In Alabama, The Choice of a Shirt Can Make or Break Your Day
This morning I lay in bed and told myself I wasn't going to write anything else.
Then I read the paper and it was a story about the scariest man in Alabama. I successfully fought the urge to drive up to his hometown - about an hour away - and just look around.
This guy is so scary he was given a 10 year sentence for something most people would only get one year for. Maybe because, his first wife was found dead "in a shallow grave" and his second wife and 11 year old child are missing...
Now... having got that out of my system, and having resisted the urge to write about that on a large scale... instead of two paragraphs...
I pondered the day. I would waste it as usual going to all the places I've gone to hundreds if not thousands of times before... because I do not want to stay home... where I might write something.
But the first order of business... after a very extensive beauty regime (not)...
was to pick a shirt.,
And in Alabama, the choice of a shirt can make or break your day.
I have many t-shirts. As I for the most part do not care in the least what I look like. I have the one suit I go to funerals in, and will be buried in - although in Alabama it is not required to wear a suit to a funeral. In fact the last funeral I went to was for the brother of a friend of mine, and he was laid out in casual clothes and a baseball cap... with a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket - in spite of the fact he had died of cancer.
My friend told me the wrong time visitation was, and I got there, walked in, and was alone with the corpse. To be with a dead person you have never met... is quite the experience.
But back again... to the choice of shirt.
The second one down in the neat stack of shirts my wife had ready for me, was one a Union friend had given me. It said, "Postal workers for Obama." A nice shirt, and still brand new.
I saw that and knew immediately if I wore that... it would be inviting trouble all day.
But I hated that my friend - a white man - had bought it new for me at the Union's Convention... and that it was going unworn. I like Obama, and will vote for him. But I don't want to die for him.
After a bath I put the shirt on... and tried to steel myself for the day to come. But before I continue, I would feel irresponsible if I did not pass on a tip to Northern men who might venture into the South. Never, ever, ever tell a Southern woman you take a bath in a tub. That is for women. Real men... only take showers. So a woman here told me one time. Now you have been warned.
I guess I'm not a real man. But I take baths instead of showers because for about 4 years in the Navy... all that was available was showers. Man how I longed for a long hot bath.
So tip having been given, back to the shirt.
I put the shirt on, and other clothes as well mind you... and my first stop was at a pharmacy to leave a prescription for my wife, and one for me.
I come to this pharmacy because a worker at one of their branches closer to where I live told a racist joke one time. (See previous writing called "Another Day in the Life of a White Civil Rights Activist" for that story. (P.S. I had no Obama shirt on during that run-in. He just thought because I was white I would like to hear it, I guess.)
So who was the first person for me to see at the downtown pharmacy. This same guy of course. He looked at me and I looked at him. He read the shirt and looked at me again. Our eyes locked and the young girl asked me could she help me, but I would not take my eyes off his. It was a classic stare down. He blinked first.
Then I asked the girl if I could leave the prescription and pick it up later. She said I could.
So began the day.
Then I went where I work to speak with my boss for a moment. (There follows something here I can't talk about, for his sake, not mine).
Coming out of the building a woman was sitting with two others and saw the shirt. The second encounter of the morning. And it hadn't taken long at all.
She said, "You going to vote for Obama?" between drags on her cigarette?
"Yes I am," I said.
She said "Well it doesn't matter since Palin or Biden is going to be President anyway."
I knew what she meant but I thought I'd get her to say it anyway. "How so?"
"McCain will die in office or somebody will kill Obama. And you'd rather have Biden for President than Palin?"
I said, "Well, let's see. Biden has twenty years of experience, and Palin can see Russia from her roof. Yes, I think I do."
That pretty much ended that conversation.
Then I started going to the places I usually go on my day off... thrift stores. Not looking for bargains, not looking for treasures, not looking for anything. Just something to do in a classic small town. I have everything I need in my daughter. I need nothing else.
But by this time I realized, you're wearing this shirt and things are happening about it. You might as well embrace it and write about it. But there was nothing in the whole truck to write notes on. I'd have to do it later.
