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Going North to Find The South

by Michael H. Thomson
August 8, 2003

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Going North to Find the South_Michael H. Thomson-This is the description. My home in Central Florida is very close to the Kennedy Space Center and the attractions at Disney in Orlando. There are a great many people who live in this area. Brevard County, Florida (small in comparison to neighboring counties) has a population of over 600,000 souls. One out of every 4 is from New York, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. New York style pizza is the rage, and yes, I have seen women try to walk on the beach in heels! The culture of the Northeast is very prevalent in Florida with growing competition from the culture of the Midwest. The further south one travels in Florida this competition increases with entire communities hailing from Brooklyn, Detroit, and Newark. It ain’t Dixie.

As a Southerner I have a good life here in the ersatz North. There are plenty of activities to distract me and I’ve developed a taste for New York pizza. Occasionally, however, as with all Southerners, I get homesick for things Southern. So I pack my bags and head north… Yes, to find the South I have to drive north to a region where grits are really grits and there are truly people named Bubba.

Politicians, geographers, and historians have similar ideas as to what constitutes the South. My delineation is mainly cultural. I have extensively traveled throughout the region and have noted the similarities in those areas I know as the South.

East Texas (geographically the entire state of Texas is called the South, but I disagree), Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and of course, Virginia are all part of my mythical cultural region called the South. Southern Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia while having some similarities to the South, are an undefined region of their own which I would definitely not call the North. The northern tier of Florida extending from Pensacola to Jacksonville is merely a cultural extension of two southern states; Pensacola to the Apalachicola River is part of L.A. (lower Alabama), and the Apalachicola River east to Jacksonville is very indistinguishable from southern Georgia.

Most of Florida below Jacksonville, however, has a mixed Midwest and Northeastern cultural influence with the exception of Miami which is very Hispanic-and even much of that is Northeastern Hispanic. There is still a large Jewish population in Miami that by all accounts is flourishing. The impact of the Haitians has not fully been realized, but will be soon enough. Florida is very diverse and interesting, but if you wish to encounter the South, you have to travel north out of the state.

Very recently I traveled north to Mobile, Alabama to attend the wedding of a friend’s son. I went from a northern culture to a southern culture in less than 5 hours. I noticed one cultural difference between Central Florida and Alabama immediately upon entering the state. Dogs. Yes, dogs. While many cities in the South have leash laws, they are generally not enforced unless there is a rare case of rabies. Southern states are very dog friendly and in small towns throughout the South some dogs become “community dogs”. When I lived in a Brewton, Alabama I used to pass a small pack of dogs each morning as I took my 3 mile walk. A bulldog, poodle, and a mixed breed of hound would greet me at the intersection of the 1 mile mark. They would look fearsome and growl until I made greeting then they competed for ear rubs! Throughout most of the ersatz North (Florida) dogs are not allowed to roam, can’t go to parks, and definitely can’t be found on the beach. I would wager there are more animal control trucks in Florida than in any other state. Florida is a virtual gulag for dogs.

Another cultural characteristic of the South is the tendency of complete strangers to strike up a conversation with you. In Central Florida this rarely happens. For two years on my daily walks on the beach, I encounter many of the same people on their morning strolls. No smile, greetings, waves-just purposeful walking. I guess this is a manifestation of the fear of the street mugger syndrome that is found in large eastern and Midwestern cities.

At the Mobile wedding I met several people that I was only mildly acquainted with. Here is a typical exchange after the “How Y’all” - a standard greeting even if there is only one other person being addressed: “How’s your momma?” Southerners are always concerned with their families and everyone else’s. Kinship linkages are very important in the South. Once I had a conversation with a guy from Virginia who had relatives in Tennessee who lived very close to where I grew up. By a series of “do you know” and “are you kin to” questions we made the determination that we were third cousins. Only Southerners do this. Highly personal questions about health, religion, and politics are also typically Southern. I have tuned out countless conversations on gall bladder surgeries, hysterectomies, and other embarrassingly but openly discussed medical subjects over the course of my life in the Deep South.

The church one attends is very important to Southerners. Not as a basis for praise or condemnation, but as a marker to indicate how a person will react in a certain situation. Everyone in the South knows for instance that Southern Baptists don’t drink in public so don’t embarrass a Baptist in front of his friends by asking him to have a drink after work. Some Roman Catholics in the Gulf Coast cities of Pensacola, Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans go beyond the traditional Knights of Columbus fraternal organization and participate in secret/semi-secret Mardi Gras societies that would make Skull and Bones envious. There are young Methodist couples throughout the South who have their weddings in Episcopal churches for the style and pomp of it all. And very important, if a “holiness”(Church of God) invites you to a service you might want to ask if there are reptiles involved…Taste and style in the Southern culture are very unique.

