Friday, April 4, 2014

Down South, Where Everybody Knows My Name

Being a Northern Californian with a name like Jeb is like being Latvian with a name like Ernie. You tell people your name and people say “nice to meet you, “Jim” or “Jeff” or worst of all “Jed”. Then they’ll break into the Beverly Hillbillies Theme song and you have to explain to them that while you might be having a difficult time keeping your family fed you’ve never “shot” for food and produced bubbling crude, Black Gold, or Texas Tea as a result,  and despite the many requests for you to move away, you’ve never loaded up your truck and moved to Beverly Hills. No swimming pools. No movie stars. 

It’s gets complicated. And very old.

So it’s not unusual for a Northern Californian with a Southern name to start hearing the theme song
from “Cheers” start to ring in the head (The Beverly Hillbillies having begun to provoke a gag reflex), and even start to yearn for a place where everybody knows their name.

This happened to me not too long ago. I was on the phone with a customer service rep that obviously harkened from the land where customer service was invented some place south of Mumbai, and insisted on calling me “Jib”. As in “I like the cut of your jib, matey.” I hadn’t spoken with a native English speaker for weeks, having been laid off and so broke that I couldn’t afford a new pair of socks. When my PC went on the fritz I thought, “aha, my chance to speak to another human being,” so I eagerly dialed to support, only to find that the person on the other end of the line spoke a language that periodically contained an English word but other than that was complete gobbledygook. After trying to get the “eh” sound for “Jeb” I gave up and decided to go someplace where everybody knew at least a dozen “Jebs” and socks didn’t matter: Louisiana.

The truth is I had no choice but to make a pilgrimage to the Deep South – my ancestors were calling me. Not on the phone, but in my head. “Hello Jeb, how y’all doin’? This is cousin Binx, from Baton Rouge. You remember me?” and “Hey there Jeb, how y’all doin? This here is your old cousin Boots. I was just wonderin’ if y’all remembered that night out by the cement pond when y’all tried to put your hand up my dress. Y’all remember? Good! I’m just callin’ to tell y’all that it’s okay for y’all to put your hand up there now. In fact y’all can put just ‘bout anything y’all wants up there, since there’s plenty of real estate to explore if y’all know what I mean.”

Well, how could I turn down an invitation like that?

So off I went, sockless, (and braless, since I heard man-boobs are nothin’ to be ashamed of down there), all the way to St. Francisville, Louisiana in West Feliciana Parish just south of the Mississippi border and just a cannon ball shot from the Big Muddy herself, and when I got there – I know this might be a little hard to believe – but everybody did know my name. What’s more they knew my pappy’s name, his pappy’s name, where they was born, where they died, where they was buried, who they married, who they fooled around with, what they liked to drink, how many turkeys they shot, who caught the biggest bass, who liked to gamble and who put on airs and which one got religion and which one didn’t and I tell you they knew things about my kin that I didn’t know nothin’ about and I swear I ain’t never seen these people before. And every dang one of ‘em swore they was my cousin!

This all seemed most curious, even though I knew most of my pappy’s kin was from Laurel Hill and the Hazelwood plantation just right up the road. But I didn’t pay it no never mind and went up to the old plantation to see if one of my cousins mighta left a pair of socks in the drawers of the old antique dressers, but I didn’t find none. The old house was good as new, considerin’ it was first built in 1832. My old second aunts and second uncles and cousins once twice three times removed had put a lot of tender lovin’ care into the place, and it weren’t like no place I ever seen in California. Nossir they didn’t have no low-flow toilets and little tinklin’ shower nozzles, plus they had an icemaker in the re-done kitchen that would churn out cubes all day long so’s when anybody had a hankerin’ for a mint julep or a bloody mary or just a Coke or a Dr. Pepper they was prepared; and they do drink an awful lot of Coke and Dr. Pepper down there even though they got water spurtin’ up out of the ground and most especially comin’ out of the sky with thunder and lightenin’ like I ain’t never seen in California.  The first night I stayed out there in Hazelwood, which is a half hour drive north of St. Francisville in this little town of Laurel Hill which really ain’t nothin’ but a few double wides, a Baptist church and a cemetery for the blacks, then down the road a ‘piscopal church and a cemetery for all my cousins and my granny and her mama all the way back to the early 1800s – well that first night it stormed something fierce, the lights went out so I got drunk on Kentucky bourbon, stripped naked and went runnin’ around all over the property in the rain, 500 acres of woods and fields and a big old man-made lake with a boat house my cousins built. It made me remember when I was a teenager we went water skiin’ on that lake and as I was puttin’ my ski on in the water my cousins drove right up to me in the boat, whipped out their wieners and took a leak right where I was so’s I had to dive under so’s not to get peed on. They thought that was so funny and I guess it was if all you’s ever had to do in your life was fish and shoot. So when I’s heard one of them cousin’s got so fat that his kidney’s failed and he had to have his legs chopped off at the knee it didn’t make me as sad as I might have had been had he not tried to pee on my head that day.

