On this journey I am amazed time and time again by the kindness of strangers, but nothing beats that Southern Hospitality.
AN ASS OUT OF U AND ME
It’s no secret that my politics are left of center. I was a citizen of the West Coast for decades, and during that time I met my fair share of well-meaning liberals who never traveled to the South, never intended to, but made blanket assumptions about Southerners. For example, many people assumed that the 10 years of my Mississippi public school education must have been inferior. In fact, the student-teacher classroom ratio in my little town was at most 20:1, and the teachers at my modest high school also taught across the street at the junior college. I excelled in math. Me – math! I was involved in extracurricular activities that required creativity and problem-solving. When I left as a sophomore in high school, I experienced firsthand an over-populated and over-burdened public school system in California. Classes were held in trailers. Teachers were notoriously late or sat in silence, reading newspapers while the class completed workbook assignments. Campus police and metal detectors were the norm. There was even a smoking area.
A lot of assumptions are made about the South, and really, it’s the South’s own fault. Slavery, the Civil War, and the pig-headedness and violence during the Civil Rights Movement are hard to forget. In modern times, some Southern states’ stances on the Second Amendment, separation of church and state, reproductive rights, marriage equality and accommodations in public facilities have been irrational and ingracious.
Yet and still, that Southern Hospitality exists, and persists. Would all my friends experience the same level of geniality? I cannot say; I sure hope so. But, what I can say is this White girl with the blue hair and tattoos and skull T-shirts has been met with nothing but warmth, kindness, generosity and courtesy, beyond that which is necessary or expected.
Seattle has a thing. It’s called “The Seattle Freeze.” If you attempt to strike up a conversation in an elevator or at a bus stop or at the deli counter in the grocery store, you are eyed with suspicion, as if you should be institutionalized. Not so in the South. All over the South, people are quick to ask questions and give compliments. Many have inquired about my rig, my website, and my hair color (when it was green, a man at a gas station said, “I love your hair. It’s the color of money!”).
On the recent return to my home town, people helped set up camp and gave rides and cooked meals and made Bundt cakes and bought lunch. Now, those are people I know, so that’s somewhat to be expected, right? But Southern Hospitality is also extended to perfect strangers. Here are some examples:
Starkville, Mississippi, at a restaurant:
Young Waitress: “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Hobohemian: “No, I’m not. Did my hair give me away?”
Waitress: “No, it’s your accent. Actually, your lack of accent.”
Hobohemian: “So what is there to do in Starkville?”
Waitress: “Not a lot, especially since school’s out, but my friends and I go skating at the roller rink every Tuesday night if you’d like to join us.”
Hurricane Mills, Tennessee: Waiting for the Loretta Lynn concert, I saw my scooter laying on its side in the grass in the parking lot. By the time I exited the venue and walked to the bike, two men had righted it, placing a block of wood under the kickstand in the soft grass. I thanked them, and they told me to keep the wood for next time.
Decatur, Mississippi: Storm clouds rolling in and wind picking up, young men ran from site to site at the campground, asking people if they needed help putting things away.
I must admit to some trepidation about returning to the South as I planned this summer. In Texas I expressed concern to a friend that my alternative look might garner animosity. My friend, a gay man living in Texas, replied, “Tammy, you are pre-judging people to pre-judge you. Wait and see what happens.” Coming from someone who has had more than his share of negative judgment, I heeded his advice, and exhaled. I’m so glad I did. He reminded me to take people as they are and meet them where they are, with no preconceived notions. When that is reciprocated, it’s a beautiful thing.