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When people walk into our house for the first time, they almost always ask the same question: “Have you read all of these books?” Sometimes, if I’m feeling brave, I might say “most of them.” Which is not really true. We’ve been married for more than six years now, and even though we own a house and a car together, have merged bank accounts and basically all other parts of our lives, we have never merged our book collections. This is probably the only part of our marriage where there are profound and possibly irreconcilable differences.
The shelving of books is a difficult matter. I prefer my fiction alphabetized by author. He prefers it arranged by subject sometimes, other times genre or era – an impenetrable system that annoys me to no end when looking for something on his shelves. Both of our nonfiction collections defy the alphabet but don’t nearly approach something as orderly as a Dewey classification system. So I’ve got my books in one room and he’s got his own room. Because we’ve got as many books between us as a small town public library, there’s the inevitable overflow into other rooms, including a designated “reshelving area.”
Books are beautiful. Not only individual texts, the way all bindings glide differently across your fingers or fit into your hands. A wall full of books is a cacophony of colors, sizes and fonts. To my eye, it is more magical than even the most expensive or thought-provoking art. Taken separately, even the most boring books can be endlessly provocative if seen in the right light. Collectively, their possibilities can blur your consciousness if you let them.
The waste stream isn’t particularly kind to books. Some get called antiques and marked up, often for no comprehensible reason. Others are tattered from being passed on and on through avid hands until they can be had for a nickel in bins marked by author or genre. Some are simply sold by weight, or by the yard for decorative projects destined to adorn the shelves of non-readers.
Others are picked up and curated by folks who run an increasingly rare species: the used bookstore. Blame Amazon or Ebay for this decline; blame our depressingly collective low literacy, or television, or whatever favorite scapegoat you have for what seems to be a widespread lack of interest in old things (strike one) that are written on paper (strike two) and take time to consume (strike three).
I go to used bookstores like some people go to museums. There are destination bookshops, like the remarkable King Books in Detroit – a warehouse the size of a city block filled with more stories than a thousand Scheherazades. Milwaukee’s airport houses Renaissance Books (whose downtown location is closed, as far as we know), shelving new alongside rare and used books of an incredible variety. Then there are bookshop districts. My favorite may be the cluster in the French Quarter – some specialize in regional ephemera, others in fiction, others in piles that seem to defy gravity. Each offers treasures commensurate with time spent. It’s an old bargain, but I’ll take it every time, usually ending up with more books than I can reasonably carry or check on to an airplane. This complicates the book storage situation.
A few times a year, I’ll go through the stacks and do a strategic cull. I’m trying to stay within the available capacity, so as new books come in (which they do by the bagful sometimes), I try to find new homes for books I’m done with. Usually, I’ll keep a book if a) I’ll read it again; b) I’d lend it to someone; c) I probably will read it someday; or d) I’d use it as a reference.
But there are always some books that you can’t get rid of, even if they don’t fit into your utilitarian calculus. It’s hard to imagine getting rid of my dead mother’s high school yearbooks. I wonder if I will ever stop missing her enough to dismiss her classmates’ exhortations and hard-to-decipher notes regarding her character and conduct in classes and activities that I struggle to imagine. The same applies to my father’s decades-overdue library books about the Soviet Union. And my calculus textbooks. And the collected works of John Steinbeck. And the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence, occupying almost an entire shelf in our hallway built-in.
Over the Transom
This set came from a magical bookstore in tiny Fairhope, Alabama. It was called Over the Transom. You had to walk through a record store to reach it. The record store is still there, run by Dr. Music. Though I’ve never known whether Dr. Music is a real doctor, one of his specialties is surgical: he grafts speakers into old suitcases. You know the store is open if there’s music playing on the sidewalk from one of these contraptions. There’s now a comic shop behind Dr. Music, where the owner’s stock is solidly eclectic but almost weirdly censored: no issues with sex or witchery in the titles. Evidently because it’s a tourist shop, the proprietor’s trying to keep his shelves G-rated. Nevertheless, he’s got a wicked good collection of old issues of Doctor Strange.
America’s got a collection of places like Fairhope (and at least one wonderful novel about an imaginary community somewhat like it) – tiny, experimental, aspirational utopian communities founded on principles that promised to solve, once and for all, the root causes of the problems of the old society. Like America, we all eventually become our parents.
In childhood, we learn the lay of the land. As we do, two paths become clear. We can find a way to thrive in the existing stream of goods, services, values and priorities. Sometimes this works. Or we can try to cut our own path away from or against the prevailing currents, upending and contesting commonly held beliefs as we go. This works less often.
Fairhope began with a dream that puts most people to sleep: tax reform. More specifically, the colony’s founders migrated all the way from Des Moines to relatively remote South Alabama because they were inspired by the ideas of Henry George, an American journalist and sort-of economist.
As best I can determine from touring the Fairhope municipal museum and consuming the things the Internet has to say about Henry George, I can explain Georgism this way: land has intrinsic value to a community, but people should own the value of the way that they improve land (buildings, businesses, etc.). This translates, in practice, to a “Single Tax” colony like Fairhope, where the land is understood to be a common good and is taxed accordingly. Sound socialist? It might surprise you to know that the land value tax is a concept endorsed by free-market types dating back to Adam Smith. George’s main idea was that because economic activity and investment created the value of land, it made the most economic sense (read: efficiency) to tax land value itself, rather than the factors creating that value. As a bonus (and in theory), land value taxes are progressive; they cannot be passed on to tenants, workers, or people who otherwise use the land. In theory, this means that a single tax structure should promote growth by removing disincentives to improving land. The owners pay the tax while the innovators reap the rewards.
Sounds good? Enough to move from Iowa to Mobile? In 1894, 28 people were convinced enough to relocate. Even today, the Fairhope Single-Tax Corporation is still a thing, covering more than 4,000 acres in and around the current city of Fairhope. Which is, let me say, a very charming place to spend a day.
Fairhope is the kind of place you feel compelled to write home about (or Facebook about, or whatever passes for this kind of notification these days). Downtown is mostly composed of a shopping district outlined by about six by six streets, densely layered with boutiques, galleries and restaurants. You can happily kill a day wandering from store to store while considering all of the things that you might like to buy and/or eat. A few key factors will affect your decision-making:
- Are you a person who likes glittery or exceedingly patterned things? If so, Fairhope’s retail offerings are definitely for you. You will find items from the affordable to the aspirational in every clothing store, often on curbside sale racks. Also there is plenty of oversized novelty jewelry, which will look great matched with your new white capri pants, turquoise blouse and sparkly sandals.
- Are you walking a dog or other companion animal? Good news! Most stores will allow your dog indoors, and almost all have water bowls outside. Many restaurants will allow you to dine on the patio, where sometimes you can listen to singer-songwriter music about meaningful places, sad relationships and big ideas.
