Southern Subjectivity

I’m always happy when something strikes me as “Southern.” My sister works in a retirement home in Ridgeland, Mississippi. A 95-year old resident gave her a little frosted-plastic, crystal-looking Christmas tree to sit on her mantle. Inside it, a soft glowing light gently cycles through the color spectrum. My sister said that the next time she went to work, the old lady who gave her this lovely object asked, “Did ya watch it change colors?”

We laughed about that over the several days I visited. I don’t know if the old lady herself is a native to the South, but the way we laughed about “Did ya watch it change colors?” felt VERY Mississippi.

Outside of the South, the old lady would probably have worded the question differently: “Did you NOTICE that the Christmas tree changes color.”

Of course, the real purpose of this question would be to ask, “Did you LIKE the gift I gave you? After all, I bothered to give you something, so maybe you could SAY something about it to make me feel good.”

She could have given me a loaf of banana bread. Did you like the chocolate chips in it? Maybe I didn’t eat it. What if I say “yeah, I loved the chocolate chips” and there were no chocolate chips?

What if I say “Yeah, I noticed that the color changes” and the color doesn’t in fact change?

Awkward.

However, the literal meaning of her question is to ask whether I was AWARE of this color-changing feature. Maybe I ripped open the package and didn’t read the box: “No! Holy shit! I DIDN’T notice that it changes color! I’ll rush home now and put in the batteries. Gosh, I feel so stupid.”

But here’s the thing that goes back to my point about the South. If old Mrs. Buchwald at the New York Retirement Home asked me “Did you notice it changes color?” I probably wouldn’t think to relate it to you as a “funny story.”

I don’t know. Maybe Mrs. Buchwald is very haughty. Maybe it occurred to her that I might be an idiot. I wouldn’t know about the color-changing feature and would think that she just gave me a piece-of-shit plastic statue. No, no, no, it’s a thing that DOES something. God forbid you think I actually believe the plastic statue … in itself, without this changing light … has any value!

I might tell you THAT as a funny story. Vain old woman!

But what if Mrs. Buchwald in the New York Retirement Home actually used the words: “Did you watch it change colors?” That would be a little more unusual.

Maybe I did read the package. I put in the batteries. I turned on the light. HOWEVER, I walked away before actually WITNESSING the colors change.

On the contrary, Mrs. Buchwald! I did indeed WATCH the colors change in the little Christmas tree.

Am I obliged to tell her how long I watched the tree? Is there an acceptable duration?

But back in Mississippi, my sister and I know what Mrs. Eubanks was really asking. She was asking: “Were you AMAZED? Did it blow your mind?” She was treating the gift as a piece of groundbreaking technology. A light that changes color inside a semi-transparent object! Goddamn!

Or maybe it was more about the concept of using the technology this way. Finally, it occurred to someone … to some GENIUS … to use this astonishing technology to enhance a holiday ornament.

Wow!

Either way, what are you supposed to say to this question? Was I amazed?

Back in New York, if I believed that Mrs. Buchwald really and truly thought that this plastic Christmas tree was some advanced new product from Bell Labs and that I had never dreamed of seeing a light that changed colors in a Christmas tree statue, I’d feel a twinge of pathos. Poor old woman has lost touch with reality. When I tell you the story about her asking “Did you watch it change colors?” we might chuckle but with a bit of reservation out of respect for the dementia of the aged. It’s both funny and sad that this old lady thinks that anyone would be amazed by this color effect.

What would be more unusual in New York would be if Mrs. Buchwald, knowing full well that she gave me a cheap plastic gadget, PRETENDED it was an advanced piece of technology and expected me in turn to play along. It would be weird to feel socially obliged to pretend to be amazed. It would be weird to feel like I had to act genuinely astonished over the plastic Christmas tree when Mrs. Buchwald knows good and well that I’m not.

But that’s what my sister had to do with Mrs. Eubanks! Yes! I did watch it change colors! Wow!

If my sister wanted to be rude, she could’ve sat Mrs. Eubanks down and asked, “Now, you DO know that I’ve seen a lot of tchotchkes like this, right? You DO understand that you aren’t the first person to give a color-changing Christmas ornament to someone, right?” Mrs. Eubanks would surely get a sour look on her face and say, “Honey, what’s wrong with you? Why you gotta be ugly? You think I’m a moron?”

