A personal tale, followed by commentary.

I got in a car in Athens, GA at 8:45 AM on Wednesday morning and walked in my door exactly 11 minutes ago at 12:02 AM Thursday. We made good time for the first, oh, nine hours, reaching the Indiana-Kentucky border. Then I hit a pothole and managed to blow out both tires on the passenger side of my car. Like, blown the fuck out. Six-inch gashes in the sidewalls. This happened just after 6 PM, when every conceivable retailer of tires or purveyor of tire repairs would be unlikely to be open.

Fortunately an Army chaplain and Baptist clergyman named T.S. Elliott (no, seriously, his name is T.S. Elliott) pulled over, invited us into his car, and then drove us around attempting to find an open repair shop in the godforsaken middle of nowhere, which is actually a few miles north of New Albany, Indiana. Unsuccessful, Pastor Elliott did the Christian thing and gave us his spare tire. This would enable me to limp home on two spares (as of course I had one of my own) and repair the damage on my own time. As he drove away to the sound of my profuse promises to return his tire at the most immediate convenience, I discovered that the lug spacing on his spare was approximately 1 millimeter off of mine. He drove a Ford, I a Nissan. Hence his thoughtful gift to a stranger was useless.

So we called AAA and they sent a tow truck which arrived at 8 PM, also known as closing time of the one remaining option for automotive service: the New Albany Wal-Mart tire center. Liz called and used her Girl Voice to (somehow, amazingly) talk the Wal-Mart tire center into staying open another half-hour so we could get the enormous, slow-moving AAA tow truck driver to convey our car there in time to purchase the cheapest Chinese Goodyear knockoff in stock and hopefully enable further travel.

Among our tow truck driver and the three employees of the Wal-Mart tire center on the Indiana-Kentucky border there were about 11 teeth, and I needed subtitles to understand them. More accurately I just looked at them while they made sounds and followed with educated guesses of what they wanted me to do based on their body language. I bent the hell out of one of my rims, but the other was fine and, one Wal-Mart tire, $65, and a $60 towing fee later (thanks AAA!) we were ready to roll at 9:30.

Having not eaten all day, we adjourned to the finest open dining establishment in New Albany near 10 PM on a weeknight: the Applebee's in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Now, understand this about Liz and I: we do not eat at Applebee's. We are dietary snobs. Liz has been known to get murderously violent when served non-organic food. Yet I witnessed with mine own eyes the woman inhaling a platter or riblets (seriously, riblets) while I annihilated an A1-laden cheeseburger like the respective entrees were the finest and most delicious things we had ever eaten.

After that it was a mere struggle to stay awake as we blazed through rural Indiana in pitch darkness. I got a little Rorschach at one point, responding to "You need to watch out for deer" with "No, the deer need to watch out for me." But we made it home, neither of us able to speak in sentences or remember the last time we were not in a car by the end.

One thing struck both of us. Here on I am pretty hard on our country cousins, the denizens of rural America with their medieval worldview and passionate hatred of whatever Glenn Beck tells them to passionately hate. Yet everyone was horribly nice to us. So much politeness. From the Baptist minister who handed us a spare tire to the planet-sized tow truck operator to the furry gnomes who kept open the Wal-Mart tire center at our request to the staff of the sad little Applebee's, everyone was wonderfully nice to us in a time of exasperation and stress.

Moments like this often conflict me. I know that on the most basic level, if I heard what any of these people thought about politics (if anything) I would hate them. I probably do hate them, I just didn't realize it. And of course they were only nice to me because I'm a white, presumably heterosexual, probably Christian (or, if not, at least convertible) male. The pastor probably would have thrown us out of the car if he found out that we are not married, and wouldn't have stopped to offer help at all if I was with my boyfriend instead. So I remain conflicted. It warms my heart to know how capable my fellow Americans are of being kind and helping unfortunate strangers. But it makes me wonder why, if we can be kind to people we don't know, we are so apt to hate those same strangers as soon as we learn a few things about them. T.S. Elliott and I got along fine as blank slates in one another's eyes. Such would not have been the case had he realized that I think Baptists are lunatics or if I fully realized that he thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old.

