Hanging out down South
BY GARRISON KEILLOR
I’ve been down in South Carolina and Georgia, an old Northern liberal in red states, enjoying a climate like April in January and the hospitality of gracious soft-spoken people, many of whom voted for He Who Does Not Need Intelligence, but they didn’t bring it up so neither did I.
I walked into Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston and a waitress said, “Is there just one of you, sweetheart?” and her voice was like jasmine and teaberry. There was just one of me, though I wished there were two and she was the other one. She showed me to a table — “Have a seat, sweetheart, I’ll be right with you.” Liberal waitpersons up north would no more call you “Sweetheart” than they would kiss you on the lips, and if you called one of them “Sweetheart” she might hand you your hat. I ordered the fried chicken with collard greens and mashed potatoes and gravy and read a front-page story in the Charleston Post and Courier about a Republican state legislator charged with a felony for beating his wife in front of their weeping children, and then the waitress brought the food and I dug in and it was luminous, redemptive, all that chicken and gravy could be. If this is what Makes America Great Again, I am all for it.
Charleston was where the ugliness started, what they call the War of Northern Aggression, what I call the War of Criminal Apprehension. I mean, they destroyed government property, they shot at Old Glory.
A Confederate named Robert E. Lee
Committed treason quite freely
And General Grant
Beat him up cause you can’t
Attack federal troops — I mean really.
We won the war because we had a righteous cause and better songs. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” vs. “I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten” — there’s no comparison. Ours has watchfires in it, flaring lamps, a trumpet, jubilant feet. The old times in the land of cotton were not enjoyed by the people who picked the cotton, but by the ones who sat on the porch with their mint juleps and wrote bad poetry about sunsets and weeping willows. Like Lee, Republicans are smarter and more daring strategically, but what a sordid cause, that of the Count of Mar-a-Lago, no flaring lamps or trumpet, just glaring looks and Twitter, and it’s reassuring as you wander through Savannah and its 22 squares, most of them with a statue or a fountain, live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, and Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home and her bedroom window looking out at the twin spires of the Cathedral of St. John, to know that in Savannah, the Count got beat, by about 55 to 40 percent. I sit in The Grey, a cafe in an old Greyhound depot, now serving Georgia oysters and a pork chop with grits and gravy, and a couple stops by my table, Henry and Octavia, who comment on my red socks — her father favored red socks — and, realizing I am not from here, they recommend I visit the old cemetery nearby and the Moon River that Johnny Mercer wrote about which is not far away and though it is not “wider than a mile” — he only said so to rhyme with “crossing you in style” — it is worth visiting, especially a Geechee-Gullah oystering camp along it, and they sing me a little Gullah tune that goes, “Oh me, how good I feel, I come possession of an automobile. Now I can have chicken and I don’t have to steal because things are coming my way.”
A social encounter inspired by the mere fact of red socks: I thought to myself, “A person could live in a town like this.” I’ve spent time with people whose politics agreed with mine and who were cold fish indeed and now that I’m elderly and have time on my hands, maybe I’d enjoy hanging out with amiable sweet-talking right-wingers. I’m just saying.
I’m an accidental Democrat anyway, only because my grandma was one. She kept quiet about it, living amongst hard-shell Republicans who believed that FDR was a drunk and there was no Depression and welfare was for shiftless people, but I sat in her kitchen as she baked bread and fried chicken and she said that women are as good as men and deserve to go to college if they can do the work, and black people are as good as whites, and people deserve a living wage, no matter how humble their work, so they can raise a family. I believe in that because she did and because her bread was so good and her fried chicken, too.
Keillor is former host of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”