Thursday, May 26, 2011

The lost license

We were in an abandoned building on Farish Street, an old commercial district in Jackson, Miss. that's in the process of being rejuvenated, to shoot author photos for the book my co-author, Michael Rejebian, and I have just finished. We’d chosen the location because the book itself is kind of gritty, and it seemed more appropriate than posing in some hermetic environment.

Anyway, as Michael was having his picture made, I poked around in the debris on the floor of the gutted building and came across a driver’s license. It belonged to a young blond woman whose name was something like Courtney Layne Holloman or Holcomb, of Hattiesburg. I figured her purse had been stolen, and decided that if I could get in touch with her she might want to know where it was, if only because it meant her ID wasn’t floating around, possibly being used.

Then, as I looked out the empty frame of a window, I saw a cop sitting in a car behind the JPD substation down the way. I figured it made more sense to give him the license, in case it was evidence of a crime.

I walked up to the cruiser cautiously because I was coming from a blind alley, and I’ve noticed that cops are typically a little skittish when being approached while they’re sitting in their cars. When he looked up I held up the license and gestured toward the empty building behind me. He rolled down his window and I told him about finding it.

He was polite, but it was almost like he wasn’t sure why I was telling him. He was listening to talk radio with the AC on. I said we’d been taking pictures in the abandoned building when I found the license. He said, “People take pictures there all the time,” like that was kind of curious to him, and I said, “Yeah, well, anyway, that’s how I found this license.”

I handed it to him. He read the woman’s name aloud, as if to jog his memory. Then he handed it back to me and said perhaps I should try to get in touch with her. Well, OK… But really, that didn't seem logical, so I told him I'd just as soon not have a stolen license in my possession if I could avoid it, and perhaps it made more sense for him to take it, unless he didn’t want it because it would require him to file a bunch of paperwork or something. He said, no, no, he’d take it, so I handed it back. He then tried to call directory assistance on his dark pink Razor, but he couldn’t get a connection. It was kind of strange. It was also very hot standing in the sun with the heat emanating from the cruiser’s engine, so I said I needed to get back to the photo shoot. I thanked him and he thanked me.

All of which is to say that if anyone knows a woman by that name, or something like it (I didn't write it down) perhaps they could let her know that the Jackson police have her lost license, for what it’s worth.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


With hip hop artists from Ludacris to Jay-Z singin’ about niggas all day long, it may seem like a quaint question to contemplate, but if you’re a writer living in the American South, it’s fundamental: When should you identify a person’s race in print?

The question, which came to mind as I was reading an article about a local robbery in Jackson, Miss., first presented itself several years ago, when a New York Times reporter traveling in the Mississippi Delta described passing “an old black man sitting on his porch.”

The image is familiar to anyone who’s traveled through the Delta, but referencing the man’s race struck me as telling. I wondered if the reporter would have mentioned seeing “an old white man sitting on his porch.” My guess is: No. If the old man had been white, the reporter would almost certainly have described him, simply, as “an old man sitting on his porch.”

The article wasn’t otherwise about race, when such an identification might have made sense. As it was, mentioning the man’s race told me that the reporter himself was white, and that he viewed the old man as “other.”

I often mentally transpose “black” and “white” when reading stories where race is an issue, as a sort of test. Does the story still ring true with the races reversed? It doesn’t always work – there are plenty of asterisks and special considerations where race is involved, but as an exercise it can be illuminating. In this case, trading “black” for “white” made the description seem kind of weird.

A writer chooses which details to highlight, and ideally those details bring vividness and insight to the story. In some cases, though, the details come straight off the rack, and tell us nothing we didn’t already know. Sometimes they actually steer us in the wrong direction. Reducing an old man to being black is just that – a reduction. If his race mattered, it would be better to let other details do the telling – the man’s own words, perhaps, the precise hue of his face, or the scars from sharp-edged cotton bolls on his hands. He could be described as being among the few who remain of the region’s former sharecroppers, if the reporter was sure that was the case. Basically: Anything that goes beyond making him a generic old black man, a prop.