27 thoughts on “HOSPITALITY”

  • I hear you, Ed. Having moved to the Midwest after a life spent solely in Los Angeles, I was taken aback by the profound niceness of people I was sure would treat me with a kind of Footloose-town-ish revulsion. My belief–and I'd hate to have it shattered–is that we each dislike the other only as abstractions. Once face-to-face and forced to confront the essential, complex humanity of the other–well, it's not all Kumbaya and Buy-The-World-A-Coke-edness. But it's usually very polite. Nice, even. Perhaps it's the niceness we can afford to show those whom we will only have to know temporarily. I think people are often at their best in the company of such strangers–to borrow from FIGHT CLUB, most people go down easily in single-servings. It's when we're with our peers, be they at the wine bar or the bowling alley, that we can indulge in the kind of comfortable ugliness of jokes about fags, cousin-fucking, and similar witticisms. We're a baffling species and a baffling country, equal parts creepy and charming.

  • For the last couple of months I've been working with people who support things like prayer in school (seriously! they joined the Facebook group!) and probably have other opinions that would make me weep, and yet, ironically, it is the nicest work environment in which I've ever been and my bosses bend over 180 degrees to make work fun for their employees and make them feel like part of the family. Even though I have a "Stop Prop 8" bumper sticker. So yes, it's difficult to know how to feel, other than the desperate hope that if I could just sit down with them for a few hours I could make them *understand*.

  • Be nice to them right back. People are pretty much the same the whole world round, after all.

    Then give em' a big thumbs up and say, "Gay pagan Jesus loves you".

  • Bear in mind that you were in fairly dire straits, and you were probably hyper-grateful for any decency offered. But hey, I wasn't there. If these people were nice to you, that's great.

    I moved from Michigan to Virginia six years ago, and since then have done a lot of traveling through the South. Seems to me that a lot of Southerners put on a show of hospitality and "howdy y'all", but the actual extent of their kindness is no different than people anywhere.

    Actually, the people who have most impressed me with their genuinely decent behavior are the people of Baltimore, Maryland. They can be a little rough around the edges, but no Baltimorean has ever done me wrong.

  • Even though we may at a deep level hate each other, most of us can put that aside because at a deeper level we don't. And it's not love for them that makes us do that, but a desire to do good in the world. Most people aren't all that good, but we're trying.

  • Ah, that's the great thing about stereotypes – they let you continue to keep your prejudices no matter what happens!

  • @JohnR: Oh, make no mistake, the stereotypes are still partly true despite niceties. One can still be an ignorant bigot while being nice to a stranger.

    I live in Georgia, and have all my life. When I moved into my most recent neighborhood, the neighbor that was home at the time came over to greet us. She was smiling, very happy, and very polite. She welcomed us to the neighborhood, told us she thought we'd love it here — and promptly told us to "watch out for those sneaky negroes", to use a euphemistic substitute.

    I once ordered a pizza, and when the delivery boy got there a little late I still gave him a tip, as he looked pretty harried. He thanked me, I said it was no problem, and he remarked that a lot of people bust his chops when he shows up late and quibble over the tip. I shrugged and said, "Well, you know how it is with some people", and his immediate reply was "You know what it is — it's 'cuz they're *black*".

    Again, it's just the way it is in rural hicksville. People assume that, if you're white and not a fag, you're pretty much guaranteed to be just as racist and conservative as they are. It's a friendly, smiling bigotry, but it is bigotry nonetheless.

  • I suspect you're wrong about the pastor. Rick Warren probably would have the response you thoerize about, but I wouldn't exactly call him representative of the whole. Christianity doesn't tell us to be nice to those who agree with us, it tells us to be nice to everyone.

