Saturday, January 10, 2009

My People

A somewhat surprising (to me) moment on my recent west coast visit....

Karen and I flew to Washington the day after Christmas - her sister (and family) and brother live near Bellingham, halfway between Seattle and Vancouver. We got to Seattle fairly late in the evening and went straight to a hotel near the airport before driving north the next morning. For us, one thing that makes staying in a hotel kind of a treat is cable TV. We don't have "The Cable" at home. Yeah, I know... pretty pathetic, eh? There is very little on television that is compelling enough to tear me away from listening to music in the evenings, and Karen is cheap, so we don't have cable.

But it's fun to flip through all those channels when traveling, at least for the first 10 or 15 minutes. After that, I realize that we're not missing much, although Karen can usually find something that entertains her. That night in Seattle I lost interest pretty quickly and got out my iPod. Karen manned the TV remote and eventually settled on the (or a) Food Network. At one point, the screen caught my eye and I turned off the iPod - there was a feature on Gus's Chicken in Memphis. The show's host was interviewing a large, confident African-American woman connected with the restaurant; in the background was a tattooed, bandannaed customer whose best one-word description would be "redneck." The place was full of customers and employees of all shapes, sizes, and colors, but most of whom seemed tangibly Southern. Before I could think about it, I blurted out, "Those are my people!"

I was born in Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and have lived in Georgia all of my life - in the suburbs, in a small town, and now in the city. For much of that time, I have felt somewhat like a fish out of water - like I don't really belong. At times I have despised the South, and I am almost always exasperated by it and its people. But from 2200 miles away I felt its pull - and like I said, it was somewhat surprising to me. It's home, for better or worse. I love to travel, but I start to feel unsettled when I have spent too long away from good barbecue, the blues, and red clay. When Karen took me to Nebraska to meet her family for the first time, I remember thinking, "I sure am a long way from New Orleans."

I mean, I'm not kidding myself. The South is still racist, intolerant, and superstitious. But Southerners are also touchingly loyal to people they like and capable of surprising kindness to people they don't like. In any case, the South is in my blood, and my reaction to seeing it from so far away was strong, immediate, and visceral. I guess I'm stuck with the South - but it's also stuck with me.