Maybe I’m wrong, and describing the man on the porch in racial terms is no different than identifying him as old – or, for that matter, as male. But what if the reporter had said he passed “a heavy man” sitting on his porch. It would just be a description, yet would seem to indicate some intent, to confer specific meaning.

When I was writing my book Mississippi in Africa, about a group of freed slaves who immigrated to Liberia before the American Civil War, I chose not to identify anyone by skin color. The characters in the book were black, white and all shades in between, and I didn’t consider it my role to determine anyone’s race or position it relative to my own. It was either identify everyone’s race, which would have been tiresome (and in some cases, complicated), or identify no one’s. So I chose the latter. What mattered was what a person said or did; if a person’s race was important, for whatever reason, it would be self-evident. Since then I’ve generally adhered to this rule, but I’ve noticed that most writers – at least, most white writers -- don’t.

It’s not that we all don’t take note of people’s races, but when attempting to create an objective account, which is what journalists are supposed to do, it’s important to identify and minimize your own bias. There are cases where it makes sense to note that a person’s perspective is influenced by the fact that he or she is black, white, Asian or Native American, but to mention it in passing reveals a subtle form of bias. It’s the same kind of bias I noticed in the best-selling novel The Help, in which the white characters speak in normal grammar while the black characters speak in dialect, indicating that in the author’s view whites are the norm and blacks, even when they are the protagonists, are “other.”

On the flip side, it’s possible to reveal a personal bias by not referencing race, as when writers ascribe certain characteristics to “the South” when those attributes are actually indicative of a specific southern demographic, not the population as a whole. As the historian Bill Ferris has noted, it’s inaccurate to even say that the South lost the Civil War because it was technically the white South that lost; the black South was liberated by it. Likewise, to say that fancy hunting camps and antebellum homes are popular in southern culture is only half true. So, ascribing race does sometimes matter. A journalist has to be able to recognize when it does and when it doesn’t. The point is to see beyond one’s personal bias to report what is factually known, not to rely upon perceptions or even the desire to change them.

If it were just a matter of ignoring a person’s race in print, a journalist’s job would be easier. But in some cases failing to mention a person’s race can actually do a disservice. A case in point was an article in the May 21, 2011, edition of the Jackson newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, which reported that local police were looking for a gunman who’d robbed a Church’s Fried Chicken and fired into a car in the parking lot as he fled. The article described the robber as being about five feet six inches tall, weighing about 150 lbs., wearing a black hat and hoodie and white gloves. According to the police report, he fled in a maroon Ford Contour.

OK, so… anything else? Since we’re talking about the colors of things, in hopes of identifying the suspect, it was natural to wonder: Was the guy, like, black or white? The article didn’t say. Omitting his race was not a simple oversight. It is apparently The Clarion-Ledger’s editorial policy to not identify a person’s race when a crime is involved, even when the public is being asked to participate in the search. Never mind that skin color, like hair color, is among the more salient details of a person’s physical description. In this case, the question of whether to identify race was very different than in the article in the New York Times.

Black crime, a common news topic in Jackson, isn’t the issue. This was a story about finding a criminal. Though the Church’s robbery may seem like comparatively minor news, for anyone who was there it no doubt seemed pretty major, and it’s distressing anytime a criminal gets away, which is why that one omission by the newspaper struck me as absurd. It’s not a matter of implying or reinforcing a perceived link between race and crime. It’s about identifying a suspect based on a physical description released by the police. To refuse to provide the pertinent information makes it seem like there’s something to hide.

In all likelihood, the newspaper’s policy is a reaction to a perception among many of its readers that most local criminals are black, which they often are, for a multitude of reasons, including that the dominant race in Jackson, by a very wide margin, is African American. Most of the people on the police force are also black. Most people who work in the city’s fast-food restaurants are black. Most victims of crime are black. That doesn’t mean a black person is more likely to rob someone than anyone else, only that more people are robbed by black people in Jackson than by people of other races. It’s just the way it is. We don’t need to know the race of the investigating officers, or the cashier who was robbed, or the people in the car that was fired upon. But we do need to know what the alleged criminal looks like. Otherwise, are we simply to assume that he is black, because that is the default setting? If he was white, which he may have been, we would need to know that, too, if we were trying to identify him for police.