Runnin’ around naked in a thunderstorm is different when you’re sixty, compared to when I last done it when I was twenty. First, my wife would not go with me this time, but my girlfriend in college was like a regular Lady Chatterly out there in the thunder and you’da a thought she got struck by lightnin’ the way she came and came out in that storm. That was in Colorado in the mountains, but it was still a big thunderbanger.  Second, when you’s sixty you can’t run around so long and you’re always more careful not to step in an armadillo hole, even though it’s all just smooth grassy fields all around the house and sloping down to the pond until it’s woods where you don’t want to go in the spring even with your clothes on and especially with no socks ‘cuz the water moccasins and cottonmouth vipers are just wakin’ up from hibernatin’ and just itchin’ to sting somebody. Also, when you’re sixty runnin’ around naked in a thunderstorm isn’t so much about havin’ fun and bein’ wild as it is about daring God to take you down. When I was runnin’ around out there…mostly walkin’ around out there after awhile, dancin’ a little, staggerin’ around drunk, I was yellin’  “Come on, God, show me what you got!” and the sky would light up: Crack! Crack! Crackety-crack BOOM BOOM BOOM! And it just make me wanna yell louder “look at me you son of a bitch I ain’t even got no socks and I lives in California. You know what that means!? Come and get me, you old motherfucker! Come and get me now! Come and get me or get me a pair of goddamn socks!!”

Well the next day I slept and slept, clear past 7, past 8, past 9, almost ‘til 10 o’clock, and when I gets up all the lights in the house are on and my little radio is playin’ like my cousins all been there and had breakfast. But I knew it wasn’t them because them lights was on before the storm. So naked as a jaybird I’m walkin’ around turnin’ ‘em all off when a black feller roles up in a pickup and shouts out “good mornin’!” Oh my did I jump! I hurried my naked ass into the bedroom and my wife went out and jawed with the old fella, the caretaker, James, while I put my clothes on, without the you know whats, and after a time and coffee and me havin’ a little storytellin’ time we went to some of these very very old houses, though they’s really not any older than Hazelwood.
1832 quilt by my ancestor

Wouldn’t you know when I walk up to take the tour everybody says “well hi there Mister Jeb you come to see your great grannies house?” or “Good afternoon Mister Jeb, are here to see if your 4th aunt twice removed sold her silver yet?” and such silly things. Well my kin sure did have some fancy houses: there was The Myrtles with all the ghosts and such, which they’ve made a bed and breakfast and people can choose to sleep out in the cabins or they can come in and sleep in the house with the ghosts!! People who go say they’s up all night with the ghosts! They even got little meters that tell ‘em when there’s a paranormal disturbance! But I didn’t see no ghosts when I was there. But the tour guide says they live in the mirrors because they had a funeral  for my 3rd cousin in law in the house and forgot to cover the mirror with the traditional black cloth, so old Clara she snuck right in there. But later I learned this tour guide is fulla hooey. She says that the Spaniards would tax them – this was in the early 1800s – on doors and windows so they made it so they could turn a door into a window and vice versa, that is the owner of the house like Mr. Ruffin Stirling, my second great grandfather, to trick the Spanish tax collectors. But later when we tour Rosedown, former house of Sarah Turnbull my 3rd great grandmother and William Barrow my third cousin, the tour guide there says “Mister Jeb, you tell that guide that she’s full of donkey turds, and that she should go do her research,” which surprises me because I have yet to see a single donkey in the parish.

