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01/10 2015

Mississippi for a spell

2015-01-08 11.43.42There is a cold snap in Mississippi when I go there – temperatures down to 30 degrees.  That is about 30 degrees warmer than Chicago but still feels cold because it’s unexpected.    Across from my hotel in Jackson, all the shops are boarded up or empty.  Down the block, and then another sign that says “DINER” jutting out from a building – the metal blue – the letters lit up with lightbulbs.  You don’t see that every day.  There is nothing around, but you can tell that there used to be.  Those shops across the street – one was a furniture store, one was a bar, another one just says “Cohen Brothers” in brown window paint.  I wonder when this street was alive, and who came here.

In the morning I get a ride to Vicksburg with some Americorps members who are impossibly young.  They are actually wide-eyed and bright in their discussion about what they do – the work down here funded by FEMA.  One of them drives and talks about graduate school, the other gives me some history about Vicksburg.  This town we head to, it is the site of one of the defining battles of the Civil War, the one where the Union gained control of the MIssissippi river and effectively divided the Confederate army in half.  The South surrendered Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 and to date the town does not consider July 4 to be a day of celebration.  There are no parades.  In the day I spend here, more than one person explains this to me.

We drive up to the office and along the road are blue and red placards noting where regiments of each army were.  There are statues of men – I wish we could stop to read them but there is no time.  My companions and I discuss the value of travel and how you learn from going places.  I am enthralled to be here.  This is the deep south.  This is the south of Faulkner and O’Connor that I’ve only read about.

For lunch we go downtown and have a plate lunch.  What is that?  Not sure I fully grasp the term but I think it’s just a kind of buffet.  I have fried chicken that comes with three sides and corn bread.  Coke in a bottle.  My friend shows me her apartment from the street – it’s the one with the purple railings above the record store.  Downtown is cute – there are bottle trees and the town runs along the Yazoo Canal.  When we reach the edge of town we are on a  hill and I can see the wide Mississippi and where the canal meets it.  My friend tells me about the fertile soil of the Mississippi river delta and I learn that the river moves.  At the time of the Civil War it was the Mississippi that ran next to the town.  A changing course of a river is probably obvious information for many, but I have been living in cities too long and I’m fascinated by this.  We talk about how there is a town nearby where if your family has been there less than 6 generations, you’re not really considered local.  I learn there is something called “Southern Studies” that you can major in, because history is told in the voice of the Northerners and what many consider “American” many down here consider to be just “Northern.”

At the end of the day I get a ride back to Jackson from someone named Laurel.  Dark is settling in as we drive through the hills and we talk about where we live.  She lives in Asheville and I tell her I’ve heard all about what a great place that is.  When she says “but I’m originally from Idaho” I have to think for a minute – because that’s usually my line.  I can’t believe it – she’s from Idaho Falls, which is almost as far away from Sandpoint as you can get and still be in the same state, but we went to the University at the same time.  We both left in the same year and moved to Oregon.  We fall into an easy conversation and I am instantly comfortable – I love Idaho people.  I am elated to be in the deep south with a fellow Vandal, talking about John’s Alley and seeing the Clumsy Lovers.  The Garden, English Professors, and where exactly in Moscow we lived.  The Palouse.  We talk about how often we go back to Idaho (not often).  Then I’m back at the hotel – waving as she pulls away.

The next day I get a taxi to the airport and the driver talks to me about the economy all the way to the airport.  He is a mumbler, the car is loud,and the radio is on so I can’t hear much.  I decide to just agree and say “isn’t that the truth” every once in a while to maintain my end.  When we arrive at the airport he turns the car off and slowly I read off the numbers of my credit card while he writes them on a form and then he pulls out a flip phone and calls in to get a verification number.  It takes three tries before someone picks up.  I can hear the tick of my watch.  I say it’s no problem, I’m not in a hurry, though he hasn’t apologized.  We wait in silence.  Time moves slowly and a bird sails across the gray sky.  The airport – the whole thing is the size of a stick of gum.  We are the only car there.  No one comes out to tell us to move.  I decide that this is my lesson of the South.  Take your time, no rush.  Watch the bird and listen to the clock.  Eventually, it ends and I get my receipt and go inside.  Time to go back to my big airport in the windy and frozen city, where there is no time to watch the sky.

  • John Tyrrell

    You had me right there with you. Very nicely written.

    • admin

      Thanks John for checking it out!