- If you have a beach house sadly lacking in beach house-related decor, the shops of Fairhope have you covered. You can find many signs, tchotchkes, and other signifiers designed to tell people that you live at the beach. This is in case they didn’t know by, for example, looking out of the window toward the actual beach.
There are bookstores, but none of them are as good as Over The Transom was. Page and Palette is good, but in an obvious way. They’ve got most of the books you already knew you wanted to read. They key to Over The Transom was that they had the books that you didn’t know you wanted to read – Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Proprietor Martin Lanaux had a quiet but always present approach to his shop. You’d come in, be left alone for a while, and then he’d manifest suddenly, guiding you to the book you didn’t know you wanted but now could not leave without. This is a special gift, the matching of reader to book. While there, I watched him join the curious to a mystery series; the gardener to an environmental history; a tactile child to science primers.
Me, I was a harder catch. I resisted recommendations. I’d read it already, or I wasn’t interested, or I was skeptical of the genre. We played a cat and mouse game for more than two hours that day. I went through boxes of books to be priced later, allegedly from Rick Bragg’s moldering basement. I considered some overpriced psychology books. I set aside a handful of fiction. Finally, he caught me mulling over a set called Masterpieces of Eloquence. I’d studied philosophy and rhetoric, so I was interested in what was contained. I think he smelled a sale, even though they were marked at $500 for the set – much, much, much more than I was interested in paying.
He asked: “Why are you looking at these?” I explained that I taught debate, that I’d studied rhetoric. I added, for some reason, that in the next two weeks I would take the US national high school debate team to South Africa to debate for the world championship.
He asked: “Would you use these?” I said that I wasn’t teaching classes right now, but that I was sure that if I taught a class on rhetoric again, I’d use them.
He asked: “Can I sell them to you for $50?” I paused.
This would be an entire shelf of scarce shelf space. Never mind the richness of subject. Volume one has orations from Homer to Demosthenes. Volume 23 contains oration from Eliot to Bourinot. This ranged from vague undergraduate philosophy knowledge in volume one, to just about no idea by volume 25. I imagined myself reading all of these – at best a hazy future. And the space they’d take up! But then I thought of all of the work that Mayo Hazeltine, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Mason and others that I’d never heard of had put into this collection. That gave me pause. I turned to Martin.
He sized me up. “You’ll use them, right?” Yes, I said, or at least I nodded. I wanted the books but I had no idea how they might come home or where they might go.
He offered to sell me the books if I promised to use them. I agreed, and loaded them into my car. Weeks later, I sent him a postcard from Capetown but never heard from him again. The next time I went to Fairhope, Martin’s store was occupied by thin volumes featuring capes and costumes.
Masterpieces of Eloquence
These days, the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence occupy most of a hallway shelf in our Montgomery home. I do not open them often. I wish I was more child-like about their presence, that I thought of them more in the way that my younger self encountered the encyclopedias, great book collections, and other sets sold by volume that occupied my grandparents’ shelves. But I’m older now, and more resistant to wonder. Age imputes the worst kind of immunity. I find myself prone to pick up books that already interest me. That leaves the volumes of MoE, sadly, out of the regular rotation. For this post, I picked volume 23 off of the shelf and dusted it off a bit. I opened it to a random page and found a quote that seemed, eerily, to speak to Martin – or at least my work:
As one goes in life, especially in modern life, a few conclusions are hammered into us by the hard logic of facts. Among those conclusions I think I may, without much fear of contradiction, enumerate such practical, common-sense, and common-place precepts as that superficiality is dangerous, as well as contemptible, in that it is apt to invite defeat; or again, that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well; or third, that when one is given work to do, it is well to prepare one’s self for that specific work, and not to occupy one’s time in acquiring information, no matter how innocent or elegant, or genuinely useful, which has no probable bearing on that work; or, finally- and this I regard as the greatest of all practical precepts – that every man should in life master some one thing, be it great or be it small, so that that thereon he may be the highest living authority: that one thing he should know thoroughly.”
Gendered pronouns are kept as in the original, as I’m pretty sure Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams) meant to be talking about cis men upon the occasion of his address to Harvard in 1883, titled “The Study of Greek as a College Fetich.” The text notes that this speech “attracted wide attention, the speaker contending that the knowledge of Greek should not be required for attention to Harvard.”
Evidently, this speech caused Harvard to make Greek optional. Which is entirely in the keeping of Over the Transom’s lost ethos. The books you take home may or may not be “canonical,” whatever that means. You choose them, but that doesn’t mean that you occupy the entirely heroic free-choice subject position. The good bookseller knows that their role goes beyond mere curation. It’s about putting books in the homes where they go – where people might open them up and give them a shot on their own terms. In a bookstore where there were at any given time at least three copies of Dale Carnegie’s masterwork, Martin knew better how to influence people. He also seemed to embody Adams’ message, that superficiality invites defeat.
And this is how I ended up with a shelf’s worth of the Masterpieces of Eloquence. A master book seller sized me up as I stared askance at Joyce Carol Oates and saw that I was wanting. He watched as I touched the collected works with wonder, imagining at the treasures within. He knew that it might take some time, but that one day I would open them and maybe even share them with the outside world, and he took a gamble on finding them a new home.
We’re living in a world of surplus stuff – does this need any explanation or elaboration? It has not been too long since any issue of Tom Swift or Nancy Drew was valued beyond price and read under the covers. Just last week I ran the cashbox at a yard sale where these same books were sold by the yard. But just as you fix your mind on civilization’s inevitable catastrophe, it’s worth bearing in mind Mark Twain’s comments from Volume 23:
You make up your mind that the earthquake is due; you stand from under and take hold of something to steady yourself, and, the first thing you know, you get struck by lightning.
Book love begins as a child, when words and their vast accumulation seems like a repository of absolute magic. You work your whole life to master their incantations, to identify and mimic the artists you admire so that your powers might grow stronger. But then, at some point, you begin to doubt yourself. The ocean is so vast and your boat is so small. You brace for disaster, cowering behind hastily constructed barriers of safe and reliable words. Then, inevitably, there is lightning. Which we used to call eloquence.
Longtime Lost in Montgomery readers will know how closely we’ve followed Lebanese domestic politics over the years, so it’ll come as no surprise that we’ve been fascinated by the unfolding protests over trash in Beirut. That’s right. It seems that the failing government there has neglected to pick up solid waste for a month, leaving piles of smelly waste all over the city in summer. Locals have mounted a protest campaign cleverly titled “You Stink!”
Montgomery has a lot in common with Beirut, but there’s a key difference here. The Lebanese get to see where their trash goes. We don’t.
