five? Shouldn’t it be twenty to thirty? Or thirty to forty-five? Nonetheless, the first man to stop was very helpful. He opened the hood and said “Yup. That’s shot.” Ya think?!? After he drove off another one stopped, opened the hood and said “That’ll cost ya!” and “How in the world didya do that?!” Very helpful. The fifth one to stop actually poured some water into somewhere, and asked me to crank the engine. Nothing happened. The eighth one got out of his truck and (God help me!) out of his shirt. Southern hospitality at its absolute finest. By then I had come up with a lie about my ‘husband’ walking up to the nearest ‘gas station’. Just as number eight was getting back into his shirt and truck, the tow-truck showed up. Long story short, I needed a new whatchamacallit because the youknowmadigger was shot and burned out the whateverthehellitis. Many hours later and six hundred bucks poorer I started descending the Appalachians. This house warming had better be worth it.
During the unpacking (how do people who move from a tiny apartment off-off- Michigan Avenue to a mansion in the South accumulate so much junk?) we discovered that Trey had managed to bring an old area rug from his dorm days that my friend absolutely detests. I don’t blame her. Even my dog, who at the time was still a puppy and would sniff at everything, simply snorted. Had she been a Southern canine, it would’ve been most unbecoming. The nation’s foremost DNA-analysts probably wouldn’t dare touch the rug for fear of what they might find. Very quickly, the area rug found its way to the curb. I was impressed with the garbage handling in this neck of the woods, and told my friend as much. She laughed and pulled me to the window. Sure enough, not fifteen minutes later a pick up truck drove by, slowed down, stopped and reversed. The woman behind the wheel got out of the cab, told her two labs to stay put, and hauled the God-awful area rug onto the bed of her truck and drove off. Garbage handling in the South. Gives recycling a whole new meaning.
Everyone in the South has a dog. No, let me re-phrase that. E-ve-ry-one has a dog. Labs and Jack Russells seem to be the most popular breeds. Good ol’ boys have to have their labs for hunting (I have yet to see a lab that is actually trained for this, isn’t scared witless of the duck whistle and can stay and/or fetch on command). The “horse-people” must have Jack Russells because … well, I have no idea. But somewhere along the way the British settlers introduced horses and Jacks (as they’re called among the horse-people), and who would dare contradict custom? That’d be simply unheard of! Since I walk my dog four times a day, I soon became the town curiosity. One passer-by actually stopped to ask me if I was lost. When I told him, no, I’m just walking my dog, he asked me why I couldn’t just let the dog go in the yard. Not wanting another North-South thing happening, I simply stated that I enjoyed walking her. Did I mention that it was July and the heat and humidity were in the triple-digits?
The driver looked at my melting skin and soaked clothes and said “Y’all ain’t from ‘round here, huh?”
Another time, I took my puppy to a local animal supply store (where, surprisingly enough, they had no cute outfits for dogs to wear in the winter -or just for fun, for that matter-, but had row upon row of horse-feed, riding and hunting gear). A woman actually kneeled down and started petting my dog.
She exclaimed “What a perfect specimen of a Parson Russell!”
A who now?
“She is a Parson, isn’t she?” By then she was positively cooing, letting my dog lick her face, and climb all over her.
“I have no idea, … um … ma’am. She’s a rescue.” Everyone in the South is ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. This I learned from my friend very early on. Dogs are ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. Children misbehaving on isle five at the Piggly-Wiggly are ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. And yes, only in the South can you with a straight face buy your groceries at a store called the Piggly-Wiggly.
“A rescue? Oh? … Well … She’s just precious… [thought bubble: for what she is]. So, is that why you haven’t had her tail docked?” And then she actually wiped her hands on a Handi-wipe! ‘Rescue’ in the North apparently means ‘leper’ in the South. Puppy and I high-tailed out of the store. Oh, well, screw her. Bloody horse-people!
