Ironically, I did run in to novelist Tom Franklin in the chips and beverages aisle of our local Kroger the other day. Unfortunately, he was alone and not surrounded by other thinkers and artists of our community, and he didn’t have time to engage in a political discussion. Alas. Kroger is probably not the best location for the revival of the Blue Stockings Society. And so I left thinking that someone should really write a how-to on starting and running a modern-day version of the 18th century salon. Finding no one in the meat department, I’ve opted to attempt it myself.
It has been years, close to twenty in fact, since I’ve been here – the only place I’ve ever really called home. Since literally all of my family moved away to locations less interesting and in which I have absolutely no history, I’ve become a kind of girl-without-a-home. For my parents, Baton Rouge was just a stopping point – a home away from their home. They’ve since moved on to other stopping points completely oblivious to the fact that they have made their children, in effect, homeless. And hell, I don’t blame them. Be happy, that’s what I say.
Even so, it makes me a little sad that I’m forced to stay in a hotel in the same city in which I spent my formative years. And I like to imagine that the city is a little sad too that it’s been so long since I’ve visited (What can I say? I have an active imagination). And so tonight, as I was driving in to the city, it felt more like a reckoning than a homecoming. It’s you and me, Baton Rouge. What are we going to make of our relationship?
Of course, places don’t talk. At least, not in the way that we’d like them to. It would have been great if, upon crossing the Mississippi/Louisiana state border a giant bubble had appeared in the sky with the words “Welcome Home!” written in comic sans script. But that didn’t happen. In fact, nothing of note happened at all – unless you count a ten mile traffic jam at the merging of I-12 and I-10 something of note. Which I do. I count it as something of note because that is exactly where Baton Rouge welcomed me home. And it all started with a sign.
The sign read: Denham Springs (you weren’t expecting an actual miracle-from-heaven sign, were you?). Denham Springs is a town that used to be on the outskirts of the city, where you could still find real country living, but has today been swallowed up by the urban sprawl. I spent a few years of my life in what we all simply called “Denham,” living in a trailer on the land my brother and father cleared by themselves. I can still remember that land when it was wild and tangled. And how, slowly, on weekends and holidays and with the ever present sound of a chainsaw, those men carved out the lawn on which I would play tackle football with that same brother and his friends. And how they left that one tree standing that I would back into with the car at what would be the end of our driveway. And it would be the very spot my brother worked all one summer to clear that the neighbor boy named Dennis would stand in the middle of the night to ask me to sneak out the window and kiss him in the shed behind his house.
And then there was the sign for Sherwood Forest Boulevard. This street bears the name of one of my elementary schools (we moved around a lot. I think I went to a total of six different schools in the Baton Rouge vicinity between grades 1 and 7). But this was the school I went to when we lived in Sherwood Forest subdivision where I was the youngest neighborhood hoodlum following the other kids down the street and behind so-and-so’s house to knock back a swig of something that tasted like I imagined gasoline must taste, and where some girl ran into her home to get toothpaste to cover the smell on one of the other girl’s breath because surely no one would notice that she couldn’t walk if we could only get rid of the smell! This was the neighborhood where I stole the candy from the corner 7-11 and then went back, on my own and without anyone knowing, crying and asking forgiveness from what I know now must have been the seventeen-year-old kid behind the counter. Sherwood Forest Elementary School was just off the Sherwood Forest Boulevard exit and around the corner from the Sherwood Forest subdivision where I played in the street, wore a purple and gold skirt to school and didn’t yet know that there were men who waited and watched for little girls standing by the road waiting for the bus to come.
There were other signs too, of course. I passed the exit for Airline Highway and, though I can’t be certain, I’m pretty sure my mother worked at an Albertson’s (or was it a Western Sizzlin Steakhouse?) on Airline Highway. In either case, this is also the same street that an old woman pulled a gun on me when I honked at her for sitting too long at a red light. It is the street on which I jumped a curb, in my just-learning-to-drive-but-already-have-my-license days, right in front of a police officer and then darted into the parking lot of what I know for a fact was an Albertson’s to hide amongst the Saturday afternoon shopper’s parked cars.
The signs were, in fact, everywhere! (As is true on most major interstates). And I realized that home is a tricky concept. The truth is, I have lots of homes. I have my home in Oxford, Mississippi where I have chosen to build my life. My mother’s home in Texas is a home to me as well, if for no other reason than the fact that she and my brother live there. There is also the home in which my parents grew up and in which I spent much of my youth visiting my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And there are many, many more. The homes of good friends and of friends of the family, old homes that I used to live in but are currently occupied by strangers, and then there are the cities. So many wonderful cities that I have called home.
I guess, in the end, Baton Rouge and I have solidified our relationship. I promise to come back and visit more often if she promises to continue welcoming me home. Whatever that means.
Some of you who have followed my previous blogging attempts in the past may be familiar with this piece. And yes, I do realize that it’s cheating the whole GaBloWriMo goal. But, I did spend five hours last night working on an essay and that makes me feel slightly (just slightly) justified. Plus, it’s early in the day and I may still write and post something new on here…you never know.
I’d like to, slowly, get my old CNF experiments up here for those who haven’t read them and to keep a record of the journey. This piece was written in the spring of 2009. I was teaching a survey course in American lit titled, The American Dream: Myth or Reality? It was also the very beginning of my experimentation with CNF. Enjoy!
I hear the word come out of my mouth and immediately, as if the bomb itself has been dropped in the middle of the acrylic covered desks that are jammed tightly into this basement classroom, my students’ bodies stiffen. Their eyes narrow ever so slightly. Did she just say the “S” word?
We are completing our discussion of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It’s impossible to discuss the novel without the inevitable mention of the “S” word. But I am careful with them. After all, it’s not their fault they’ve been told that all other forms of governance are evil and designed to strip away their God Given Rights. Never mind that they exercise those rights loosely. Freedom of speech is okay as long as we’re not overheard criticizing our government. Freedom of religion is okay too – so long as we’re keeping a watchful eye on Those Damn Muslims. But it’s not their fear of the “S” word that disturbs me.
“This book is depressing,” says a girl in the back whose name I have not yet memorized.
“Why does Sinclair have to make it so depressing?”
I tell them literature chronicles society’s past and ask where we see this kind of corruption in our society today. The room is heavy with silence. One young woman, sitting safely in the back of the room, tentatively raises her hand. Her response is more of a question than an assertion.
My smile and nod is enough affirmation to encourage a slew of hands. Law enforcement. Health care. Professional athletics. The War. This last one is met with nervousness. They all immediately turn to me, scanning my face for reaction.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes. These are all wonderful examples of modern day corruption.”
Then Patrick, one of the many basketball players in this class, speaks up:
“Yeah, but what can we do about it?”
It’s not really a question. He isn’t looking for ideas on how to organize, to start a movement, to petition government. The answer he already knows is evident in the faces of everyone around him. They look me squarely in the eyes, Yeah Doc, what do you have to say about that? And I give them the spiel about groundswell movements that shaped our world – Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, the organized protests against the Vietnam War. Maria raises her hand.
“It’s like what happened after 9/11. We all came together then, didn’t we?”
Their varied expressions shift. They suddenly look incredibly vulnerable.
“Yes,” I say quietly. “Yes, we did.”
And I see that I was wrong. It’s not the addition of this new “S” word they fear. It’s the loss of so many other “S” words. Safety. Security. Society. Sanctity. They look for them tentatively, hesitantly. They sit utterly motionless, a nation defeated. Dan cocks his head to the left.
“So… is this gonna be on the test?”