A little history for those new to the saga (a longer version of the tale is in our Recycling FAQ):
Montgomery used to have curbside recycling. But very few people participated and it was very expensive. Mayor Strange cut the program. There was talk of a magic fairy technology that would solve our waste problem. A very expensive feasibility study showed that this plasma fantasy was not feasible. Then we were told that Montgomery was going to be “first in the nation” with a new kind of mixed-waste disposal plant that would take recyclables out of our trash and sell them. This plant would be operated by totally-not-a-James-Bond-supervillain “Infinitus Energy.” Once the (very expensive) factory was operational, we were told to leave our diapers, dead animals and pet waste on the curb (instead of in our trash cans) lest they jam up the cutting-edge plant. Nobody in their right minds did this. Time passed.
Some people from Zero Waste Houston contacted us. They wanted to know more about Montgomery’s waste disposal system. This was because they were fighting against the building of a similar system in their town. We learned a new vocabulary word: Dirty MRF. It sounds like a sex thing, but it’s actually short for “dirty materials recovery facility,” which also (if you say it in the right tone of voice) also sounds like a sex thing.
We read all about these Dirty MRFs and were shocked by how much we simply never knew about Montgomery’s sparkling new plant. We love recycling as an idea, but we were disappointed in Grandma Advertiser. A little bit of investigation would have revealed that major recycling industry groups actually oppose facilities like ours because they need usable diverted waste to make money, and dirty MRFs don’t create usable diverted waste.
It turns out that our professed “first in the nation” designation wasn’t even close to true. Facilities very similar to ours had been failing to meet recycling targets and losing money for years. One in Chicago failed to meet even a 10% recycling target. Another in California claims 50% diversion, but half of that is what they spread on top of the landfill to cover up what’s underneath. One in Illinois went bankrupt. One in Ohio doesn’t even meet a 20% target. You can read all about these plants and more in this report.
And yet, to be clear, we (the City of Montgomery) were sold a plant that promised 60% diversion. As fans of The Simpsons, we are compelled to imagine that the exchange went a little something like this (this clip will help you sing it in key):
Setting: Montgomery City Hall. A well-dressed representative of Infinitus Energy is speaking to city leaders.
Infinitus Energy: “You know, a town with money is a little like a mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it. Name’s Energy. Infinitus Energy. And we come before you today with an idea. Probably the greatest idea … never mind. It’s more of a Wetumpka idea.”
Mayor Strange: “Now wait just a minute! We’re twice as smart as the people of Wetumpka. Just tell us your idea and we’ll bankroll it.”
Infinitus Energy (pulling a sheet off of a scale model of a tiny recycling plant made from a shoebox): “We give you … The Montgomery IREP Plant! We’ve sold dirty MRFs to Rockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum it put them on the map!”
Infinitus Energy (breaking into song): “Well, sir, there’s nothing on Earth
Like a genuine, bona fide
Electrified, trash-eatin’ dirty MRF”
Mayor Strange: “I hear those things lose lots of money.”
Infinitus Energy: “It turns your waste to milk and honey.”
Mayor Strange: “Is there a chance the trash could spill?”
Infinitus Energy: “Not on your life, my mayoral shill!”
Citizens: “What about us brain-dead slobs?”
Infinitus Energy: “You’ll be given cushy jobs.”
Local Clergy: “Were you sent here by the Devil?”
Infinitus Energy: “No, good sir, we’re on the level.”
Mayor Strange: “The ring came off my pudding can.”
Infinitus Energy: “We’ll make it diamonds, my good man.”
Mayor Strange: “I swear it’s Montgomery’s only choice. Throw up your hands and raise your voice!”
Lone Citizen: “But the west side’s still all cracked and broken”
Mayor Strange: “Too late now – the mob has spoken.”
All together: “Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF!”
Evidently the folks in Houston and elsewhere fighting these plants had been trying and failing to get a copy of Infinitus’ contract with the city. So we went down to the city and got our own copy. Which we uploaded – you can read it here (Warning: it is very long and super boring). Based on this, the Houston folks produced a fact sheet about the Montgomery facility to use in their fight. That’s a PDF, and you can read it here. Here’s something shocking about the contract. Buried deep within is the possibility of, essentially, an incinerator. Even though we were told there would be no incinerator.
Then we were tipped off to a brewing controversy in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Seems that our little plant is being used to sell other
monorails dirty MRFs. And some people there have been doing their homework. Reading their website, we’ve learned a number of shocking facts about our own facility – facts that we haven’t seen in any Alabama media outlet. The chart below is from the folks in Moncks Corner – you can see it as well as the original documents on their website (click to make the image larger):
Those numbers are astonishing. That’s a $12 million “miss” on their overall financials and a $6.5 million shortfall just this year. They seem to have actually recycled a pathetically small amount of material – less than 10% diversion, far short of the 85% they are claiming elsewhere. And the company hasn’t even made their first of 25 bond payments yet. Will they go bankrupt and stick the city with a giant pile of trash and hundreds of millions of dollars of our hard-earned money?
Why is nobody talking about this?
We hear rumors. We hear that the facility won’t let outside reviewers in. We hear that folks at ADEM won’t go on the record with their criticisms of the facility. We’ve certainly never been in there to look around. All we know is that people used to come and take the recycling from our curbs, and now we just throw everything away in one trash can and trust that our invisible trash overlords are turning garbage into money.
And all the while, a pack of slick hucksters go around the country showcasing the plant they suckered us into buying.
I am standing at the large kitchen window overlooking our yard. It is almost 10 at night. While we look forward to The Daily Show and some evening rest, a substantial Alabama thunderstorm brews. The light from the repurposed gaslamp hanging from the ceiling gradually mutes until it reaches the wide outside sill where three junebugs struggle on their backs.
Junebugs are not the smartest insects. They fire their pale brown bodies like buckshot into evening wear from here to the nation’s capitol, careening off with a feint to race back into the night. If you’re out in a nice dress with a cool cocktail in hand, a junebug is a horror to be squeaked at. Here in the safety of my kitchen, outside of buzzing range, they are irreducibly sad. Their legs wave from pale undersides with feeble purpose. Is it a signal or the mute instinct of immanence?
I drink the remains of a cocktail. Thunder threatens, but nobody takes June seriously around here. The three junebugs fluster. I don’t claim to be a Buddhist, but at this moment, I think that I am just terrible. Why do I let these creatures suffer? Why do I pay someone to spray this window sill, and others like it, so that these tiny and miraculous bugs will shiver slowly into their deaths?
Maybe you are not someone who thinks on these matters too much. Perhaps you exterminate ants or spiders with abandon. As someone who bears an irrational fear of cockroaches, I can relate.