    Que multiple responses using an unrepresentative sample to draw conclusions about the whole…

  • I would easily accept, without a blink, their toning down their niceness significantly in exchange for them agreeing to treat everybody the same. (I'll take a gruff New Yorker or a down-to-earth Baltimorean who doesn't dehumanize other people over this skin-deep veneer of Southern gentility). But I have a hunch it's a deal they're not going to take.

    'Capital J' John's comment is spot on. My grandfather-in-law, a gentleman farmer from Tennessee who has voted Democrat all his life, hated Bush and the Republicans, and was going to campaign for Hillary, freaked the hell out when Barack got elected. He's now gone over to the dark side completely — he keeps sending us newsletters and email from websites to the right of Joseph Goebbels about the impending Obamapocalypse. I wish I could say he's just a senile old cooter, but it's not the age. It's the region.

  • capitalist, interrupted says:

    J. Dryden said:

    is that we each dislike the other only as abstractions.

    Yeah, abstractions are easier to dehumanize, thus paving the way for domestic terrorism.

  • I hear you man – I moved to GA 3 years ago after 24 years in NY & 9 in Philadelphia. It was a bit of shock but I was also very impressed with how much kinder these folks are. My parents live about 1 hour North of Atlanta & everyone of their neighbors carries a gun in the car, owns at least 1 horse & 1 tractor – yet they have proven to be the sweetest, kindest people that I have ever met. They accepted my parents & helped them through some rough times and they are even funny enough to refer to my mother as a crazy Yankee, in jest….. My advice to you – DO NOT talk politics & drive the hour to Atlanta & get yourself a Delta skymiles card & become very familiar with Airtran & Delta flying policies…the flight is about 2 hours…..Good Luck

  • As someone who has experienced both sides of the coin on this as well, I think I speak from experience that its city-living that makes "us" more cynical and suspicious of people. Everyone wants something from you whether its your time, money, etc on every block. Over time, you don't even notice the guy trying to fix his car on the side of the road.
    On the other hand, being nice and polite is much more advantageous to you in a small town. There's a finite number of people, and the person you spurn today could be your boss or brother in law tomorrow, that's just life.
    It does pain me to say that if I could pick where my car would break down, I'd probably prefer a red state. Great post.

  • I'm English, have lived in America for more than 5 years, and think most Americans are freakishly nice and friendly. I have also often wondered, given that the English seem to dislike just about everyone, especially the French, ze Germans, the Welsh and most other Englishmen, why London has the most languages spoken anywhere and why our capital has long been a sanctuary for nutbags, emigrees and revolutionaries. Perhaps it is precisely because the English dislike everyone that they're so tolerant? Equal opportunity despisers?

    And it's not just Christians in red states who are helpful and kind. My Jewish/agnostic ex bf and I were having something of a row in his car when we saw a man broken down in the middle of a busy, rush-hour-trafficked, DC road, ex-bf not only stopped to help, but swung his car around so they were front-to-front so that he could jump start the broken-down car and gave the dude our only soda. I just lamely directed traffic around us and tried to avoid being run over.

  • I think the idea that it's much easier to hate an abstraction is part of the problem of bigotry. It's easier for Ed to hate a Baptist who didn't just give him a spare tire. It's easier for the Baptist to hate The Gays than his own gay daughter. It's easier for humans to hate things they don't recognize as part of their group, which is why people spend so much time dehumanizing their enemies–so they can hate them. It's much trickier once you've spent enough time with someone to realize that they do, in fact, have some good qualities… as long as you're not a member of the group they've demonized and decided to hate…

    I teach in a high school. It's very, very small. One of the kids described it this way: "we don't really have cliques, because you know everybody. there are people you like better and hang out with more but there's not anybody I couldn't talk to." This has led to things like goth kid + hippie kid = bff, prep dating skater, etc., and my personal favorite Small School Full Of Freakishly Nice Kids (Mostly) Story…

    Kid w/IQ of ~65: [gets onstage at talent show and does a "rap" and "breakdances."
    Other kids in audience: [standing ovation]
    Kid 65: [gets off stage]
    Varsity Basketball Jock: [hi-fives that kid] Way to go, man! Great rap!
    Poor Metalhead Kid, who's been helping Jock with the spotlight: Yeah! You did great!

