Somewhere between Georgia and Alabama, I began to feel like a stranger.
I'm not sure what tripped my foreignness detector. It wasn't the roads I drove--interstates, US routes, and even state routes are labeled with remarkable consistency across this country--but it could have been my utter unfamiliarity with the lay of the land they covered. It wasn't the small towns, either--Virginia's got plenty of those, and they all look more or less the same--but perhaps their names: Dahlonega, Chattahoochee, Eastaboga, Wetumpka, showing off a much stronger Native influence than my home state's sedate, largely Anglicized names. It wasn't the churches, but maybe the churchiness that seeped into billboards and bumper stickers and background music; everywhere I looked, Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior was exhorting me to Choose Life and mind my Eternal Destination. Motorcycles and white cars proliferated. Spanish moss grew on the roadside pines. The accents ranged from adorable to near-unintelligible.
All this, mixed together in the summerlike warmth of deep-Southern May, left me with a prickling sense of culture shock. I was the funny-talking stranger down here: the wide-eyed tourist, the confused out-of-state driver...
...and, yes, the only white girl in the Georgia thrift store.
I hadn't planned to stop for secondhand books--my only shopping addiction--along this trip, but when the Dollar General where I stocked up on hand sanitizer and the Subway where I lunched just so happened to sandwich a thrift store, I couldn't resist. Only a look, I told myself as I walked inside, just to see what kind of books they read down here.
"A look," of course, became a full-on shelf scan, which turned up several titles I'd been looking for amidst the former bestsellers, outdated nonfiction, Harlequin romances, and Christian-life titles that glutted the shelves. The selection wasn't all that different from my hometown store, to my surprise: a little more religious and a little less international, but largely the same.
While I was looking, a fellow shopper came up to me and asked if there was anything good on the shelves. She'd wanted to get into reading for a while, she said, but she never seemed to have the energy after getting home from work (I know the feeling--those 8+ hour days at my old job had left me so wiped I could barely finish a chapter before conking out). I looked like a reader, she added, eyeing the teetering stack in my hands, so what would I recommend?
Not only a reader, but an ex-bookseller. Challenge accepted.
I asked her what she liked. Suspense, she said, romance, a good plot. Not too specific, but I've worked off less before. Romance is hard to recommend--tastes in that genre tend to be quite, ahem, personal--so I went for suspense instead. I've always been skeptical of mass-market thrillers (I'm talking to you, David Baldacci, Michael Connelly, Jodi Picoult, and Grand-Poobah-of-the-Genre James Patterson), so I fell back on a somewhat-known-quantity: Sue Grafton's "A is for Alibi," the first of my mom's favorite mystery series. And sure enough, she thought it looked good. I mentioned the whole "alphabet mysteries" concept, how there was one for every letter (up to X, so far) if she wanted more. Great, she said, and thanked me. "I'll let you know what I think of it if I ever see you back here again."
I smiled, though that wouldn't be likely, and went to pay for my finds. Social success!--I hadn't weirded her out.
Maybe I could fit in here, I thought while in line. I'm a storyteller, after all. No matter where they're from, what they do, or how they talk, everyone loves a good story.
And then I spent the rest of the afternoon being tailgated by a series of redneck deathtrap pickup trucks on the interstate. You know the kind, with antler window-stickers and wide-angle side mirrors and the body jacked up an extra foot off the ground, the ones that laugh at the speed limit and eat state troopers for lunch. Every time I ventured into the left lane to pass a truck doing 55, they'd pile up behind me like vultures ready to pounce on my law-abiding corpse. Real hospitable, Deep South.
Some folks like stories, but some just wanna go fast.
<--prev | next-->