The thermometer says we are one. For the last couple days there’s been little difference between the North and the South. It’s all bitter cold, mittens-and-hot chocolate weather. Chill factors below zero. Often, there is a vast gap between the North and the South, a great divide seared into consciousness by history, cauterized by culture and certified by climate. But we’ve been chilled to the bone across the Mason-Dixon line as less than six degrees of Fahrenheit separated the North from the South this week.
It’s not often the South and North share weather so intimately. Often, I find myself looking for things that remind me of my southern roots. I’m thrilled when I discover them here in odd places.
My Manhattan dentist is from Mississippi. I love her to death. When she was poking around in my mouth Tuesday afternoon and called me “hon,” I thought my heart might explode I was so happy. No one has called me “hon” since I was in a Waffle House in Asheville, North Carolina last summer. I wanted to hang around the dentist office longer than necessary just to listen to her accent. She’s lived in New York City three years, but the accent and her sugary southern mannerisms made the journey and are here to stay.
You cannot get decent sweet tea in New York City. But you can get southern barbecue and fried chicken at a little restaurant called Blue Smoke not too far from where we live in Downtown Manhattan. Their ribs, macaroni and cheese and cornbread make me think of home. Robyn and I went there when they were running the Kentucky Derby on TV. I stared at all the fine hats on display on the restaurant’s television screens, works of art perched on the finely arranged locks of pretty southern ladies.
The hats reminded me that Robyn attended a garden party once that called for outlandishly stylish hats back in Wilmington, North Carolina where we lived before moving to New York.
“What do you think of my hat?” she asked. Only it had another name, a Fascinator. It was a fancy feather hat pin that perched fashionably if precariously on one side of her head. I tried hard to think of a response to do it justice. “It makes a statement. I am a lady of good social standing. Fine enough to attend an upscale garden party. But still humble in the eyes of the Lord. Was that what you were trying for?” She nodded. That had been exactly the chord she’d hoped to strike.
Back in Alabama, where we lived for three years, we had thought long and hard about sending our older son Andrew off to six weekend classes in manners. He’d be taught when to use which utensil at a fine dinner party, how to properly hold those utensils, how to fold a napkin and the proper way to set a table. At the end of the course, I think he would have learned how to dance the waltz. Maybe he would even attend a cotillion.
He thought this was stuff and nonsense. It seemed like vital cultural information to us, something precious on its sad weary way to being lost forever. These proper traditions seemed like quaint gems in a sea of plankton to us as our mainstream cultural landscape grows ever coarser and less distinctly geographical. We loved the notion of preserving them. But we couldn’t think of a way to get him to participate in an experience he was determined to despise.
I find manners and small kindnesses to strangers, which I always thought were qualities that deeply and distinctly defined the south, do not disappear as you cross into northern latitudes as I grew up imagining they would.
Last week, I was walking across a patch of black ice wearing a pair of reliable snow boots when I went down unceremoniously on my butt in the Financial District of Manhattan. My pride suffered more than my backside, but a tough looking customer with a slightly discernible northern accent chewing on a cigar asked me twice if I was okay as I regained my feet. I assured him I was. I really appreciated that he cared enough to ask.
About a month ago, I was coming back from the Bronx. I had been all worried I’d be mugged and left for dead in a ditch on my first visit there, but I enjoyed my visit very much. I was running to catch the train back to Manhattan, and the train doors were closing. A very large and friendly young man who looked just like Fat Albert from the cartoon saw me running toward the train and wedged his body into the closing doors so that they popped open again. I was bowled over by that. We’d never met, but he was sacrificing his body for me. Then I felt guilty for holding up the whole train for a moment just so I could ride, but that feeling passed quickly amid my gratitude.
I was standing on a crowded bus going to the Bronx Botanical Garden with my wife and son on a later Bronx visit just before Christmas. They each had a seat on the bus. But I had given up my seat to a young woman. She thanked me and sat. A moment later, an older man made his way onto the bus and down the aisle. She got up and gave up the seat I had just given her. Then the old man got off, and she reclaimed her seat. Then a really old lady got on, and she gave up her seat again to the old lady. She was popping up and down like a jack in the box, giving up her seat to everyone. I wanted to kiss this woman. I settled for beaming at her.
Maybe the ladies of New York City don’t wear feather pin hats to attend garden parties or don crazy outlandish hats to make the scene at traditional horse races. Maybe you can’t see a list of the latest debutantes in the local paper where young women are pictured smiling and regal in their fancy white dresses. Maybe they don’t crown an Azalea Festival Queen in Manhattan the way they still do in Wilmington, North Carolina every year. And there’s also no queen’s court of young fashionable ladies in hoop dresses and gloves, promenading on the arms of cadets from a naval academy.
My separation from the South is painful sometimes, a little like a voluntary exile I never quite realized I’d have to endure. But I have my Mississippi dentist, my neighborhood barbecue place and enough small kindnesses from big city strangers to get by.
“Brr” with any accent sounds just the same.