Gone South

Groovy art by an unnamed Cooper Middle School student in a public display.
Groovy art by an unnamed Cooper Middle School student in a public display.

They took everything. Paperback books I’d read with heavily creased spines. Frying pans. The cutlery I understood, and the mysterious and profound ladles and paring knives I could never master putting away properly. Books I’d meant to read and still might. Pictures on walls of thinner, younger people we had been. Books I’d meant to read and never would. A soccer ball I’d only kicked twice. They shoved all of it into a parade of boxes that drifted out the door and around a corner and down a large service elevator and into a moving truck.

I looked into the space that had been our lives for two years in New York City. It seemed smaller with everything gone. Like the universe collapsing on itself. When you take every stick of furniture out of an apartment, you would think the apartment would seem larger. But that apartment shrunk to the size of a small walk-in closet. Did we take turns breathing in there? How did we manage it? I couldn’t figure it out.

Because we’d been living in an apartment the size of a walk-in closet for two years, we had a small storage facility. It was filled with boxes of stuff we didn’t need but couldn’t bear to surrender. Somewhere in there were some rolls of film on disposable cameras that will never be developed. About seven journals I started to keep and stopped keeping. About 25 empty plastic bins that I was once sure I had to have.

We were coming around the corner almost to the moving truck with loads of this crap, when a man stepped over to ask, “Is there anything you don’t want? I have a church. We can put it in my van.” My first thought was that he could probably have all my crap, and I wouldn’t really miss it. Then I wondered about his church. Then I remembered seeing a guy once selling stuff out of a van that he had probably stolen somewhere. And I thought the guy in front of me now didn’t seem particularly religious. I didn’t really want my stuff. And yet I didn’t want him to have my stuff. And I wanted to give him a bible quiz. But there was no time for that. So, I decided I didn’t trust him. Which is one of the things New Yorkers get really good at doing. So, I just said, “No,” and moved along. Moving along is another thing New Yorkers get extremely good at over time.

I could sometimes tell myself I was a New Yorker and nearly believe it. But it was like trying on an outfit that didn’t quite fit. And there are so many types of New Yorkers that it was impossible to know what I was trying to be. Some image of a New Yorker I came to New York with two years ago? Fast talking and gruff and hard. People in New York were not like that in my experience. They cared plenty. They had lots of opportunities to lose their cookies, but rarely did I stumble on a full-blown come-apart in public.

We discovered while living in Florida that in the South you can have a “come-apart.” My wife would have a full-blown come-apart sometimes getting our two sons ready for church some mornings. Words would be spoken that were not in the spirit of the day. “We’re just about ready to start churchin’ proper,” I’d say to the family when things had gone completely to hell on a hectic Sunday morning. I would break out a big crazy grin. Everyone in the car was mad at someone else. And off we’d ride.

You come from the South to Manhattan with certain stereotypes in tow. Were there plenty of homeless people talking to themselves in New York City? You bet. But there are eccentric types no matter where you go. In Alexandria, we have encountered on three separate visits, a 350-pound man who has a fondness for inhabiting a certain park bench on a specific city street in the late evening. His most outstanding feature is the way his pants do not nearly manage to contain his bulging lower backside. I’ve taken to calling him “Butt-crack Jones.” I was trying to parallel park on this street when we first noticed him. After the third attempt, my wife turned and said, “Would you like me to do it?” I was man enough to allow her to park the car. I tried to blame my parking problem on the tremendous butt-crack distraction. But we both knew that wasn’t it.

So, all our stuff – the good, the bad and the worthless –  came with us from New York. It’s all in boxes scattered throughout our townhouse in northern Virginia. And I have no idea where to put any of it. And I certainly wish I had given everything that was in the storage facility to the man with the van who may or may not have had a church. And he could sell it. Or use it himself. Or build some modern art with it.

And the odd thing is even though I’m technically in the South – on the side of the Mason Dixon Line where sweet iced tea is a God-given right and macaroni is a legitimate side dish. And there are miles of rolling green scenery just like back in the Piedmont area of North Carolina.  Even so, it feels like not quite my South, at least not the way I remember the South. Northern Virginia has toll roads and HOV lanes. My wife takes the Metro, which rides like a train above ground for miles before diving underground like a subway before it enters D.C. The road traffic is often dense and nearly constant. We live under the odd and unpredictable edicts of a Home Owner’s Association for the first time in our lives. For these reasons, northern Virginia feels Southish. Not full-on South.

But I’m comparing this place to the South I knew, growing up on the outskirts of Salisbury in a leafy development where I played kick-the-can and tackle football in wide back yards our fathers mowed with pride. We hung laundry on a line in the backyard when the weather was right and raced to bring it in when a sudden thunderstorm loomed. Our dog Scamper was a kind of community pet who knew more people than we did and got treats and extra meals from two other families. On a bad day, you could smell manure from the farms down Hurley School Road. On a good day, you could ride your bicycle a mile down the two-lane blacktop to a tiny store to buy a bag of candy and maybe get passed by two cars along the way.

When you look up the words “Gone South” online, several definitions appear. One is “to make an escape; to disappear.” That seems to fit. We have escaped New York City. Another definition is “to fall, to go down.” That seems harsh. Another definition is “to drop out of sight.” That sounds like entering the witness protection program.

I must not get bogged down in my own narrow definition of the South. Or what a truly rural suburban life is. Or what the dictionary says about going South. I must be in the place where I am and figure out what it means as I go along. Our second evening here, my 16-year-old son beckoned me to the living room window. “Put your head up against the glass and listen. Do you hear that?” He was beaming. I pressed my ear against the glass. And I heard it. It was pure music – something I hadn’t ever heard from our apartment window in Manhattan where you could always hear large trucks rumbling by late at night, sirens wailing and taxis honking.

It was crickets. Nothing but crickets.

A friendly tree at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Va.
A friendly tree at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Va.












Gone South

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