Posts Tagged ‘georgia’

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Who Is Savannah?

2009.March.31

[I thought I posted this yesterday… anyway, it’s here at last!]

The pertinent reason for my Birmingham disclosure was that my traveling companion had a similar moment of self-discovery in Savannah. Without going too far into telling someone else’s story, I will share that she is another White Southerner (though from a different part of the South as me), for whom Savannah highlighted a personal conflict: ambivalence in one’s personal heritage, taking pride in some-but-not-all elements (both traditional and subversive) and shame in others.

The Savannah I saw in 2009 was very different from the one I had seen in 2005. This year, I saw little-to-no evidence of conspicuous segregation between White and Black – quite the contrary in fact. Many shops (and even our motel) were surprisingly integrated, with customers and staff inclusively White, Black, and even occasionally Latino. Only River Street, Savannah’s most densely tourist district, matched what I had seen before; the color line there was almost literal, with the waterfront populated almost entirely by Black buskers and the cityfront lapped by waves of White tourists meandering in and out of shops and restaurants. I was, as before, engrossed by the atmosphere and attitude of SCAD, even as its urban sprawl reminded me of NYU in The Village and its funky White eclecticism belied the rest of downtown’s pleasant integration. Generally, there was a lack of visible tension or ominousness like in just about any other downtown, so much so that it seemed the economic downturn had not hit Savannah very hard (yet).

Downtown Savannah seemed less mysterious than the Spanish moss might lead one to believe, but then we took the time to watch “The Movie”, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The film and its source crime narrative are largely responsible for tourism in Savannah since the 90’s. I was once told that the fascination with ghost tours and gothic statues did not really exist before The Movie’s 1997 release, but seeing the film raised a lot of questions about its prominence, especially since the film’s supernatural aspects are more ambient than relevant, and there is rarely in downtown any open reference to any of the story’s character or events.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a lightly fictionalized account of an actual murder that happened in Savannah in 1981, when a wealthy, middle-aged antiques dealer killed his gay lover in the historic home of Johnny Mercer while the victim was high and possibly threatening. The story unfolds from the perspective of a visiting magazine writer from New York City, who has befriended the dealer just before the slaying. The New Yorker is sympathetic, but suspicious; he turns his personality profile into a murder investigation, relying heavily on a mischievous transsexual performer and a sexy blond neighbor to navigate his way through the lifestyles of the Rich and Southern. Wackiness ensues, but under dark and foreboding cinematography.

The Movie was interesting, but more as a cultural phenomenon than as art or entertainment. As I said above, Savannah has wrapped a not-small segment of its tourism around this film, yet signs and solicitations never make direct reference to the movie’s subject matter. The scenery is all Savannah (that city looks like no place else!), but the story as told could have been set with different accents in just about any city in the U.S. (or many others around the world). Local celebrities living semi-closeted lives, having to explain to some out-of-stater the way things are done ’round here (and how can a writer from New York City be so naïve about drag queens anyway?), mutual suspicion and derision between the out-of-stater and his smug, amused hosts…

There seemed to be many swaths of rich material, but no hems to fit it all together; more to the point of this blog, where were the race and class issues? The accused makes a point of explaining that he is nouveau-riche, and his lover was clearly working class, but these tidbits don’t seem terribly relevant to the course of the story. Similarly, the two Black characters are vaudevillian for their entertainment value and receive much critical camera time, but neither exerts much direct impact on plot. Perhaps their roles could have been expanded, to redirect the film toward a study not of a murder investigation but of the quirky community around it – but then it would lose what little was credibly left of the Southern Gothic motif. Conversely, the superfluous parts could have been trimmed (I daresay cut) to allow for a more straightforward narrative, but then it would have lost pretty much all entertainment value (Lady Chablis, who convincingly played herself fifteen years after the actual murder, was the best part of the film). I hope The Book was better.