Oh, and horse-people aren’t half-human-half-horses. Nor are they people who look like horses. Horse-people are people who own horses, and hire other people to take care of them and yet other people still to enter them in competitions. Very big in Nowhereville, Bible Belt.
From the moment I met my friend’s husband, Trey, I liked him. He was intelligent, charming, well-mannered and regardless of what kind of pants he wore, his underwear never showed. His momma had brung him up right. Southerners in Chicago are as rare and as brave as Packer fans in Chicago. Since Trey was the former and I was the latter, we both felt like fish out of water and took to each other instantly. It wasn’t until I was asked, as the maid-of-honor, to collect the wedding invitations from the printer’s that I found out that Trey wasn’t Trey’s real name.
“Who the devil are you marrying?” I asked my friend as we proofed the invitations.
She looked at me as though my face had sprung boils. “Where have you been for the last year? I’m marrying Trey.”
“So who’s Horrid-old-fart-first-name Unpronounceable-God-Awful-last-name?”
Apparently, in the South, if you’re Firstname Lastname the third, you become Trey.
“So, if you and Trey have a son, that poor child will be Horrid-old-fart-first-name Unpronounceable-God-Awful-last-name the fourth?”
“From your lips, to God’s ears,” my friend cooed.
I felt so sorry for this yet unconceived child. He was going to be beat and bullied on the playground. I needn’t have worried. During my visit to the South, the baby was a year old and I was introduced to his friends: Tripp, Carpenter, MacKenzie LaRue (yeah, that’s just one little girl), Greer, Poppy-Sue, Leslie (boy), Lesleigh (girl), Fennella, Trixie-Belle, Gaines, Travis, and Ryder-Beau. And poor Michael. I dubbed him ‘poor’ Michael, because he was decidedly the odd baby out.
Children in the South are cherished. And for good reason. They’re true Southern Beaux and Belles. They’re impossibly polite, articulate and well-mannered. They say ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘may I?’. They’re a cross between Children of the Corn and miniature Stepford wives. Good manners are transferred through mother’s milk and implemented by nannies and threats of physical punishment. “Don’t make me count to three!” has an entirely more threatening ring to it when spoken by someone who owns a gun. Children in the South attend cotillions and coming-out parties. (The latter of which has nothing to do with their sexual persuasion, and is called ‘sweet sixteen’ up north.) They call you ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and Mr/s First-name or Last-name depending on how close their parents’ relationship is to you. Me, for example, everyone insisted on calling ‘Miss Anne’, which to a Southerner became Mez Ian, something I’m still not entirely used to. This behavior quickly rubbed off on me during my visit to the South. Everyone became Mr. Somebody to me, until I met my friend’s yard person, Ed Rogers. It was impossible for me to call him Mister Ed or Mister Rogers. At least if I wanted to be taken seriously. Once I overheard my friend talking about him to her maid. “Mister Ed is almost done with the straw, and will then spread manure on the azaleas. As soon as he’s emptied his sprinkler, he’ll give you a ride home.”
Southern English is a language all its own. I think it’s the heat that makes Southerners not only talk slowly, but drop letters. In the grocery store I was offered a ‘buggy’ for a cart. ‘Tea’ is always iced and always sweet. If you want unsweetened tea, you not only have to order it unsweetened but also endure murmurs and odd looks. Yes, I’m not from ‘round here. ‘Chicken’ is always deep-fried. A non-alcoholic carbonated drink is a ‘coke’, even though it might turn out to be diet cherry vanilla Dr. Pepper. The living room is a ‘den’. Your car is a ‘truck’, but that’s mainly because everyone drives a pick up. Or a van or SUV, but that’s still a ‘truck’. Southerners need all that space for their guns and dogs and junk they pick up from other people’s curbs. You don’t go to the grocery store, you go to ‘The Pig’ or ‘The Marts’. And everyone enjoys a good ‘shag’. Well, so do I, but in the South they do it standing up, fully clothed and to music. They even have shagging contests. In the South the shag is a popular dance.