Facts – not perceptions – are what matter. By attempting to subvert a presumed prejudice, the newspaper arguably reinforces it, as if to say, “Read between the lines. We can’t say whether he or she is black or white. But you can figure it out on your own.” The robber was in a predominately black part of town, wearing a hoodie, right? Yet white guys wear hoodies, too. They also commit crimes and drive Ford Contours. The newspaper was alerting us to look for someone specific, yet his face was intentionally obscured. The details are certainly known at Church’s, in the police precinct and at the newspaper. They’re just not known to the readers.

I don’t mean to give the impression that an old man on a porch isn't the right choice to rep his race, but a criminal is. In general, I don’t think race should be a salient detail. But in the case of the robbery, knowing if the gunman was black or white could eliminate a lot of possibilities for people observing drivers of maroon Contours in the area, and prevent investigators from wasting time following up on pointless leads. Not that locating a Contour-driver of the same race as the suspect would mean the driver was guilty. That is for the courts to decide. It’s about recognizing a person in hopes that you can identify him and report his whereabouts, because he is suspected of having committed a crime. It isn’t about a reporter’s bias or about legal prejudice or racial profiling.

My guess is that The Clarion-Ledger considers its policy progressive, and on the surface it might appear to have some merit, in that many residents, black and white, will assume that the crime was committed by a young black male, because that is who they most often see being arrested on TV. That, of course, actually is racial prejudice. But if you had witnessed the Church’s robbery, and the police investigating the crime asked the suspect’s race, would you refuse to say out of concern for how it might be perceived?

At the end of The Clarion-Ledger article was this notation: “Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call the Jackson Police Department at (601) 960-1234 or CrimeStoppers at (601) 355-TIPS.” I’m guessing that among the first questions the police would ask a caller is whether the guy being reported was black or white. It’s one of the details available to them to help narrow the search.

In the old days, when The Clarion-Ledger was a shameless racist rag, the fact that an alleged criminal was black would have been given too much prominence; the current policy is no doubt a reaction to this. But when the police are describing a criminal suspect, in hopes that the public can identify him, race is among many characteristics that matter. It’s useful in the same way that identifying the color of his car is useful. Leaving the reader to make his or her own assumptions about his race, based upon his or her personal biases, is a disservice. Referring to a person’s race when it isn’t germane reveals the limits of our own understanding, but declining to mention it when it matters actually does limit our understanding.

As you have probably figured out by now, I’m white. It matters, I suppose, in this context. Race sometimes influences my personal views, in myriad ways, and I think it’s important to take that into account when holding forth as an objective chronicler of the times. After that, it’s either address the issue or dispense with it. The point is to not let it get in the way of the stories we have to tell.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The flood, as it were

It’s strange being in the Mississippi Delta right now. In many ways life feels routine, yet there is a tandem feeling that something truly terrible could happen at any moment, and in fact is already happening nearby.

The Delta is part of the floodplain of the Mississippi River, which is something the river is very much interested in reclaiming right now, the only constriction being the levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The irony is that without the levees there would be a minimal threat of floods. There would be only a natural fluctuation of water, spreading out over a broad plain perhaps 150 miles wide. With levees, people can farm the remarkably fertile land and build houses and towns, but they can also enjoy what is, potentially, a false sense of security. Right now the levees, which are as much as 30 feet tall, are holding back the equivalent of a slow-moving tsunami that is hundreds of miles long. All of which means that you dwell in, or even merely enter, the Delta at your peril.

