It’s All Over But The Cryin’
Being a Southerner, to my mind, usually seems to be something of a liability.
First, there’s that war thing, the one we lost; and, no, I don’t mean Vietnam. Then there’s the history of racism, the recent repeal of our own home grown apartheid system that, nevertheless, has never completely faded away in some locales. And there’s "the flag" – that’s right, our answer to Ol’ Glory, The Stars n’ Bars which now appears on more truck bumper stickers and tags than barbed wire armbands and Taz tattoos appear on the men (and women) who drive the aforementioned vehicles.
How about our beautiful accents? Well, some Southern accents certainly are fetching, those from Mississippi or Tidewater Virginia or South Georgia, for example, which are honey smooth and soothing to the soul especially when dripping from a feminine tongue. However, there are other accents here: your Yankee nerves have not been appropriately shredded till you’ve spent an hour with some old boy from the North Georgia mountains laying out his family history back to Methuselah in that harsh nasal accent of the hills with the "R"s pronounced so sharply it’d scratch diamonds.
By the time you’re done listening to that, I promise you’ll be more reminded of Gomer Pyle and that guy from the Polaner All-Fruit commercials that says "Please pass the jelly" than either Scarlett or Melanie.
All that said and fully admitted, I have decided there is at least one thing valuable about having been raised in the South that has only recently begun to stand out in my mind. That thing is: manners. In short, we have them while most of the rest of the country cashed theirs in for a discount on cell phones and booming bass boost for the car stereo.
Due to one of my many jobs, I spend quite a bit of time in waiting rooms and while in these areas I witness behavior I find alien, hostile, chaotic. "Terroristic" might not be too strong a term to employ in our post-9/11 reality of hyperbolic exclamations.
An example: I am in a doctor’s waiting room; the area is alleged to be dedicated in such fashion that victims of ailments and their families can await their turn with The Almighty MD in polite misery. At least, that’s how I remember it used to be. There were rules, codes of behavior for public activities (or, in this case, inactivity), especially those involving a number of strangers or near strangers cooped up in an enclosed space.
Everyone understood these rules. We imbibed them with the milk at our mother’s breast. We consumed them with our collards, our grits, our gravy. These rules were part of our blood and bone, our musculature and nerves. They were burned into our souls. Yea, verily, them that broke those rules were looked down upon as not fit for human company. They were as beasts, liable to go down on all fours in just a moment, shed their clothing and to graze upon the grasses of the field. One would not have put it past such a being to defecate in the middle of the floor and triumphantly wallow in it to spread its scent, advertising its presence in the most blatant, vulgar fashion.
No! This was not what was supposed to happen. The code of waiting room behavior was simple – sit still, shut up, eyes down or on some piece of reading material. Back in the day, "smoke ‘em if you got ‘em" was also an option for adults. It was a waiting room and all one did in a waiting room was that one thing, wait. Should necessity require speech, such as a child’s request to be spirited to the restroom, one cupped one’s hand over one’s mouth, leaned to one’s parent’s ear, and then (and only then) did one dare to utter the barest whisper. As the room was as still as a funeral home at midnight, it did not require much labor of the lungs to accomplish the task.
But, as I was saying, that was then and this is now. "Now" is after the influx of Northerners in recent years, a tide of humanity that I fear has swamped us locals and is drowning, little by little, our quaint, backwards habits with up to date behavior, freshly received from the television.
Here I am in a doctor’s office. The waiting room is full of sick people, people whom we traditionally assumed just wanted to be left alone to suffer in peace until the physician could perform his mysterious rites and set them on the path to normalcy. And some of the people here are indeed exhibiting proper waiting room etiquette, stoically accepting their fates and not burdening anyone else with them, honoring everyone’s heritage from time immemorial which consists in being left the hell alone at crucial moments in life.
Yet others – they are obviously not from around these here parts; that or they are too young to have benefited from having their mothers remove their misbehaving carcasses from public locales once or twice to strip the paint off their skin and graft on a layer of respect that usually sank in pretty quickly.
(No, I am not in favor of beatings. Like many of our customs, it was an unnecessarily harsh one, open to abuse. Unfortunately, many parents don’t seem to have discovered a working substitute.)
I have to my left a mother and her two children. They are awaiting the return of a fourth member of their family. Problem number one, looking through the lenses of the Southern manners ingrained in me: mom is dressed in painted on Daisy Dukes and a tee shirt tight enough to show off her intestines. What is this? My mother has never dressed in such fashion in front of me, lo these 40 years since my birth. And had she done so, grave fears concerning Old Testament retribution for transgressing commandments against looking at thy mother’s buttocks and thighs would have troubled all my waking hours for years.
Worse than that, though – it just isn’t appropriate dress for the location. Yes, being Southern, I am still stuck on the idea that there actually is something called "appropriate dress," at least in broad terms. I like the sight of ladies’ legs as well as or better than the next person, but not in the setting of a doctor’s office when grave things are on one’s mind such as "is it cancer?" or "how am I going to pay this bill?" It’s just rude, distracting, and akin to standing up in the middle of the room and screaming, "Wheee! Look at me, everyone! Look at me! Me! Me!"
(And, yes, this goes for men as well. Men who appear in shorts in public deserve the same respect one reserves for teenage boys who, in a last ditch attempt to appear daring and cool, grow a mullet and wear tennis shoes with a tuxedo to the prom - i.e. none whatsoever.)
And if the clothes or lack thereof didn’t have the effect of gaining our mom the attention she surely desired, the phone call certainly did. Yes, the ubiquitous cell phone call. Thanks to it and its hour-long duration, I now know more about this woman’s business ventures in the oh-so-intriguing world of wedding catering than I do about algebra; and I have to say if I ever meet her sister, Samantha, I’ll be able to identify the woman on sight provided I am allowed to unveil that secret mole. As Samantha and company did not mind having their personal details broadcast to the world at large, I am certain she won’t mind disrobing for me on the streets of Atlanta.
Next problem: the children. While mom is ignoring the little sweethearts, they are jumping up and down, up and down on the furniture, tearing magazines to create their own ticker tape parade, yelling at one another, saying acidic and wicked things to their mother any time she half-heartedly attempts to calm them. These are not children; no, they are wild boars in human form, two of the Gadarene Swine looking for a cliff to hop off, screeching and squealing all the way back to the Inferno. A beating would not cure these two at this point of inevitably becoming bitchy bosses or razor-lipped lawyers or politicians that will tap your phone without court approval at a later stage of development. They did not imbibe any codes of behavior with their mother’s milk. They do not consume collards. Grits are a foreign substance to them. Gravy is too high in cholesterol and fat.
Yankee diets, Yankee manners – Yankee lack of manners and lack of boundaries, even among those sporting a Southern drawl. Yankees overrunning my homeland, filling my waiting rooms, burying me beneath incessant chatter and exhibitionist antics. My fellow Southerners can paste the Stars n’ Bars on every flat surface available, but I have to tell them: they lost, we lost. The South will not rise again.
The last really valuable thing our great-great granddaddies and grandmammas salvaged from the embattled ruins of Vicksburg and Richmond, of Charleston, of Atlanta and of Savannah was good manners. Cell phones and screaming kids have sounded the last battle charge that will destroy what Sherman himself could not undo. And, like any good Southerner, I am left to sit in the waiting room in Stoical silence, suffering with all the dignity my forebears bequeathed me.
Richard Van Ingram
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