But they mean no harm. They strive only to feed, mate, and fly blindly about. Who of us doesn’t know a more evolved person who fits that description? An hour later, I return to the kitchen to refill my water before bed. A lone survivor twitches once, twice. It is trying to generate momentum for a reversal before the poison kicks in. I know this creature will be dead before I see it again. If it were in the house, I’d freak out for someone to evacuate it. Here on the sill, outside my reach, I find myself wishing someone would save it. Its robust junebug body has much to offer. Surely it could find a mate to carry on its genes.
On the second day I wake up remembering that bugs brought me to Alabama the first time. My New Mexico high school had qualified for the National Science Olympiad at Auburn. I was, improbably, the entomology specialist. Someone who is content to leave dead cockroaches under glass jars for days rather than pick them up herself (and this before reading Infinite Jest) seems like an unlikely fit. Two factors worked in my favor.
First: the insects were dead. There was no wiggling or flapping, which was important not just because I am skittish, but because insects are really incredible to look at when there is no risk that they will blindly land in your hair or crawl on your arm. You notice their colors, their interlocking parts, their alien eyes. Second: the task was merely organizational. You couldn’t bring a guidebook, but you could make one. I did not plan to memorize elaborate taxonomies, but I was happy to design an illustrated decision tree for bug identification in a spiral-bound notebook. I picked up and examined a lot of bugs. The last time I was this interested in insects, I’d run a short-lived childhood “roly poly” farm after discovering the armadillo-style creatures were attracted to geranium leaves. This turned out to be toxic, perhaps poisoning me forever for a love of insects. In any case, we didn’t win the Science Olympiad.
Through the next day the last junebug (Phyllophaga) lies there. It bakes in the sun. I think about how slight it seems. How should I read its final pose? Is it supplication or resistance? Where are its colleagues? Why hasn’t an enterprising bird – maybe one of our yard’s flock of cardinals – picked it up by now? Dusk arrives. Dinner is cooked and eaten. I do the dishes in the quiet of the laundry’s hum. And then it moves. The segmented legs pedaling up and down in the front, side to side weakly in the back. How can it be alive after all this time? What ancient instinct woke it at dusk to struggle once again?
I decide that I want it to live. More precisely, I decide that I can’t watch it die. I walk outside into the sweltering heat. I convey it to a shady part under our climbing roses. I watch, hoping it will right itself. I nudge a bit with the corner of the folder that once contained “AT&T BILL.” I notice that its head is actually a splendid, rich red sienna, a contrast to its duller body. I notice the delicacy of its legs, the way each surprisingly hairy part precisely moves in time with its partners. Its eyes are shielded, while its antennae slowly feel out the new landscape.
By the time we return from a baking hot dog walk, it’s gone. Did it walk off? Did one of the cardinals snap it up? Do I care because I am secretly obsessed with my own mortality?
Three days later there are three more junebugs on the sill, struggling against the coming storm.
We knew that there would be a friendly conquistador mascot.
His paralyzed rictus leered at us from billboards scattered across the state. His grin beneath his conquistador comb morion said “genocide” to us but nonetheless offered family fun to potential tourists around Alabama.
We were pretty sure we’d be troubled by some parts of the two-day Native Heritage Festival. The billboard at the gas station by our house promised a special event at DeSoto Caverns — a Native American Festival of some sort. We were familiar with the blurred lines between “offensive” and “fascinating” that accompany so many ostensibly educational opportunities here.
We also knew that Alabama had some beautiful caves. Some are featured on the “Caves of Alabama” episode of the indispensable show “Discovering Alabama” (which can be seen in iTunes here). Some are, like DeSoto Caverns, privately owned, like the sadly-recently-closed Sequoyah Caverns.
So, yeah, we had some expectations.
Then, upon arrival at the cave outside of Childersberg, we encountered the following words: “laser light show is Biblically themed.” Six simple words printed on a laminated card next to the gift shop cash register. Six words that changed the game.
First: laser show. You drive an hour and a half to see a cave mentioned on billboards all over the state. Marvels of nature are a particular category of thing, linking us to the scores of humans that across the eons have gawked at some waterfall or geyser or hole in the ground. But there’s going to be a laser show? Will the enormous men on mobility scooters (themselves marvels of nature) clad in bald eagle print shirts survive a laser show? Will the multiple American flags affixed to said mobility scooters?
Second: Bible-themed? Why? What did this have to do with one of Alabama’s most famous caves? Our stomachs slid as we forked over almost $25 apiece to see the cave. We also received ten “credits” to be used for visiting the park’s other attractions, which were mostly assembled out of some country fair’s leftover bin — as if the majesty of God’s Cave™ were alone insufficient to justify dragging the kids away from their video games.
We decided to pass on the “pedal-powered go-karts” and mini golf. We immediately got in line for the 2:30 cave tour. This was less a line than a hundred sweaty people bumping into each other due to their inability to simultaneously text and guzzle giant cups of sugar water. Seen from above, it might have been a fractal. Seen from human-level, it was a showcase of all the worst tee-shirts imaginable. Amid the usual “Bama gear,” there was a Deadpool-themed basketball jersey and a tank top that contained an image of every single AC/DC album.
Among us there wandered a few upbeat high school students wearing official green DeSoto Caverns “staff” shirts. They used a pen to mark off physical tickets brandished by random passers-by. This seemed ineffectual. Say what you will about the modern American theme park, but most are fairly efficient at dealing with the whole “buy the ticket, take the ride” part of the experience. DeSoto Caverns was free-forming it, perhaps awash in unusually large crowds. It was the day of the Native American Festival, after all, whose drumming we heard as we waited in line for the cave tour.
As the previous tour filed out, the caving rules were explained loudly by our bored teen guides. No smoking, no eating, no touching the rocks (because the “olls” (rhymes with “tolls”) in our hands would “stop the moss from growing.”)
We’ve seen some caves before. Last year we made reservations at Carlsbad Caverns. The National Parks Service online registration system offered several choices of tours organized by length and strenuousness. We booked a tour for a specific time, ensuring that no tour would be over-crowded. We could pay online with a secure service. Despite the many claims we hear in Alabama about the comparatively crisp efficiency of private industry relative to its idiot government cousin, the privately-owned Desoto Caverns website offers none of these things. You just buy a ticket at the gift shop, along with a slab or three of award-winning fudge, maneuver your stroller into battle mode and ignore everyone else around you. You can go on any tour you want, as long as it’s the same one as everyone else. Depending on the day and time, some may be intimate while others are massive stampedes.
While waiting to enter DeSoto Caverns, you might kill time by staring at the mural leading into the cave entrance. It depicts friendly Conquistadors (the titular DeSoto) and an accommodating Native American pointing into the cave. The corrugated tunnel leading into the cave may remind you of the mailed-in parts of locally run haunted houses. It leads onto a ramp that is not as slippery as advertised. The descent is pretty brief. The cave is implausibly tall and almost vaulted in the matter of European cathedrals. At this moment, however, your job is not to wonder. It is to find a seat in the 16+ rows of cold metal bleachers. The movie is about to start.