The first thrift store I went in I walked the way I usually walk. I didn't go out of my way to put the Obama shirt in any body's face, nor did I go out of my way to avoid people. I went the way I usually went.
I was looking at videos when I saw the blonde customer waiting to check out. In her late forties, she was looking at me. I looked down, gave her a second, then looked up. She was looking at me still. I gave her one more chance and looked up. She was looking at me still. There was morse code coming out of her eyes. It silently sent the signal D-I-S-A-P-P-R-O-V-A-L out accross the space between us. I blinked first. You can not fight a woman and win.
Ok, you have expressed your opinion I thought about her, and turned away,
I went to old records and saw a haggard two record set by Johnny Horton, of "North To Alaska" fame, who had bought the farm at an early age in a car wreck. I looked at the list of songs on the back. One of them was "I don't want to live like this any longer." I thought, what the h***, I'll buy it. It has to be cheap and all the money goes to charity (supposedly).
I took it to the front counter. While I was waiting a white man about thirty came in and his face said he approved of my shirt... and for a moment I thought he was going to come over and say something or it appeared shake my hand. But he evidently thought better of it and kept on going.
It's better not to be caught fraternizing with the enemy.
Then a couple in their late 50's walked by, and this man did the look at me three times bit.
There was a black cashier and when she said the rag tag Horton album was almost seven dollars, I apologized and said "If it's no problem, I'd rather just put it back."
She wasn't cutting anybody any slack, black, white, or white wearing an Obama shirt."
She said, "Didn't you see the price tag?"
I said, "No I didn't. Where is it?"
She said it was inside, where of course I had not looked.
I left and saw the three time white man looker go by with his wife. His shirt said "Firefighter."
At this time I was in the city next to Gadsden called "Rainbow City..." which is a bastion of white flight dwellers. I guess they actually thought they could create a rainbow here and have a pot of pure white gold forever.
But they can't put up a border fence so scum like me occaisionally sneaks in.
Oh, I almost forgot about the worker inside. This thrift store hires people who are chronically unemployed, and as I left there were twelve of them taking a smoke break outside - including one who was smoking under a table against the wall for some reason.
But inside one of these who was passing me, said, "Hello," and then stopped.
I said, "Hi." and then, "Are you Ok?" Something was bothering him. He obviously wanted to talk to somebody.
He sighed and said, "They're cutting my hours. I'll only get to work from eight-thirty to eleven thirty now."
I said, "Are you going to make it?"
He didn't say anything, just kind of shuffled on. Hopless.
The next store I went to was a "Christian" thrift store.
A multi racial couple was going in and the man looked at my shirt and glanced down. They were in their late thirties I would guess.
I looked around and bought an old Linda Ronstadt album - and everytime I think of her, including now, I remember my friend Ralph who claimed he had slept with her in Muscle Shoals, Alabama while she was recording at a studio there he worked at.
I hadn't heard this cd. I took it to the front and the white man at the counter, seemed to make a point of not looking at me. I don't think he looked at me the whole transaction.
In the background, I swear, a music box had been opened and was playing "Jingle Bells."
I glanced at my left and saw a black woman looking at me, and she said, "I was just looking at your shirt." She was happy. We smiled at each other and I said, "Then you know what I am up against." She laughed and went on.
Meanwhile the counter man, I guess a "Christian" in his thirties, could not get the transaction to transact. He finally said, "It's saying Operator Error," and laughed.
Yes, I guess so.
Next I went to the pot of gold library which I knew might be trouble, to return some cd's. I knew it might be trouble because in times past there had been a biddy there who was a priss even when I had no Obama shirt on.
I walked in, looking at the two behind the desk without taking my eyes off them, and being glad the priss was not there.
One of the librarians gave me a very pretty phony smile. I know it was phony because as soon as I turned away and turned quickly back again, the smile was gone and some other look was there.
Her REAL look.
I picked up an audio book in the bookstore called Stories of survival from the world's most dangerous places... wondering if there would be a story in it about Gadsden, Alabama.
