Friday, August 28, 2009

The scene of the crime

We were playing in the surf when several porpoises came in fairly close, arcing gracefully through the shimmering green breakers, which had the unexpected effect of sending a group of people scrambling in panic out of the water. I had forgotten that not everyone knows how to differentiate between porpoises and sharks. No doubt the people who ran, who appeared not to get to the beach very often, thought we were crazy for not running, too. But it is the nature of panic to spread, so once the other swimmers saw this sudden exodus, they ran, too. Maybe this is something porpoises do for fun.

I’ve always loved swimming with porpoises. Years ago a friend and I were skinny dipping in the warm waters of the Gulf at the outer beach at Horn Island, at sunrise, when a mother and twin baby porpoises came up and swam with us, in a friendly way, almost close enough to touch. It was moving, this momentary overlap of different worlds. I like that they’re curious about us, too, and imagine the porpoises who escaped the aquariums during Katrina were very popular story tellers to the porpoises in the wild. It’s actually easy to tell porpoises from sharks at a distance because when a shark’s dorsal fin protrudes from the water it stays pretty level, while porpoises tend to swim in arcs at the surface, so their dorsal fins go up and down.

That said, I’d have probably still been in the water if it had been sharks, because I tend to be slow to respond. As evidence, I was once riding with a friend in his truck at night when a speeding car passed us, careened out of control and plunged into floodwaters on the side of the road. My friend stopped the truck and as I sat in the passenger seat evaluating the situation I saw him running through the beam of the headlights toward the car, which was already half submerged. At that point I realized that I was a bit behind the curve. So I got out and helped him extricate the very drunk driver of the car, who was sitting in her full-length fur coat, clinging to the steering wheel as water poured in. She was apparently slow on the uptake, too, but at least she had an excuse, being drunk. My slow response gave me pause, both literally and figuratively. It always takes me a minute to react to a sudden change, as readers of these notes may recall from the first note I posted, “Brooklyn, 1 a.m.”

Fortunately there were no sharks in sight on this splendid day at Pensacola Beach, which still, after I’ve been there countless times, astonishes me with the whiteness of its sand. I was there with my friends Sara Rabb, her boys Gus and Sam, and Les and Corrinne Hegwood, my beach outing sandwiched between Sultana events in Fairhope, Alabama and Atlanta. It was my first trip to the beach this summer, and in a sense I was returning to the scene of a crime, because it was at Pensacola Beach that I, as a child, annually received such severe sunburns that I sometimes ran fever, which I am informed was probably the primary cause of the melanoma that was removed in May. There was no sunscreen back then and there is no way to keep a kid out of the water at the beach. Things were different then. My family traveled to Pensacola in a car with no air conditioning nor seatbelts, my parents smoking all the way. Now we know. Marshall Ramsey, who encouraged me to get my suspicious spot checked out (which enabled its removal before the cancer had spread to my lymphatic system – thanks, again, Marshall), said that after his own melanoma was successfully removed his family decided to celebrate at… the beach. It makes a warped kind of sense. It seemed appropriate for me, too, though this time I was slathered in SPF 50.

The Sultana talk at Fairhope’s Page & Palette bookstore the night before also seemed appropriate as a way to begin winding down the spring and summer Sultana tour. I gave my talk in shorts and sandals, rather than my customary authorial costume of jacket and slacks. I had arrived at the Page & Palette dressed casually, for summer travel, and when I asked if there was someplace I could change the store manager asked why I wanted to change. I looked around and saw that the staff and customers were mostly dressed like me. So I didn’t change. The atmosphere was decidedly laid-back, and though the crowd wasn’t large, I signed perhaps 50 books.

The Page & Palette is yet another wonderful independent bookstore. The store had all three of my books, too, which is something I can say of only one other store, Lemuria, in Jackson, Mississippi, my home town. The Sultana tour has really opened my eyes about my industry; I have seen just how poorly big, moribund corporations are responding to “the current economic environment,” and by contrast, how innovative small publishers, indy bookstores and alternative publications are proving themselves to be. Maybe it won’t be such a bad thing for many of the old trees to fall, to allow new sunlight onto the forest floor. That is my hope, anyway – not that everything will end up being owned by amazon. The Page & Palette has a nice coffee shop and an art supply business, and it’s quite a social gathering place. It’s been in business for three generations, and the bookstore’s owners, Karin and Kiefer Wilson, clearly know how to adapt. I wish them well. They definitely did right by me.

