Only in the South
by Jamie Berube
It was around 5 o’clock on a sticky, overcast evening in July when I walked off a plane into the Atlanta airport with my carry-on bag and overstuffed purse in tow for an hour-long layover en route to Orlando, Florida. I was on my way to my Mom’s house in the muggy suburbs in the belly of the state and it had been six long months since I’d touched or tasted the organic fare of the American South — the swampy evening air kissed with humidity and magnolia, the flatness of the wet, sweet soil and grass, and the way it feels to hear somebody call you “Ma’am” with that deep, syrup-y accent for the first time since being away on the opposite side of the country for more than half a year. It all feels foreign and fake at first – almost chintzy in a way, but then I remind myself of where I am and like an old sweater from college that can’t be outgrown, I pull it over me and let it warm my blood until it feels familiar and comfortable again and I can say with sincerity that I know this place. And once, I called it home.
My tummy grumbled as I went off to scout out a cold sandwich and a coke. There was a little deli squished in between a Starbucks and a smoothie shop so I moseyed on over with visions of cold, creamy bits of avocado and sharp cheddar cheese and layers of veggies in between soft deli sandwich bread paired together with a bag of BBQ chips and the treat of a sweet, bubbly soda to wash it all down with. I was excited to eat.
There were two young girls working behind the counter. Both of them couldn’t have been any older than nineteen. “Good evenin’ ma’am, what can I make for ya tonight?” One of the girls asked with a big sweet smile. There were no vegetarian options listed but after being a vegetarian for over two years now I’ve learned how to adapt and just ask for what I want. “I see there are no vegetarian sandwiches on the menu but is there any way I could have the turkey club without the turkey, and extra avocado and cheese instead?”
“Of course you can baby girl, I can make you whatever you want, I’ma get that started right now so you just relax.” I smiled and thanked her and took a seat while I waited. Five minutes later my order was ready.
“Okay miss, your sandwich is done!” I walked up to the counter and handed her my debit card. She swiped it and handed me a crinkly brown bag and a Styrofoam cup fizzling with ice cold soda pop. Just what I wanted.
“You have a wonderful night honey and God bless you if we don’t run into each other when see Jesus someday, ok? You tell me if that sandwich ain’t good and I’ll make you another,” the girl said this to me with a smile full of confidence. I looked her in the eyes to make sure she wasn’t being sarcastic. I have lived in Orange County for four years and when service-industry workers make comments like this there’s a good chance its sarcasm that is if you’d ever hear someone working at a sandwich shop say this in the O.C. or L.A. area of the West Coast. And it’s pretty much guaranteed you wouldn’t. Ever. I searched her face for a few seconds and concluded she was being sincere. Where the hell was I again?
You’re in Georgia, Jamie, I reminded myself – this isn’t L.A.
There was no doubt about it; I was back in the South. And in that moment I was grateful to be. Because it’s stuff like that that this California transplant will always miss about the land of long country roads, tiny Baptist churches, humid summer sunshine, fried gator tail, and sandwich-shop workers who would say something like: God bless you if we don’t run into each other when see Jesus someday, ok?
An encounter like this might weird some people out — I get that. But what it taught me was that being apart from a certain place and it’s personality for an extended period of time enhances the experience when you go back to visit and helps you appreciate the details in the margins of your life-story — even for a cynic like me. It’s the small things like Johnny Cash-Cowboy accents, just-the-two-of-us lunches at the local diner with mom, and late-evening walks around the local park where kids play basketball well past dark and where crickets sing songs miles long after dark that become a novelty and treat to a traveler like myself who has yet to sever ties with her roots.
Of course, there are things I do not miss about living in the South. Like the fact that I can’t drive ten minutes through my old neighborhoods without seeing at least one Confederate flag hanging from someone’s front porch or pick-up truck in a region where the racial divide is much less-subtle after you’ve moved away for a time. And the radio stations – they are gut-wrenchingly awful in the town where I grew up. You get two choices while you’re driving: country music or “top 40″ radio that rotates the same 3 or 4 six-month-old tired pop songs all day long. Don’t like Toby Keith or the last song The Black-Eyed Peas put out? You better download that Pandora app. immediately. Then there’s the humidity and bugs and mosquitoes that plague the sunshine for 70% of the year and make you want to gouge out your eyeballs with a fishing hook in frustration. And telling someone you’re a vegetarian in my old circle of friends is like telling them you don’t understand football or Jesus – you’re likely to be met with looks of bemusement and concern. I could do without these quirks and quips of course, but the native kindness that was shown to me at the airport and throughout my week-long stay with family and friends is more valuable and healthy for my own perspective when reflecting upon my Southern life-stories. Life-stories that are sweetened by the novelties that I experienced for so many years like true Southern hospitality, illustrated so perfectly that day in Georgia. It may seem phony and contrived in the movies and on TV but ask anyone who has lived in the deep South for any amount of time and they will likely attest to the fact that no where else in the country can you go and be greeted quite as boisterously and deliciously as in the Southern states. Need a bed to sleep in? A good meal? A warm pair of socks? A glass of sweet tea? I can ask anyone I know back in my hometown, no matter how limited our acquaintance, and guarantee my request for any of these things will be met with fulfillment and delight and served up with a side of warm pie. Civility and chivalry are in no short supply where I’m from. Southern hospitality is not merely a concept – it is every day life.
Now at twenty-five years old, being three years removed from the buttermilk biscuits and swampy Sunday mornings and dark country roads that slice through the long night-sky and dew-y green of the horse farms that bedazzle the cultural landscape of my childhood home, I find that it stands as a place of history and novelty and simplicity for me. ‘Cause that’s just what home should be, a place that can’t be totally outgrown no matter how much you might want to outgrow it, like a sweater from college — and a place where the people make you feel good and taken care of no matter how long you’ve been away. Even if that person happens to be a teenage girl working a deli inside an airport in Georgia who believes she’ll see you in heaven someday with Jesus.
Only in the South, baby. Only in the South.
Jamie Berube was raised in the South for 16 years before relocating across the country to California. She is a freelance writer and social worker. She has a passion for delicious literature and any candy combining peanut butter and chocolate. She’s also the author of A Rocky Relationship and Blame it on Skynyrd, both previously published in Deep South.