A giant television tells us that nobody really knows how Earth’s caves were created. It says that one popular theory is that they were caused by a giant flood. Our ears prick up. Perhaps not only the laser show is bible themed? The video on the cave’s history features a syrupy accented actor playing Hernando De Soto. If the movie is correct, the famed Spanish explorer sounded a lot like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.
The film talks vaguely about the people living here before De Soto rolled in with his megalomaniac bloodlust. The history of DeSoto Caverns is really told mostly from a kind of corporate promotion perspective, including a friendly introduction to the current CEO and a look at the prior owners’ strategy to exploit the cave’s resources in various way. The film does not say how old the cave is. We find this odd, until we remember that we’re still waiting on the Bible Themed Laser Show.
Then they turn the lights off. We had been hoping for a few minutes of primal pitch darkness. The idea of not being able to see, of the uniquely immersive experience of cave dark, appealed to us. Complete darkness is biological and irreducible. Unfortunately, appreciation of inky silence is evidently too unnerving for the modern teen tour guide’s psyche. Within seconds of extinguishing the light, the jokes broadcast over the PA system began: “Wave your hand in front of your face. Touch your nose. Now, touch your neighbor’s nose without picking it.” This was evidently needed for the crowd to relieve the tension generated by the agonizing sensation of temporary absence of visual stimulation.
Relieved of the need (or capacity) for introspection, we awaited the next spectacle. First we were treated to the opening lines of the Old Testament. The lights emitted from behind the inflatable screen that had just shown us the information-free film, from a formation that seemed to be slightly modified to resemble popular illustrations of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead of ghosts, streams of colored water were sprayed at suitably momentous intervals while lasers did their thing against the back of the wall through lazy bursts of smoke. Then, ooh, ahh, the blue laser MUST be God traveling over the firmament, and everyone gets the point that we are totally talking about the Wonder of Creation here.
But then it goes on. And on. Genesis as sledgehammer. All of the days of creation, each enumerated and detailed. A voice intones that each day had a morning and a night. Some people applaud when it’s revealed at the end that God rested on the last day.
Seeing this low-rent razzle dazzle in explicitly Biblical framing helped us to understand more about why the flag scooter people parked outside the gift shop’s bathrooms (“Chiefs” and “Maidens”) had been ranting so vociferously about the need for greater militancy in the ongoing struggle of the War on Christianity.
We are brow-beaten. The lasers die off and we stand up, confused, lurching into sub-groups loosely defined by the numbers of un-numbered bench rows. Still reeling, we meet our guide, Caitlin.
“This is our wishing well. Also known as the Confederate Well.” We look at each other to see if she just said that last part. If we’ve already gone full monotheistic cave history, we might as well hitch our carts to some kind of polemic about the War of Northern Aggression.
People dutifully pitch change through the roped-off steel grate into the beautifully clear illuminated water below. We are led into a spectacular part of the cave full of low overhangs that weave toward a surprisingly vibrant waterfall and the roped-off back part of the cave.
Caitlin tells us that there once maybe was a bootlegging tunnel that led all the way to Talladega (12 miles away), and that there are lower caves that “only the professionals” go into. We will never be introduced to the vocabulary word “spelunkers” or any other actual parts of cave exploration on our visit. Seriously, you can (and will) do the entire cave tour without knowing that there are people in this world that engage in recreational cave exploration, much less study them in a variety of academic contexts. Interestingly, the site’s online educational materials designed to lure students there on field trips are quite detailed on the scientific foundations of the cave’s formations and nowhere mention young earth creationism.
Our next stop on the tour contains some bootlegging equipment. Evidently, Caitlin tells us, “they” think that the cave functioned as a distillery and night club during prohibition (first the “Cavern Tavern”, and after a series of horrific underground barroom brawls, “The Bloody Bucket.”) Caitlin’s shoulder shrugging, “nobody knows” ethos seems at odds with her claim that actual people have showed up at DeSoto Caverns and told stories about how it used to be an illegal club. For Caitlin, the myths about the cave are just about as accurate (and vague) as the established facts.
We proceed a few paces to the left. Here we see a rock with “WRIGHT 1715” scratched into it. It looks as if there are human remains sitting here. Caitlin tells us a story about an 18th century trader who wandered into the cave seeking shelter only to be killed by the locals on account of it being a sacred burial site. She notes that these are “fake bones” next to the rock.
Indian burial ground. The game changes again. Stephen raises his hand to seek clarification. “I’m sorry, did you say that this is an Indian burial ground?” Caitlin seems nervous. She is worried about going off script. We will have to sit through an overly-detailed explanation of Confederate gunpowder manufacture in the caves before we can hear more about what seems to have been the oldest and most important use of the cave. All of a sudden the whole rest of the tour takes on a horrible and obscene cast. We’ve been marched down a ramp, subjected to terrible promotional materials and an EXTENDED READING OF PART OF THE CONQUERING RELIGIOUS TEXTS WHILE LASERS SPARKLED, and only now do we learn that all of this has happened in a sacred burial site? And today is the Native American Festival?
Are we walking on graves? The tour’s explanation of the discovery of the human remains makes virtually no sense – they’ve just finished telling us a story about some guy who sought shelter in the cave for a night in 1715, carved his name in the wall, and was killed for invading and desecrating a holy site – and now the story is that “until recently” nobody knew this was a graveyard? It’s clear that they used to display bones. “Then they decided they didn’t want that,” says Catitlin. Never mind that we don’t now know who “they” are — presumably the relatives of the people who lived here for a thousand years before “we” arrived and deported them to Oklahoma. It’s notable that the matter of grave desecration (and robbing?) was framed as something that is to be “liked” or “not liked.”
So here’s the upshot: In 1965, archeologists from the University of Alabama entered what was then known as Kymulga Cave and discovered a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site that held the remains of (at least) five people. At some point afterwards, these bones were on display for tourists to gawk at. At some point after that, representatives from a tribe came and buried the bones somewhere in the cave, presumably behind the rope barrier blocking us from going up some steps to the area where the remains were found. No further information about this is provided.
We were standing in a sacred cavern which had been used for burials. This cavern is now both a privately-owned money-making scheme and a crass effort at spreading religious dogma. We were now staring at the cave tour’s second plastic skeleton.
Before you get too cynical about the private holding of a natural wonder (to say nothing of the genocide part), it’s also worth noting that the cave’s first white owner was a pretty impressive woman. Long after the natives had been expelled (leaving behind a few of their ancestors), and long after the Confederate gunpowder had been cooked up, Ida Mathis and her husband bought the cave. And she was a pretty impressive lady!