Being in Fairhope also gave me a chance to meet up with some friends I had not seen in a long time, including Cindy Wilson, with whom I went to high school, and Susie Spears and Jim Hannaford, whom I know from my days at The Clarion-Ledger. I’ve pretty much quit reading at my author signings, choosing to tell the story of the book instead, in part because I don’t generally like to hear authors read and in part because I’m tired of hearing myself read. During the Q&A at the Page & Palette, Cindy was inspired to read a passage from the book that she especially liked, which was much more enjoyable and, I thought, appropriate. After the Page & Palette event I drove to Pensacola to stay with my friends Willie and Sara, and the next day, when Willie had to work, Sara, the boys and I went to the beach.

Late in the afternoon I set out for Auburn, Alabama to spend the night with friends en route to Saturday’s event at the National Archives in Atlanta. It was a nice, long, mostly interstate drive, set to a Sirius XMU soundtrack, with a subtheme of vacationing families with folding chairs, bicycles and ice chests strapped to the roofs of their SUVs. It occurred to me, as one heavily-laden SUV after another passed me, that I was witnessing the end of an era, that we will one day look back on those SUV vacations much the same way we look back on my sunscreen-free childhood vacations at the beach, and wonder: What were we thinking? As Willie observed the night before, people in the future will no doubt look back and say, I can’t believe they rode around burning gas and discharging fumes into the atmosphere, for every errand and every trip, as if the air itself was a dumping ground. I think he’s right. It will seem absurd.

In Auburn I met my friends Paul and Libby Hartfield from down the road in Bolton (who drive a hybrid, by the way), and their daughter Emily and her boyfriend Nate, at a party given by biologists at Auburn University, where Emily and Nate are in grad school. It’s always interesting to go to a party with a specialized cast, so long as it’s not lawyers, who are insufferable when bunched together (I have a lot of close friends who are lawyers, but fill a room with them and they will bore you to death talking about nothing but the law). Generally, a specialized party provides a window into a different world, which was the case here. I learned that fish communicate by all sorts of sounds, most of which we can’t hear, and that, as Emily pointed out, people tend to feel sympathy only for animals with vertebrae (there is rarely an outcry over the mistreatment of mussels). Emily has a friend, Alexis, who was at the party, who is studying marine life in Antarctica, which made me very envious. Emily also gave what may be my favorite endorsement of Sultana; she said she loved it all the way through, and was afterward inspired to go back and re-read Mississippi in Africa, which she found even better the second time around. Emily is not a fluffer; she meant it, and her opinion means a lot to me.

I spent that night at Nate’s, then headed to Atlanta, which is one of my least favorite places. With hundreds of thousands of vinyl-siding-clad apartment complexes built on scraped-down hills beneath high-power lines, and seemingly endless, congested eight-lane thoroughfares lined with fast-food restaurants, Atlanta strikes me as the worst example of an American city. It has a few nice neighborhoods, though, and I had a great time when I spoke about Mississippi in Africa at the National Archives, so I was looking forward to the Sultana event. Mary Evelyn Tomlin, who puts the events together, had surgery a few days before and so could not attend, which was a shame because she is not only charming, thoughtful and smart, but is one of those rare people who loves her job and excels at it in ways that someone else in her position might not have even thought of. For Mississippi in Africa she built a program that involved unveiling the National Archives’ huge cache of African American records, which proved to be an inspired pairing. For Sultana, she was bringing in three Civil War reenactors and a local historian to talk about the Atlanta Campaign; for the program’s title she borrowed a line from Aunt Pittypat in “Gone With the Wind”: “Yankees in Atlanta! However did they get here?” I liked that because my guys -- Romulus Tolbert, John C. Maddox and J.Walter Elliott -- were part of the answer to the question.

There were about 80 people at the event and their questions – always my favorite part – reflected the diversity of their backgrounds and interests. One woman asked if any U.S. Colored Troops were aboard the Sultana, which is something that had never occurred to me, and sadly, I didn’t know. Another woman asked what I thought the country would be like if the South had won (and I got the impression that she had considered this with some fondness); I said I didn’t think we’d like the result very much, and she looked a bit bemused, then said, “Well, the Russians would have Alaska.” Another woman said she could envision Sultana, the movie, as “Gallipoli meets Lonesome Dove.”

