Thursday, August 21, 2008
Two sides of South Carolina
Last night, I met up with an old friend with whom I worked at a restaurant (Motor Supply Company) and a health food store (Rosewood Market) in South Carolina in the early 90s, right after college. It was great catching up with her but it was also really interesting to walk down memory lane a bit. I was a bit early to meet with her and didn't have anything to read with me so decided to walk around Five Points to look at my old haunts. Frighteningly enough, in one of the restaurants I worked, I saw two waiters who worked there when I worked there (from 1989- 1993) and in a bar that I also worked, I saw two of the regulars that always hung out there.
My friend and I went to see a band called Grey Egg, composed of some of the people who work at Rosewood Market. The lead singer is a Women's Studies professor at USC too, I think. There were lots of familiar faces in the band and in the audience. It shed a different perspective on the familiar faces I had seen in my old haunts. It reminded me of how out of step I often felt while living in South Carolina. Whereas in DC, what you do for a living identifies who you are as a person, in South Carolina - what you do for a living can be your passion but it can also be the economic way that you feed yourself while you pursue your real passion. So many of the people I knew in SC when I lived here were musicians, artists, writers, and just creative people. The restaurant business was how we all made our living and some of us branched off to working in the macrobiotic deli or organic produce department of the local healthfood store. But in general, we were all in our early 20s, staying up all night drinking and talking and dancing and bouncing around. In the morning, we shook off our hangovers and went to work to serve rich beautiful people their chicken salad croissant or their macrobiotic special of the day.
But there were also people who had hopped off the consumerist capitalist machine that drives the day to day American life. Many of my old friends who are in their 40s now and still performing in bands and being creative and living their life without fretting about how the next step in their life will impact their career climb like I am. It was a welcome reminder that the South and the US is not so bad after the past three weeks where I pass the same chain restaurants every day on my way up and down the highway to the hospital and the rehab facility to visit my father. I haven't walked further than down the hallway to the vending machine to get a coke since I got here!
Then this morning, while I was emailing at work about responding to the Sudanese press about confidentiality for rape survivors, I got an essay from a friend written by a homeschooled child about her day taking care of her Evangelical family. Its pretty easy in the secular world that I travel in to forget just how important religion is to many people in the US. The South has always been considered the Bible Belt. I have a lot of respect for people of faith - I have several friends who are religious, attend church regularly, and I also worked for a faith-based organization, Witness for Peace when I first left graduate school. Since I've been back in South Carolina for the past three weeks, I've witnessed our presidential candidates go to the largest Evangelical church in the US to pass a test of fire about their beliefs so they can woo the religious vote. Every day when I walk through the lobby of the Palmetto Heart Hospital to visit my father, I pass piles of New Testaments on the tables in the lounge. While there is the politically correct "Meditation Centre" in the hospital - presumably to cater to the ever growing population of Hindus and Muslims living in Columbia - all the literature and sign up lists were from Southern Baptist ministers. My father had at least four visitors of devout African-American women ministers coming by to visit him. Many of the cashiers, security guards, and nursing technicians wish me a "blessed day" when I talk to them. There are hundreds of churches in various old buildings all over town. I pass the "Church of the Spiritual Guidance" in what appears to be an old insurance company building on the corner of Main and Sunset every day.
I myself went to many religious "teen activities" growing up in South Carolina. I have very vivid memories of one particular "teen activity". They told us that we were going to watch a movie and there would be free popcorn (I'm a sucker for popcorn). Instead, it was a movie about the apocalypse and the rapture and how all of us secular non believers would be left on hell on earth. A particularly striking scene was a guillotine that the nonbelievers were executed at. The condemned was forced to wait for the blade face up and the point of view of the camera was of the condemned's view of the blade slicing down upon them. Then after freaking us all out (I was 12), they invited us to come up to the altar and embrace Jesus as our saviour. I hid in the bathroom until it was over.
In many ways, the Netherlands is not so very different from South Carolina. There are free spirited thinkers who resist the capitalist imperative and there are strongly religious conservatives co-existing side by side in both places. The conservatives in Holland aren't a part of the accepted script about Dutch tolerance and the free thinking artists and leftists of South Carolina aren't part of the accepted script about life in the Bible Belt.