Everyplace outside the levees is already flooded, to heights higher than ever known before in recorded history. It’s hard not to see this within the context of the disturbing series of natural disasters that has gripped the planet this spring, including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and six weeks of intermittent tornado strikes across the American South. Yet it is also hard not to see the hand of man in it. Communities outside the levees are flooded at higher levels in part because those levees contain the water in a narrow channel that has itself been hastened toward the Gulf by dredging and the straightening of bends. We have disrupted and defied the natural flow.

My grandparents lived in a house raised perhaps 10 feet off the ground, outside the levees, on a low ridge along Steele Bayou in the low-lying south Delta. Water got into their house only once, though almost every year the place was surrounded by a vast, temporary inland sea, which meant that the only way to come and go was by boat. Still, I only heard my grandparents refer to one “flood,” that being the great one in 1927, when the levees (which were lower than they are now) broke and hundreds of people died. In my grandparents’ view, a flood was an unexpected disaster, and everything else was just “high water.” Today, that view is mostly gone. Any time a river spills from its banks it’s considered a flood, though by that standard you may as well consider the incoming tide at the beach a flood, too. People live in tornado zones, in regions swept by hurricanes, landslides and wildfires. There are risks anywhere. But you have to acknowledge those risks and plan accordingly. Fully relying upon the government to protect you is foolhardy. If nothing else, the current flood, and the looming potential for greater devastation, makes everyone aware of that.

So far the levees have held, which made it possible for me to drive, yesterday, to Rolling Fork, in the south Delta, for an event at my friend Drick Rodgers’ house, Mont Helena, which stands atop a high Indian mound.
Such mounds were built for ceremonial purposes, not to escape floods, which would have been much less frequent in the natural flood plain, and would have rarely come as a surprise to people closely attuned to the fluctuations of their environment. That said, I have no doubt they provided a safe haven on those occasions when the Native Americans found themselves in the grips of an unusually high water event, and I figured if the levee broke, a mound would be a good place to be. It was the getting there that was a bit unnerving, knowing that that tsunami was rolling past just beyond that long earthen dam, the effects of which were being felt, in a less dramatic yet meaningful way, along all the tributaries, which are now flowing backward as the river attempts to distribute the flow.

My usual route to Rolling Fork, along U.S. 61, was closed because the Mississippi Department of Transportation built one section lower than the rest, and it is now underwater. Likewise, my second choice, to the east, along back roads, had been swallowed by the inland sea. Next, among the possibilities, was U.S. 49 West, which was open, for now.

The water was lapping on the edge of the pavement of 49W as I drove north from Yazoo City, and by the time I returned, later that night, this route had gone under, too, illustrating how fast things can change. That meant my third possible route was now denied me as well. The government’s help, at this point, consisted of a flashing portable sign saying the highway was closed and that motorists should choose “an alternative route.” Thanks! To get back to the hills I had to follow a network of unfamiliar back roads to another highway, 49 East, which is now the last conduit into the Delta from the south that remains open. Wandering across a vast floodplain in the middle of the night, with the water rising, made me more aware than ever of how much we rely on others to keep us safe. After seeing what happened during and after Katrina, the government does not seem like a reliable choice, yet there I was, driving on a highway the government had designed and built, partially protected by levees that the same government had designed and built, hoping for the best. In the end, I made it home safely.

A few things came to mind as a I drove, including that people in the Delta don’t let something like a mortal threat get in the way of a party. That, and the matter of how we choose to believe we can manage the menaces of life. We face myriad perils every day, and to some extent have to just get past that. But there is also the potential for sheer hubris, for ignoring the realities of mounting perils. Where do we draw the line? I also noticed this: People tend to see the Delta as a uniformly flat expanse of flood plain, yet the flood reveals variations that are both subtle and profound. There is no question, at this moment, of the importance of math, of the difference between an elevation of 98 feet above sea level and an elevation of 110. Driving across the Delta, I passed through areas where many thousands of acres of farms, forests and dwellings had been inundated, which had caused deer, snakes, alligators and other wildlife to congregate in strange places (such as people’s yards, and, I was told, in one case on the porch of a house). But elsewhere, life went on, largely unchanged, with tractors plowing the fields and children shooting hoops in yards. There was a clear, though potentially deceptive, line of demarcation.