It’s for the best that their plans to mine the cave for onyx went bust. It’s probably not for the best that her relatives (still owners of the cave) changed the name of the place from Kymulga to DeSoto in 1976. And the current incarnation of the place as the host to the Native American Festival? Well, you’re 2200 words into this piece, so let’s talk about that.
We weren’t sure what to expect from the festival, since the DeSoto Caverns website offers more typos than substantive information. All we could gather in advance was that this was the 50th year of the festival, and that there would be five tribes present. Alabama has only one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creeks (Andrew Jackson having gotten rid of just about everybody else some time ago). We were interested to see what other groups/nations would be represented. But the park offered no leaflets, educational materials or other documentation. There was just a sign with the day’s schedule – several performances repeating from 9-5 on the big stage. On the way in, we’d seen tents that seemed to be set aside for tribal members to sell wares that included bows, arrows and dreamcatchers.
This last made us cringe. We’ve always associated dreamcatchers with a particular vein of products and representations that both appropriate Native cultures for commercial consumption while flattening them out to homogenize the many peoples who used to live across the Americas. The dreamcatcher is in fact a meaningful part of Ojibwe culture (they’re up around Lake Superior and also extend into Canada), most often seen these days hanging from the rear view mirrors of folks who may also wear airbrushed “wolf howling at the full moon” shirts and overly-dangly earrings with feathers and fake turquoise. In the first instance, if you’re dreaming while in your car, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the second, what is up with people who don all kinds of “Native” apparel and affectations? Sure, there’s the racist name of the Washington pro football team, and the racist name and chants of the Atlanta baseball team. There’s the horrible racist-sexism in Peter Pan. Those are the easy prey. There’s also “Native” as fashion statement – Urban Outfitters selling “Navajo” print underwear, people wearing replicas of ceremonial headdresses to music festivals (or here at DeSoto Caverns, where hundreds were for sale in the gift shop). Nothing says dominant group privilege like being able to adorn yourselves with the bits and pieces of groups your people systematically subordinated.
We emerged from the cave desperate for refreshment. Next to the stage where the Native American dance program was happening, we found a cart selling popsicles from Birmingham’s excellent Steel City Pops. We sat at a picnic table in the tiered outdoor amphitheater. While a child bounced behind us and massive people waddled by with precarious tubs of fried food, dancers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians took the stage. We can’t judge whether they were good or not, because we’ve never seen any Choctaw dances before. We did like the dancers’ seeming enthusiasm. Some of the dances seemed like they might even be fun to do, and we could see how they performed unique social functions. But sitting there watching the tribe’s dance performance unit go through its paces on a stage just a few yards from the entirely desecrated burial ground of a related tribe just felt wrong somehow.
A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s fantastic National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. The day we visited, a musical expert was leading a seminar in the main hall. He played a repeating four-note drum beat familiar to most people living in the US. He said that comprehensive study proved that this was actually not a beat or chant that existed in Continental Native cultures. It was entirely invented. It was also the first sound we heard at DeSoto Caverns.
Unless you are some awful brain-dead idiot and/or withered chainsmoking super-patriot, something is wrong with you if you don’t feel at least a little conflicted watching a nearly-exterminated people perform their ancestral dances for your edutainment. It’s troubling that our representations of indigenous Americans are always stuck in the past. Imagine if whenever we saw Mark Zuckerberg it was in the clothes of his ancestors, performing their sacred rituals. It’s also troubling that we are on the “prevailing” side of said genocide, able to choose what will be suitably entertaining and therefore worthy of applause while summoning colonized people for occasional entertainment.
The willing and conscious performance of dancing can also be seen as a willing and conscious performance of roles in a script, a script authored and engineered by centuries of violence. As consumers of their cultural offerings, we had our own prescribed roles in the script too.
The line between education and entertainment is always fuzzy, but downright wooly here, with so much depending on how you define exploitation and where you draw the line. “Entertainment” contains multitudes, some horribly offensive to the sturdiest sensibility. Other examples of “entertaining” cultural learning involves sharing delicious food or having horizons broadened. And the edgiest examples of the genre may well change the way you think about everything.
Of the Mississippi Choctaw’s dances, we liked the Snake Dance the best. It seemed like it might be the most fun to do, a shoulder-bumping series of tight spirals performed in a single-file line. But we’d reached our limits: too much heat, sacrilege, and uncomfortable suspicion. We were pretty alienated from our fellow tourists, and we had a lot to chew on.
We decided to cruise through the rest of the DeSoto Caverns theme park before returning home through Historic Childersberg. After discovering that the gift shop contained no books or pamphlets about the history of the cave, we decided to check out the “attractions.” The Butterfly House was only a disappointment for those who had hoped to see actual butterflies. We did see an exhausted woman almost abandon a three-year old, but family unity prevailed, at least while we were watching. We struggled to take in the Gyroscope, the Climbing Wall, the Pan for Gold, the miniature pony rides. The disc golf course was bleak and abandoned. Children screamed, splashed, ran, earnestly sifted wet sand, posed for pictures. Every step felt static, the world scrolling past us as it must.
We mused about the geologic wonders beneath our feet and headed home. As we get in the car to leave, we reflected on Alabama’s vast natural beauty, whether state parks or private land. What we layer on that natural beauty is often disturbing. We’re pretty sure that everyone at the park loves Alabama. So do we. But it’s how you love Alabama that really matters.
Presenting an Alabama driver’s license or other testimony pretty much elsewhere in the world will often earn you a cry of “Alabama!” You will likely hear this in the same pitch and register as “Honduras!” or “Ebola!” You’re slotted into the role of the exotic other, the pivot point where the progressive and triumphalist history identifies the real possibility of escape velocity. Here at DeSoto Caverns, Alabama residents are freed from this burden. They are surrounded by others at all sides and comforted by their friendly domesticity (not to mention squirt guns). Meanwhile, the “exotic other” lies literally under their feet, while their descendants perform an annual showcase of ancient rituals.
If this layered meaning seems confusing to you, consider that our state can’t even agree on whether CSA flags should be allowed in a Union Springs cemetery, much less whether the bones should be moved to be closer to a water gun fight maze. Some mazes can’t be resolved with water guns. Some caverns are deeper than Kymulga.
Editor’s Note: I have been reticent to post here recently because doing so would involve interrupting the astonishingly good series of posts by Kate about the waste stream. Fortunately, with the power of the Interwebs, all of her brilliant posts can be linked in a single place, and I can post my thoughts on that rare encounter that makes us feel just a fraction less Lost in Montgomery. But before I do, seriously, go read her series. It’s probably the best stuff we’ve ever had on this site.
When I was growing up just south of Montgomery, it was “the big city” to me. My small town had a college, but that was about it. Montgomery had the book stores. Montgomery had the comic shops. Montgomery had two indoor shopping malls, which contained stores where music could be purchased. For the rare “fancy” date, Montgomery had the Olive Garden. My narrow horizons were made slightly less narrow by driving 45 minutes north. It’s laughable to someone who grew up in a place like Chicago or Atlanta, but even a city like Montgomery could have hegemonic cultural and economic power over the surrounding provinces.