We sure did see a lot of old furniture down there, and small too because the people then were smaller than we are, and if they’re 3 times smaller than me they're ten times smaller than the average resident of Feliciana Parish because the people grow huge down there now. My theory is that this because they’re embarrassed about their tiny ancestors, so they’re doing all they can to get as big as possible. The only trouble is the furniture hasn’t quite caught up to the size of my Southern kin, and out back of the houses and the restaurants are piles of broken furniture, not because of fights but because the folks is just too big.

Eventually I got tired of everybody knowin’ my name and what I had for
Stanton Hall, Natchez
breakfast and how the crawfish etouffee gave me the gas and why I don’t have no socks, so my wife and I took a drive up to Natchez where I hoped nobody would know me, and sure enough nobody did because in the historic downtown area there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Every once in a while a tour would drop off a passel of old folks, who I looked at and said to myself, well me and Holly are doin’ the same as them: do we look like that? Holly didn’t like that idea at all so we tried to avoid them buses. When we came to the African American museum we thought to have a look, but when a feller dressed like Colonel Sanders came out and started goin’ on, and other folks show up and next thing you know we’s getting’ cotton gin demonstrations and seein’ African masks that come over with the slaves and it’s a story that is so depressing we told the Colonel that Holly had the gout, and we left.

Mississippi and Louisiana are as different as catfish and trout. That part of Mississippi around Natchez and south of there is very hilly, while right across from the Natchez bluffs the land in Louisiana is flat as a pancake. And in West Feliciana, which is rolling but not so rolling as Woodville and that high ground just north of the border, the fields are all fallow: just nothin’ but green grass so it all looks like a giant golf course with patches of woods, ponds, sand traps and such, where Mississippi is farmland, growin’ soybeans, rice, alfalfa, though I never saw one cotton ball the whole time we was down there. More cows in Mississippi too. My theory is Mississippi ain’t as sleepy because you got to go to the package store for wine, where in Louisiana it’s right there at the Piggly Wiggly.

Oh, here’s a secret I forgot to tell y’all: you wanna know what the very first thing me and my wife did after we got settled at Hazelwood?  I fired up my GPS on the phone and we drove an hour or more to the Whole Foods Market in Baton Rouge so our bodies wouldn’t go into shock. That’s cuz we’s native Californians and even though nobody can figure out if my name is Jed or Jim or Jeff, or even Jib, we gotsta have our gluten free, dairy free, fat free – everything but real free – or else we will surely seize up and die. Plus the wine selection is better than the Piggly Wiggly in St. Francisville.  (Actually there ain’t no Piggly Wiggly in St. Francisville, but I pretend there is cuz I like the name.)

So now we’re back where there’s a Whole Foods in every town and we’ll won’t never be stuck with a choice of fried chicken or fried pickles or a po-boy, though I’ll admit I could eat them sweet potato waffles every day. But we’re back and our sweet potato fries at Whole Foods is frozen, I still ain’t got no job (can you believe it? Some people tells me to be a writer cuz they tell me I writes good just look at Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, but them fellas with the goatees and shiny heads got no need for Mark Twain. “Give me a writer who can tell a story!” they all say and I say fine and send ‘em a link to this here blog and they still don’t like me! I’m surprised, cuz as far as I can tell those fellers don’t wear no socks neither. Not that it means they ain’t got ‘em. They just don’t wear ‘em.)

So like I’s sayin’ I still ain’t got no job, but I do got 10 acres of woods down at Hazelwood that could accommodate a double-wide and maybe a little storytellin’ cabin. So who knows, I could go hide out there where nobody cares none about my socks and everybody, even the skunks, the raccoons, the deer, the wild pigs, the coyotes, the bass, the water moccasins and cottonmouths, the junebugs and luna moths…every one of the knows my name.

And that’s sayin’ somethin’

The back stairs, used by servants
The front stairs

Greenwood Plantation
St. Francisville Courthouse

St. John's Episcopal