The flood comes at a time when it's unusually dry in the Delta, and I saw farms in which the lower reaches were inundated while crops on higher ground were being watered by massive irrigation systems.
I also came upon a lovely little cemetery, on the banks of a bayou that I'd have expected to be flooded, but wasn’t, where cornfields were growing unmolested and magnolias bloomed.
This is the world we’ve made, overlaid upon the natural one, which could break through those levees at any time and take us back to where we began. So far, the disaster has been minimized, but it’s a very fine line.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I'll have a Big 'Un

Ever find yourself walking down a street, doing your own thing, and suddenly you feel as if you've stepped outside of yourself, just a little? Nothing celestial or even drug-induced, just a feeling that your consciousness has ever so slightly broken stride, enabling you to see, for a moment, yourself walking down that street, from the vantage point of an outsider?

OK, well, I have. I distinctly remember it happening once when I was a boy, as I was riding my bike. I was resting, with my toes barely touching the ground beneath the pedals, at the corner of Lawrence Road and Ames Avenue, in Jackson, Mississippi. For a moment I saw myself there, and I committed the image to memory. When such episodes occur, I become both more and less self-aware. For the moment I forget that the universe revolves around the clever, laboriously tended construct of my self. It's not as lofty as it sounds -- it's akin to watching a video of a crowded room in which you, yourself are watching a video on TV -- but it can change the way you feel about yourself and your surroundings profoundly, if only for a time. You are, temporarily, able to observe your activities from a slight remove.

It's possible that this is something like what happens at death, but I have no way of knowing, yet. No doubt there are natural chemical fluctuations involved, though it could just as easily be related to some spacial magnetic pulse, of the kind that occasionally cause ship navigation systems to go awry and birds to fall from the sky. It's something Walker Percy also touches upon in his excellent novel The Moviegoer, when the protagonist, Binx, sees the lines blur between himself and characters in movies. He is particularly moved when he sees himself, in his mind's eye, entering a movie theater, after which he watches the lead characters in the movie... go to see a movie. Percy calls it a replication. I'm talking about something slightly different, but there are similarities, and in any case I like it, in measured doses, and even in recurring sequences, such as happened recently, and fortuitously, on the morning when I set out for a long day of potentially boring work. It doesn’t feel like a dream, though it’s close.

In the most recent episode, which was actually a series of episodes, it was as if I'd awakened to find myself as an extra in a low budget art film, as a walk-on in a series of oddly freighted, otherwise forgettable scenes, struggling to find meaning in bits of mundane or overwrought dialogue, meanwhile chatting up strangers between takes over doughnuts and coffee in Styrofoam cups. In the opening scene, culled from a rambling mishmash of clips, I play the part of a passerby on a small town street. The viewers would never see the earlier scene in which I open my eyes and lay in bed listening, annoyed, to the sound of a squirrel chewing on a wooden shutter at my bedroom window, after which I grab a book from my nightstand and throw it at the wall beside the window, startling the squirrel, which leaps into a nearby tree and scurries to the ground and off into the woods, causing two crows to take flight and my dogs to jump from their rocking chairs on the front porch and give raucous chase. The problem with that scene is that I am, on account of chemistry and/or the pulse, now a bit player on the street, and the squirrel scene is too focused on me. Despite its amplification of my self, when the moment comes, the story no longer tightly revolves around me.

To illustrate, the town I’m walking through is somewhere in the American South -- Bolton, Mississippi, to be exact. As the character I play strides toward the tiny, Mayberry-esque bank, he encounters a Very Large Country Man who remarks, in passing, “Cool today,” to which my character replies, “It is.” In the art film the intentionally jerky camera then pans to Very Large Country Man No. 2, passing from the other direction, who interjects, “Feels good to me,” to which my character responds, “It does,” adding, “Both are true.” I then pass through the bank’s metal-framed glass door, a retrofit from the 1960s that doesn’t suit the building’s 19th century architecture but serves well as a cinema verite detail.

