The murder of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a scowling 21-year-old racist mope with the apt name of Dylann Roof transfixed the nation. Several readers asked my opinion, but I resisted, as my views can be expressed in a single sentence both brief and obvious: "There are too many guns, mentally ill people can get them, and nothing will be done now because if it were possible something would have been done before." I suppose I could parse the difference between being motivated by hate and motivated by craziness—it can be a fine line—but that seems like splitting hairs.
The only other possible contribution I could make—and I'm not sure this is worth mentioning either—is that Charleston seemed like such a beautiful and refined place to have this happen. I was there 16 years ago, on my ocean voyage with my father, and was awestruck by the city. I'm sure, touring Charleston for a few days, I missed the racial hate roiling under the surface, a reminder to those keening for their magic pasts, that the rot of American's racial pathologies is always there, hidden. I smiled at the mention of searching the town for a New York Times. There was an Internet in 1999—the ship's radio operator transmitted my column at some maddeningly slow rate: I think it took half an hour. And people carried cell phones, but not offering you the news of the world at a glance, which we have now, as unwelcome as that news often is.
I always thought those Ralph Lauren ads were a lie.
Where in the world, except in a magazine layout, would women that beautiful and men that handsome be decked out in summer linens that splendid while cavorting in public parks with children wearing, not oversize neon T-shirts with the names of skateboard companies splashed across them, but white button-down Oxfords with ties, or little yellow dresses with straw bonnets?
The answer is: Charleston.
Over one weekend, I saw more boys in sailor suits and knee socks, more girls in Laura Ashley florals and patent leather shoes, more women in smart sleeveless summer dresses, more men in suits while not at the office, more elderly ladies in wide-brimmed hats, than I would see in a year in Chicago.
I glimpsed them at restaurants and in the parks.
I passed a picnic at St. Michael's Church and had to collect my jaw off the street. It was like stumbling upon a living Seurat painting.
And that was just the beginning. Since travelers always moan, based on their experiences at the Airport Hotel, that the Gap and McDonald's have turned America into one vast undifferentiated nowhere, I am happy to report that it just isn't true.
At least not here.
Besides natty clothes, Charleston was filled with behaviors unknown to a place like Chicago. I was in a cab where the cabby, noticing a little boy standing by himself in a parking lot, stopped the cab and quizzed the boy about where his daddy was. The boy was a little uncertain at first, and the cabby kept talking to him until the daddy appeared. I was in a rush, late for a party. But falling into the Charleston spell, I kept quiet and tipped big.
I'm here with a bunch of New Yorkers, and they told similar stories.
One man said he never had the door held for him so much in his life. One woman said that when she tried to get the check and hurry onward after lunch, the waiter challenged her, wanting to know what the big rush was about, and why wouldn't she sit a spell and relax?
Not all of the differences were charming. Some were plain odd. The first restaurant I went into had only little airplane bottles of booze behind the bar. I figured it had to be some eccentricity of that particular place. Maybe the owner was a nostalgic pilot.
But no. Every bar and restaurant in the state is forced to have these tiny bottles by some arcane law designed to hobble vice. The poor bartenders spend a lot of time twisting off these tiny caps, and tapping out the last drop.
The other strange thing about Charleston was the way I kept running into culinary trends that played themselves out 10 years ago in Chicago, if not before.
Take croissants. They're still a big deal here. So is olive oil. At one place, as soon as we sat down the waitress poured a pool of olive oil into each bread plate. Talk about a nostalgic moment. I couldn't have been more stunned if the waitstaff had suddenly started doing "The Loco-Motion."
I can't remember visiting a city that was more provincial — not only couldn't I find the New York Times, I couldn't even find a drugstore that sold Newsweek. I might as well have been looking for a snowman.
But for someone who tires of the T-shirt shops and china clown face boutiques that wreck most historic cities, Charleston is refreshing. I kept thinking about my visits to New Orleans, wandering around the French Quarter, wondering what the place must have been like before it was completely overwhelmed by tourism, overgrown with a coral reef of frozen drink stands and fudge shops.
Now I know — it must have been like Charleston.
—first published in the Sun-Times, June 3, 1999