Once I was helping Trey put up some molding in the basement, and two pieces didn’t quite fit together. “Nothing a little cock won’t fix,” he said. I left the room, fearing what he might have in mind.
Your yard person is ‘the hired help’. And they get away with calling them that. Swearing is ‘cussin’, although no Southerner ever cusses. Or takes the Lord’s name in vain. This is the Bible Belt, after all. ‘Bless your heart’ means ‘good for you’. I think. Or quite possibly ‘you poor loser’. I’m not entirely sure. They say it a lot. Everyone, including perfect strangers are ‘dahlin’, ‘sugah’, ‘sweet-pea’ or ‘punkin’. For a shy Yankee Lutheran such as myself, it’s both unnatural to hear and nauseatingly uncomfortable to say. The only terms of endearment I’ve ever used are directed at my dog.
Even if I lived in the South for the rest of my life, I don’t think I could ever train my ears to fully comprehend Southern English. A friend of Trey’s once asked me if I had heard about “the group of gorillas killing fifty politicians in Columbia?”
“What? There are gorillas in Columbia?” Columbia is the capitol of South Carolina, which I assumed he was referring to.
“Oh, yes ma’am. And they’re vicious. They all carry illegal arms and will kill anything in sight. Especially those who stand in their way to overthrow the government. Nasty creatures.”
For a nano-second I pictured large monkeys carrying Uzis and AK-47’s before I realized that he was talking about guerrillas in Colombia.
You’re not a true Southerner unless you can trace your roots back to the revolutionary war or, preferably, farther back than that. Trey was considered to have married ‘beneath him’, when he not only married a Yankee girl, but one who didn’t know how deep her roots went. She was redeemed (in order of importance) by having a good ol’ Scottish maiden name (which she kept, and hyphenated and will give her first-born daughter as a middle name), became active in the Junior League and the country club, produced a son, quit her job and hired a maid, a nanny and a yard person. Oh, and bought a straw hat, and flower-printed yard gloves to wear if ever she went out in the yard. Which she didn’t.
Once I asked my friend how she could stand this idle life. “You don’t work, you don’t clean your own house, you don’t take care of your baby or your yard. What do you do all day?”
The following fifteen minutes consisted of excited pointing at a fully-loaded, leather-bound appointment book, where every minute of every day for the next six months was neatly prearranged between nails, golf, root touch-ups, massages, Junior League, church, work-out, parties and volunteer work.
The heat makes seemingly normal people act bizarrely. Cars in parking lots have their windows rolled down. Like, all the way down. Doors are never locked. And everyone knows that your doors are never locked. People kept popping in, unannounced, and said things like, “It’s so hot that the trees are whistling for the dogs!” or “Ever seen it so hot? Ah think mah AC unit packed up and migrated North!” or “Mercy! It’s so hot ah kint tell if Ahm having a hot flash!” No Yankee would ever profess to even having hot flashes. Other than that, I enjoyed these ‘it’s so hot’-jokes, until they started repeating themselves, and I found out that they’ve all been recycled for decades. But they were new to me! For an hour or so, anyway.
People in the South will drive around parking lots, seemingly aimlessly, until they grab the closest empty space, bolt into the store, pick up their half gallon of milk, and bolt back into their cars. Or alternatively, they stalk people bolting out of stores with their half gallon, and snatch the vacant space before anyone else can. Alternatively, they stalk the cars parked in the ‘shade’ of some wilting Crepe Myrtle, and if they’re lucky enough to get this prized spot, they risk having the bottoms of their shoes melt to the pavement, as they make the longer bolt into the climate-controlled store/office. I didn’t know until visiting the South in July that asphalt has a liquid form.
While cleaning the gutters one morning, my friend slipped on the ladder, and chipped a tooth. The appointment book flew out, and the dentist was contacted with an emergency. The earliest opening they had was that afternoon at two. My friend declined.
“Oh, dahlin’,” she told the receptionist on the other end. “Your parking lot has no shade, and it’ll be too hot by then. Don’t you have anything sooner?”
