Sunday, November 14, 2010



Part I – Lamentations

Most poor women who live in the South complain; it's what we do best, an art form, of sorts. It's what we were handed at birth in lieu of a silver spoon. It's the one good gift handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. And we take it up almost as soon as we have any capacity for real speech. It becomes the way we know, finally, that we are card-carrying members of the Daughters of Dixie. From the day's temperatures, to how the humidity makes our curls fall limp, to the cost of a new pair of stockings, to the enduring dearth of eligible, desirable boys in our hometowns, we complain our way through childhood and into adolescence, preparing ourselves for the inevitable day when we will turn the full force of our complaints upon the one man who will be expected to bear them silently, as did his father before him, until death do us part. And why do our men bear our complaining silently? Because it baffles them. Because they have no gift for it themselves. Because that silence-in-the-face-of-a-woman's-complaining is their inheritance, passed down father to son. They lock their jaws and hang their heads, if they are wise, and they ride out the storm and they do not talk back. They get that stunned, far-off look on their faces like that look the cat gets when he's hunkered down over the litter-box.

Men, especially Southern men, do not complain. Ask them and they will tell you this is true. Men comment. Men accuse. Men rant and rail and hold forth. As in the way they speak when someone brings up the Internal Revenue Service: those yellow, Commie, snot-sucking sonsofbitches will bleed us all dry one day.

Somewhere along the way, however, as we Southern girls inch towards full-fledged womanhood and then settle into our thirties and forties, our finely-honed art of complaining falls to naught, particularly if it happens to be levied in the direction of the United States Post Office. We can stand in line and grumble about the price of a first-class stamp – which indeed rises faster than the mercury in midsummer – or how things we mail out get lost almost as often as they arrive. We raise our finely-arched eyebrows and roll our eyes and tap one foot and gripe under our breath while the counter clerks creep and crawl and meander their way through the workday like lost souls drifting reluctantly towards eternity. But complain within earshot of them and they'll double the time they spend in back "searching" for some errant package or misfiled letter. And no matter how many times we address the issue of those annoying and endless "Occupant" and "Resident" brochures which overfill our mailboxes – and which we have asked sweetly and frequently that the mail carriers throw out rather than stuffing them into the box – our complaints fall on deaf ears. 

Complaining does not even seem to slightly annoy mail carriers or counter clerks. Revenge seems to be their cup of tea: go to the roadside mailbox six days out of the week and what you'll mostly find there is a collection of junk mail: endless advertisements and solicitations for money from charities. Thank God, I complain to my man who must listen to me, Thank God for the Sabbath Day on which the offering plate comes by only once and for which God is only expecting ten percent of the Friday paycheck.

                         * * *
Today I dig out an impressive stack of flyers and envelopes from the mailbox, so large and unruly a stack that the mail carrier had to rubber-band them together so they wouldn't fly about in the wind when the lid was opened. God forbid something annoying should not make its way to the mailbox. Today, there is one from St. Joseph's Indian School; another from the United Spinal Association; another from the American Lung Society, which has arrived with lovely floral address labels preprinted with my name and address: no charge, but a donation would be appreciated. Also among the solicitations are over-sized envelopes from St. Jude's Children's Hospital (more address labels, though with an error in my street address) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, who have kindly gotten my address correct but have gotten my name wrong: I am "Anna Castón," which sounds so very chic and French that I am tempted to mail them a small donation just so I can use the labels guilt-free.

Today's cache is similar to most every other day's mail call: invitations, all addressed to "Our Neighbor at 19 Campbelltown Road" or to "Occupant" or "Resident," and some are even addressed to me by name, asking me to please send money – whatever I can afford, even a few dollars would help – money which I could, they suggest, write off on my taxes as a charitable donation.

One invitation today is from a pastor in Chicago, a man who is, according to his letter, trying to raise enough money to take a group of "troubled, inner-city Black and Hispanic youths" to a Baptist summer camp in the wilderness. He's enclosed a photograph: dead-center stands a middle-aged blonde man in khaki shorts and a white t-shirt on which is stenciled in red, WWJD? The man is holding a basketball in both hands, awkwardly, as if it is the first time he's ever held such a thing. He is flanked by six adolescent boys – three on either side of him – standing a good arm's-length apart from him, hands on their hips, their muscled legs braced widely apart. The boys wear baggy shorts, low on their hips, very low, so low the waistbands of their boxers are exposed. Two wear no shirts; the others wear short, torn ones, so their bare midriffs are exposed. Two of them wear do-rags. The boys look defiant and stern, as if they are unhappy to be there, standing in such close proximity to this pale man at the center who is holding their ball, grinning ear-to-ear like the village idiot. Not one of the boys in the photo is smiling, only the man. Behind them all is a brick wall painted with what looks, in its lettered elegance, like gang graffiti. At the far right of the photo is a tall metal pole from which crookedly dangles a metal hoop. No net. 

This letter is familiar, in both its strategies and requests (also in its "nonprofit" omission of a postage stamp) to many others I receive each day. But there is something about this man at the center. It's a grainy photograph. And it has been thirty-something years – so how can I be certain? Still, it's familiar enough to send me spiraling back to the long hot summers of my youth, to the week spent each June at a Baptist summer camp in Florida. . . .