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.


  1. Enjoyed this Alan. When's the next book coming out?

  2. It will be in book stores sometime in December. Thanks!

  3. Very nice Alan, - your descriptive narrative always guides me to visually entrancing settings, sensations and memory.