Jewish World Review March 4, 2011 / 28 Adar I, 5771
On the Road to New Orleans
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | There are few better ways to go back in time and ever deeper into the South, which are much the same thing, than to drive through the Delta down to New Orleens Land of Dreems.
Mile by mile, the dreamscape unfolds like an old map, falling into familiar place after place. As the road narrows to two lanes, the residue of the past begins to float by. You pass abandoned cotton gins, long empty houses by the side of the road, their roofs slowly, majestically caving in, as if they had all the time in the world to disappear. They already seem archaeological, like forgotten monuments. The testify, like a stove-in old man at a camp meeting, to both the malice of time and the persistence of memory. Something, something powerful, lives on here. The evidence of it is all around.
You can tell you're getting deeper into the dream by the signs for products that are no longer made, the empty storefronts that went out of business long ago but are still there, some just barely. That one must have been a filling station, to judge by the rusty gas pump outside. You drive on, curve after curve, one half-forgotten vista opening after another, like the endless corridors of some memory palace.
Forgotten politicians live on here in their signs, their tattered images still flapping in the idle wind. Some of the billboards have dated with remarkable speed for a slow-paced land. One touts
Six years later,
Like so many other things, Southern demagoguery ain't what she used to be.
That's what driving south into the South is like: a series of flashbacks, usually in black-and-white, pre-Technicolor. Along the blue highways, the demagogues of the 1950s and '60s, or even the '30s, come to life again. It's we the living who seem pallid ghosts.
"I have fallen in love with American names," wrote the poet. He would have stayed in love with Southern ones, which are good enough to last a lifetime. They loll on the tongue, ripple through the void of time, conjuring up a past that still has not quite passed. And turn us all as garrulous as good ol' boys at a family reunion. ("Oh, remember when Bobby here...")
We love the past here, even if it's with a wink and a nod. If you've grown up anywhere Southern, you know the people who live along this winding highway even if you've never met them. You can hear their voices, even their pauses. The cultivated Suthuhn of the aristocrats. The everyday ring of black laughter -- which is one of my first childhood memories. We lived above my father's shoe store in
We stop at
Over a Coke and nibbles, she tells us there is indeed something new under the sun in
These young people come from schools like
You can take the
Deep into the night, leaving the two-lanes and shanties behind, getting onto the interstate and beginning to enter American anonymity again, we stop for coffee at a convenience store. But the South persists. We hear a black clerk impatiently admonish a friend, "You heard me what I said!"
We drive on through the sweet, enveloping night, unable to stop repeating the phrase. Is it a variation of the reflexive, a Shakespearean echo, something all its own? It doesn't matter. It has force, clarity, a beat, and it stays with you. Like the South. You heard me what I said.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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