posted on Saturday, December 17, 2011, 11:37:40 AM | fractalbob
It’s nearly Christmas, and I am about to get on a big silver bird and fly north to a colonial city where some of the shops and restaurants are older than the oldest grave at Oakwood Cemetery in hometown Huntsville.
Everyone I will meet will be well-heeled, well-read and well-traveled. My roots as a small town Texas lad from the Execution Capital of the USA will be an amusing topic of cocktail conversation.
“Huntsville — ‘a sleepy little town.’ What does that mean, after all? How does one sleep through herding cattle and marching condemned men to the death chamber?”
I’ll come up with something glib, which will continue to pique my new friends’ interest.
“What does the death chamber look like, and what is it like inside one of your prisons?”
“He has no idea,” Sarah will interject firmly before steering me away. “He’s never set foot in either.”
This will disappoint my new colonial friends. They so enjoy a little local color extracted from a real backwoodsman.
I will meet those of the lower classes only when they carry my bags or drive me from place to place. Sarah will leave tipping to me to avoid disagreements about my generosity. She will ignore my inclination to chat up the help, taking note only when the convo between driver and driven assumes the unexpected, which she will mention only after we’ve left shuttle or taxi.
“You feel a bit the hero, don’t you, now that you have separated that autodidact from all he knows about Edith Wharton,” Sarah will say.
“The world is full of interesting and intelligent people,” I will answer.
“It’s all shtick,” she will say, and I will smile because her accent becomes comical when it strays from the Queen’s English. “He’s learned how to make conversation with clients of your ilk. And very well, I might add.”
This will remind me of the carriage ride I once took in New Orleans with a black man who drove me past the tiny French Quarter apartment Faulkner occupied while writing “Soldiers’ Pay.” He had read the book and I had not.
“People like you, Sarah, are the reason anyone doubts a glove-maker’s son capable of writing the English-speaking world’s greatest plays.”
“Well, then he was a very lucky glove-maker’s son, wasn’t he?” she will say, and I will kiss her. Her cynicism for all things earnest is ever stimulant and aphrodisiac.
Sarah believes my needy attentiveness to the lower classes comes from guilt at having grown up one of the “haves” in a small town of “have-nots.” The reason Sarah declines — her word, not mine — to stay overnight here is that she sees HTX as an eyesore nestled in a plentiful swath of cheap lumber and wreathed by a drab river of trash fish. One big Southern prison ghetto.
Our storefronts are shabby and ill kept. Our food is fatty, too peppered or too sweet. Tobacco smoke hangs about indoors in stale, carcinogenic fogs. Our East Texas accents are both cloying and barbarous, our eyes dull yet aggressive like those of clannish mountain gorillas.
“Why are the people so rude and strange?” she said on holiday in Texas a year ago. We stayed in a hotel in Houston and traveled up by rental car during daylight hours to see my parents.
“We’ve been nothing but kind and gracious to you!”
“I didn’t mean you or yours, sweetheart. I meant the chain-smoking behemoths about the place in deer-slayer costume. And their feral women.”
It wasn’t until she and I lunched at Bennie J’s Smoke Pit — the clean, spacious black-owned barbecue pit across the street from our historic cemetery — that Sarah was able to relax. She appreciated the quiet dignity of the staff, their efficiency, their unapologetic confidence in their food and their service.
“Your black people get it,” Sarah said. “What a trial it must be to tolerate the rest of you.”
What do they, our black people, get? That upward mobility is not determined by cage match. Or ass-kissing and imitation.
“Your town has serious class issues,” Sarah said. “And nothing will change until they’re resolved.”
That may be true, I admitted, agreeing that change was needed if HTX were to thrive. Anyway, something’s up. The population has been flat since I was born, even as the prison system and the hometown university, Sam Houston State, continued to grow. HTX seems long overdue for exurb status. But talking about class is a sacred taboo. People of my class are distinguished by their loathing of class discussion. Either because we’re afraid we’ll come off lacking or —
“Cruel or entitled. Yes, I know,” Sarah said. “But I’m British and we exported this class system to the land of the free and the brave, so allow me.”
Look at this lot, she said, indicating our African-American hosts at Bennie J’s. “There’s no hovering about for crumbs of praise for their humble fare. If everyone were like this, there would be little class resentment.”
I heartily disagreed. Instead of class resentment, I saw a community that could pull together in tough and tragic times. I saw people who carried on meaningful traditions from year to year. I saw a gentle change in the landscape, the people, businesses and institutions that made it easy and comfortable to come home again. If this is what is keeping new residents, retailers and industry away, then fuck ’em.
“This is a wonderful town for fundamentalist Christian conservatives with high school diplomas,” Sarah said. “The cost of living is low enough to give the illusion of upward mobility. The shops and businesses, the churches, the political scene, the majority of your social events all cater to them. It’s no wonder they have a sense of entitlement inappropriate to their class.”
A sense of entitlement is inappropriate to any class, I said, which caused Sarah’s smile to blossom. I’d been waiting for it since she got to Texas.
“Your lovely middle class values are showing,” she said and reached under the table for my thigh, which caused me to jump in panic. “You know,” she said, having withdrawn her hand, “it’s worth a try, but Huntsville’s middle class must overcome its inferiority complex and its upper class must reassert itself.”
“And how would we do that?” I said.
“Well — ” she began, inviting me closer with a whisper and a conspiratorial gleam in her beautiful eyes. And I leaned in, hungry for it.