This was especially true in the days before the Internet, when access to a well-curated book store or music shop could represent a portal into a vast universe of new and complicated ideas. Today, the most outlandish conspiracy theories and subversive concepts are available to anyone in the most desolate and rural areas. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we knew a kind of hunger for novelty (and edginess) that is likely unimaginable to today’s young people.
Thus it was that I came to covet a publication called Discombobulation, which was acquired on periodic trips to Montgomery. I still have those tiny black and white photocopied bits of the DIY ‘zine era. It suggested punk rock, skateboarding, and a big “fuck you” to the anti-fun normals who feared the threat posed to the corporate economic order posed by dyed hair. The content might be foolishly naive if I were to dig those issues out now, but it represented something provocative to me then, and most importantly, it suggested that I could make my own media.
Although I had access to a copy machine, I never could figure out who else would conspire with me on such a project. But the concept of self-publishing was embedded long before the technology that makes this little essay possible.
That’s why I was excited this year to discover Weird Montgomery, a physical hand-out, a ‘zine, a thing you could pass around to your friends. It’s online too, sure, in a format governed by Facebook and Herr Zuckerberg’s trillion dollar life monitoring kit. But I was mostly excited that they were making a print edition, leaving them around town in comic shops and bars, hopefully inspiring some teenager from a few towns away.
Let me be clear: When I say “they,” I’m not sure who I’m talking about. It’s not clear who publishes Weird Montgomery, and I’m ok with that. The current issue I’m holding says that it is a product of collaboration with the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP), which is already a cool thing. Good job Auburn. I’ll give you that one.
It’s a really small thing. It’s really just five pages, not counting the cover and the back. But it’s there. It’s in my hand. I can save it and show it to someone.
Maybe they’ll change the format and do more pages and staple it together. Maybe their budget is limited. There are no ads. It seems like a labor of love, produced by someone (or some folks) who just want to have a space for ideas to circulate.
The Facebook page is sporadically updated, with a lot of it being publicity for events around town. It’s certainly good to have a curated event calendar, but I was hoping to see a bit more of the creative content online — things that wouldn’t fit in the ‘zine.
Maybe it’ll grow. Maybe it’ll vanish, as authors graduate, get frustrated, or simply move on to other adventures. It’s already infinitely better than any of the other “free periodicals” that you’ll often find around town in bars and restaurants.
We’re still here, lifting at the edges of a city that we want to be better. And we’re heartened to see that — at least for now — someone else is doing the same.
The shop is dim. It feels older than the modern exterior lets on. The cases are full of sparkly and shiny things, all the price tags turned down so (as is usually the case in jewelry shops) you have to ask about any item you see. I wasn’t there to buy, though. I was hoping to find new homes for some of the jewelry I inherited when my mother passed away. Not anything super-expensive, just a few pieces that aren’t to my taste but might suit someone else just perfectly. I’d asked around and someone I trust had recommended this place. I was there with three necklaces and a bracelet, all New Mexican classics, most set with turquoise.
The man sitting at the desk said that the owner wasn’t in, but would return shortly. We made small talk while I waited, idly browsing. A rheumy dog watched from an elevated perch.
I’ve lived in Montgomery for seven years now, and probably one out of every three people I encounter asks me where I’m from, especially if the conversation lasts longer than, say, handing me a purchase or some change. Though I use useful terms like “y’all” and “fixing to,” my accent still gives me away – I’m not Southern. I explained that I was from New Mexico and had lived in town for a few years now. He said he was relatively new in town himself. We got to talking about how we liked Montgomery. I said some version of what I always say: “Very affordable, nice people.” As I fingered some ornate flatwear, he agreed.
“Too many blacks, though.”
I put down the spoon.
I’ve had more anti-racist training than most. I’ve even had my share of anti-bullying messaging, as I spend a lot of time in grade-school classrooms with signs and posters urging students to be “upstanders” instead of “bystanders.” Even so, I was paralyzed. We hadn’t been talking for five minutes before he felt comfortable enough to lead with overt racism. Was there something about me (my whiteness, presumably) that made him think I’d be similarly prejudiced? Was this just how he operated in the world, his biases aired freely for everyone to see? Like the dim shop full of discarded trinkets, it felt out of place and time.
This is foolish, obviously, because the reality is that few places on Earth are so steeped in racism and its consequences than Montgomery. The only other places I’ve experienced this level of background radiation from the hot glow of historic and persistent racism are South Africa (for obvious reasons) and Qatar (because Doha is basically being built by slave labor). And yes, I know that lots of other places are racist – that’s just counting from where I’ve been.
I think my body language alone was enough for him to veer away from the topic. I should have said something. I should have left. But I didn’t really know who this person was, and was hoping for a smooth transaction once the owner returned. It is hard to explain the emotional turmoil that had brought me to this point. After two years of fretting and moving jewelry from box to box, I had finally worked up the nerve to sell some of my mother’s things. I wasn’t going to be deterred by this guy.
Finally, after some awkward chit-chat about the going price on old china sets (very low) and Waterford crystal (likewise), the owner came in. We sat at her desk, she looked over my things. The man offered various comments and produced a scale. I learned the going price of silver (pretty low at the moment). As one does in this small town, I learned where they lived – just a few blocks away from us. Price estimates flew; I tried to keep track, not getting distracted by the sadness that felt likely to drag me down past the metal rim of her desk to the carpet below.
Just as the owner began to fill out the contract, she felt moved to tell me a story about a time, many years ago, when she bought a house to resell and was choosing among competing bids for purchase.
“I said to the agent, look, I know we’re not supposed to talk about this…what was your address again, sweetheart? Anyway, I asked if any of these offers were from those people who all look the same?”
I had heard this sotto voce racism before – it reminded me of the way league softball players out at Lagoon Park would talk about the black teams.
What she was suggesting, without elaborating and unpacking all of the unstated implications, was that she was asking the real estate agent to to steer the transaction to white people.
I had to leave a copy of my drivers’ license. The man volunteered to make the photocopy. As he disappeared, she explained that this man was her husband, newly moved to town. Both of them newcomers, their racism a ready conversational gambit with me, a stranger and a potential client.
Must everything in Montgomery have a dark and racist element to it? Years ago, when we were new in town, we took the dog to explore Greenwood Cemetery. It’s over by the Ann Street Wal-Mart, and it’s where George and Lurleen Wallace are buried (along with lots of other people, obviously). Just around back, we discovered Lincoln Cemetery. In 2010, it was a terrible and depressing mess – the untended black cemetery around the corner from its shiny white counterpart. This story had a happy ending: The Advertiser ended up raising a fuss, and the cemetery has by all accounts been fixed up after some fundraising and legal wrangling.
