One Thursday every month, my friends Oline and Dananator, and I trudge out from our respective corners of the city and meet amid the gloom and oil paintings of naked people at the Old Town Ale House. The purpose of our gathering is to critique our writings, but conversations about Chicago, growing up, gender, grad school, and the names of specific Muppets take up a good deal of the time. We talk about those things, and we talk about the South. We talk about the South even though we are on a street called North Avenue on the North Side of a Northern City.
We talk about the South because two of us (Oline and I) are Southerners and Southerners in the North cannot help but talk of the South. It’s our predicament. We need the validation. The validation that yes, it’s okay that we feel a little weird living in the North, that yes, we’re not the only ones who sometimes sort of feel like expatriates in our own country.
Dananator thinks we should write about the South. She has never been there and wants to know more. Oline has done so beautifully here, even though neither she nor I really want to write about the South. We don’t want to write about it because we don’t really know what to say. We don’t want to sound melodramatic or tragic. Because we’re not. But the history of the South is a tragedy, written in blood and shadow, and it’s hard sometimes not feel like a bit of that’s settled on our sleeves like a thin layer of dust.
I come from a city, after all, where the police department bomb squad has to be called in periodically because somebody found a live bomb in their attic from the Civil War, or the Revolutionary War, or that time Blackbeard laid siege to the city for medicine (yes, that really happened). I come from a city, in other words, where there’s a decent chance that you might, during a DIY home remodeling project gone awry, become the last fatality of the Civil War… or Blackbeard. I come from a city where the very name “Civil War” is a topic of not always polite debate. I come from a city where a plantation house and slave cabins still sit next to a busy road within spitting distance of a McDonald’s.
I don’t carry much of that with me, honestly. I don’t have to. I’m not a true Charlestonian. Mostly I grew up in places people like to call “The New South,” places without much history. But I’m still from Charleston, still Southern, and I feel the need to speak for it sometimes here in the North, only, as I said, I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say because I do not know what the South is.
Still, I give it a shot. The South is a haunted house, I say at the Old Town Ale House on North Avenue. And I think it’s true, but then I don’t feel haunted much. I do miss it sometimes; a lot, actually– the heat, the food, the palm trees, the sideways houses, the razor thin streets, the Spanish moss, the smell of salt in the air and the stink of pluff mud. But that’s Charleston, I realize, not the South.
We talk and drink for a while, but we still do not know what to say about the South. And then Oline, who is from Memphis, mentions BBQ and the two of us get into a nearly violent argument, while Dananator looks on, about BBQ.
That is the other thing Southerners do when they meet each other in the North. We argue about BBQ. Because we always know what to say about that.