Trey was on the golf course, which is something you also schedule around the heat, so I offered to drive her there at two. The only good thing about scheduling your life around the heat, is that unless there’s a hurricane, you can plan out-door activities and not have to fear rain.
One afternoon, after church, Trey announced that he was going to take a nap. A nap! I thought this was Southern English for ‘couples time’ so I excused myself, and went to the Pig. Not only was I the only one there who was decidedly sweating, and blissfully standing in the cool air-flow of the beer aisle, but after loading up my buggy with that refreshing brew, I was told that I was denied my purchase.
“Oh, bless your heart, Sugah,” I said in my best Scarlett imitation, and pulled out my ID. I’m still not old enough to be flattered when asked to prove my age.
The poor clerk just stared at me. “You ain’t from ‘round here, are ya?”
“By leaw, ah kint sell likker on Sundays. Thas de leaw.”
Bloody Bible Belt.
The nearest state line, with more open-minded likker leaws was only an hour or so away, so I decided to go for it. I had to make a quick stop to re-fuel, and while idly watching the numbers tick away on the pump, another car pulled up.
“Hot, ain’t it?” the young man greeted me. I just smiled and nodded. He was the prototype on which Larry the Cable Guy was based. No matter how young and buff you are, nobody looks good in a tank top. Adding to that he was wearing a John Deere baseball cap and had long hair flowing down his neck. Another man, carrying a convenience-store bag full of jerky came out of the store and greeted the new-comer.
“Hey, Duane! Ain’t seen you in a while! Whatcha been up to?”
“Hey, Travis. Nothin much. Just got the west fence line dun up right nice, and ah reckon by tomorra we best get seedin right quick.”
“Ya still fixin ta …” and on they went. This conversation was loud, shouted across the gas pumps, with one guy on either side of me. As I was getting into my car, this last little snippet of conversation caught my attention:
Travis: “What’s with the mullet?”
Duane: “It’s sunscreen, Bubba. Been workin outside, don wanna get sun burnt. Don wan nobody ta think I’m some redneck!”
I drove off as quickly as I could in convulsions and with tears running down my cheeks.
I had loaded up my car with neighbor-state beer, and was almost at my friend’s house, when my dear, old, American made car died again. As I was only two blocks away, I thought I could push it to my friend’s house. It didn’t budge. Before I knew it, a pick up pulled up alongside me, and two men jumped out, armed with starter cables. When that didn’t work, they hooked my car to the truck and towed it to my friend’s house. This was done in near silence. I thanked them and they drove off. When I told my friend about this, thinking it was some sort of neighborhood watch, she just laughed and told me that “That’s what they do!”
“Southern good ol’ boys. Rednecks. Hillbillies. Hicks. Whatever derogatory name they’ve been called, they are friendly souls who always just happen to have the right tools in their truck. For no apparent reason. Except, …well … , have you seen yourself in the mirror lately? They probably jumped at the opportunity to help out a hot young blonde in distress.”
That night I slept with the lights on and the door locked, for fear of getting burglarized, raped and killed in my sleep. It’s hard for a Yankee to grasp that people are just helpful and neighborly for no apparent reason. And yet I didn’t even know the name of my night doorman at home. And the man was responsible for my safety and well-being. I was pretty sure it was Charles. Or quite possibly Adrian. I vowed to find out as soon as I returned to Chicago. Which I did. It’s Vincent.
Oh, and ‘nap’ isn’t Southern for sex. Fully respectable adults take naps in the afternoons.
Not only are Southerners a more helpful breed, they are also decidedly more friendly. In Chicago, I’d never dream of talking to strangers, more than I have to for work. I found out that in Nowhereville there was a park not too far from my friend’s house, and that there was a dog run in the corner of it. So happily puppy and I walked there the next morning, before it got too hot, hoping to make some new friends of the furry four-legged kind. Mine was the only dog there. However, there was a playground not too far away, and the local nannies had brought their brood, while they were sitting in the shade of some hundred year-old live oaks. The kids spotted my puppy and, like an army led by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, came running toward us.