At that point I revert to being me, but a portal has opened. The world feels slightly different, the way home feels changed when you return from a long trip (which is one of the reasons travel is so satisfying). If the universe were still, at this moment, revolving around me, a better scene would be the one that took place a few years back, when I, as myself, came running down that same sidewalk, in the rarified space before an advancing tornado, after having abandoned my truck in the middle of the street, and for a brief moment was lifted a foot or so from the ground by the wind, then deposited at the glass door, through which I saw Jim, the branch manager, hurriedly locking up as the employees and one customer scurried toward the vault (which was also my intended destination). Jim, seeing the fear in my eyes, had unlocked the door and let me in, after which we’d all stood by the vault and watched through the windows as the tornado blew away the car wash and sent the roof of the police station tumbling down the street. But that was then and this is now. Today, like the Very Large Country Men, I am reduced to short, cryptic asides. And because it suits my allotted tasks, I will embrace this newfound role.

Over the course of the day I will make other appearances, so that if this were actually an art flick an observant viewer would note the recurring extra playing different roles. During segues I drive my truck, off-screen, from the original small town to a series of other small towns, the most notable of which are, in order of appearance, Bay Springs and Paulding, Mississippi. These towns are separated by large expanses of hilly, cutover forests, over which unexpectant clouds scud by. For continuity, the weather never changes. In real life I'm doing courthouse research, the details of which are not relevant to the unfolding narrative.

In the next scene I am having lunch at a local fast-food joint in Bay Springs named Ward’s, which is the culinary equivalent of Dollar General – a limited chain that has chosen not to forsake small towns, and in fact has found in them a third-tier economic niche. Ward’s is not a place I would pick, though I did pick it, the alternative being Hardee’s, which I have a deep-seated aversion to because when I was a child Cass Elliott was doing ads for them at the time she choked to death on something she was eating. There was no connection except in my mind, but there the connection is secure. I don't care if the burgers are charco-broiled.

As I enter Ward's it is precisely noon, on a Monday, and the women who work there seem unnecessarily frenzied considering there are only two other customers. My first thought is that the place must be terrible if no one’s having lunch there at noon. The employees – there are six of them – vastly outnumber the customers, yet from their agitated behavior you'd think they were short staffed and the President’s motorcade had just pulled into the parking lot, hungry and impatient, accompanied by the national media. There’s lots of inexplicable scurrying and sudden turnings, knitting of brows, and occasional sniping. Even more noteworthy is the Ward’s PA system, which is by far the most theatrical aspect of this strangely strange day. After I peruse the faded words on the overhead menu, and decide to go with the “Big One,” a chili cheese burger, the voice of the woman behind the counter is transformed by electronic amplification to a volume that brings to mind an arrival announcement in a particularly busy bus station, complete with reverb, as she passes on my order with the words, “I NEED A BIG ’UN.” She does this without any apparent consideration of how this might sound to a visitor from another clime, her proclamation echoing through the nearly-empty restaurant, so that the two other customers cannot help but glance our way. So loud is the woman’s plaintive cry that I imagine it can be heard down the street, over the din of the log trucks, pickups, SUVs and old Sentras and Buicks with busted mufflers that characterize the town’s noonday vehicular crawl.

It soon becomes apparent that “I NEED A BIG ’UN” is Bay Springs’ midday mantra, starting on cue, like a tornado siren on the first of the month, or the tolling of church bells. Within moments there is a surge of customers – perhaps 10 of them, causing the women behind the counter and in the kitchen and drive-through window areas to glance anxiously toward the door, to see if even more are on the way. Notably, all of the customers are male. They line up at the counter, as if at a casting call, ranging in height from about three feet to six-and-a-half feet, and every one proceeds to order a Big One. I sit by the window, trying with limited success to pass through that portal again, watching and listening as the woman at the register repeatedly proclaims, for all the world, “I NEED A BIG ’UN,” whether in response to Small Boy, Muddy-Booted 30-Something Construction Worker or Old Man Leaning on Cane, it matters not. The sign out front doesn’t even mention the Big One, but all of us, to a man, wants us one, and the woman responds in kind, which makes it sound like she most certainly does, too.

