Downeast Advice_David S. Smith-Downeast Defensive
I have tried to emphasize the limitations of my impressions of Southern culture, acknowledging that my observations are based on a small rural area of south central Alabama and my own narrow reflections as a Mainer. I knew from the reaction of my Southern friends that my comments weren’t going to get a very warm reception in spite of their concordance. But, a recent letter
from a Charlestonian (yes, Jennifer, I do know where Charleston is) was a welcome and refreshing perspective that just begs for reply.
It seems poor Jennifer from SC. is living in Portland, Me. and struggling to understand New Englanders. I can appreciate her dilemma. Mainers are cold and distant, supposedly, and not well schooled in the social graces. So, maybe it’s not so hard to understand; at least to a Mainer.
Jennifer starts out by saying I was shocked that a black man was making only $8 per hour after working for 20 years in a local lumber mill. No, Jennifer, I wasn’t shocked; I was saddened; saddened that he was only making $8 per hour after 20 years of loyal service to his employer. Admittedly, I don’t know the level of the man’s education, but I thought that after 20 years he deserved more. Although my own employment in the area has been very limited, the locals confirm that few employers are very generous with raises and/or benefits. And, I have come to comprehend what folks mean by "plantation mentality".
Jennifer goes on to admit that wages are better in Maine, but points out that jobs are scarce, supposedly because Maine offers very little incentive for businesses to move there. That’s always been a problem. Mainers are very protective of "their" way of life. On the other hand, the March, 2005 unemployment rates for Maine, Alabama, and South Carolina are 4.7, 4.7, and 6.8 respectively. So, whatever these Southern states are doing to encourage businesses isn’t helping much either.
She also complains about the Maine income tax and claims that 1 out of 4 Mainers are on welfare or state aid. Maine taxes are high as any Mainer will readily admit. Maine ranks number 9 as one of the most heavily taxed states in the union. But, then, the Maine government supplements Federal assistance, particularly Medicaid and fuel assistance. Which is something apparently few Southern states do. Maine winters aren’t just frosty; they’re deadly.
As to her assertion that 1 out of 4 Mainers is on government assistance, I couldn’t find any statistics to support her statement. According to the U.S. census bureau, the poverty level in Maine is 10.5, compared to Alabama at 17.1 and South Carolina at 14.1. Of course, the poverty level is no indication of how many people are getting assistance and, since about 28 percent of Maine citizens are on Social Security, I guess that may account for some of her claim.
She agrees that the education in Maine is better, but says Southern families supplement their children’s scholastic education with manners, behavior and pride. That may be. People around here are usually friendlier and politer than what I’m used to. But, I’ve learned that a lot of it is only civility; social lubricant Just because someone greets you and asks how you are, doesn‘t mean they really care.
Then, she asks, "why are so many people on state aid up here, anyway, considering the superior education?" I guess that’s because we don’t offer a lot of tax breaks for businesses to move to Maine, Jennifer. In spite of the fact that Maine is considered one of the most beautiful states in the nation, with a strong work ethics, low absenteeism and turnover rates and high employee productivity rates, we don’t cotton well to exploitation.
Jennifer claims that "Our children don’t spit on the sidewalk in the middle of town, at least not in front of a lady." That may be true, too. When we Mainers get a cold, we aren’t too pleasant to be around, and we do blow our nose in public.
To my observations about the behavior of Southern men and women in the area, Jennifer added an interesting twist, stating that "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". Mmmm, that’s something I hadn’t thought of. I was taught that the man walked on the curbside of the street to protect the lady from being splashed by passing traffic. Similar to days of old when people emptied their chamber pots etc. from second story windows.
And apparently, the subservience of Southern women that I’ve observed, isn’t, though one female friend told me that was the way she was brought up. So, perhaps, things are different in South Carolina. Interestingly, South Carolina has one of the highest rates of domestic abuse, so go figure.
As to racial relations, Jennifer says things aren’t perfect in the South, but neither are they in Maine. And, I’m sure they aren’t. As she pointed out, Maine is 98% white. Blacks make up only about .5% of the Maine populations. Consequently, because they are a very small minority, they assimilate to the local culture so they can compete equally for whatever opportunities there are. And, they don’t speak ebonics, wear slippers when they go shopping, or shuffle their feet. As I said, Mainers are not immune to the primeval emotion of prejudice and discrimination. If you want to succeed in Maine, you have to blend in with the rest of us and prove your merit by your abilities.
Jennifer says the South is about respect. If that’s the case, Jennifer, then why is Maine listed as one of the safest states in the union to live in while Louisiana is the second most dangerous state, with Mississippi, North Carolina and Alabama falling within the top 20 most dangerous? I guess teaching children to genuflect as a sign of respect isn’t the same as teaching respect.
I can’t speak for other Mainers, but I readily admit I didn’t teach my children a lot of manners. I taught them rights; a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To say "Thank you" when they were thankful, and "Sir" when it was deserved.
Toward the end of her letter, Jennifer claims Southerners "expect little (in comparison to ‘you guys’ up here) in general." I suppose she’s right there. We expect to be treated with respect, and return it in kind; to be able to trust, and be trusted. But, then she goes on to say "We don’t talk as much (Lordy, I never heard people talk so much and say so little as they do around here), or think as much (she said it, I didn’t), or drive as fast (apparently she’s never driven I-65 in Bama. They don‘t even drive that fast on the Maine Turnpike.)."
Finally, she says, "I try to fit in up here in Maine by feigning to pride myself on how hard I can seem like I am working". Which only supports what I said about the work ethics of the Southerners I’ve met around here. They do only what’s "good enough".
For myself, I enjoy living in this rural community of Alabama. The cultural differences are interesting, sometimes disturbing, adding color to the social mosaic; and making me ponder the why’s and wherefores.
Unlike the South, Maine never had "a plantation mentality". There are very few "Ladies" but there are a lot of "women". Unlike the South, the seasons are more pronounced and the winters are harsh. And, "good enough", isn’t when survival depends on doing your best.
As Downeast humorist, Tim Sample, once put it, "You can come from anyplace in the whole world, and come to the state of Maine, you’ll be just fine here. Everything will be hunky-dory as long as you don’t break the only rule that really exist in the state of Maine, and that is - you can’t think that being from away make you better than the local people. You come into the state of Maine with what Unc’ refers to as an altitude problem and you won’t even get the number of the truck that hit ya."
Jennifer, my advice to you if you want to understand Mainers:
Spend a day feeding the swans at Deering Oaks park in Portland,
Take a walk near the docks along Commercial St. when the fishing boats come in,
Climb Mt. Katahdin on a clear summer day so you can see New Hampshire,
Eat lobsta at the Yarmouth Lobster Bake,
Sit on the rocks at Portland Head Light and listen to the waves crashing against the rocks
until the rhythm of your heartbeat matches the pounding of the surf,
Pick potatoes in Aroostook county,
Drive through the country side on an autumn day and enjoy the colors of the turning leaves,
Take an evening walk when the snow is falling, and make an "angel" in the snow.
Visit L.L. Bean in Freeport, at 2am, any day of the week, any day of the year.
You may have come from the Bible Belt,
But, Maine is God’s country, Jennifer.