“What’s her name? May I please pet her? Does she bite? May I walk her, please ma’am?” a chorus of questions ambushed me. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, I was under the strictest instructions never to approach a strange dog. Also, never to go anywhere with a stranger with a dog. I told the kids to go ask their nannies if they may play with the puppy, before I let them interact. I mean, really! I like kids just as much as the next single urban career girl, but these kids don’t know me! I could be the next Brian David Mitchell for all they know.
Another day, my friend and I were having lunch at an overpriced Mom ‘n’ Pop sandwich shop in downtown Nowhereville, when a young girl walked by. She had an arm and a leg in a cast, and was wearing a neck brace.
“Mercy!” my friend exclaimed. “What in the world happened to you?”
The girl explained (in great detail) the car accident she had been involved in. My friend ended the conversation with “Well, bless your heart, sugah. Your guardian angel was with you that time.” Where else but the Bible Belt can one get away with a phrase like that? I’m still astonished by how quickly my very Yankee friend had become Southernized.
Buying a new car is harrowing anywhere. Buying a new car in the South is an experience unlike any other. Without offending the car manufacturers in my former home-state of Michigan, let’s just say that my dear old Mercury was definitely disabled. A good friend and neighbor of Trey’s parents was a used car salesman, and offered to hook me up with a car and buy my old one.
“You won’t a pink Cadillac? I’ll git you a pink Cadillac!”
“Um, no thank you, sir. Just a dependable vehicle, that I can park anywhere, thanks.”
“Whatcha doin drivin this ol granny car anyway?”
After an hour on a steaming parking lot, listening to what kind of car this stranger ‘saw’ me in, we finally started kicking at tires. Thankfully Trey accompanied me on this excursion. I know nothing about cars. I think that’s already been established. Every time the guys popped their heads under another hood, I’d pop mine, too, and closely inspect … well … another engine. My skin was melting and my clothes had plastered themselves onto my skin, when the salesman asked me “You don won’t a V8, do you?”
“No, but a coke would be great, thanks!” I replied. Although I had meant it as a joke, my response just confirmed that I was as unaware of cars as I seemed. Eventually they agreed to a break. Blissful in the air-conditioned office, the guys continued their conversation. Imagine how hard it is for me to understand Southern English in the first place. Now, add car terms to that. They might as well have spoken pidgin-English, which I also never mastered. That evening, I drove away with a new used, reliable, low mileage car and a dinner date. I have no idea how either had happened.
Time and favors are as hard a currency in the South as dollars and cents are elsewhere. Example: you need your house painted. So, instead of calling the painter (God forbid) you fill a cooler with beer and call three friends. Let’s call them Tom, Dick and Harry. After a weekend, your house is painted, and next weekend you, Dick and Harry show up at Tom’s house to clear the kudzu and smilax off his fence line. Then, maybe Dick needs three strong guys to haul his old water heater from the basement, so you, Tom and Harry show up at his house and so on and so forth. Little did I know that I had become part of this cycle. My dinner date with the used car salesman turned out to be a favor in return for the great deal I got on the car. Apparently his momma would get off his back if she showed up with a girl to her annual something-or-other low country cooking hoopla. Unfortunately I didn’t find out about this deal until we were actually there. I was greeted by the salesman’s father “So, how’re you voting this year? And don’t tell me you’re one of those damn bra burning feminist liberal vegetarian lesbian Yankee types!”
“My sexual preferences are male, I eat everything and I spend too much money on bras to burn them, sir.” Feeling slightly uncomfortable about discussing politics in the first place, with anyone, I could feel my cheeks heating up as the conversation turned to a garment that supports my chest, when all I had said so far was ‘Nice to meet you’.
Southerners are conservative, hands down, no questions asked. Pro-life, NRA-members, anti-gay. I’m generalizing, of course, but that’s how the majority of them came across.