A key factor with this plastic Christmas tree is how the colors change SLOWLY.

You glance at it. It’s glowing deep violet. Then you turn away to do other stuff. You’re not really thinking about some tree on the mantle. Then you glance at it again. It’s green. But it doesn’t hit you that it hasn’t ALWAYS been green. Because, again, you aren’t really thinking about it.

But this shifting reality … first it’s violet … then it was green … now it’s orange … it strikes your subconscious enough times to bubble up into your conscious brain and you think: “Now wait a minute! I could swear that tree was blue!”

So … finally … you give it your conscious attention for more than a glance. You WITNESS the transition. You WATCH it change colors.

Yes! Yes, Mrs. Eubanks, I watched it change colors!

So what 95-year old Mrs. Eubanks is really doing is EXAGGERATING the effect that the subtlety of the transition has on you. The color change seems a little sneaky, so you have the fleeting impression that you have to catch it in the act.

But “fleeting” is the operative word here. You’re not really thinking much about the tree either way. Then for like a nanosecond out the corner of your eye it blips through your mind “Oh, it changes color.”

For zen-master Mrs. Eubanks, this nanosecond is an eternity, I suppose. Catching that sneaky tree in the act of changing colors is an event.

But her question “Did ya watch it changes colors?” made us realize that subliminally it was just as much of an event for us!

Nanosecond or not, there was a brief instant where we thought, “Damn, it changes color!”

That’s the funny part.

But in the South, one of the luxuries of aging is the right to say the obvious. We’ve all heard a grandfather or some senior relative say, while pointing at the TV, “Why, she’s twirling that baton while it’s on fire.” Yes, the baton is in fact flaming.

Or “Ha! Barney’s taking the bullet out of his pocket!”

Or “Look at Garth! He’s swinging out of over the audience on a rope. Looks like he’s flying.”

Superficially, this might look dumb, but I think culturally the humor of stating the obvious is pretty sophisticated. Or maybe I’m dumb.

But, more important, to me anyway, is how this way of looking at the world enriches life.

In New York, someone might take me to a restaurant and say, “Oh, try the asiago cheese balls. They’re really good.” Okay. Mmm. Yes, they do taste good.

In Mississippi, my host will take me to some random little restaurant and say, “Taste that fried okra. You have never in your life put anything that good in your mouth!”

And, really, that’s how it feels when you taste something good. For a fleeting moment, that taste is the ONLY reality. For a fleeting moment, nothing else has ever tasted that good. Ever.

So … in the South … you SAY it: “This is the best food I have ever eaten.”

To think, WHILE you’re biting into something, “This country sausage is not as good as some other country sausage I’ve had at some point in the past” is to be disconnected from that moment of being in space and time.

Sure, it’s how our screwed up brains work. You might even theorize that this is what we mean when we say we are spiritually in a fallen state. In the Garden of Eden, when Adam bit into country sausage, he fully merged with that culinary reality.

I’m glad to have a Southern hack to short circuit too much thinking: “Damn, no one makes ribs this good!”

What? No one? On the planet? The art of barbeque has become one of the great culinary contests of our age. “Who makes the best ribs?” is question that starts fist fights. Thousands of restaurants have made it their mission to win this title.

Yet here I am in some strip mall in Mississippi saying, “No one else … on the face of the earth … makes ribs as good as this anonymous little joint.”

How can I just SAY that?

Well, because in that moment it’s true for my mouth.

And, yeah, in that fleeting moment when my brain realizes that this Christmas tree is turning from red to green, it is truly amazing. Somewhere deep in my brain, my primate self leaps around like those monkeys in 2001 freaking out over the monolith.

Hell, yeah, Mrs. Eubanks, I DID watch it change colors.

Down and Out in the Monteleone

I’m back in my beloved Hotel Monteleone. I fly back to Brooklyn in the morning.

Instead of strolling over to Pirate’s Alley as I had intended, I never left the Carousel Bar downstairs. I clicked around a full 360 degrees four times, one tall Maker’s for each trip. In the mirror behind the bartender, I kept making eyes at a nice-looking lady with a beauty-shop hairdo and burgundy lipstick. Or burGUNdy, since we’re in New Orleans. I figured she was a soccer mom down from Laurel. Hot to trot in the Big Easy. But then her husband arrived, bald and paunchy. Not that I’m a prize. At least she shot me a wistful parting glance.

