When I first moved to Ohio from Florida, I was always astounded at the level of stereotypes some Northerners had about my old home, the South. They treated it like it was a different country, like it was a place of stupidity and ignorance, like it was a waste land in most senses. I chalked a lot of this up to an unwillingness on many of their parts to critically look at their own surroundings...they were quite comfortable deconstructing an "other," but to deconstruct themselves? Many simply could not do it. A prime example came in one of my classes, where a long-forgotten student, talking about his own trip to the South, said "they're racist down there...not like up here." This student then couldn't figure out why I and three students-of-color were all laughing.
There are, admittedly, key differences between the two regions, the most obvious of them being the openness of the South in revealing its idiosyncrasies. People who feel strongly about race, about politics, about anything at all are quite willing to tell you. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this, you are also more apt to see the difference at work. Yes, there is an open level of anti-African American racism in many quarters, but I also see more places where both blacks and whites mix socially. For that matter, I see more mixed race couples than I do up here. Chalk it up to what Patterson Hood calls "the duality of the Southern Thing."
These are some of the dominant things stuck in my mind when I think about my basic faux-reunion trip, because the trip has made me reconsider much about my past, and my relationship to my previous place I called home.
When I first met my friend T, the first words out of his mouth were "I feel so much a liberal, I'm thinking about joining the Communist party." I do know how he feels. Personally, I saw a previously smart person I know espousing views that put him within shouting distance of a Libertarian militia. I saw news broadcasts overrun with stories about police shootings. I heard the terms HUD, apartment complex, blacks, poor, and crime made synonymous.
Now don't get me wrong...much of this, I was expecting. Jacksonville has always been a right wing, conservative enclave. However, my personal distance from all this was thrown, during this trip, into sharp contrast.
And it was not the only time where I felt my differences.
Because of my differences with most of my classmates, I avoided the reunion. I realized that to spend a C note to get into a honkey tonk's VIP room one night and eat at a hotel buffet while listening to 80s music would, in addition to just plain costing too much, be dishonest both to who I was in high school and who I am now. And when I talked to my friends, the ones I did connect with and in fact wanted to see, I realized that they felt similar. One friend, D, upon hearing I would not be going at all, developed a deer-in-the-headlights "I gotta go through this alone?" look of terror.
Instead of the reunion, I decided to stay true to my high school character and went to a heavy metal show with some friends. Some of the bands, however, made me feel way too distanced from my heavy metal past. There was way too much cookie monster singing. Way too much stuff was in dropped-D tuning. Hardly anyone on stage looked like they were having a good time...certainly not the singer in a (no lie) clown mask. I did get to see an awesome band called Glorious Gunner that made me cackle with joy, but it was clear this is an identity I can no longer claim wholesale.
I felt very disconnected with the city. Distances became too long. The environment, littered with an increasing number of gambling parlors and strip clubs, seemed more scummy than anything. The heat was way too oppressive. And the "strip malls and subdivisions" layout of many areas just bored me.
What did I still enjoy? Well, there is the food. Day one, I had great fish. Midwesterners still don't get fish, but then again, they only see 2 week old garbage in the grocery stores. I also had great barbecue, and that alone marks the South as a truly cultured part of the country. And how can a place which has boiled peanuts be entirely bad?
Then there are the people...my family and friends, people with awesome talents, hidden depths, lives both heroic and tragic. I have not told half of whom I've seen or what I did, but if anything could draw me back, it would be them.
In the end, though, it was clearer to me than ever that Jacksonville is not my home, and nor will it ever be. And although I feel sadness for having to leave many people, they are the only thing there to which I'm really attached. We will all have to come to terms with me only, from now on, being a visitor to the place that used to be my home. It's a feeling that I've known for a while, but this trip made it clear. Moreover, I also feel fine knowing that this is how things are.
Although I would admittedly feel better about everything if I could just get good barbecue up here.