Also an old Newsweek with the cover story "The Secret Life of Jayson Blair: Behind the Scandal at the New York Times." I wanted to read more about a good writer... who had gone wrong.
When I went to pay for them the one woman didn't bother to put on the phony smile again. It was just take the money and be done with me.
As I left through a glass window I saw what was apparently an interview going on in one of the plush rooms the library had. My first impression was that the man was a Southern Aristocrat and the white woman - in her late teens or early twenties - was applying for her first job. All that was missing from him was the ascot and the pipe.
And seeing that, I dreaded that someday soon I will have to own up to my pre teenager, that I lied. There is no Easter Bunny, No Tooth Fairy, No Santa Clause... and the big one - It's not the quality of work you do - but it's who you know that counts.
Leaving there I saw a sign in a store specializing in Barbecue Grills saying, "Thank Heaven for Little Grills."
It was time to eat. And I was feeling some trepidation because I had decided to go to a barbecue place I had never been before. And you really honestly can not tell what kind of a reception you are going to run into... whether or not you are wearing an Obama shirt. There are white places in Gadsden Alabama where I will not go because I know "my kind" are not wanted there... and I don't want to be around them anyway.
I did not know what kind of place this restaraunt was. But my fears seemed unfounded. Two guys looked at me when I walked in, but quickly looked away. I don't think they even saw the shirt. At least one of them was focused on the two waitresses. When they left one glanced at me again. They were both minor league bodybuilders.
The restauraunt had three Hispanics cooking the food, where I could easily see them, and two good looking Southern Girls out greeting and waiting on the public. Hmmm, nothing new there.
There was also a guy, I'm not sure what his purpose was, but I swear he looked just like the shaggy guy from the cartoon Scooby Do, come to life.
I ordered and looked around. There was a poster on the wall. It showed Uncle Sam standing on the earth with the sun smiling and beaming at him. The caption said, "Uncle Sam is Always on Top." Tell that to the thirty thousand dollars I lost in the stock market this year.
When the waitress brought my food to the table, her and the other girl and Scooby sat at the table next to mine and took their breaks. I promise I could not help but hear snippets of their conversation. One girl said, "I hope he don't show up." Something about he was kind of shy, and had a bad back. Definitely not husband material for her, I assume. You have to be able to support her in the manner mommie and daddy have accustomed her to.
I had made the mistake also, of sitting by the TV, and up above me and to the right, the "View" was on. Robert Wagner was on and one of the "hosts" was asking him about Natalie Wood... and did it hurt?"
Even I wouldn't have asked that question.
Wagner was great. Talking about what happened he said, "It's not what if... it's what is..." that counts. "I always say to my kids... Go on."
Then the fashion aspect of the show came on and a beautiful blonde in black boots was saying to her co anchors... "it might be a little bit dangerous, mixing plaids and stripes..."
I wonder if the guys in Iraq are watching that. "Dear mom, send me some plaids for when I am off duty and not getting shot at. But hold the stripes. I don't want to offend any beautiful blondes that I might hope to score with when I return home with one arm or one leg."
I heard one of the girls say, "we're not the only ones who are spoiled...' and I finish my barbecue and get up to pay.
Now a politician is saying, "It's going to take years and years and we can't dig drag this out for years and years." I don't know what he was talking about. It could have been many things.
Then TV is talking about a man who has killed his 11 year old daughter. One of the girls shakes her head and I do the same. She says, "There are some sick people out there." I agree with her.
As I leave, a very well dressed black man comes in and sits at the table behind the one I sat at and looks at a menu. He is impeccably dressed in blue business shirt and tie. Mid twenties.
As I leave, I wonder what he was thinking when he walked in the restaraunt and sat down. Had he been there before? Did he know what to expect? Would they treat him any differently than they treated me?
I'll never know. I'm just a white guy temporarily wearing an Obama shirt.
To him it is something he can't take off when he feels like it.
I decide to go to one last thrift shop and then head home.
