I give a talk in a community center in Memphis which goes well — an attentive older audience — but they haven’t come to buy my books, even prettily signed ones. After the talk is finished, they want to tell me about themselves, their ancestors, and their family histories. So I listen. Then, catch a bus south, to Mobile, Alabama.
A man sits beside me in the station, one of those tall, slender, livewires with a full black handlebar mustache and wild grin. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, but the comments and one-liners come with such speed, I don’t have time to remember a word. He’s a magic person, the sort you meet rarely in life: no ready-made jokes for him, no reworked stories, just another way of seeing things, seeing them quickly, and knowing how to manipulate irony. What does he do for a living? He’s a coal miner.
I must have stared with astonishment as the old mining images race through my head, mining communities described as “open cesspits” where, “after the covering of trees was ripped out, mud slid down the hills in torrents, covered tents, and smothered the men inside.” In those places, there was no good water to be had; lice were combed away with bowie knives; to fight rats, wild cats and snakes were kept in the tents during the day. Some mineworkers were uneducated slum dwellers from the east, people who had only known deprivation and filth. Unwilling to adopt sanitary measures, preparing food in the open but refusing to use privies, they contaminated their water supplies and created the perfect environment for cholera. People died like flies, and unburied bodies were left in the open air for scavengers to eat.
Of course, this clever man’s life is far from my horror tales — a century’s difference. In the mining town where he lives, he, his buddies, and their wives have a great time. Every Friday and Saturday night they get together, create floorshows and theatrical performances, eat, drink, and are merry. Those wretched old stories are just… wretched old stories. With a jaunty step and cheery goodbye wave, he travels on homeward.
Heading south, the bus is crowded. A few seats away, a vast woman sits with two children, a baby who never stops crying, and a boy who plays endlessly with an obnoxious bleeping game: as Sartre said, “hell is other people.” Ignoring both tots, mom reads, Low Carb Success: How to lose weight and keep it off. She remains seated at every stop: calorie burning is not part of the plan.
There is beautiful countryside in this part of the world, but a bus isn’t going to leave the main road and go exploring, so we pass the usual: lots for sale, cookie-cutter suburban sprawl with enticing names — Magnolia Homes, Forest Green Parkway, Woodland Terrace — but hardly a tree in sight much less a copse. There’s other housing out there, too: shanties. Many aren’t connected to the public sewage system, nor are there septic tanks. Instead, PVC piping carries waste several yards away, dumps it into ditches or onto waste ground. No surprise that outbreaks of E. Coli are common, and that many people are still hookworm infested.
Much of this poverty is due to “heirs’ property” the land purchased or deeded after the American Civil War. Informally inherited without a title or will, after several generations it is difficult to determine who the legal owners are, and who has paid their share of taxes, who has helped maintain the land. Sometimes, the heirs don’t even know each other. Without clear titles, there is no possibility of obtaining grants, improvement loans, or disaster relief funding. Heirs’ property is the leading cause of substandard living conditions among African Americans, Native Americans, and the Mexican American colonias in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Louisiana.
Surrounded by a lot for sale, a modern consumer palace, and a fast-food emporium is a large tent with a big sign: With God All Things Are Possible. That’s certainly good news for some, and particularly for Mary Scott.
I met Scotty many years ago when she lived around the corner from me in a small California town. The mother of too many grubby but well-behaved children, she had been widowed once, and a more recent ex was serving endless time for first-degree murder (“it wasn’t his fault, really”). She was a small, lean woman with long, chewed-looking naturally white-blond hair and very pale blue eyes. She wasn’t beautiful — she looked a little too backwoods and bony for that — but her smile was warm, and she was kindly.
Scotty passed her days sitting out on the front steps of her slapped-together shack (similar to the dump I was then living in) making lovely necklaces from the glass pearls of old rosaries she found in charity shops. She wasn’t committing any sort of heresy by using sacred material in this way, she said. On the contrary: the beads had a magic power and would bring protection and happiness to those who bought and wore them.
Several times a day, a big motorcycle passed, a Harley. On it, sat a black leather-clad handsome rider with a thick black beard and long black hair tied by a bandana (people didn’t fool around with sissy stuff like helmets back then.) He would smile, and wave; she would wave, smile in a certain secret way, and just keep on stringing those pretty glass pearls. She was weaving a spell, she said. Those beads would eventually net her Don, the delicious motorcycle man: at the moment, he had an “old lady” tucked away somewhere, keeping the home fires burning and the fat hot in the pan.
After a while, Don began slowing slightly as he passed. Then, he took to stopping at the weedy curb. Scotty would sashay down the cracked walkway, go talk to him, her hip arched sweetly, her eyes knowing. And, when he drove off again, she’d come back to the front steps, sit, smile in that secret way, and string those magic beads.
I moved away and lost contact with Scotty. But one day, as I was walking along a street in a nearby town, a tall dark, handsome well-groomed man in an expensive dark suit approached me. Didn’t I recognize him? It was Don, the former motorcycle man. He and Scotty were married, now. Why not come back home with him, say hello to her. They were just about to go off traveling.
I followed him to a vast new house, gaudy and pretentious, in an excellent neighborhood — a world away from that former shack of hers. The greatest shock was seeing Scotty. She was dressed in a long flowing white robe and had transformed herself into a radiant beauty with flowing golden hair and a beatific smile. So beatific, I swear I could see a halo hanging prettily over her head. Surrounding her were the angelic-looking offspring.
Yes, she and Don had done well, Scotty said. The Virgin Mary had come to her in a vision, had told her she had a “calling”. Now, with Don as her manager, she was constantly on the road, preaching the word to thousands who packed into huge prayer tents all across the country. Not only was she a blazing success, Don assured me, they were also pulling in an enormous amount of money. Well done, Scotty, wherever you may be.
In Mobile, the bus station is quite a distance from downtown. Which direction should I take to get there? Once again, the three young ladies behind the counter come up trumps: “Oh, you can’t walk there. It’s at least a couple of hours away.”
“Really?” I try not to feel discouraged. “Is it a nice city?”
They look at each other and shrug. I could be talking about the center of Vladivostok, as far as they’re concerned.
“What’s of particular interest in Mobile?”
“But there’s a nice mall a little further out,” calls a woman from the back. “Tell her how she can walk there.”
Since I’ve already had this same conversation back in Thunder Bay, I now know the world is divided up into two sorts of people: Mall People, and Other People.
In the end, I set out anyway, and discover it’s only a twenty-minute walk. One that takes me past once-glorious mansions formerly set in verdant countryside and now falling to bits between used car lots, fried chicken outlets, and watery suburbia with reassuring names: Casa Marina, Cool Waters. And, in town, overshadowed by tall skyscrapers and tedious glass office blocks, is the usual preserved-for-tourism-historic-center. But there are also so many remarkable Victorian houses that my imagination reels with story possibilities. Can I just climb in a window, please? Take a peek? Pretty please? Come live with you for a while?
Back at the bus station, I think about going to Tallahassee. “What’s it like?” I ask.
All around, there are only shrugs. No one seems to have been there.
Then one man pipes up: “Long time since I seen it. Lots of beaches, just beaches, that’s all you can see. Must have changed since then, though. Bet it has.”
Since Tallahassee is inland, I’m sure his conclusion must be right. I decide to head for Panama City instead.
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