Southern by the Grace of God

Southern by the Grace of God

I just got back from Knoxville, Tennessee, visiting Matt, my best friend from my old life. The last time I hung out with him was a few years ago in downtown Atlanta. Back then he was strung out on half a dozen drugs, about 50 pounds underweight, and living with a girlfriend who cheated on him, in their little tenement apartment, right under his nose. It didn’t bother him as long as the guy (or girl) left a little meth behind, or something he could sell for a few bucks. Needless to say, that wasn’t one of my more fun vacations, and I spent most of the time drunk and hanging out at Little Five Points, avoiding the skinheads I used to fight (most of whom had become hippies) and hoping to run into someone else I knew. I didn’t.

So a few months ago, after not speaking for over three years (you try tracking down a junkie without a phone in a city 2000 miles from where you live), I got a call from him. He’s currently going to school, a partner in a furniture importing business, and, as my mom would put it, is off the wacky junk. Matt traced his path for me. He had finally hit rock bottom, losing his girlfriend, and getting kicked out of his apartment when he couldn’t make rent. His landlord kept most of his stuff as backpayment of rent, and Matt got the shit kicked out of him by two off-duty cops while returning to collect his belongings. While this shit alone would blow most of us out of the water for a while, fate was not done with Matt. The next week he got shot in the leg trying to collect some money owed him, had his wound mangled at the free clinic, and lived in his car for three months while his infected thigh slowly healed to the point he could walk without crutches. With nothing to do but sit around and think about why he had to live in a car, and no cash for drugs, he slowly brought his brain back from the dead, panhandled enough money to drive to a new state, and started all over, working two jobs to get a place, and eventually getting a grant to go to college (he nailed a 1280 on his SAT, first time, without even knowing what the test was all about). He told me all this and I almost cried, because up until that point, I had assumed he was dead, or at least in the category of ex-friends who might as well be dead. I bought a plane ticket to Tennessee the next day.

It was good to be back down South. I had a two hour layover in Memphis which I spent at the airport bar, dividing my attention between the sweaty lounge keyboard player rocking old Sly Stone songs, and the airport announcement guy, making statements over the intercom like, “Uh, Northwest passengers Connelly and Masters, y’all need ta meet yer parties at, uh, uh, wait, I got it here, uh, dammit, Gate 50, I mean 15. Thank you.” Things rarely run smoothly in the South, but no one seems to notice, or care.

Now, I know you probably think of the South as a scary wasteland full of inbred maniacs, a region to be avoided at all costs, or at least driven through at 100 mph on your way to Florida. You’re partly right, it can be a scary place. Jesus rules with an iron fist, race relations suck, and men base their virility on the size of their truck, but like anywhere, there are definitely cool things as well. For one thing, it’s pretty safe as long as you stay out of the big cities, which not nearly enough people do. Most smaller towns have hardly any crime, and must turn to the nearest big city for murder and rape stories on the news, which dominate papers and television for weeks. Also, because a somewhat repressive ghost hangs over much of the South, there’s a trillion cool little pockets where people, unlike their jaded city brethren, actually get off their asses and create things. If you want to be entertained you have to do it yourself.

When I finally reached Knoxville, the culture shock was shocking. I suddenly felt bad for shoving the old lady out of the way while exiting the plane, because I realized I had forgotten the main rule that holds the South together: politeness counts. While seemingly a contradiction, the region of the country perceived mostly as an uncivilized, ass backwards nether region of unsophisticated yahoos, is also the region of the country where someone is more likely to open a door for you, let you into traffic, or stop and help you fix your flat tire without shooting you in the face and stealing your car. Part of this may be due to the fact that everyone is raised to respect each other, and part of this may be due to the fact that most everyone owns a hunting rifle.

The airport had one gate for each airline, and the parking situation was solved by meters directly in front of the airport. I knew I was in trouble right away because the people who picked me up made fun of me for locking the car door at our first stop. “What is someone going to do? Steal the car?” You’re right, silly thought. They didn’t even pull the keys out of the ignition. I suppose if the car got stolen, it would be on the news for a week and probably get recovered due to the publicity, but it still seemed a little foolish to leave the keys. We talked differing car protocols for our respective cities. They couldn’t believe that I was stupid enough to buy The Club for my car, or that parking tickets were more than $10. I tried to explain the concept of Los Angeles driving that makes a 15 minute drive at 3am a 2 hour drive at 5pm, 24 hour traffic reports on the radio, and that you can leave for your destination at 8 am or 10 am and get there around the same time. They didn’t even believe me when I told them about the armed robbery I was in. These people walked by themselves downtown at 4 in the morning, carried all their cash in their wallets, and left the doors to their houses unlocked at night. ‘What is someone gonna steal, my clock radio? My James Brown tapes?” You’re right, silly thought. The flip side to all this is that if anyone did try to mug or rob any of these good old boys, they’d get a pretty good fight in the process, because Rule 2 of living in the South is: you’re going to get into fights. Down South, fighting is just considered another acquired life skill that one develops on the way to adulthood: negotiation, politeness, compromise, objective thinking, and the uppercut.