Going in, there is another multi racial couple coming out. Some people are working all of this out on their own.
Inside, I look at books. There is one that says: Almost Born - The Shocking Truth about Partial Birth Abortions. I open it up and there is a picture in it so horrific I set the book back down again. Abortion. That is why I am an Independent. I have to vote for the man, because a lot of the issues are at a stalemate - nothing can be done about them. The Republicans have had 8 years to try to overturn abortion. Yes there was Democratic resistance, but yes they wasted their chances and resources on other things. (If you need a clue - one answer begins with "I" and ends with "Q." )
I notice an ant crawling on the wall by the books. Maybe I am noticing too much, and I would be happier... if I didn't.
I buy an old copy of FULL METAL JACKET to watch again. The black clerk doubletakes at my shirt, and I am outside.
On my way home, I am already writing the finishing lines to this story. It will read: "I took off the shirt and crashed onto my bed. I'll be glad when this election is over.
But I decide to make a stop at the Gadsden Library... which I see as a safehaven. There are intelligent people working there. And only one priss is left there, to my knowledge.
I go in and see my friend Lashandra in the children's department. She smiles and says, "Don't come in here with that Obama shirt on!"
I approach her and as I do I said, "If looks can kill, I would already be dead today."
She told me it was a nice shirt, could I get her one, and I said I'd give her that one if she could find me something else to wear home, as I couldn't stand the "stress."
She said "Let me see what I can find," and she went in a room and came out with a shirt that said, "Wrestlemania Reading Challange Champion."
I told her, "That will do," and I went in the unisex bathroom and took off the Obama shirt, and put the other one on.
I came out and gave Obama to her. I said, "I can't imagine the stress you go through every day."
She said, "Somedays... Like when a white woman came in the other day and asked me, Lashandra, are you going to vote for Obama because of color? And I told her No, I'm going to vote for him because he is a Democrat, and a good man."
LaShandra went on, saying, "You know my brother - he's the only black person working at TVA where he works - and the other men are always asking him things like that, and he's saying, Do I have to answer for every black person in America? Why? I don't know all the answers. We don't have all the answers."
Lashandra said, "I want to live in MY world. You know, where my dad worked... in the seventies... they hung a noose on his job. What kind of crap is that? They thought it was funny."
I was now taking notes while she was talking, and I heard something incredible and looked up dumboundedly - if that is really a word. In any case, I just couldn't believe what a white girl who had been standing there listening the whole time, had just said.
Lashandra said, "What is it, Will?"
I said, "Well, I thought I heard something, and I want to ask about it, but I don't want to offend any body.
She said, "Go ahead and ask. You won't offend me."
I said, "No, I don't want to offend her!" and I nodded to the young white woman who was beside her listening to our conversation."
Lashandra said, "Go ahead, you won't offend her either."
I thought about it for a moment, and then said, "LaShandra... did you really just have to explain to her... what a noose was?"
She said, "Yes, I did."
I said, "I'm leaving on that one." And as I left I heard Lashandra say to her, "Have you never seen a picture of a black man hung in a tree?"
(There were about 3,000 such "photo ops" in the South during the segregation years. And the pictures that do exist, are NOT pretty.)
I was walking toward the exit. I saw my friend Paulette and said Hi to her and leaned up against the counter where she was at.
She asked me what was "wrong" and I told her I was just nervous about "things."
Then we started talking about politics... and the conversation went straight to a rumor in the North that there was a movement to possibly dump Biden for Hillary.
She told me she was for that. I said I would be too.
Then I said to her, "Now tell me how you feel about Palin."
Paulette immediately made a loud noise like an animal dying in agony.
Something like "ARRRGGGHHHHHHH!"
I said, "Wow... if only I could spell that."
And she made the noise again.
She said, "I can't spell it either.
I went home, took off the library wrestling shirt...
and put one on that had a huge red eerie skull on it.
And crashed on the bed.
I can't wait until this election is over.
Will Bevis, Gadsden, AL Sept. 23, 2008