A Downeasta in the Deep South
A New England native grows roots in Alabama.
by David S. Smith
April 12, 2004
I was born and raised in Maine. Spent most of my life there before I came to L. A. (lower Alabama). So, by Southern standards, I'm a Yankee; a “damn Yankee” at that - since I stayed – and didn’t return home. But most Mainers would probably take exception to that. Being the northeast most state, bordered only by New Hampshire and Canada, we're as isolated as parts of the South are isolated from the mainstream of American culture.
Most of us consider ourselves “Mainiacs” or “Downeastas”. And most of us - Especially those who live above Po'tland - aren’t very sophisticated. We even have a lot of rednecks just like they do in the South. Our variety own snowmobiles instead of All Terrain Vehicles (ATV’s).
Being so isolated, we have our own cultural quarks, accent, slang, and cuisine… and wicked good lobsta and clam chowda. (Yes, we tend to drop the r's a lot and stick 'em in words that don't have any.) Most fashions, fads, and corruptions take about five years to cross the Piscataqua Bridge in Kittery and make it up to Fort Kent.
Like Southerners though, who resent Northerners telling them how it's done up North, Mainers don't take kindly to Outastatas with snotty, uppity attitudes either. That's probably why we're not regarded as very warm or friendly people.
Now, for this Mainiac who'd never ventured beyond New England, coming to Alabama was quite an exciting adventure. I had my own little quarks that attracted me here, like my fascination with the mystery and romance of the South, as well as the similarities I thought existed between Mainers and Alabamians.
After all, I was the one who argued with the history teacher that the South had a right to secede from the Union and it was Northern aggression who forcefully kept them in it. But, I was also very apprehensive. Growing up with Walt Disney's "Song of the South", Gone With The Wind; and then later, In the Heat of the Night, White Lightning, and Mississippi Burning, I didn't know what to expect. Not to mention the news stories and images of racial strife and violence during the 50's and 60's. (It took me a long time to get used to driving at night without watching in my rear view mirror.)
At first, it was nice. People were friendly and strangers said "Hello". Some would even ask how you were and stop to chat for a few moments - which to me is a lot like Maine, though I doubt many tourists would agree.
Then, the culture shock set in...
The first shock was the lack of lobster or clams on menus in so-called seafood restaurants. And, even though I discovered I like catfish, since when does catfish and crawfish qualify as seafood?
The next shockwas the issue of race. Maine is primarily a white society. The only time I'd ever come in contact with more than a few blacks at one time was when I visited Boston in the late 60's and inadvertently wandered into the black section of the city. In small towns in the Deep South the physical proximity between whites and blacks is very close. The cultural proximity, however, is spread across light years.
In Maine, the cultures of the races seemed much closer than they do in Alabama. While there is definitely desegregation in the rural Deep South, there is very little integration on a social level. Blacks, for the most part, do not share the neighborhoods of the whites and vice-versa. Even in the integrated schools, whites stick together and blacks stick together except on the basketball court or football field and even then, after the game its back to separate corners. The black middle class is not growing as fast in the rural south as it is in other parts of the country. Very little has changed for poor blacks, it seems, since the War Between the States. Their manner, their speech, their attitudes are like scenes from GWTW.
There are other things in the South that are hard to explain to a Northerner.
Tourists come down here and enjoy the Southern hospitality, the amenities and comforts of Southern living. And then they return home without ever seeing beyond the veil of cornbread and grits. Nor do I think many Northern retirees ever get to experience the real South, insulated as they are in their retirement communities – which form little colonies throughout the southland.
I confess my experience is limited to living in a small area of south Alabama,
and the feedback I get about my observations and opinions is a mixed review - definitely not scientific. But neither were Erskine Caldwell's … so please bear with me.
When a Southerner gives you a time when something will be done, don't expect it will be. There are a lot of things that interfere with Southern schedules. Socializing, eating, family "crisis", and sometimes... it’s a case of just being laid back. If you’re making an informal appointment it’s best to double the time frame or just wait until they call.
Then there are Southern women – they flirt. A Northern woman will flirt with you if she's interested; a Southern woman does it as a social pastime. And most Southern women, particularly over the age of 30 – in the rural South - seem subservient, or at least, put on a show of deferring to the male. Whether husband or boyfriend, the man determines where they will go and what they will do... always.
And Southern men... they’re a species unto themselves with subtleties that are hard to discern but are there, none the less. As far as I can tell the money they earn is theirs and their wants and priorities come first. The providing of food and shelter for a wife and children comes at the cost of the husband being taken care of and waited on hand and foot. Many southern men are conditioned to this from an early age. Mom takes care of the son and acts in many cases like a surrogate wife until the young man is finally married.
There are other cultural differences which I suspect may be exclusively unique to Maine and Alabama or at least the rural areas I’m familiar with.
One is in the area of work ethics and the turn of a phrase. Mainers generally “do the best they can” while most Southerners – at least in these parts - just do what’s “good enough”. From my observation of economic conditions in the area, that may be an ingrained attitude that has evolved over the years from low wages and little else.
The counter balance to that is the attitudes of the business owners, and again, reflected in a word. In Maine, we have associates; In Alabama they’re employees. And though some may argue it’s merely semantics, the perception goes deeper. An associate is an equal whose cooperation and efforts are just as important to the success of a business as the owner’s investment. Their input and ideas are considered and weighed. An employee is someone who does what they’re told.
Another difference is in conversations about the prestige of local personalities. A Mainer will tell you about what they’ve done while a Southerner will tell you about what they own.
It’s been about three years since I moved here. I’m adjusting slowly, though there are still some things that rile my Yankee sensibilities – maybe at some point, I’ll become more laid back and roll with it – NOT!
And, though they still make fun of the way I talk, I have learned to use “y’all” enough for some folks to ask if I’m related to someone they know. I’m learning – “Fried Lobsta anyone? Will you please pass the grits?”
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A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.