Thursday, January 18, 2007

My Own Private Alabama

"Singin' songs about The Southland, I miss Alabamey once again and I think it's a sin..."

The great irony of my life is that in my salad days I was fascinated by Southern Literature... and then when I was all growed up I married into a Southern family. Trivia: Skychick is a distant cousin of Vernon Presley. I shit you not.

I was drawn to the sense of place that Southern writers created in their tales; my hometown did not inspire a sense of place. I grew up in the quintessential 'burb of Sunnyvale, Silicon Valley, California.. birthplace of Atari and Teri Hatcher and fertile farmlands that are now buried beneath shopping malls, asphalt, and housing developments. Sunnyvale was sterile while The South seemed profoundly visceral to me. In a nutshell, Harry Crews' A Childhood: The Biography of a Place and the Skynyrd song 'All I Can Do Is Write About It' are examples of what fascinated me about The South.

Harry Crews with Umlaut #2 - 1992

Fast forward a good number of years: I've been through rural Mississippi and Alabama almost a half dozen times. I've been in a "whites only" bar in rural Alabama, which was across the road from a "blacks only" bar (ironically both of the establishments were owned by the same person). I've browsed the aisles of the local Walmart and eaten at local eateries. I've driven kudzu lined country roads and walked in remote cow pastures where Civil War soldiers probably marched and fought. Of course I've been stared at because I'm obviously not a local.. and, yes, I've felt uncomfortable due to my own self-conscious nature, but I've never felt threatened in The South. I've never experienced racism there.

Needless to say, I have an entirely different perspective on The South than the one I had when I only read about it. What was once surreal is now real. What were once words on a page or songs on the stereo have become things I've seen, smelled, heard, and felt.

Recently, Skychick and I travelled back to The Deep South to attend a funeral. It was like our own version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. It's a tale that's been decades in the making, complete with a mindboggling list of pathos and irony worthy of Faulkner. However, that's a story for another time after I've gotten distance from everything that went down. The dramatic bullshit is still too painful to trivialize in this space. All I will say is that The Antagonist can burn in Hell for all I care.

We were in rural Alabama, close to the Mississippi border; the nearest town was 25 minutes away. It's the land where Skychick's family has lived for generations. Red dirt, kudzu, and a dry county.

I had tried to prepare myself for the funeral, but I was still expecting it to be one of the hardest things I would ever experience. The night before the burial there was a wake and viewing at the mortuary. Little did I know that I was about to have one of the most positive experiences of my life.

Despite the stormy weather, almost a hundred relatives, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors of the deceased came to pay their respects. This is a community where everyone knows everyone, and their families have known each other for generations... and most of these families have lived on the same land for generations. You rarely, if ever, encounter such a deeply rooted sense of community in California, which is very unfortunate.

It was a very sad event and hard to deal with emotionally, but I got caught up in how genuine these people were.. Some of them hadn't seen the deceased in years.. and a few hadn't seen each other in 50 years (!), but they all made the effort to pay their respects despite the bad weather and the passage of time. It was obvious that the deceased had made an impression on these good people; they all had stories and anecdotes.

To my surprise, people approached me to initiate conversations; I wasn't treated as an outsider. Yes, I was obviously different and not from around there, but it didn't matter because I was a member of the family. Any friend of your's is a friend of mine, etc.

During the course of the night I met a couple whose son is a physicist at Stanford University and who lives a mere 20 minutes from Casa de Umlaut. I met another couple who had moved and lived in the S.F. Bay Area for 30+ years, raised their kids here, and had only recently returned to their Sweet Home Alabama to live out their years. Obviously, when I'm in a place like The Deep South it can feel like I'm a million miles from home (both literally and figuratively), so encountering folks with ties to my Bay Area home was profound.

At one point I noticed the viewing room was filled with people and all of them were talking; it was a sad event, but it was also full of life. The deceased had brought all of these people together again and the room was alive with their conversations as they reconnected, shared stories, and comforted one another. As the deceased lay in the casket amidst all of this I was pretty overwhelmed; the vibe in the room was so positive. It was not what I had expected, and that was good.

Another thing that struck me was how this community treated The Antagonist. They were respectful to him, offered their condolences, but then moved on and kept their distance. Just as everyone knows everyone else out there, and everyone knows this family and that family, everyone also knows what he did. He was like an Old Testament pariah right here in the 21st Century.

Later that night the bad weather worsened and a tornado warning was even issued for the area. The heavy wind, rain, and thunder raged overnight and it didn't bode well for the funeral the next morning... but, lo and behold, the next morning broke sunny and even warm. The graveside service took place under a bright blue sky. It was quite amazing. Cue symbolism.

The next day before we headed back West, I spent some time wandering around outside of the house where we were staying. It sits on 20 acres and the nearest neighbor is a good quarter of a mile away. I thought to myself "How the fuck did I get here?"... I was a long, long way from my bedroom listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Cue irony.

Years ago when I drove in that part of Alabama at night for the first time I thought something was wrong with the headlights of the car. After awhile I realized that nothing was wrong with the headlights; I simply wasn't used to driving in such a rural area. There were few roadside objects for the headlights to reflect off of except the occasional trees, kudzu, mailboxes, and the random road kill. The headlights were almost ineffective against the pitch black darkness; the man-made light was simply swallowed by The Deep Southern Night. Cue symbolism.

It's been surreal to find myself connected to The South via blood and kin... and I know I'll have more experiences there before I leave this life. Cue Skynyrd.

The Old South: Sunrise - Millry, Alabama - April 2006
(Pic by Umlaut)

The New South: McDonald's - Mobile, Alabama - January 2007
(Pic by Umlaut)

"They've been known to pick a song or two.. yes they do..."

What I just related is now a couple of weeks in the past and I'm still working on getting settled back into my San Francisco reality. It's been a sad and surreal year so far, but hopefully things will get better as 2007 unfolds.

At the moment I'm reading a great anthology called Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? (Chin Music Press - 2006). It's a collection of stories and essays about The Big Easy written by residents with a post-Katrina perspective. One of the pieces was written by Ray Shea, who is an old friend of Skychick's. Ray grew up in NoLa but he and his wife also lived in S.F. and Austin, so some of you might know him.

Besides being an excellent read, the book is a beautiful example of what a small indie publisher can produce. It's the type of book that feels "different" when you hold it in your hands.

Last weekend I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in months; up until last June I had crossed it every workday for 5 years. It was a nice reality check for me. Despite my connection to The South, I'm a Bay Area Boy, born and bred. This is where my roots are... Cue Montrose.

"There's a red bridge across The Bay.. you'll be at my place in less than a day.."