The low country food feast turned out to be a gastronomic experience. In comparison to my contemporaries I have traveled a lot. By the time I graduated law school, I had already visited easily twenty countries and spent a semester in India. So, I’m all for new culinary experiences. But nothing, not the yak burger in Nepal or the crickets in Thailand or the gator kabob in Kenya had prepared me for Southern cooking. It looked disgusting, tasted delicious, and there was far too much of it. Whoever came up with the concept of deep-frying everything should be hanged by his toes. Southern cuisine is bold. If I told my mother that I wanted to boil shrimp with sausage, she’d think me mad. Or butternut squash with apples. Or mustard greens with (saved) bacon grease. Or, really, mustard greens with anything. Or fried okra. Or make a pie out of potatoes and serve it with sausage gravy. Or grits, and the ten million different ways to serve them. I wondered if it was poverty induced necessity or general drunkenness that created these imaginative recipes. I could just hear the conversation now:
“What’s for supper, Maw?”
“Ah dunno, Cletus. What’s in that there back yard?”
“Nuthin’ but squirrels and smilax.”
“Well, y’all just go on ahead a shoot me a gosh darn squirrel, and dig me up a smilax root and we’ll have us a feast!”
“Ahm too drunk to shoot straight, Maw! Ain’t we got nuthin’ in yonder seller?”
“Got me some beets.”
“Got bacon grease?”
“Does the bear go in the woods?” (No profanity - it’s the Bible Belt, after all.)
“Well, mix ’em up, and see what we git!”
Although probably nine out of ten men (and some of the women) at the party must’ve been carrying guns, nobody put one to my head and made me eat. I simply couldn’t help myself, and by the end of the night, I couldn’t breathe, because the waistband of my pants was made for a decidedly smaller person. But the salesman’s mother liked a girl with a healthy appetite, and I had impressed her by asking for recipes. But more importantly - I had earned my reliable, inexpensive new used car. Totally worth it.
I spent the next day in bed, popping Tums with a Pepto-Bismol chaser.
Traffic in the Bible Belt is a religious experience. Pun intended. Because so many good ol boys’ first vehicle was a tractor, they now drive with the white line between the tires. The horn is used to greet people. And as everyone knows everyone, the horn is used a lot. Even when passing your house, whether you’re home or not. Stop signs are considered a terrible way to blemish an otherwise perfectly manicured lawn, and are therefore universally ignored. Blinkers are never used. If ever you see a car with the blinkers on, they must’ve been on when the car was bought. Since I was the only pedestrian in Nowhereville, the lack of turn signals frustrated me to no end. Trey told me that this was a small town, and everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew where everyone was going. So there’s no need to signal.
Another interesting factor in Nowhereville was the pride they took in the poor shape of their roads. Apparently, the worse shape the pavement is in, the better the neighborhood. Horse-people live on unpaved roads. Which, of course, is very considerate for the horses. There are actually signs along the streets that read ‘No horses allowed on sidewalks’. What sidewalks? That strip of grass that looks like the extension of someone’s lawn? I was told that the city doesn’t want through traffic in the nicer neighborhoods (that unfortunately lie conveniently between the two Marts). Or if there is through traffic, they’re forced to be considerate. The result - bad paving and several pot-holes. I was about to ask if speed-bumps wouldn’t have been easier, but decided against it, knowing that the response would’ve been that I ain’t from ‘round here. After that, I stopped questioning things altogether.
The first few nights away from Chicago, I found it impossible to sleep. It was far too quiet. There was no traffic, no horns and no sirens. The one time that I did hear a siren, the locals already knew what was going on, before the EMS did. A heavy plume of black smoke was visible is the distance.
“Ole Randy-Joe jus burnin tars agin,” I was told.
And there’s no traffic in the middle of the night, because there’s nowhere to go. Bars close promptly at midnight on Saturday and nothing is open on Sundays. No commerce is allowed until after church has let out. Even the Marts that’re open twenty-four hours, have sections roped off. The only thing you’re allowed to buy on the Lord’s day is fried anything and diapers.