    Cameron, observing this: Wait… what?? Why are those kids being nice to that kid??!? Isn't this a high school?

    Anyway. Long comment to say that I really do think the secret to having a world that doesn't suck is encouraging empathy and broad experience, in order to teach people that, in fact, That Guy That Isn't Exactly Like You Isn't Exactly Terrifying, Actually.

  • I second Peggy and also thank you for the mental image of Liz scarfing down decidedly non-organic riblets, as it kept me laughing for a good solid 5 minutes.

  • On the other hand, remember the lyrics from The Charlie Daniels Band song 'Uneasy Rider'? Pretty rot-dang funny!

    In a previous job, I travelled all over the country as a marketing manager for NASCAR sponsors' trackside displays. One of the events was to be at the Talladega Superspeedway, located in the wilds of Alabama, a place I'd never been and had wild preconceptions about. Now, as a NASCAR fan I knew what to expect from the event, but not the people, and I was TOTALLY SURPRISED once I got there.

    During that week, I met literally hundreds of AL locals that I was sure would be stereotypical hicks, but to a person they were super friendly, great fun to be around, and they were just as relieved to meet a Californian that was also not a stereotype. OK, there were lots of mullets and semi-toothed smiles to be seen in the pits and grandstands, but whatev… I had a fantastic time, ate some amazing BBQ and partied up with some really cool people. Plus, the race was AWESOME.

    You never really know… people will always surprise you with their humanity and willingness to help. For me, I learned it as the Boy Scout slogan: 'Do a good turn daily', which means to always lend a hand to someone in need, regardless of who or why. I consider it a deposit into the karma bank.

    Thanks for your great post!

  • I'm just staggered at the image of MBL ravenously consuming Applebee's Riblets. Were there any after-effects?

  • I've travelled a fair bit and people everywhere are generally nice and good. Politics and religion however can twist people into hatefulness. America is probably the best example of this syndrome.

  • See? This is exactly what I mean. If you had ever met and spent a little quality time with Michael Jackson, I'm sure you'd be just as conflicted about him….

    He transcended politics and hate. How many of us can say the same?

  • I spent 14 formative years in Floyd County so I know for a fact that the numerous evangelical Christians actually try live by the words "Love the sinner, hate the sin." (Of course, they hate that sin right in front of your face, and try to hate it right out of you.) Anyway, I'm not in the slightest surprised by this story, except the part about Liz eating Applebee's riblets.

  • We pay our yearly fee to AAA due to fear of being stranded on the road. I think it's a subtle form of extortion. The one time my wife and child and I got stranded it was on a busy state highway (not interstate, though), and we didn't have a cellphone, so a fat lot of good AAA does. Anyway, after waiting for over three hours for any kind of trooper to drive by (after no answer at the local farmhouse), I finally walked down the highway to the next stranded car who had a phone, and called AAA. I gave them all the info, but they neglected to tell the tow truck driver that there were two adults and a child that would need transportation (thanks, AAA!). So we still had to wait for a trooper and catch a ride with him. I'm not sure why you had to pay a tow fee, though, because that's supposed to be covered. Unless there's some kind of distance rider.

  • Huh. Based on my own depth of experience with conservative pastors, if you had been there with your boyfriend he would have offerd to blow the both of you.

  • Never let it be said that Ed is not demonstrably prejudiced. We don't know about the minister, the tow truck driver, or the WalMart workers, but Ed's bigotry is on full display here. What else has he shown in this post but "a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his own"?

  • I'd be shocked if you hadn't already read Thomas Franks' "What's The Matter With Kansas?," but it sounds like you haven't. He does a great job of understanding & explaining this paradox in that book.

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