April 6, 2010

Films don’t exaggerate about the South

But polite, erudite, and gun-loving Southerners have blown me away during my three-week road trip down the East Coast
Robert Crampton

The fascinating thing about Americans, I am discovering, as my family’s three-week road trip down the East Coast of the US gathers pace, is that they are so determinedly American. Back in Brooklyn, just ten days but seemingly ten weeks ago from where I write in South Carolina, I met Gianni, my friend Mark’s landlord. Gianni, not physically dissimilar to Tony Soprano, has lived in the same house his entire 64 years. He has seen his neighbourhood change from an Italian-American working class idyll (firm but fair; wise guys running the show; kids got a hiding from McColgan, the local cop, if they stepped outta line) into a more upscale but to Gianni less congenial, less cohesive New York suburb populated by “goddamned yuppies”.

Gianni accosted one such trying to enter his building recently. “Big guy, so I went upstairs and fetched the Equalizer.” The Equalizer, as I had already guessed, turned out to be a pump-action shotgun that Gianni keeps to hand for occasions like this. The big guy, hands in the air as he looked down the business end of the Equalizer, explained that he was simply a visiting friend of one of Gianni’s tenants. “What did you do?” I asked, goggle-eyed. “Had to let the jerk in,” he said mournfully.

Gianni and I chatted on his front stoop. I say chat — he talked and I listened, first to his Vietnam stories, then his longshoreman stories, then his 9/11 stories (after the second plane hit, Gianni repaired to his roof with the Equalizer to take down any further threat) and then, once the second Scotch kicked in, his Mob stories. The recurring phrase in Gianni’s Mob stories was “it’s been taken care of”. The cheque, the local tearaway, the friend’s parking fine, the donation to the NYPD benevolent fund, over the years, they’d all been taken care of. I don’t know if Gianni felt as if he was in a movie during this exchange. I certainly felt that I was.

Moving south, after brief visits to Philadelphia (a receptionist who looks like Denzel Washington and talks like Will Smith) and DC (cold-eyed preppy politicos who look as if they’d sell your kids for a fractional advantage in some Beltway turf war), we move down through the Shenandoah to the Blue Ridge Mountains of deepest Virginia. Here, you see men who could have just walked out of a Civil War photograph: huge beards, piercing eyes, fanatical expressions, and yet more hospitable and welcoming than people I’ve known for ten years in London. “Where y’all from, you folks? You sure are a long way from home. Visiting with family? Travellin’ far?” The further south we got, the friendlier, and fatter, the people grew.

Penetrating the Confederate heartland, I steeled myself to stand tall against the rampant redneckery that I felt sure lurked under every porch. Yet here, in Virginia at least, the residual loyalty to the lost cause of the Stars and Bars is restrained by an equally powerful attachment to its close cousin, the ideal of the Southern gentleman.

Virginians are almost comically polite. Yes ma’am, no ma’am, yessir, you surely can, and, from our waiter, Chad, as he stretched across the table, “Pardon my reach,” an expression I hadn’t come across before. Many Brits are uncomfortable with American good manners. I rather like them. These good manners extend to an absence of litter and exceptionally considerate driving, both of which might have something to do with the respective $1,000 fines or 30 days in prison penalties.

And alongside the good manners, the further into the Appalachians we venture comes a self-dramatisation that is still largely absent even in supposedly emotionally incontinent modern Britain. In North Carolina, I trouble a waitress for some extra salt in which to soak my daughter’s infected finger. She listens rapt to my not very interesting explanation, then puts a hand on her hip, tosses her hair Dolly Parton-style and announces: “Ah tell yew what ah’m gonna do! Gonna go get me a whole buncha salt for the li’l lady.” Of course, a simple “yes” would have sufficed, but this is much more fun.

It’s not just women. Imagine seeing a middle-aged man out shopping in, say, Ipswich wearing a “Falklands vet” baseball cap, or an elderly chap in Leicester sporting a “South Armagh 1972, we whupped their ass” T shirt. Here, such clothing, advertising a wearer’s participation in Korea or Vietnam, is commonplace. The impression of the US as a highly militarised, and military-fetishising society is strong. Bumper stickers, memorials, banners, a pick-up with “Hoaah, go army!” across the tailgate, all fuel the idea of a country in thrall to its armed forces. Unhealthily so.

Plus, they sell rifles in Wal-Mart. “You folks can’t buy firearms at home? For real?” For real, indeed. Certainly not along with a bag of apples and a newspaper. All these years I thought Hollywood was exaggerating. Now

I find that Hollywood was understating. As we move yet further south, I’m fully expecting to meet Boss Hogg and the Dukes of Hazzard.

Copyright 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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