Did I mention it was July when I visited my friend in the South? So, imagine my surprise, when the day after we finished unpacking and moving furniture, I was told that my friend was having her Christmas pictures taken. (And P.S. - political correctness doesn’t exist in the Bible Belt. It’s never ‘Holiday’ or ‘Season’, it’s always Christmas.) Last year my friend had been very pregnant this time of year, and for their Christmas cards, she had dressed up like the virgin Mary, Trey was Joseph, and somewhere they had produced a donkey. I received one of these cards last year. My friend looked petrified, Trey embarrassed and the donkey drugged. Turns out, it was. My friend didn’t live in the South this time last year, and they had driven to ‘momma an’ ‘ems’ just for the purpose of taking this picture. (Momma an’ ‘em could mean momma and poppa, or momma and her bridge club or just momma. Very confusing.) As it turns out, the horse-people of Nowhereville keep donkeys as companions for their studs. I know! Don’t ask, don’t tell, right? This poor donkey had never left the barn. In fact, he didn’t know about life outside his little cubicle. He threw a hissy fit, when the handler put him on the truck, bucked into the photographer when pulled into the studio and started screeching when the handler put a harness on him, sending my friend into contractions. The handler had given him a donkey-downer. My friend had asked for one for herself. Not once did it even occur to her to re-schedule just because she was in labor. Her son was born that night. Very much like the Biblical story they were trying to re-create.
After the trauma of their first Christmas card, this year’s was going to be subdued. Or so they thought. They were having the picture taken in their new house, and everyone was going to wear reindeer suits. (Who dreams up this stuff?) I feared the worst. I thought I had to spend the entire morning looking for an infant-sized reindeer suit in July in the South. I was told not to worry. My job would be to keep the baby smiling for the photographer. My friend disappeared to get her hair, nails and make-up done. The house was taken over by decorators. A Christmas tree appeared, and although it was a hundred and ten degrees outside, the fireplace was turned on and the lounge looked like Martha Stewart on acid had run through it. The photographer’s assistant showed up with the suits, and I questioned the need to have your hair, nails and make-up done. None of it would show. Your entire body could’ve been covered with boils, and no-one would’ve known.
“I would know, Sugah,” my friend said.
By the time we had wrestled the baby into the reindeer suit, taken it off him again to change his diapers, twice, and managed to put it on him again, shielding our ears from his protests, my friend was ready to trade the baby for the donkey. I was ready for a drink, and Trey was still at the golf course. I now understand why Hallmark is a billion-dollar business.
The return portion of my road trip was long and boring, but gave me lots of time to reflect on my first proper visit to the South. With an aching heart I noticed how much I had come to love that part of the country and the lifestyle. Living in downtown Chicago I had become spoiled, introverted and idle. Everything is within walking distance. And you only have to reach for the phone if you need anything at any hour. The Southerners are a friendlier, happier, more helpful people. They look out for each other and help strangers in need. In Chicago, I don’t even know the names of the people with whom I share a wall. Nodding at each other in the elevator is probably as friendly as we’ll ever get.
When I returned to work the following Monday, I was immediately summoned to my manager’s office. I usually stop at Starbucks on my way in for a coffee and bagel, hadn’t even had a bite yet, and my stomach was reminding me of that. Loudly. I was prepared to account for my whereabouts for the past week, although my vacation had been approved ages ago. My manager conveniently tends to forget such facts, whenever it suits him. Today, however, I was in for a surprise. I was offered a promotion. The company had taken over another property, and I was offered a relocation package, and an attractive raise, if I accepted this new position in … you guessed it … Nowhereville, Bible Belt. Visions of deep-fried sugar-plums danced in my head and my stomach answered for me. Puppy and I made the trip for the third time in ten days.
And then the hurricane hype started. But that’s a whole ‘nother story…
Causes Anne Harper Supports
Doctors without Borders. SPCA. American Cancer Society.