Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Here, folks take an interest and remember, especially when you don't want them to. They remember the deeds of your forebears, too. While at work the other day, I met the great uncle of my neighbor across the street. He praised his grand-niece and her husband, and then added in a conspiratorial tone that one of her relations "on the other side" is "one of them no-good Jeb Parkers". [Apparently, the rest of the Parkers and their offspring turned out fine, except for Jeb and a few of his progeny]. The extended family is waiting with baited breath to see if Jeb's bad blood will come out in her son, who couldn't be any nicer for a nine-year-old boy. No wonder she sighs and shakes her head a lot, and they keep pretty much to themselves.

Ah, small town life. At times I'd rather be anonymous. I occasionally enjoy visits to large cities, because I can slip through unnoticed like a blood cell in an artery, propelled by the beat of urban life: a microscopic part of the whole. Whenever I take one of these field trips, though, I invariably feel saddened by the end of the day. Not only does no one in the urban organism know my name--or even care; the same incidental existence feels as though it must be true for every other inhabitant.

No, I'd rather live here. When I first came South, I was afraid that I wouldn't ever be accepted as one of the community because

(a) I came from the North (no matter what you were told about the Mason-Dixon Line in your American history class, Maryland is North, according to the South);
(b) Worse yet, I grew up in California!
(c) I don't drawl; and
(d) My last name isn't Parker, Rawls, Bond, Breland, Havard, Dickerson, Collins, Harper, Bond, Hartfield, Fairley, Dedeaux, Ladner, Saucier, Smith, or Thornton.

During my initial year here, the first question asked of me, after my name, was "Now then, darlin', who's yer kin?" In the rural Deep South, every person born within a 50 mile radius seems to become part of a collective mental pedigree known by every cognizant citizen over the age of 13. Even before names and "Pleased to meet you"'s are exchanged, the older folks will squint at you and strain to place your likeness on a branch of the communal tree: "You'd be powerfully favorin' Mr. Joe Dedeaux's kin...are you one of theirs?"

The downcast faces resulting from my explanation that I am, alas, not originally from these parts are even sadder than they would have been if I had told them I was related to Jeb Parker. If were one of Jeb's kin, I might have bad blood waitin' to come out, but at least I would already be part of the communal fold: a product of the hard work, gentle chidings, loving guidance, and fond doting of the extended family. There would be a general sense of relief that I would probably "turn out all right". I would be a variable compatible with local algorithms.

Kin or stranger, though, folks around these parts will evaluate you on your own merits. If you are honest, kind, hardworking, neighborly, and polite, they'll take you in as one of their own. They'll be inquisitive, yes; they'll also be helpful, compassionate, even protective.

Before long, you'll be thriving as a grafted branch of the communal tree. You'll feel your own roots creeping deeper into the red clay soil, giving you a sustenance that propels you forward in life even as you strengthen your ties with the history of this land and its people.

In other words, you'll be "country".

Coffee Break

I'm sitting at work, waiting for my coffee.

My boss is a tea drinker, and there isn't a coffee maker in the shop kitchen to take care of my afternoon cup of java. It isn't so much for the caffeine; it is more a ten-minute gift of repose and refreshment that I give to myself. Alright, I'll admit it--on SOME days, it's for the caffeine!

Fortunately for me, the Landmark Cafe is up the street. Along with usual pub grub and the best gumbo in town, they serve alligator meat po boys. I haven't tried one yet, but they're supposed to be good. The last time I ate there, I asked the waiter what alligator tastes like. He paused, lost in thought. I chuckled, and said, "Like chicken, right?" His expression dissipated into one of perplexity as his brow furrowed. "Why, no, Ma'am, it tastes like alligator."

I've gotten to know the proprietors, and they very kindly send someone to walk 2 blocks to bring me coffee on days when I'm working alone at the Herb Shop and can't get away.

Free with the coffee is conversation: "How's the little one doing? Has business at the shop been bad with Miss Vicki on vacation? You know some of the older folks like her better than you, no offense. Did Mr. John get that pothole in the driveway fixed alright?" I like this more than "Bad weather we're having", "Have a nice day", and the other usual impersonal niceties and pause-fillers people in larger towns tend to exchange.

The Landmark isn't really a Cafe with a capital 'C'. It looks almost like someplace you'd see in a late 19th century frontier town. The walls are decorated with photos of Lucedale around the turn of the century (town was founded in 1901) and memorabilia from varous ranches run by the extended family through whom the cafe ownership has been passed down. On the ceiling are fishing nets filled with glass bobbers, seashells, dried sea urchins, and a few taxidermied young alligators. I've never quite figured out the logic behind this juxtaposition. Maybe I've been too influenced by the modern world of advertising, suggesting that there has to be a unified "theme" to everything. Perhaps the odds and ends just tell a family story.

They don't do lattes in Lucedale--or capuccinos, or espressos, or even gourmet coffees. The Landmark just makes it "reg'lar", and I take it black, which makes it easy. And I'll be forever grateful that, after a long, hard day on my feet, the owner of the Landmark walks two blocks in the rain to bring me a cup.