Monday, December 01, 2003

We could see our breath as we loaded the car in Mississippi, but it had been in the 30s and 40s all week, so I thought nothing of it. It was still chilly when we stopped for gas in Arkansas, but somehow St. Louis, our next stop, was 60 degrees and sunny. It was nice to get back up North, where it's warm.

You would think that four days in a town eight hours away (though only 350 miles as the crow flies) would bring out stories, but somehow this little string of moments never quite coalesced. Nevertheless, here's what happened:

We ate the bird. The mandated animal sacrifice was performed as our ancestors have performed it. As far as I can tell, there was no brining, and certainly no deep frying in peanut oil, just a turkey, baked competently and without fuss.

Shopping. The house was all atwitter Friday, as there was a soccer match in Memphis, making it easy to shoehorn in a visit to Target. I am happy to report that Target in Memphis is not noticeably different from Target anywhere else, except for a disproportionate number of people with southern accents. I was, however, disappointed to find a significant difference between the World Market in Kansas City and the one in St. Louis. Namely, the one in St. Louis had no Private Preserve, though they had all kinds of other silly stuff that I apparently needed. Still no Christmas presents, though. But that's a completely separate challenge.

Secondhand Nostalgia and "When Did They Build That?" Christie went to Ole Miss, and her uncle teaches there, so not only did I get the drive-through tour, but her uncle drove us around campus on his golf cart. I was in the bag seat, however, and could only catch about every other word, so please don't ask me to tell you anything about the history of the University. But I now have a visual setting for Christie's Ole Miss stories, which was, I think, most of the point.

Literary History. Oxford's got a little more of a literary pedigree than most small towns, thanks to Faulkner. Of course, I accidentally avoided Faulkner in my undergrad years, and purposefully kept it up in grad school out of a desire to distinguish myself from a doppelganger who had gotten his MA in the same program just a few years before (and wrote his thesis on Faulkner). I am in the book business, however, and Square Books looms large in that landscape. So we killed a few hours there, and I picked up a book of essays and a Moleskine. And, of course, there was dinner at City Grocery.

Dysfunction Junction. The first two years out of college, Christie taught in a little Mississippi delta town, and yesterday she drove me through it. There's money in this town, as you can see right off the highway. But keep driving past the sprawling houses and pillared porches, and you quite literally end up on the wrong side of the tracks, where the school looks like a prison, and most of the houses are about the size of my bedroom. When the schools were desegregated, a private school sprang up, and the white school building was donated to them by the (all white) school board, keeping things exactly as they'd always been. In Christie's time there, state funds for the public (and therefore all black) school were still finding their way into the coffers of the private (and therefore all white) school. From the look of things, that hasn't changed.

I've seen plenty of poverty in my day, so it wasn't the poverty that struck me. Rather, it was that there was plenty of money in the town, it was just all in the hands of a small group of people. In _____, Mississippi, there are rich folks, and there are folks just scraping by, with few if any people in the middle. You can tell one group from the other not by the callouses on their hands, the clothes on their backs, or the way they talk, but simply by the color of their skin. This isn't a documentary on the History Channel, this is right now, and these are real people, working as hard as they can to stay alive and feed their kids, every drop of their sweat turned into money in somebody else's pocket.

This is no oratory, and so there is no exhortation of action. I'm just telling you what I saw yesterday in the hopes that it'll pop up in your head the next time somebody tells you that racism "isn't a problem anymore."

Okay, so maybe there was one story in there.

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