Friday, January 06, 2006

Things you rarely see in Tennessee

Copied from my LJ-5/22/05
It's easy to pick on my hometown. It's hidebound, provincial, conservative, even bigoted in some instances. But say what you will about Elizabethton, Tennessee, there is still a bit of the old southern grace and charm about most people you meet. I miss the hell out of that. Detroiters (or Yankees, as we called anyone who wasn't from the south) as a rule don't exhibit that same poise in their everyday dealings with people.

Although I've been in Michigan nearly a decade, sometimes I have to remind myself I'm not in Tennessee anymore and people won't always behave the way I'd expect them to there. For instance, I forget when I'm driving if I pause to let someone out into traffic, they won't necessarily interpret my pause as courtesy. Because here courtesy is seldom given and never expected. Sometimes my action will only baffle them and they'll wonder why I don't go the hell on so they can pull out. And they'll honk their horn, often accompanying this with a hand gesture or two. Sometimes I also forget it's a bad idea to make eye contact with people in public places, because it's rarely seen as openness or an invitation to chat. Sometimes it's even viewed as a challenge or threat, as I learned on the Detroit buses.

I had one of those Things You Rarely See In Tennessee moments standing in the Wal-mart checkout today. In front of me was a woman and three small children, aged about four to eight. The mother could have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five; her nondescript clothing didn't offer any clues. The kids were generally well-behaved. Her boy, about eight, picked up a piece of candy from the display and turned to ask her if he could have it. Without warning she hauled off and gave him a hard smack right across the face. The boy staggered back, held his eye, tried not to cry. You could tell he was humiliated more than hurt, although the blow was loud enough to turn heads in the next line over.

The last thing I want to do is get into an exchange with some random stranger who has already demonstrated she is violent and doesn't care who sees it. So I really didn't mean to give her the stink-eye. I was just so dumbfounded by what she did that I didn't catch myself staring until it registered that she was staring back at me. Angrily. "What are YOU looking at?" she bellowed.

"I dunno, Mother of the Year?" I suggested. Fortunately our conversation ended there. But an awkward moment stretched into five, then ten, while she tried to pay with a succession of bad credit cards. Each time one was rejected she turned to glower at me again, as though it were my fault. I halfway expected to find her waiting outside to cut me.

Now I'm not claiming that this would never happen in my hometown. Certainly it could. But I never saw it. Here, inappropriate public discipline is as much a part of going to the store as long lines and high prices.

Working in health care gave my first taste of how different people are here from down home. When I worked in Tennessee, there was once a patient whose family was apparently tired of taking care of their invalid mother. So they wouldn't have to deal with her at Christmas, they brought her into the ER with some bogus complaint and disappeared. It was such a sad and unexpected thing that it was the talk of the whole hospital. My first winter in Michigan, I learned the phenomenon is so common that it has a name (granny dumping) and that ERs usually staff to accomodate for it around the holidays. In Tennessee, when you met doctors and nurses who were hardened and insensitive to the suffering of their patients or too blatantly lazy to give them adequare care, it was striking enough that you remembered every inappropriate thing they said or did. Here I've worked in hospitals where the majority of the staff behaved this way.

It's hard to talk about this kind of thing with natives, because I'm sure it sounds like I'm saying that everyone here is an asshole. Obviously that's not true. I have had great friends here, lovers too. There have been many people I was glad to know. But if I'm honest, there seem to be a lot more people I'd rather avoid here. Generally folks tend to be less friendly and harder to meet. If they open up to you right away, they usually turn out to be a nutcase like my coworker Lo who, apropos of nothing, took me on a journey through TMI-land discussing her history of threesomes the other day.

Being one of the two or three openly gay people in my high school could actually be dangerous. I wasn't out, in fact I was terrified of being discovered, but I was still assaulted by a group of classmates for nothing more than being out on a drive with my boyfriend. I belonged to the first gay and lesbian student group ever formed at my university in the mid-eighties. Most people were afraid to give out their real names. I came here because I was tired of waiting on Elizabethton to catch up with the rest of the world. I needed a place where gay people were more accepted or at least less persecuted. But sometimes I feel profoundly displaced, and I seemed to have traded rampant homophobia for general incivility, which hardly seems like a good deal.

Music: Big Bud-Infinity
Mooc: Cynical