But even if The Book and The Movie are great works (and I’m no expert, plenty of others seem to think so), it still surprised us that Savannah has so wholly embraced them. Sure, Midnight conveyed Savannah’s haunting beauty, but what did it say about the city and its people that can be such a source of pride and draw to Savannah? Uppity and aloof people of wealth gossiping impersonally over alcohol? Nothing unusual there. Thriving but underground gay culture? Not your usual source of pride (well, not in the lower-case, non-parade variety). A place where Black Americans are not defined by their race, but by their skills as drag performers and Voodoo priestesses? Entire classes could be taught on what’s wrong with that… Was it the notion that eccentric Southerners can charm any Northerner into relocating without really trying?

Actually, let’s think about that. Because the trial, the denouement that follows… those were anticlimactic. They’re kind of benchmarks to let you know the story’s almost over. Really, they’re just props, no emotional reaction. And all those lovely, eccentric, one-and-a-half-dimensional characters who stretch the film out well past two hours… most of them are kind of props, too. The mistrust, the culture-clash, the anticipation of twists and turns that never quite materialize… these are the most powerful elements, and the film isn’t over until the narrator tells his new love interest that he’s not going back to New York. But he’s still little more than a prop. That plot I was kind of ragging on? Prop. The gay community and its thin closet, the Black characters (and lack thereof), the rich and the poor – they’re all just props.

The real protagonist of the story is the city of Savannah. Between dialogues, the city calls out to viewers and lures their eyes away from the foreground with beautiful townhouses and creeping Spanish Moss and says, “Look at these crazy people. Only a real city could produce a story like this. Someplace with history and beauty and tragedy behind tired eyes that you’ll never see because I am too gorgeous to let you in on the baggage. I can’t change who I am. I can’t change my history and I’m not sure I would if I could, so I’m just going to put it out there: the eccentric, the ostentatious, the best and the worst of myself, and I dare you to assume that’s all there is to me.” This city puts on a fabulous show of everything it is and everything it wants to be but can’t and celebrates that which it cannot hide with undulating flair.

Savannah is a drag queen.

But not just any drag queen; Savannah is THE drag queen of The Old South. In a good economy, you can’t even tell black from white, happy from sad, any part of any dichotomy from its opposite, because all the polarities are just jumbled up around you and inviting you to savor the blend. As the economic shifts catch up, well, we’ll see who gets invited into the next, more meager concoction, but for now Savannah bears whatever scars it must without trying to hide them, neither flaunting nor obscuring, just getting by on personality and hotness and hoping they will keep you from asking another one of those questions it’s already tired of answering.

On the drive to our next destination, we stopped at a 24-hour Starbucks near Auburn University for warm beverages and people-watching. We couldn’t decide how to feel about the strange blend of gymnasts and debutantes, hipsters and hicks; was it all too illogical or simply our own lives flashing before our eyes? At least it seemed integrated. There’s a lot to be said for how easily it comes to people my age and younger, even here in the South.

Any other day, we would have been talking about that Starbucks for hours, but Savannah had already stolen the show. We would talk about those two days for weeks to come…

Sights: Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens, E. Shaver, Bookseller, River Street, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen

Topics: Speculating on the political leanings of employees and clientele at E. Shaver, cheap toilet paper at expensive hotels, how great it would be to live in Savannah for a month while writing a book, gender, race, class, acceptance vs. tolerance.

Soundtrack: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Martha Wainwright, Placebo, Simon and Garfunkel

We were a bit late heading out of town, but it was okay. There was very little to see in Montgomery.

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What Is It about Savannah?

2009.February.18

[apologies for the delays in getting the last few out… they’re just as important, I assure you!]

I had been to Savannah once before, on a business trip with the now-defunct Leadership for a Changing World program. I remember being sucked in because it was my first Southern city to explore as an adult and by that time, I was already beginning to miss my roots (non-progressive though they were). We had stayed in a supposedly four-star hotel downtown, where the garish decorations could not disguise a bug problem and blatant segregation on the staff. I got the feeling on that first trip that Savannah was a beautiful town in its own right but that it had a bit of an identity crisis going on. It was hung (possibly for a long time) on the precipice of choosing an identity, like a beautiful cheerleader who is too compassionate to let the jocks pick on the nerds, but too popular to intervene. At one time, Savannah was one of the richest cities in the world, but of course with that wealth came the injustice and indignities of slavery. Especially after I took a ghost tour, which (White-) washed all of Savannah’s rougher history in favor of stories of lost (White) love and bitter (White) family disputes, I got the sense that Savannah was in denial of a history they could not ignore. That first visit was in 2005, and I hadn’t even seen Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil yet.