Now I’m back upstairs looking out at the cars crossing the bridge in the distance. Sipping on my Maker’s. I was stumbling halfway out of the bar before I remembered I could pour my drink into a plastic to-go cup.

Little stars are moving across the bridge.

Glad I have the Maker’s even if it has taken me to a place of despair instead the oblivion I was seeking. Granted it’s a luxuriant despair. I’m propped up here on the pillows of my king-sized bed. I’ve cracked open the window to hear the street sounds. Predictably, a little trio is playing 14 floors down on Royal. A trumpet, a tuba and a snare. “Saint James Infirmary” – appropriate for my mood, but it even sounds French Quarter-happy bouncing up over all the people out to party.

I’m here up above full of a sense of fatigue. The phrase “I’m tired of fighting” is running through my brain. I think I just said that out loud even.

The crazy thing is, I’ve never really seen myself being in a fight. Not in particular. As such. But it’s like I’m saying to the bridge: I’m tired of fighting THIS fight, the fight I’ve been fighting since WHEN. Since forever. THE fight.

Anyway.

This will amuse you. I was over in Biloxi in the big condo by the beach. I think I was on the 14th floor there too. Or maybe I’m just distorting reality to force symmetry. Either way, we were up a bit.

But I drove around to the Winn Dixie to stock up for the weekend, and, damn, they were smoking ribs in the parking lot. Holy shit. With corn on the grill. A big pot of baked beans. I ate a piled-up plate in the car and got soaked in BBQ sauce. Amazing.

Driving back, I turned onto Beach Highway and there was this biker going along next to me. I don’t think he had a helmet on or maybe just one of those old ones that don’t cover your whole head in a bubble. I just have a clear picture of his sunglasses and big mustache. Classic biker from central casting. Denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off at the shoulder. Skull tattoo on his bicep.

But he wasn’t passing me. Just riding along side. So I slowed down. Then he slowed down. Then I slowed down more. He slowed down more. And, you know, there are only those two lanes, so the traffic’s backing up in my rear view. So I speed back up to the limit. And he speeds back up and is still right there at my elbow. I speed up a bit more.

He speeds up a bit more. He never turns to look at me. Just cruises along. Sputtering. It was a Harley.

So I was wondering, “What the hell? What have I done to provoke this?” I didn’t remember cutting him off or anything. Wouldn’t he be screaming at me if I had pissed him off?

Was this a butch gay thing? Like one of those guys who goes to Rawhide on the weekend? Was I supposed to know the signals? Was I supposed to know how, where and when to pull off the road so he could blow me or I could blow him – however gay-butch-biker scenarios are supposed to be worked out on Highway 90 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I decided that I shouldn’t try to go faster. The speed limit is 45, I think. Plus I was worried it’d be aggressive or flirty in a butch-gay-biker way. “Try to catch me, Big Boy.”

So I slowed down to 20 or something ridiculous. He stuck with me for a second or two then sputtered off.

Weird, huh?

I felt bad I’m not gay. You never have women chasing you on a Harley for sex. Some blonde real estate agent in a beige skirt and heels. A bright smile. Mouthing in the wind: “Can I suck your dick?” Oh, okay, fine. I’ll pull over.

Now they’re playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Anyway. I’m trying to figure out what happened in Biloxi that might’ve triggered this crisis crashing down on me.

Really it was the same boring trip as usual, sitting around with my family. It hurts to laugh at the same story about Mark crashing the mini-bike into my uncle’s Volkswagen. It’s not really funny anymore. But it’s a reflex to laugh. My mouth and lungs laugh. Ha, ha, ha.

Maybe seeing how everyone aged got to me. You don’t see yourself getting old. Not really. But then after another year of living in your own world you see how your father has shrunk and your brother just looks like some random old guy in line at the hardware store. So I have to figure I look like a random old guy too. But I can’t say I was conscious of any profound brooding about getting old.