The other uncountable stories of racism and its consequences here remain largely undercover and unsolved.
Maybe that’s because we don’t talk about race much here, except in private conversations with people we assume are like-minded. That, and the reprehensible comments section on Al.com. Or, perhaps more to the point, we talk about race a lot. I have never lived in a place where white people feel compelled to flag someone as black when this seems to have no bearing on the story (“A black fellow, he was real nice, helped me move a box.”). This post is not the place to hash out why race is so hard to talk about or even how to talk about it. It’s just a place to describe the reality: Even as Montgomery becomes more progressive and inclusive, we’re segregated in places beyond churches, schools and cemeteries.
Close to the place I was trying to sell some jewelry, there’s a bar where lobbyists and government types are known to gather – especially when the legislature is in session. A few years ago, I invited one of my friends to have a drink there. She declined, saying, “Every time I go there, I integrate that place.” White privilege means many things, including not noticing when an environment is all-white.
I wish I could say that I took a stand that day – that I grabbed up my jewelry and stalked out. Perhaps I found a teachable moment, delivering a lecture? Nope. I wasn’t any kind of social justice hero. I walked in overwhelmed by the idea that I was about to sell multiple Valentine’s Day gifts from my father to my mother (both dead). I sat there, dazed, as a price was set. I let them photocopy my license after I bargained for a fair price. Then I left. And stewed.
A few weeks later, I’d had it. I decided that the right thing to do was to go and remove my things from this shop. Why should these people, whose views I despised, profit from my family’s hard-won things? Even though my mother was known to have the occasional offensive view about people of color (particularly the “gang-bangers” of New Mexico – the American West has its own unique racist flavors), I could not put her tokens of love in an atmosphere of hate. I readied myself. My plan was to arrive with my contract and secure the items. Once my things were in hand, I would explain why I had decided to take my business elsewhere and leave.
I was not under any illusions that whatever little speech I made would change either their minds or their business practices. Prejudice is deep-seated and extremely hard to uproot. Even targeted re-education over the long term has little effect on folks who cling to views of racial (or gender, or religious, or other) superiority. This is because bias isn’t just a matter of facts (“Actually, not all Asians are smart”); neither is it purely individual (because our beliefs are not entirely our own – they are the product of social relations). Bias is remarkably persistent, as anyone who has been in a conversation about the “good blacks” and the “rest of them” will attest.
I just wanted them to hear a countervailing opinion. I wanted, in short, to be an upstander. Sure, this was a little narcissistic. Anyone who says it isn’t is just kidding themselves. “Upstanding” works as a motivational tactic precisely because it appeals to the ego, to a sense of self as a person who wants to be the kind of person who does the right thing. This turns out to be a lot more complicated than grabbing back some silver and giving a speech.
Having talked myself into righting my previous (and cowardly) wrong, I approached the storefront before closing time. I’d imagined that I’d be alone in the dim shop with their full (if probably dismissive attention) as I symbolically dropped the white progressive anti-racist mic before being buzzed out.
I locked my car and strode toward the door. Another woman crossed in front of me at the last minute and buzzed for entrance. She smiled at me. Under her felt hat and dark wool coat, I could see that she was beautiful, gracefully aging, and black.
Inside, the light carved a swath through the front windows, spotlighting the dust around the cabinets and counters. The owner and her husband were blinded at first, but recognized the woman before me.
“Where have you been? Working hard? We haven’t seen you in so long!” This was the owner, emerging from the back room. Her husband was arranging items in the rack, barely turning around.
“Oh, I’ve been working.” The woman removed her gloves and reached into her purse to remove a much-folded yellow receipt. “I’m here to finish my layaway – I bet y’all thought you’d never see me again.” She had an expression of longing and finality. I think that I have seen that look before, when something you’ve desired is about to be yours. I found myself wrenched with curiosity about the thing she’d waiting for all this time.
“Oh, we knew you’d come back. It’s been more than a year now.” The owner directed this to the waiting woman as she noticed me for the first time. She asked how she could help me. I explained that I was there to pick up items I’d left to consign and had changed my mind. I gave her the contract copy, but explained that there was no hurry – I suggested she should help the woman first.
“No, I can help you now. Just give me a minute.” In the time that ensured, I tried at every opportunity to get behind this layaway transaction in the queue. The jewelry was dumped into my hands, the countersigned agreement photocopied, even my copied drivers’ license rooted out and returned to me.
I did not expect this. I had considered the possibility of another customer, and had thought I could wait a while. But the owner was not about to let me wait – probably because settling up a layaway would be more complicated than my transaction. Or maybe I was watching white privilege in action – I was being served before the other woman, who had come in before me, after all. In any case, when I thought about being in the store with another customer for the “big moral showdown,” I did not think about the shine in their eyes that a final layaway payment brings; the last chunk of a well-earned thing of beauty. I have had object lust. I know what it’s like to imagine the ways that the perfect thing will make your dreams come true.
My jewelry appeared. The contract to sign again, annulling our previous transaction. At every turn, I tried to defer: “Y’all can help this other lady first, that’s okay.” But the owner persisted, even as I asked for the copy of my driver’s license back. So there I was – everything I had asked for, ready to leave. I was taking my business away from them, not allowing these racists to profit from my jewelry. They never asked why.
There were three parties involved in this transaction. Me, of course, the righteously angry person with nothing in particular at stake except my own sense of self. The owners, who a) were comfortable with prejudice-as-ante; b) were relatively big-time jewelry dealers who needed my business so little that they didn’t even ask why I was taking my items away. And then there was the other customer. I knew how I felt about the owners. I was quickly trying to decide how she fit into my planned morality play.
I had two major options. First, I could declaim in front of all parties. Second, I could find some excuse to wait and talk to the owners without the other client present. The second option was basically off the table. They wanted to hustle me out, no matter how much I protested, and I didn’t want to linger amid the dust.
The first option seemed like the braver one anyway. I’d have the opportunity to shame the owners in front of a client, much less a black client, creating awareness and multiplying my impact. It also seemed like the worst option. Who was I to create a scene of racial conflict in front of this woman, perhaps imperiling her layaway payments, perhaps second-guessing her ability to interact with retailers like an adult? Who grows up black in Montgomery (or in the United States, for that matter) without knowing that racism informs all transactions? What if she lost her money? What if she had waited months for her shiny thing only to walk away because I had heard some blowhards say some hateful things? I couldn’t do it in front of her.
I left, the door jangling behind me, with my father’s promises of love to my mother safely in my purse. I made no speech. Now, I suppose I am able to sell this necklace online – safely insulated from the potential prejudices of anonymous buyers. And maybe that’s also what white privilege looks like.