Tuesday, October 21, 2008

States of Mind

Crazy Life - Toad the Wet Sprocket (mp3)
One Thing Leads to Another - The Fixx (mp3)

A: Protestant churches, gas stations, African-Americans.
Q: What's the difference between the Northwest and the South?

Over the course of our 9-day drive up the northwestern coast of the US, my wife and I couldn't help but notice the vast differences between the area where we have lived out our 35+ years and this newly-discovered land known as "California," "Oregon," and "Washington."

Some of the differences are powerfully obvious. Landscape, for instance. The Pacific Ocean, more often than not, rages well below the level of human activity, as US 101 and Highway 1 soar hundreds of feet above the beaches, crags, and waves below. This is apparently what happens when your shores have been assaulted repeatedly by tsunamis over the centuries.

[Side Note: Because we're strangers in this West Coast land, we found these signs very, very funny. Mostly because we were under the impression that if the tsunami's that fucking close to your ass, there's really not much point in running unless you're Jesus or The Flash. But hey, it makes for a memorable sign.]

Other differences were less obvious but still salient to the attentive Southerner. Particularly, the ones above stuck with us time and again.

Where have all the WASPs gone?
Jenni noticed this the first day we journeyed through San Francisco, that churches weren't much a part of the scenery. The ones we managed to spot were either Catholic or LDS. No Baptists, no Methodists, no Presbyterians.

Once we approached Oregon, beyond the dreadlock-controlled region of Arcata, we began to spot the occasional run-down Baptist shacks and the occasional Methodist or Episcopal church. After seeing so many dilapidated churches, we were forced to ask ourselves a startling question: What's more suspect, a place where all the churches look like the homes of struggling snake-oil salesmen, or a place where most of them look like modern-day castles?

Who's that dude at my car window?
Get this. In Oregon, you can't pump your own gas. Seriously. A station attendant has to pump it for you. Apparently there are people on the West Coast who, if provided the opportunity to pump their own gas, might accidentally blow up their car or the whole dadgum place. Or worse, they might spill some.

If this is Oregon's solution for gas drive-offs, it's gotta be one of the least cost-efficient solutions I've ever seen... No wait, that's an exaggeration. It's just very inefficient.

Even more odd, gas is kind of difficult to find on the Northwest coast. In the South, you can't hardly get past a single exit without passing three or four gas stations, most of which now come with built-in fast food restaurants. On US 101, gas stations are rarer than conservatives. Everytime we dipped below a quarter tank, we started nervously looking around, knowing that if we didn't stop at our next opportunity, we were taking our chances.

Add Chinatown, Subtract Black
No way to make this observation subtle. The Northwestern US ain't got no black people. Sure, you can find this out by looking at census numbers, which is exactly what I did tonight before making this claim. But you'd have to be blind and deaf to be a Southerner traveling the Northwest and not notice that there's just not much color in the crowd.

On multiple occasions, we'd be sitting in a tourist trap restaurant or walking down a very crowded street in San Francisco, and you could count the number of African-Americans on one hand. As in, fewer than five out of several hundred. The only time during our entire trip that I could see with my naked eye more than a dozen black people in one place was at the airport, when we were flying back from Seattle to Atlanta.

Tennessee is relatively low, compared to Georgia or South Carolina, when it comes to our black population, but at 12+%, we're still more than double that of California (and trust me, it's more extreme in Northern Cali), quadruple that of Washington, and sextuple that of Oregon, which has to be the whitest damn place I've ever been.

What really bothers me about this realization is this: it's people from states like California and Washington that look at the South and claim that we're not very "diverse." Apparently this means that substituting a huge chunk of your African-American population and replacing it with an Asian-American population of slightly smaller proportions makes you diverse.

We're diverse, dammit. The South is diverse. We're just also vastly under-educated and burdened with prejudices at levels that don't want to ebb very quickly.

It's far too complex for my feeble Southern mind, but I honestly suspect that if you simply tracked what these three cultural differences made in a region, you could come up with a pretty fascinating theory on why all three West Coast states are leaning Obama in the upcoming election while every state in the South save for Florida is leaning McCain. Between the gas stations, the churches and the "diversity," I suspect the answer's in there somewhere.

"Crazy Life" is from Toad's fifth and final album, Coil. "One Thing..." is from the Fixx's second album, Reach the Beach, although I can't quite imagine why you'd buy that whole album. Both are available online at iTunes or Amazon.com. I think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Billy (and Bob, for that matter),

I want to respond to your excellent post but don't have time and would rather just talk with you about your trip so here's an invite for a beer at my place anytime soon you can manage it.