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More Downeasta in the Deep South

Correct me if I'm wrong.

by David S. Smith
August 13, 2004

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After my first article, "Downeasta in the Deep South", I got a lot of unpleasant reception from some of my friends down here in L.A. (lower Alabama). Instead of the usual greeting, I was frequently asked "So what else don't you like about the South?" I tried to explain that my article was not a critique of the cultural in the area, but a comparison of the differences with Maine. But, that still didn't seem to appease their indignity. Nor did asking them where I was wrong appear to help either. So I asked a friend who wasn't quite so offended what I had done wrong.

"Just because my grandma's crazy, and I tell people she is, doesn't mean I want you telling people she is."

Feeling like I'd been blindsided I bought a book on Alabama history and one on Maine. Granted Maine history is rather boring compared to Alabama. The political squabbles are mostly petty and money and power don't buy you much in Maine unless you do something benevolent like donate a state park. On the other hand, money and power can get you just about anything in Alabama. Including a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for murder.

Ironically, I also learned that slavery was fading out because it was too costly prior to arrival of the cotton gin It was a damn yankee from Massachusetts, Eli Whitney, who's invention turned cotton into a cash crop that brought it back.

I recently met a black man who'd worked for over 20 years at one of the local saw mills in the area. He told me he made $8.00 an hour and seemed rather proud of the fact. I suppose compared to what he was making 20 years ago it is quite a difference. Compared to what I was making in Maine before I moved to Alabama, it was really sad. In fact, I once told a co-worker what I earned for doing the same work I was doing down here, and he tried to tell me that it was because of unions. When I told him there were no unions in this business in Maine, he replied, "Well, the cost of livings higher." Twice as high? I don't think so.

Granted the income and property taxes are higher in Maine, but those with more pay more. Alabama is the only state in the union that taxes incomes under $5000. Maine property taxes are based on market value, compared to the property taxes in the area, which is based on use? Which means you can own a prime piece of real estate in the heart of town, but as long as it sits idle you pay very little while the value increases.

And let's not forget sales tax. In this area of Alabama, it's 8%. In Maine, it's 5%. I know, it's only a 3% difference, but Maine doesn't tax food, and that 8% can make a lot of difference on the dinner table. There's an interesting catch to that though - EBT, Electronic Benefits Transfer, or as they used to call it before the computer revolution, food stamps. The Federal government gives low-income people supplemental income from taxpayers dollars to buy food and the Alabama state government skims 8% off the top. Nice way to pad the state coffers.

As for education? I won't even go there. Last I knew Alabama was still running 49th out of 50.

And prejudice is still quite prevalent in this rural area of the Deep South. You won't see it in the tat a tat and pleasantries of everyday exchange. But, in the undertones and nuances it's there. The Whites expect little from the Blacks and the Blacks expect little from the Whites. And what you don't expect, you never get.

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jennifer from portland, maine writes:
April 29, 2005
I am a southerner (Charlestonian, that's SC), living in Maine (a-yeah)!. I found your commentary from a google search that I was doing on North-South differences, as I grapple to try and understand how to live in and amongst New Englanders. You are a difficult people to read! Here's my perspective, on your perspective:

You spoke of a man who was pleased with his $8.00 an hour, and you were shocked! There is no denying that the wages can be better in Maine, but it is also true that the jobs are very scarce. This is because Maine, at least Portland, offers very little incentives and tax breaks for businesses to move into the area. And one area that you failed to touch on is the unbelievable amount of money that is taken from our paychecks to pay for the 1 in 4 people that use the welfare system or state aid in Maine. The man who was pleased to be making $8.00 per hour is not a cohort of yours with whom to compare wages. Rather, he is someone probably less educated than you, who has chosen not to bleed our system, and is happily working in a mill for $8.00 an hour. He probably, and rightfully, feels an enormous amount of pride that he goes to work everyday, and earns his living, something that 1 in 4 Mainers cannot say that they do.

Education is undeniably better in Maine - in school. But in the South, our families supplement our scholastic education with lessons that you guys up here don't receive, like manners, behavior and pride. Oh, and by-the-way, why are so many people on state aid up here, anyway, considering the superior education?

We don't say Thank you, sir down there because it's southern and cute. We say it because it has been ingrained in us as a sign of RESPECT. And if a young white boy says, Thank you, sir to a black man, or vice-a-versa, you just witnessed an act of racial tolerance.

Our children don't spit on the sidewalk in the middle of town, at least not in front of a lady. That is not because the heat and humidity does not inspire mucous build-up. Rather, we have been taught that no one wants to see your bodily fluids, and out of RESPECT, you can go to the bathroom to relieve yourself.

And our men don't walk on the outside of the sidewalk so that the lady does not have to, as a way of luring her into his lair where he can force her to be subservant for the rest of her life, as you have indicated. He does it to show her that he RESPECTs her. And by the way, the day a woman is first called a lady is a right-of-passage in the South, not a chauvenistic slur. It means that you are living your life right.

The South is not about perfection. It is about respect.

Racial relations are not even close to perfect in the South. And nor are they up here. But you will never know, because Maine is 98% white. And if a white Mainer's neighborhood was completely bought up by black folks, he would move, and vice-a-versa. Why do we have prison gangs who segregate themselves according to race without this being imposed on them? Because it's a natural thing to do. I am not suggesting that government segregation is a good thing, quite the opposite. But I also don't suspect, with all do respect Mr. Smith, that you are going to be invited to be the invitational speaker at the next Martin Luther King Day ceremony in your Alabama town.

You said, The Whites expect little from the Blacks and the Blacks expect little from the Whites. And what you don't expect, you never get. I think Southerners expect little (in comparison to 'you guys' up here) in general. We don't work as hard, no. We don't stress as much, no sir. We don't talk as much, or think as much, or drive as fast. But we live more- I mean really live... relax and enjoy... comfortable... happy. And we like it like that.

So while I try to fit in up here in Maine by feigning to pride myself on how hard I can seem like I am working and how strong I am to be surviving so many hardships, I pine for the old days, when I simply didn't have much to do and all the beautiful, warm weather to do it in, and my fellow Southerners actually thought that I needed to relax! I once had a Northern friend who liked to joke that Southerners were the only people in the world who could make a plethora of activities that all revolve around sitting - sitting on the porch together, on the beach, in the living room, etc. My advice to you David, go sit out in the sun, and think of nothing. And if your New England mind can't handle nothingness, think of all of the hardships that you are not having to deal with.

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