Jewish World Review
March 26, 2014 / 24 Adar II, 5774
Where does the South begin?
Ever wonder just where the South starts? I used to think I knew: at the bottom of Cantrell Hill here in little old Little Rock, Ark., for every morning I leave the highlands and pines, and wind on downtown, where the hardwoods and Dixie start. It starts there because Southernness is a function of mean altitude above sea level. The lower the altitude, and therefore the more black soil and traces of the old plantation economy and culture, the more Southern. It's a geological, not just a cultural phenomenon, Southernness.
The riverboat captain on the Ohio River in antebellum days thought he knew where the South began, too, and when crossing from Louisville to Cincinnati would shout out: "You are now approaching the American shore!" The South was a different country then and may still be.
When the difference was marked by a clear line on the map, the one between slave and free states drawn in 1820 by the Missouri Compromise, the alarm should have sounded: The Union was in danger. Thomas Jefferson heard it, and compared the drawing of a geographical line across the country to separate one half from the other to "a fire bell in the night," a sound that "awakened and filled me with terror."
A friend of mine puts the farthest extension of the South to wherever the last monument to the Confederate common soldier stands, a marker every county seat in the South seemed to have at one time. Here in Arkansas, that would make Bentonville, Ark. in the far northwestern corner of the state Southern. Funny, it doesn't feel Southern, at least not to a Southerner. It feels Midwestern.
If you think Midwestern is a step up from Southern (and I am fond of Midwesterners and their open, helpful ways), then you must not be a Southerner. If you think it's a step down, you must be a Southerner, or at least someone who prefers the distinctive, even eccentric, to the bland.
I once nominated Redfield, Ark., as the spot where the South begins, specifically the Big Orange, a diner formally named the Mammoth Orange, because Redfield is where the hills run out and the Delta begins in Arkansas. (It's that Mean Elevation Above Sea Level thing again.) If you could get a Moon Pie and Grapette soda there, you'd have a culinary as well as geological sign you were going deeper into the South. Or just an RC. (I must have been half-grown before I realized AhrCee wasn't one word but an abbreviation for Royal Crown.)
I still think the Big Orange ought to put up one of those historical markers like the kind they have out west to mark the Continental Divide, only this one would read: Here the South Begins.
But in that case, why do you find unmistakable pockets of Pure Dee Southernness in places like far eastern Tennessee where the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains arise? Not to mention the college town -- now city -- in the middle of Missouri where I went to school for a few idyllic years: Columbia, Mo. It's in Boone County, which at least back then was called Little Dixie.
How account for that? My explanation: Southerners on the periphery of the South are most aware of their Southernness and most determined to hold onto it, the way the most elaborate celebrations of St. Patrick's Day seem to be in America, where everybody is Irish on March 17th, and the most fervent Zionists are found not in Tel Aviv but New York City. The most ardent nationalists of any stripe may be found on the outer reaches of their nation. Folks in Mississippi don't have to talk about being Southern, they just are. While professional Southerners may be at their most cloying when they crop up on the far reaches of the South. (Recommended reading: George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism.")
Every mile you drive past Redfield on I-530, you plunge deeper into the heart of Dixie and decadence, which can be much the same thing. I was heading for my old town, Pine Bluff, gateway to Southeast Arkansas or departure lounge therefrom, depending on which direction you're going.
Pine Bluff is still there, I am happy to report, if just barely.
I pass Julia Raley's crumbling old Southern manse, or at least the empty lot where it once stood on Barraque Street. It's no longer there, with its stately pillars, high ceilings, grand staircase and the grandfather clock in the hall quietly ticking off the past. Yet it still exists, unchanged, in my memory. Like much of the South herself.
"You must come," Miss Julia would implore, her pixie-blue eyes all a-twinkle. "We're going to play Old South to beat the band!" It was both promise and caveat, equal parts genuine enthusiasm and shared irony, irresistible invitation and inside joke. My memory of her unfailing hospitality, another Southern trait, has survived her.
Main Street is still there, kind of. Driving over the railroad tracks that still bisect the town, I glance over at Fourth and Main and see only a mountain of rubble at the corner. It could be Berlin, 1945, or maybe London in the Blitz -- total destruction. An old building has fallen in. Happily, it happened early one evening in downtown Pine Bluff so nobody was around to get hurt.
But just up the street and around the corner, the old Community Theater, a derelict when I lived there, has been resurrected. Like a ghost on a feast day. Its new, golden paint job glows in the sunlight. Its impressive new marquee, which would do justice to the movie palaces of old, glitters and gushes like an electronic waterfall. Talk about back from the dead. Hope is reborn, and hope ain't that easy to come by in today's Pine Bluff, Ark. As what remains of the once grand old Hotel Pines at Fifth and Main attests.
I spent my first night in Pine Bluff at the hotel (July 7, 1962) as a candidate for editorial writer at the Pine Bluff Commercial. And the old hotel was run down even then. It's been boarded up for years now, but somewhere in the innards of that great hulk they say the stained-glass ceiling over the once grand ballroom still exists, like a dream of the golden past.
Who knows, one day the Pines may shine again, too. Why not? A decaying old warehouse district in downtown Little Rock years ago, a stretch of blight no one dared enter after nightfall, has become become today's vibrant, tourist-filled and still growing River Market in the heart of the state's capital city.
The Pines could yet turn out to be the next shining Alluvian Hotel and Spa à la Greenwood, Miss., and all it would take is a little imagination and an awful lot of money, I say with the practiced ease of one who doesn't have it.
Next I go in search of my old barber shop, fully expecting to find another empty lot, or maybe a seedy little garage where some shade-tree mechanic has moved indoors. But there it is, still a cinder's throw away from the railroad tracks on Fourth.
A beauty shop seems to have moved into half of the little building, but I am directed to the barber shop next door. I even recognize a couple of the barbers, I believe. But when I ask after mine, whom I always thought of as Tiny in tribute to his rotundity, I'm told he's long gone.
I'm not surprised. With his impressive ballast, he could have been an illustration in a medical textbook on hypertension and morbidity. Tiny was a fine barber and, I understand, a finer fisherman. "Here's another thing I want to talk about..." one of the customers is saying as I leave. That much hasn't changed.
Tiny was one of the many things I missed about Pine Bluff when I got the terrible idea of moving to Chicago, where I stayed for a year to the day before I was overjoyed to head back home. (I've never done well above a certain degree of latitude.)
When I asked my new boss at the Chicago Daily News where I might get a haircut nearby, he told me there was a barber shop not far away. Then he hesitated. And added, as if giving me fair warning: "But it's a black barber shop."
I could only smile and think: "Man, I wouldn't know what it was to have my hair cut by a white man." He was from up North or out West somewhere, as I recall. He was very successful.
Soon it was time for the high point of my sentimental journey: an uptown cheeseburger at the Sno-White Grill with a side order of local gossip and general reminiscence, both prepared with his usual competence by Bobby Joe Garner, Chief Cook and Prop. It was right where it belonged: still just down Georgia Street from "where the shoe repair shop used to be," which is the way old-timers in Pine Bluff used to give directions to newcomers -- to their complete mystification.
It was a relief to find the Sno-White unchanged. Local institutions need to be preserved, and the coffee was as strong as I remembered. The place wasn't exactly crowded in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, except by the ghosts I kept recalling from the days they used to exchange banter with me there. Just as we will doubtless do again soon enough. There's nothing like paying a visit to your old town to feel more than intimations of mortality. It doesn't feel bad at all. A little like Old Home Week.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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