A florist friend of mine once bemoaned how she was creating floral arrangements at a level well below the standard that she had been trained. She had received her apprenticeship in a very upscale New Orleans French style florist shop. Crime, homesickness, and desire to have her own business motivated her to move and set up shop in a small Mississippi town of less than 7,000 population. No one in the town was impressed with her fancy New Orleans floral renderings. One of her largest orders was for a “telephone” funeral arrangement for a deceased whose first name was Leroy. She had to travel to a neighboring florist shop to see exactly what the “telephone” was. It wasn’t difficult to create the “telephone” but it was one of the most unusual creations my friend had ever been involved in. The “telephone” was literally a floral telephone base with a floral handset suspended on a floral cord suspended in the air above the base by a small stiff wire. In floral lettering below this framework was an inscription that read, "JESUS CALLED AND LEROY ANSWERED" My friend became one the best floral “telephone” designers in southern Mississippi!

Warning, my friends, particularly if you live in the Midwest, Southwest, West, Canada, or Northeast, if you travel to Florida looking for the South you may be disappointed. If you want a flavor of the South go instead to Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, New Orleans, or any other of the major cities in the areas I have defined as the South. If you ever watched the movie based on the famous best-selling book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, there were several scenes that many viewers might consider exaggerated artistic touches by the director. Not true, the depicted quirkiness in this movie is very typical of Southern behavior.

Last year on a trip to Camden, South Carolina, I spent the night in a broken down mansion that was built prior to the Revolution by a gentleman who later became a famous Continental general. I have no doubt that the “Swamp Fox” and others walked the same halls that I traversed. My host, an architect who specialized in historic restorations spoke quite frankly and seriously of how irritated he was by the ghost who haunted the house. He said that he had counseled the ghost on several occasions, but to no avail. He was consulting a priest to see about the possibility of an exorcism. This was causing quite a bit of consternation in his family who were rooting for the ghost. Later that night I was drafted in shuttling some ancient (circa 1950) hearses over to a garage owned by an anesthesiologist who probably has one of the largest collections of such vehicles in the United States. The interesting point I’m making here is not the experiences I had, but the fact I barely knew these people who exposed me to this rich slice of their life. This is the South!

On the way back from Mobile, as I traveled south to the north I felt a few regrets in leaving, but New York Pizza and bikinied babes in high heeled shoes on the beach kept pulling me home. One thing you can say about living in the North, it sure is simpler!

Comments (4)

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Barnabas from The Partial Observer writes:
August 9, 2003
Writers used to get paid some pretty big bucks for the quality of informal essay that Michael Thomson writes. What a wonderful addition to the PO family!

Marsha from Bodega Bay, CA writes:
August 9, 2003
I have lived in California,(19 years) - Colorado,(8 years) - Mississippi, (12 years) and am now retired back in California, (20 years).

I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Thomson's essay and often sit back and think of the differences of the people in the areas in which we lived.

Of all the places I lived, Mississippi was close to the finest living that I ever did. I met people who were so far out I wonder why they think Californians are unusual. Tasted white lightening near the creekbank at the production site, bought shrimp for the freezer by the 1/2 barrel (80 lbs @ .35 cents a pound), went deep sea fishing each year on our anniversary.

We lived through hurricaine Camille in Picayune, Mississippi, mopped up the flooded floor and headed for Texas to visit my sister for a couple of weeks until the power came back on and one could live in a civilized manner and not be glued to the bed in all the humidity following the storm.

Met country folks that had us to dinner, serving us our first fried green tomatoes and trying to serve us our first chicken and dumplings not realizing my grandmother came from Missouri and helped mom cook for the family in California.

One of my most original conversations was with a woman friend I had not known for long. Her brother was serving on the Nuclear Submarine in the North East.

I asked her, is he career, and she said, no, he doesn't live in Carriere (MS), I thought I told you he lived up East....

My lifetime leftover? Living all those places with all those dialects, people always ask me, where in the world are you from?

The speed of a Californian, the midwestern twang from Colorado and the hint of a Southern accent from Mississippi.

I just figure that makes me 100 percent American as my experiences brought me to the conclusion that there are wonderful people everywhere in these United States.


Rick from Brewton, AL writes:
August 11, 2003
Michael Thomson's essay reminds me of the time I was in Tampa buying gas. When I went inside to pay for it the cashier noticed my southern accent and remarked,You're not from around here are you? I asked her what she meant and she said it was obvious I was from the South. Exasperated, I replied, When the hell did they move Tampa out of the South? I wouldn't know. she replied. I'm from Cuba. God help us all.

Paulie from Atmore writes:
January 20, 2004
We Southerners eat breakfast in the morning, dinner at 11:30, and supper at 5:30. Folks from the nawth have tried to get lunch added and move dinner to suppe time. The snowbirds don't get it. They even stopped some places in GulfShores from have coleslaw with seafood. Oh yea, my brother-in-law from Atmo lives on Merritt Island, owns a bussiness in Bumingham and is gone today to Datroit to sell things made by his company in Bumingham.

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