In Knoxville, the bars are open until 3 am (some open again at 5 am!) and the kids I hung out with definitely used every second of that late last call. The beer was cheap, and no one bothered to cover up the fact they were piss drunk by the end of the night. There were no pretenses of coolness, and everyone strove to make a complete ass of themselves in creative and unusual ways, catching me quite off guard. For once, I was the boring one. Too much time in a city where wearing a T-shirt out of the house is grounds to be removed from the premises had turned me into a self-conscious bore, something I wasn’t even aware of until I was the only one of the group not dancing on an object at least three feet off the ground. Someone threw a beer bottle at Matt’s head, which he caught it and threw back, all in good fun. Big coastal cities are boring, conservative, reactionary strongholds compared to shit that happens down South. Not to say cool stuff doesn’t happen in big cities, but you’d have to go to ‘Dance on the Pool Table Night with DJ Sparkplug’ and pay $20 bucks for the pleasure of drinking $6 Budweiser and being surrounded by clueless hipster clowns, and the first person to dance on the pool table would be a transvestite hired by the club to be outrageous and strange so everyone feels like they got their money’s worth, but no one wants to hang out for more than twenty minutes anyway other than the frat boy who drove all the way from campus to drunkenly hit on your girlfriend who drug you there in the first place. You know what I mean.

Going back down South really showed me what an asshole I’ve become after four years of living in Los Angeles. Believe it or not, I was once even-keeled, polite, and laid back to the point of a warm corpse. Five years ago, you’d have to sock me in the nose to get even the slightest rise out of me, and then I’d just ask you why you socked me in the nose. Now, I can’t even handle someone taking too long in front of me in the grocery store without getting bile and foam on my shirt. I had always been a smart ass, but most of my jokes were good natured, meant to make even the butt of the joke laugh. Now, far from being good natured, I’ve picked up this go-for-the-throat mentality that’s funny, but so meanly true that whoever I’m targeting seldom does more than smile and probably mark me for later execution. I’m always on edge, always on guard, and worst of all, I don’t even realize it.

I not sure what it is about living in a city that turns you into an uptight jerk. I think the constant hassle of what should be simple things, like buying groceries, or getting a bite to eat, becomes so annoying that you start looking at other people as obstacles instead of human beings, which makes the progression to asshole a logical one. Facelessness also allows you to fuck with people, because unlike living in a smaller town, you’re probably not going to see that lady you gave the finger to in traffic at your sister’s barbecue. There’s no real ramifications to acting like a selfish asshole, and since selfishness is the basic state of humanity, everyone can automatically revert to rudeness and even pump their own egos a bit further by claiming to be ‘assertive’ when they tell the story later. Plus, as you run into more jerks suffering under the same conditions you are, you can start coming up with hack theories that put everyone else below you, further justifying their rude treatment. This doesn’t make you an asshole, it makes you ‘urbane’, just like that new expensive car makes you classy. Living in a city, you face all your prejudices daily – race, class, sex, whatever, which is possibly one of the few benefits of urban life: learning to hate people for reasons other than their physical differences from you. Mostly, when you run into people in a city you get to see their worst faces, and then get to base your judgements on the ugliness.

This was the subject of many conversations with Matt. He had been introducing me to his friends and noticing the expression on my face as I met them. “Jeez, dude, it’s like a poker face, like you’re somehow gonna give up some negotiating position by smiling. These people don’t want anything from you, they just wanna get fucked up and have a good time.” It was true. Everyone I met was nice as hell, and here I was, ready for arguments that never happened, prepared to counter cut downs that were never spoken. I could defend my job, my lifestyle, and my stupid haircut against any small minded people looking for a fight. There just weren’t any around.

I was also having problems with how slow everyone was moving. Whether talking, walking, or driving, it seemed like everything was in slow motion. Far from being relaxing, it made me nervous. During my stint in higher education, I had a string of friends from New York who almost imploded on the stress free streets of Bloomington, Indiana. I couldn’t understand why they were having so many mental problems, why everything with them was such an intense endeavor, and I tormented them about it, which seemed to relax them a bit. Well, now it was my turn to suffer. My feet were tapping and my hands were drumming. “What are we doing now? What’s up next?” I don’t know how many times Matt had to smack me on the back of the neck and tell me to relax. He summed it up, “man, I was the one who lost everything, lived in my car, and spent the last three years getting myself to something that resembles normal. You’ve just been living in some big city with a cushy job for a few years. I’m the one who should be a bitter mean uptight creep, so cut it out you loser.”

At any rate, it was nice to go back to the region of the country I grew up in, even if I still don’t quite understand the place. It was good to go back to a friend who has known me since I was 10. A friend with whom I used to build booby traps on joggers’ trails. The guy I sat with outside of a grocery store and smoked a shoplifted pack of Marlboros when I was 12 (he picked up the habit, I never did.) The guy I used to skip 9th grade and go get high with at his 27-year-old punk rock girlfriend’s house. The friend that jacked the guy I was losing a fight to with a cue ball in a sock. A friend I couldn’t overwhelm with jokes or big words, wit or cruelty, who cared enough about me to call me on my shit and not let me get away with being a hypocrite just because I could make him laugh. A guy that knew me before I got all this bullshit wedged in my head about what was important, what life was about, and what a big shot I was. Hanging out with him, we were 16-year-old kids again, sitting in a beat up old car, drinking cups of gas station coffee, gagging on generic cigarettes, coming up with different ways of saying how fucked up the world was, how stupid people were, and how it shouldn’t be so hard to be happy. We had probably said the same exact things to each other 10 years earlier, in a different beat up old car, with more angst, more swearing, and fewer intelligent points, but back then we were just guessing at life’s sorry state. This time around, we knew.