I feel the pulse, or the chemical surge, coming back: I am sitting in a booth in Bay Springs, Mississippi, wantin' a Big 'Un, like everyone else in the currently known universe.

After the scene at Ward’s I depart for my next location, the tiny, isolated yet remarkably insistent town of Paulding, where, after surveying the facsimile of a square, I enter the courthouse, wander down the hall past a discarded metal detector, and pass through a restroom door where the placard reads, meaningfully, not “Men” but “Gentlemen” -- a nice detail. The Paulding set could never be fabricated. It is clearly a location, and is destined to be the most memorable of the day, if only because it is so site-specific and so off-balance. No one would or could have dreamed it up. It is a clear summary of 180 random years in a specific place, of a process illustrating (again, in order of appearance) the promise of the frontier, boom times, the calm of human settlement, the onset of stasis and inevitable decline, and finally, the astonishing power of inertia.

At the center of things stands the courthouse, a small, low, 1970s monstrosity that feels totally out of place in a town that, according to not one but two identical historical markers, is historical. The sign out front says “Paulding Courthouse” rather than the more accurate “Jasper County Courthouse.” It is actually one of two courthouses in the county, the other being in Bay Springs, so I guess it makes sense to call it the Paulding one, but they don’t officially call it the Bay Springs Courthouse in Bay Springs, and the fact that they call it the Paulding Courthouse in Paulding seems to hint at something, which turns out to be a rather misguided sense of local importance lingering from better days. The implication is that while there is no longer anything substantial in Paulding, there is, in fact, substance, and we are not talking about the kind that gets abused, though there is, admittedly, and not surprisingly, some evidence of that, too.

In a prominent location at the front of the courthouse parking lot are piled two dump-truck loads of red dirt, indicating that utility trumps aesthetics in Paulding now. Perhaps it always has. Nearby stands the official historical marker, its hapless twin being overgrown by vines in the yard of a small house on a side street. The markers explain that the town was founded around the time of the War of 1812 and (despite what you see!) was, until 1860, “one of the chief towns of Southeast Mississippi.” Also, as the signs point out, rather embarrassingly, Paulding was once known as “The Queen City of the East,” the “east” being east Mississippi. The markers are among the precious few props that actually evoke history in contemporary Paulding. To have been around for so long, the town is short even on conventional – which is to say, comfortably old -- ruins, the mainstay in such forgotten places elsewhere in the rural South. But for our purposes it will do.

Behind the courthouse is what looks to be an abandoned school from the 1930s, surrounded by pickup trucks, dump trucks and a tilting “modular building” – a kind of trailer – that appears to have recently arrived. To the right stands the metal building housing the volunteer fire department, and in the distance, on a knoll, an edifice described in a hand-painted sign as Saint Michael’s, “the second-oldest Catholic church in Mississippi,” with a nice cemetery, though the building itself doesn’t look all that venerable.

Beside the church is a recently completed residence, easily dubbed the New House in Paulding, which is basically a Home Depot-inspired outcropping of “traditional” southern vernacular architecture, with an ongoing bonfire of construction scraps adding an element of drama on the lawn.

Across from the courthouse, to the south, are a pair of rusty tin storage buildings; a small metal tool shed housing the Paulding Water Association (a woman, another bit player, can be seen returning to her job there!); the U.S. Post Office, housed in a trailer; the brick, vine-shrouded ruins of the former jail; and a line of shotgun houses, one of which appears to be an occasionally-open gift shop.