Jim McSweeney, the director of the National Archives’ Southeast Regional Office, led the program, and afterward the local Barnes and Noble store sold books during what was characterized as an “ice cream social.” At one point I watched through the window as two of the reenactors practiced their drills in a courtyard. I’ve never quite understood what drives reenactors, but as I watched through the window their obsessive role-playing seemed to border on the bizarre. Here were two guys dressed in pristine replicas of Union uniforms, one of whom wore a wig and, it appeared, facial makeup; the taller of the two barked orders at the shorter one, who dutifully responded, over and over again. It was easy to imagine them doing this alone, for their own pleasure. Yet when they put on their show for the audience, it was illuminating, and the audience loved it.

Later that evening Jim McSweeney took me to something called Summerfest, an annual event in Morrow, the part of Atlanta where the National Archives is located. My old friend Laura Ashley (who, along with the Hartfields, came to the event), always has to listen to me rant about Atlanta or the first 30 minutes each time I come to town, and each time submits, patiently. Given the poor urban planning, the Atlanta Eat World sprawl, and the typical southern problem of everything being viewed through the prism of race, Atlanta is nonetheless the epicenter of something important and interesting. For one thing, it may very well be the wealthiest black city in the world. I don’t know that for sure, but it sure looks it. Summerfest and the National Archives program also illustrated that a new dynamic is being forged there. As one woman, who is black, told me as we stood in the parking lot after the Sultana event, “This place is just such a gem. Where else can the great granddaughter of a slave, like me, sit down next to a Civil War reenactor and talk about things we have in common?” The credit for that goes to Mary Evelyn and Jim, who are responding thoughtfully and imaginatively to something intrinsic about the city. Atlanta has its white-flight suburbs – way too many of them, in my view -- and its gangs and crime (ditto), but Summerfest, which drew perhaps 10,000 people, was the most truly racially integrated event I’ve been to. There are few places in the world where it could have happened.

Afterward I went back to my hotel room at the Renaissance Concourse, one of those places with a 12-story interior atrium and glass elevators which were all the rage in Atlanta in the seventies. The hotel is at the airport, hard beside the Delta terminal, with a view of the runways, and it was interesting to see the place I’ve passed through so many times while traveling, this time from the sidelines. It was like being camped beside a Star Gate. As with the SUVs, I had the feeling that I was time-traveling to my own time, that I was observing something very 2009, with all those jets coming and going, all night and day. It would have been an amazing scene for someone from the 19th century, and a very interesting one if someone could travel back in time from a future of who-knows-what, and it was both amazing and interesting for me, at the time.

The next day, Sunday, I headed back to Bolton. It’s a six-hour drive, all interstate, during which I tried, and failed, not to get caught up in the high-speed competition. When I’m driving on the interstate I try to ignore the jockeying for position that characterizes interstate driving, but after a couple of hours I’m invariably drawn into the fray. A former girlfriend once told me that her mother said, “Before you marry a man, watch how he behaves when he drives. It’s revealing.” And it is. And what it reveals about me is not always attractive. I think of an old George Carlin comedy routine in which he said, Everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac. If anyone happens to drive the same speed as you, you have no choice but to speed up or slow down. It's hopeless, once you get sucked in. 

I have a particularly low tolerance for people who block the left lane -- who use the passing lane for other than actual passing, for example. I will flash my lights. I have found that there are three basic groups of left-lane blockers: The timid, who are afraid the right lane will run out, or that someone will pull in front of them, and who often have handicapped plates; the arrogant, who believe they are entitled to the most free-flowing lane (or what would be the most free-flowing, but for people like them); and the oblivious, who are unobservant, or talking on the phone, or both, and who often have hats or boxes of Kleenex in their back windows. I dislike all of them. So that is part of what I bring to the competition. During the drive back to Bolton I also encountered two personal nemeses, one a middle-aged black guy in a Kia, the other an old white man in a Grand Marquis, both of whom kept passing me and then slowing down, which forced me to pass them, which prompted them to pass me again, each time with more annoyance. After sparring with them for perhaps 40 miles, I made a pit stop so they could pass out of my personal world for good.

Back in Bolton it was 97 degrees at 6 p.m., and humid as a hothouse. Summer in Mississippi – that, I love, though I often find myself wishing, when I'm running on my mountain bike trails, that there was a beach, or at least a spring-fed creek, at the end.

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