Saturday, June 20, 2015

But Charleston seemed like such a nice place


     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


25 comments:

  1. Time for a trip back to see if is still the same

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  2. To know what a place is really like you have to live there. And in places like the American South many dark secrets will remain undisclosed if you came from somewhere else.

    Tom Evans

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  3. "...that the rot of American's racial pathologies is always there, hidden."

    Not quite, as the Confederate flag still flies proudly in South Carolina.

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    1. Good point. I should have said, "is always there, ignored."

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    2. A couple good Twitter comments I've seen, for those who don't partake --

      John Ross Bowie: "a gentle reminder: The confederate flag is about 'states rights' the way the swastika is about 'fixing the German economy.'"

      Matt Ford: "I'm a big fan of the Confederate flag's final design" above a photo of a white flag.

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    3. Thanks for sharing, Jakash for the non twitter users. Exactly, states rights just meansrights for the southern white man only and thumbing noses at Federal laws and Const. amendments. Of course the north enabled them with the Hayes election and compromise in ending Reconst. too soon. Talk about putting off the 14th and 15th amendment.

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  4. It's ridiculous how they still obsess over or fly the losers flag. I saw it in VA once, higher than the Stars and Stripes.

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  5. Swell piece, NS. But, "...trends that played themselves out... ...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." Huh? If olive oil played itself out, it seems to me that a lot of folks, both trendy and otherwise, didn't get the memo. You can find plenty of places in Chicago that will still do that today, or at least have a bottle of olive oil on the table for one to pour it themselves.

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  6. I remember when I visited Branson, MO and right in the center of town there was a confederate pride store. This was late fall of 2008 and I was a little afraid of what people there might do to me when they heard I was from Chicago, but people were exceedingly friendly - the seemingly eternal disconnect of the south. It's not just the confederate flag either - an outer space alien might think that "Rebel" is the southern equivalent of "Acme" from all the establishments I saw with "Rebel" in the name.

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  7. Jakash,In most Italian restaurants and in Italy, olive oil never has or never will play itself out. They were ahead of realizing how good that is for you. What I ate as a kid, the others caught up to only recently. And how the other kids marveled at lunchtime over my genoa salami sandwiches with provolone, while they ate boring peanut butter or overly processed, tasteless baloney,lol. While others ate junk food like chips and pop all day, my folks knew in advance, that wasn't good.

    There's something to be said about the Meditteranean diet.


    When my grandma visited from Italy, she couldn't believe her eyes at the sight of Jello. And sure enough, there's nothing natural in it. Cole slaw or potato salad was another shocker. Unlike some latter immigrants though, my rels made it their business to learn English and of course were here legally.

    Ana- I wonder what it is the Confederates think they have to proud of? Lynching people who wanted to go to school or didn't shuffle enough? My fave general of the period is Sherman and he's justified in how he handled matters.

    Oh yes, southerners can be friendly, until you start talking politics with them or tell them they have an accent, lol.

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    1. Jakash, apologies if I you think I'm using this as a personal blog. Just adding to the subject. I could say more of experiences but I won't.

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    2. In the part of Italy I like to visit olive oil is always on the table, but not usually for dipping bread in. Most restaurants there do not serve salad covered with pre-mixed dressing. You make your own using the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper provided. The bread, which in Tuscany has no salt, is used to "fare la scarpetta," make the "little shoe" that walks around the plate sopping up what's left of the sauce.

      Tom Evans

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    3. Yum, you guys are making me hungry. (I'm half Italian -- my mother's side.)

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    4. Oh that's very interesting, Sandy. What part of Italy are they from on that side?

      lady

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    5. Northern Italy, near Reggio Emilia.

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    6. okay, that's suppose to be the preferred section to the peasants of the south ;)

      Some northern Italians can be snobbish toward the Southern ones.

      Bari, on both my sides. On the Adriatic in southeastern Italy. (barese) short e as the locals are called

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    7. Jell-o is natural as it it made from collagen that's dissolved out of animals. Various parts are used, but the bones & hooves seem to be used a lot.

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  8. Exactly, Tom. The pizza isn't covered in sauce and mozzarella but in some stewed tomatoes more like a focaccia. The southern Italians dip bread more, with oregano in the olive oil. I think you were in northern Italy, from what you mentioned about your trip. Yes, salad dressing is natural and with some seasonings, olive oil, lemon juice and bit of vinegar. Insalata! Yes, sauce dipping is popular and the bread nice and crusty brown. The soft wonder bread style of sliced sandwich bread was a culture shock when my rels first got here. I had a pal who come over when I was a kid, used to the soft bleached bread and she had trouble chewing it, lol.

    The alfredo type sauce is rarely used in the south and some Italians on the nw border of the Piedmont near France actually speak a bit of French at times, I understand.

    Yes, Tom, scarpa is shoe- I could talk to you all day, lol.

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    1. In Tuscany the bread is also allowed to get stale and used to thicken the ribbolita ("reboiled" bean soup.) Also to make bread salad.

      And the Italians are adaptable where tourists are concerned. A hand-lettered sign in front of a café in the ancient Etruscan town of Montalpulciano reads. "We do the American breakfast. With the eggs." Not a part of the Mediterranean diet.

      Sorry for going off track, but I enjoy sharing my affection for Italy and its inhabitants.

      Tom.

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    2. No one who's been there could blame you, Tom.

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  9. apologies to the host for hijacking on this side, it wasn't intended

    perhaps we can move the disc. to the other side after this

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  10. I don't believe one needs to go as far as the southern states to find "the rot of American's racial pathologies". We have our own history of deadly race riots, in Springfield 1908, Chicago 1919 and as recently as the 60's. We had our own, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith's killing spree, which was every bit as bad as Dylann Roof's atrocity. Despite these episodes, I see overall improvement in our nations attitude. In the past there was tacit approval of blatant racism, manifesting itself by defense attorneys having little difficulty assembling a jury that would acquit even the most egregious of malefactors. Dylann, and Matthew Hale, will live long enough to ponder what if they declare a race war, and no one comes. The people of Charleston and South Carolina, should now be judged on there support or lack thereof, for the victims families. This may well be the incident that gets the confederate flag removed from state buildings.

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  11. I understand de jure vs de facto segregation but the Jim Crow format in the south was much worse over time and deeper and entrenched then what went on in the north. Yes, I'm aware of the 1919 race riots, black migration,etc.

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  12. Olive oil in the south? Who knew?

    I'd have thought- ham, biscuits, gravy, grits, fried chicken, etc

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    1. Don't worry; those are all still amply available! But fare for the more sophisticated plate is there as well. And to judge New Orleans by the French Quarter is like thinking you know Chicago because you visited Navy Pier.

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