by Vinson Cunningham
In 2015, for almost definitely the first time in my life, and for reasons I still don’t really understand, I surprised myself by finishing many more pieces of writing than I abandoned. Still, I let a few things slip between my fingers. The one that bothers me most was supposed to be a diary of a trip I took to Greenville County, South Carolina, over Independence Day weekend, right on the heels of the church shooting in Charleston, and the ensuing debate over the visibility and meaning of the Confederate battle flag. At first, I thought it could be an entry for my McSweeney’s column, “Field Notes from Gentrified Places.” Then, after a few months, maybe an entry on my Tumblr. Finally, at some point, it simply passed away.
So I never got to write about the minor league baseball game we went to on the afternoon of the Fourth, about the battle flag T-shirts I saw, or the Dixie Chicks’ perfectly harmonized version of the national anthem. I never got to write about the time we sat out on the balcony of a cantina, watching the final game of the Women’s World Cup, drinking too much, listening to the locals sing, “America: Fuck Yeah!” every time the Americans scored a goal. I think I had more to say about Henry James?
I wanted to end on a scene that would somehow collapse every element of the story so far — the flags, the books, the people — and make some sort of point, maybe about inseparability of setting and attitude, or about our inability — mine, at least — to leave the experience of a new place unaffected by the news.
Thursday, July 2 (Questions about Jidenna)
We booked an early flight to Charlotte, where C, a friend of Renée’s, would pick us up and drive us the extra hour and a half to his home in a town called Traveler’s Rest. An Uber SUV ferried us from our apartment in Flatbush, across the Belt Parkway, and we watched a big surreal red sun hang over Jamaica Bay, its color seeping out into the water in a series of bright crescents. Renée tried to take an iPhone picture. I think I fell asleep at some point, and when I woke up the sun was already higher in the sky and somewhat less vivid.
Our favorite radio show, The Breakfast Club, streamed through the dashboard — an interview with Janelle Monae and a singer-rapper named Jidenna, of whom I’d never heard until this moment. I have a bad habit, especially too early in the morning, of asking the same question twice or three times — some comic delay in comprehension; I’m never really awake until noon. So, wait, who is this guy with Janelle Monae again? I asked, too many times, managing to simultaneously to annoy Renée and learn exactly nothing about Jidenna, who was talking about how his conked hair had something to do with the fashion of the Civil Rights era, which era, in his opinion, we are to some extent reliving today.
“So,” I said to Renée, “seriously, who is this person?”
Jet Blue’s usually just fine; it was a little turbulent.
In Charlotte, with a few empty hours to spare, we took the bus to a mall called the EpiCentre, all but deserted in the late morning and early afternoon. Eventually we found a bar, and our waiter was a friendly, talkative college kid named Joshua, maybe, and we watched tennis and ate nachos topped with guac, queso, pulled pork, jalapenos, and barbecue sauce. We drank beer, and before we left I had a shot of whiskey, free, courtesy of maybe Josh.
Back at the airport we waited for C downstairs, near baggage claim. I asked Renée if she wanted to hear a few lines from Linda Rosenkrantz’s oddly addictive “novel” Talk. I use scare quotes because the book is composed of actual conversations among three arty friends in the Hamptons, recorded by Rosenkrantz in the summer of 1965 and formatted as almost a screenplay. Here’s part of what I read aloud to Renee, a conversation about somebody’s therapist:
MARSHA: Well, he looks just as tan now. He looks racially disturbed.
EMILY: I’m serious.
MARSHA: I am too. He looks like some kind of mixture.
EMILY: He looks like a mulatto, you mean. He looks like something beautiful, but he doesn’t necessarily look like a Negro?
MARSHA: What’s beautiful about him?
EMILY: He’s very attractive.
MARSHA: He doesn’t look beautiful — I mean he doesn’t look Negro. He does, but you don’t think of him say if you want to invite a Negro to a party. It’s more conceptual than anything else.
EMILY: Do you want some more ice water with your fudge brownie?
Midway through my recitation, a round man with a tie-dye T-shirt and white whiskers started to listen in from his table nearby. He chuckled at the good bits of dialogue and tried hard not to stare. When I was done, he spoke up and asked what book this was and where could he get it. I told him; in return, he told me his name, Dave. Dave was waiting for his daughter and her kid, visiting from Vancouver. His wife was at the table too, but she stayed silent. Eventually Dave’s daughter arrived — she told her mom how much she didn’t like her new haircut — and Renee and I waved goodbye.