Sights: Tybee Island Lighthouse, exhibits at the Savannah College of Art and Design (including a graphic narrative display that featured The Devil’s Panties among others), Gallery Espresso Coffee Shop.

Topics: lots of picture-taking, love of lighthouses, the ill-likelihood of finding the perfect book for my research in a lighthouse gift shop, that book when I found it, the exhilaration of being around artists, how segregated River Street seemed, how un-segregated everywhere else seemed (compared to 2005 especially), getting lost on the two US80’s, art in the bathroom, was mayonnaise crossing the line in the sexy-woman-objectifies-self-with-food paintings for sale, the concept of “meta” and the likelihood of its inherent pretentiousness, how well we do or do not learn American History in school and elsewhere, Whiteness of SCAD, Jennifer Leigh Dunlap.

Soundtrack: just talking, navigating, and the radio.

We got around to watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (thank you Netflix) that night, which just confused us all the more…

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Why Not Discuss?

2009.February.5

It was going to be hard to top Inauguration Day, so Wednesday had us playing tourist. It was my first trip to Atlanta.

Ostensibly, this trip was about research as much as seeing sights, but I was shy more than once about approaching strangers for their insights on race and class. A peculiar incident on this day was a conversation with the owner and a regular patron at a gentrification coffee shop. The owner was a middle-aged White man, the patron a Black man in his late twenties or early thirties, and the two had already been talking about insurance or something-or-other. The older man invited his friend to dinner; he began talking to us as the younger man gathered his belongings. After a few pleasantries, I told them I was doing research for a book on race and class (I was not more specific, though I my topic is actually much more focused). They laughed and wished me good luck. They recommended checking out some other places in Georgia, which I jotted down, but the conversation waned quickly and they left. I’m sure either of them would have been able to offer some interesting perspective, but I held back the particulars that might have grabbed their attention and proven I wasn’t some clueless, over-reaching young fool (well at least not completely).

I had to ask myself afterward why I had held back. Was I reluctant to engage the (presumably middle-class) latte culture before I had really talked to anyone from the working class, which is the actual focus of my book? Did I feel vulnerable because they already knew each other, or because race is always easier to talk about one-on-one? Was I unwilling to betray my background, for fear it would affect our discussion, or that I would subliminally let slip the crass notes I had been making about this very shop the night before? Or was I just settled into my tourist and cuddling mode and not willing to get out of it for people who obviously weren’t going to be around for long?

Yes, I think so.

Sights: World of Coca-Cola (yes, I know they’re an evil corporation but I’m a soda aficionado), the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, and oh, technically we drove through Centennial Olympic Park.

Topics: “simulation mode” at spectator factories, the creepy extended version of “The Happiness Factory“, corporate indoctrination, potential subversion by advertising agencies, Pemberton/Candler/Woodruff, charging 5 cents for 50 years, omitted chemicals, bottling for GIs, New Coke, aluminum bottles, sampling everything (including Beverly), the absence of real Pibb, lack of water fountains around the sample room, corporate credit unions, the future Center for Civil and Human Rights, real estate around tourist attractions, the King Center’s two bookstores, respect, frozen fountains, reaching out to educate kids, entropy, Wormsloe Plantation, homeschooling, panhandling

Soundtrack: U2, Sinead O’Connor, Johnny Cash, Kimya Dawson

That night, we drove into our eastern-most destination: Savannah.

[ETA some topics]

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Where Was the Best Place to Watch the Inauguration?

2009.January.27

If you were in Atlanta, probably the big gathering at Centennial Olympic Park, but if you couldn’t make it into town, you’d be hard pressed to beat a warm house with a big TV, which is what we ended up doing. I was glad to hear from friends who were part of the DC throngs we saw on screen, but I was just a digital age spectator. After the ceremony and Obama’s drive/walk to the White House, we found a Five Guys for lunch (A DC institution! What was it doing in Georgia?). In the evening, we drove into downtown Atlanta just to explore. We found a gentrified neighborhood near the MLK Center and talked over coffee.