I got up this morning early before the drive back to New Orleans. No one else in the condo was awake. I sat out on the balcony with my coffee and watched the sun come up. 14 or however many stories up looking across the Gulf you can see how shallow it is. Big lumps of sand pushing up through the indigo water. Looks like you could wade all the way to Cancun.

What always hits me on these visits is how this, the coast, is still Mississippi. It looks like a beach but doesn’t have the paradisiacal temperate atmosphere like Laguna or Cancun. It’s still hot, muggy Mississippi.

I had stolen one of my sister’s Marlboros. Forgot how good one is with a black coffee. But all of a sudden, sitting there, I just remembered what it felt like to live in Mississippi. I mean this in a deep existential way: the experience of BEING in Mississippi.

Paul Bowles said, “Certain areas of the earth’s surface contain more magic than others. Had anyone asked me what I meant by ‘magic’ I should probably have defined the word by calling it a secret connection between the world of nature and the consciousness of man, a hidden but direct passage which bypasses the mind.”

He was mainly thinking about Morocco.

Mississippi, I think, is magical in the same way. But neither Bowles nor I mean by “magical” what the commercials mean when they say Disney world or some cruise is “magical.” In Bowles’ stories, you find people getting their tongues cut out or just confronting the vast pointlessness of existence by having a tea party in a sand storm.

My Mississippi was … is … a formula for me: heat plus mass insanity equals Mississippi. The insanity is like Eliot’s London fog seeping in everywhere. Or like how in the days before cars, the smell of horse piss followed you everywhere. Even in the nicest salons. Growing up and for as long as I lived in Mississippi, no matter where I was or who I was talking to, Faulkner’s Benjy was wailing nearby. In fact, the crazy feeling you get reading “The Sound and the Fury” is exactly the magic I’m thinking about.

I drove back to New Orleans on Beach Highway with the familiar manic feeling of moving through a myth or dream. A bright cloudless sky with a burning Choctaw sun-god sun blazing over the twisted live oaks.

But the moment I was cruising down Canal, passing the palm trees and a street car, the insanity lifted.  Then when I got to the front of the Monteleone and slipped my $5 to the bell captain and saw the big grandfather clock in the lobby, I was sort of laughing at how I go through the same experience every visit – falling deep into a crazed existential mania in Mississippi that has vanished by the time I sit down at the Carousel bar.

But this time, as I clicked around, a last thin gossamer thread to that insanity remained. The crazy Mississippi magic was leaking into my real world. I looked around the bar — Midwestern tourists, frat boys, a group of women erupting in violent laughter – and could see the insanity glinting and flashing here and there. Benjy was about to start howling.

I’m just talking about that panic you feel when it seems crazy and random that we’re here, all of us, in space and time. And it’s more like we aren’t really here but none of us has realized it. We’re all ghosts. Haunting the Beach Highway. Haunting the Winn Dixie parking lot. And now haunting the Carousel bar.

At the other end of the long room of tables with candles, a little band started playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The French Quarter is hilarious. There’s always someone playing “Saints,” and, as long as you’re drunk, it always makes you feel good. And it was almost comical in that moment in the Carousel downstairs. It struck me that the utter madness of playing “Saints” at the least provocation cancels out that insane magic out there beyond the city trying to come flooding over the levee.

My Katrina reference isn’t accidental.

Beyond the human tragedy of that storm, there was a mythological shock of seeing the city flooded, seeing the failure of the levee to keep out the water.

It’s the same thing Bowles was describing in “The Sheltering Sky” – the idea that the dome of manic blue over Morocco held back the night. It could crack like an eggshell any time.

With “The Saints” pushing back the darkness, I ordered another Maker’s. I orbited on my stool and listened to the whole set, then stumbled back into the hotel lobby with my drink. But the blues were already spilling over the levee. The joy … that wonderful drunk New Orleans joy … was flooded by the heavy feeling of wanting to weep.

So here I am propped up on my pillows watching the lights move back and forth over the river. “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” coming up from Royal.

I’m exhausted holding out the darkness all of these years, holding out the idea that there’s no point to it all, that I can never get anywhere, that I left Mississippi but it never left me.

I’m just sitting here in this king-sized bed letting the darkness come flooding in, filling my heart.

Surrender.

14 floors down, the little trio just finished up “Closer Walker.” They went right into another tune.

Can you guess what it is?