C arrived, we stopped at the mall, ate at Cheesecake Factory, collapsed into a heap in the guest bedroom in Traveler’s Rest.
Friday, July 3 (The First Flags)
First thing we went with C on a hike in Caesars Head State Park. We drove up and onto the shoulders of the Blue Ridge mountains in a caravan of SUVs and minivans, first stopping to step out onto a glacier-scraped, graffitied floor of rock. It rained, stopped, rained in little blurts. From where we stood, we could see the Carolinas spread before us like a lawn, little houses and antennas poking out from behind the green. Near the foot of the trail, I talked to C’s uncle, a sort of Afro-ruralist lover of fishing, hunting, guns.
My wife’s German. And the Germans can’t stand guns, they hate ’em. So, you know, I compromise. I keep the guns locked up and put away. Couldn’t even use ’em on an intruder if something like that happened. That’s what I do to keep the peace in my home. Some intruder comes in, all I got is my knife, so now we’re in a kind of hand-to-hand situation. Now I’m fighting for my life. Same thing outside: she doesn’t like it concealed. So again, I told her — somebody decides to come and step up to me, I got no recourse. It’s a wrestling match now.
But it’s really not that big a deal with me anyway. I know some real gun nuts or whatever, but that’s not me. I just like to shoot ’em every once in a while. Have fun. You can ask my wife about that — I’m not a nut with it. And as for the street, most homeless people and thugs and things like that, even they live by some level of respect. Honor. Something. I always say — you ask me for money, help, anything like that, I’m nine times out of ten gonna help you out. But you disrespect me, especially in front of my family — you know, you pull that man card? — and I’ll give you the money, but you better not turn your head, ’cause I’m coming for you then. You can’t just disrespect a person like that.
The hike was two-and-a-half miles each way. We’d been promised a view of a waterfall at the top. It still drizzled in fits, and a pure white fog clung to the tops of the trees. The sky was a kind of paisley through the leaves above our heads; the scene looked prehistoric. We stepped over tree roots that stretched outward and sloped upward like spiral staircases. Somebody showed me a rhododendron — there were hundreds — and taught me how to identify one for myself: the long, thin, cursive branches; the white flowers floating over dark waxen leaves. At the top of the mountain there was mostly more fog. Every minute or so the falls — a way off — revealed themselves.
Did you hear, somebody said as we sat, about that Klan rally over the flag? I’ve got a friend who’s planning to go, just to watch. Just to get it on camera or whatever.
That night we went out to dinner in Greenville proper, on Main Street. City kids had descended on the place. Waiting outside of the restaurant, we saw the first flags. One stuck out from the cab of a pickup truck. One sort of zinged around, attached to the flexible antenna of a black sedan. Another truck, another flag. Three in a row, each sailing effortlessly in folds and curves on the air.
Saturday, July 4
After waking up, I lay in bed reading Henry James’s Washington Square. The book is a kind of play-in-prose, each major scene almost all dialogue: a cruel father and his lovestruck daughter; the daughter and her deceitful lover; the father and the lover’s sister; a meddling aunt and whoever’ll stop to listen. It doesn’t do the unnerving psychological work of Portrait of a Lady, or the zeitgeist-painting of The Bostonians, but what redeems it for me — more than redeems, really: I’m still wondering if it’s my favorite of James’s novels despite its difference from the rest — is its little interludes on, of all things, New York City real estate. From almost nowhere come passages like this one:
I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York [Washington Square] appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honorable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare — the look of having had something of a social history.
Or this one:
Mrs. Almond lived much farther uptown, in an embryonic street, with a high number — a region where the extension of the city began to assume a theoretic air, where poplars grew beside the pavement (when there was one), and mingled their shade with the steep roofs of desultory Dutch houses, and where pigs and chickens disported themselves in the gutter. These elements of rural picturesqueness have now wholly departed from New York street scenery; but they were to be found within the memory of middle-aged persons in quarters which now would blush to be reminded of them.
Against the stage-bound stasis of the book’s human drama, these digressions serve as reminders, maybe, that the truest marker of time and of change can sometimes be setting — place — not character or plot. They betray, too, that New Yorkers are always at our weirdest and most unwittingly provincial when going on, mid-story, about housing stock.
That’s as far as I got.
Photo by Jason A G
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.