Sights: Underground Atlanta, Sweet Auburn

Topics: What lyrics might have been going through Obama’s mind as he stepped onto the inaugural stage, Rick Warren‘s inoffensive invocation, whether Aretha and the classical ensemble would release their performances as singles on iTunes, Feinstein‘s inoffensive hosting, whether Biden (or the new administration in general) got to choose which Associate Justice administered his oath, Roberts’ flubbing the oath, the President’s inaugural speech (one of my favorites so far, including the first mention of “nonbelievers” in such a prominent national address), the poor delivery of the poet, how great was Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery’s benediction, whether Obama had to remind himself “cab, not blades” as he led Bush to his helicopter, how distracted the NAACP’s new president might have been at Love Shack being played in the background during his CSPAN interview; the merits and drawbacks of franchising and its explosive growth in recent years (leading me to wonder whether there isn’t a franchisor out there who is franchising the business of franchising), the resemblance of Atlanta’s streets to those in Lower Manhattan, awareness of privilege by White men, the resemblance of a certain statue to John McCain, whether a swimming pool was an appropriate tribute to MLK, and the repurposing of old buildings.

Soundtrack: Johnny Lloyd Rollins, Barenaked Ladies, Guy Forsyth.

The next day we returned to Cold-lanta…

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Anti-gnostications

2008.November.5

What can I say? I’m better at asking questions than predicting answers. Because I am too tired from celebrating to write a real entry today, allow me to react to and modify my previous entry:

“Barack Obama wins nationally with a popular vote over 55% and approximately 3/4 of the Electoral College. I wouldn’t call it a landslide, but definitely a solid mandate.”

Right call, wrong numbers. Just a matter of scale, really. I think I meant to say 55% and EV of 3/5, or I was just too lazy to look at the margins. The 55% didn’t happen because the difference was more stark in McCain’s victory states than I had expected, but he still won the highest percentage in twenty years. Anyway, his victory passed 3/5.

“Obama loses Texas by 3-5 points, faring much better than expected. If only he’d spent some cash down here.”

Again, right call, but I forgot where I live. Obama was far from striking distance at 11 points back, but it halved the 23 point spread Bush had over Kerry in 2004.

Sarah Palin tries to run for President in 2012, but drops out before January is half-over. Don’t count her out from the national scene, though. The biggest mistake Democrats made all year (even more than dragging out the Michigan/Florida limbo) has been misjudging her role in the campaign and underestimating the contribution she makes.”

Too early to tell, but you’ll notice that her name is still on the lips of many commentators, and not only to receive blame. Am I the only person who thinks she looked embarrassed at McCain’s concession speech?

Rick Noriega loses by 5-7 points.”

By which, of course, I meant 12. :P

“Senate becomes 59-40-1, after upsets in Georgia and Minnesota.”

Depending on which site you consult, there’s still a chance, but it looks like it will be closer to 57 or 58 (including Lieberman and that other independent liberal I forgot to count). Georgia is probably Republican though, and Minnesota is deep into recount territory.

“Dems are icy to Joe Lieberman but allow him to continue caucusing with them to maintain their supermajority. Liberal policy not the death-knell to business that conservatives prophecy, but social policy progresses less than expected. Foreign relations improve quickly in early months, but plateau halfway through the first year thanks to new tensions around economics and Russian chest-beating. Countrywide, Democrats grow increasingly annoyed with Nancy Pelosi, but Hillary Clinton becomes a more balanced and broadly respected figure in the Senate. Old white men become passe and 2010 sees more nonwhites and women running for office than ever before.”

All pure speculation, and will be years before we know for sure.

“Texas House goes to Dems with a slim majority. Speaker Craddick is replaced by someone I’ve never heard of, someone else I don’t know becomes Minority Leader, and the possibility of a non-partisan commission for redrawing district lines is given serious, state-wide consideration but may not pass in time for the next redistricting.”

Well, no fudging numbers here, I was flat out wrong about the majority. But the rest is still possible, and the Legislature will be almost purple next session.

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