It was late, and I was drunk, which (by my estimation) is a good start to any story. New York was larger-than-life to a boy like me, a boy who grew up with the Carolina Lowcountry running through his veins. Only hours earlier, I had hunkered down on a bar stool, somewhere deep in the womb of Manhattan, trying my damnedest to reckon with the astronomical realities of Times Square, the solar flares of Broadway, and the sensational awareness of finding myself at the center of the universe, when this woman leaned over and asked me where I was from.
“Charleston,” I answered, overwhelmed by the temptation to peek down her blouse.
“Charleston? Huh,” she said, as a sort of placeholder between thoughts. “Well, I got nothing good to say about the South.”
As for what happened next, it’s hard to say. (Like I said, I was drunk. And my memory wasn’t all that good to begin with.) Time, that night, moved like the landscape of a speeding car. I don’t remember how I responded, exactly, but looking back, I should’ve just let it go, yielded to the naivety of places I’ve never been. I’d like to tell you I minded my manners, that I threw her a lifeline, an act of mercy in case she misspoke, before I started into Tennessee Williams and Thomas Jefferson, before I asked her outright, “Ever heard of them? About 70% of our storied icons are from down there, by my estimation.”
(Get a few drinks in me, and statistics just fly out of my ass.)
Apologetics has always been a weakness of mine, especially in regards to my home. So the list went on, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Rights of Man. “I mean, what about Washington, for Christ’s sake?” I wanted to say. “You know? The father of our country?”
She curled her legs around the stool, as if bracing herself for some horrible truth that she had seen and seen and not yet seen. She glanced at the door, contemplated her escape.
“How about Faulkner and Twain?” I heard myself say. “Miss Zora Neale ring a bell? Jean Toomer? Langston Hughes?” The renaissance was in Harlem, but names will fool you.
She was native to Brooklyn, and in that, she believed she could attest to it all. But she was fidgeting now, as if surprised, in a way, by a life that could still surprise.
There’s a good chance she rode the bus, sat next to black people and never once considered the gift that was Rosa Parks. There’s a good chance that the very condensation on her glass came compliments of a Kentucky gentleman, a good chance that she shouted at her bedroom ceiling night after night, “I (too) have a dream” without ever thinking of the good Doctor King. And there’s a good chance I could have seen her for who she was, had I bothered to look. Perhaps then I could have granted her some peace in the well of that bar. Perhaps then I might have stopped myself or, better yet, never started.
But I was in the heat of it, in no time at all. I remember thinking, The South is blues and jazz and, yes, even that bastard rock ‘n’ roll. But did I say it out loud? The South is Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley and Nina Simone.
She looked at me like I was speaking in tongues.
“Hip hop itself took root in the cotton fields. Call and response,” I explained. “Church hymns. Spirituals. Go Down Moses.” Beauty born of pain.
I could’ve continued that list right on through closing time the following year.
(70%, after all, was a pretty good guess.)
I’d like to think, somewhere in the depths of her mind, a window was opened, a window on the world she never knew existed. I’d like to think she walked home alone later that night, under a sky illuminated by more than just stars and sky-rises and taxicab moons. I’d like to think we all have the power to change our mind. And yet chances are, I am no poet, no solicitor of truth, no raconteur of the rhetorically demonstrative. Chances are, I was as drunk as she was, and this babbling expository of mine succeeded only in convincing her of the weighty effects of intoxication.
“Really? Nothing good to say?” I might have shouted over the rooftops, had the look on her face not stopped me.
Her eyes were all avoidance patterns now.
So I took a deep breath, and allowed a smile.
“Let’s just forget all that for now,” I offered. “What do you say? Can I buy you a drink? We Southerners are known for our hospitality.”
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