West of the courthouse are three residences representing the full spectrum of Paulding Living Today: A medium sized house from the 1920s, clad in vinyl siding; a mobile home surrounded by the requisite fleet of cars in various stages of repair, as well as a La-Z-Boy lounger (cloth upholstery, color and texture of mildew) which appears to be still in service, alongside a Big Wheel and one of those tiny, motorized vehicles designed for use by children; and the aforementioned New House. Passing before this streetscape: A pickup truck that appears to have been fabricated from scrap metal, which is hauling… scrap metal.

East of the courthouse stands an abandoned wooden building that proclaims itself, in faded lettering, and no doubt accurately, as simply a “Country Store,” which gives it a decided back-lot feel, beside which languishes the disturbing wreckage of a Ford Explorer, an inexplicable set piece. Beyond that is an abandoned trailer that seems to have once served as a bank, as indicated by its drive-through window and the stainless-steal money door mounted in the wall. Across the way the Big House of Paulding has long since fallen from grace, and stands resolutely flaking its paint, its broad, rotting galleries augmented by a crudely cobbled wheelchair ramp. It’s as if the entire town is at once a tribute to and a lamentation about time.

Overall it’s a masterpiece set, in its way.

After a few brief scenes in the courthouse that will inevitably be cut, most of which involve conversational asides with an elderly woman from Texas, a smoker, who is researching “colored marriage licenses” and is having trouble with the copier, I depart. Driving along the two-lane highway, through the high, rolling cutover land, I recall having visited Paulding many long years ago, when I was a reporter at The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson. The Clarion-Ledger is now a shadow of its former self, as most newspapers are, but even more so. It’s essentially a forgotten colonial holding of the greedy, monolithic and defiantly declining Gannett Corporation, which has whittled the staff down to nothing, forcing them to labor thanklessly under its fealty, while exacting tribute from advertisers who have no place else to go. But back in the day The Clarion-Ledger was the newspaper equivalent of the Queen City of the East, with the largest circulation in the state, and had recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

On the occasion of the newspaper’s sesquicentennial, which called for a large, ad-laden special edition, I was dispatched to tiny Paulding, to which, as it turned out, The Clarion-Ledger traced its origins, before its owner sought greener pastures in Jackson. The idea was to “return to Paulding,” to the newspaper’s roots, for a human-interest piece. I had expected the populace to embrace their roles as denizens of the Old Country, but instead found that people there either didn’t know anything about it or else were strangely defensive. The one woman I quoted, who worked in the courthouse, responded to my questions by saying, with surprising rancor, something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of people showin’ up here, sayin’ the only thing worth knowin’ about Paulding is that The Clarion-Ledger used to be here. There’s lots that’s happened here.” These were her only lines in what was basically our own low-budget art house film, also shot on location in Paulding. I was mystified by the woman’s dismay, because: Why would it bother you that someone saw your town as having been the launching pad for a comparatively successful newspaper? But over time, and particularly after having ruminated about the scenes of the day on the drive back, it occurred to me that while stepping outside yourself for a moment can be energizing, no one wants to be reduced to performing a walk-on role in someone else’s low-budget drama. When it comes to our role in life, we all want a Big ’Un.

In his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, author David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who also writes fiction, has one story in which disembodied souls are reduced to bit players in the dreams of the living. In this version of the afterlife, Eagleman observes that there are always background characters in our dreams: “The crowds in the restaurant, the knots of people in the malls and schoolyards, the other drivers on the road and the jaywalking pedestrians.” Those characters, he writes, “don’t come from nowhere.” In this concept of the afterlife, “We stand in the background, playing our parts, allowing the experience to feel real for the dreamer. Sometimes we listen and pay attention to the plot of the dream. More often we talk among ourselves and wait for our shift to end.”

In sum, Eagleman writes, “when we’re done with our night-time haunts in other people’s skulls, we fall into restless slumbers of our own. And who do you think populates OUR dreams? Those who have finished their time here and pass from the world. We forever live in the dreams of the next generation.”

It’s an interesting concept, and a bit unsettling, too. While we may not want to play the role of extras in someone else’s drama, or someone else’s dream, now and then that’s how the narrative unfolds. If nothing else, it makes otherwise forgettable scenes worth remembering.