The contractors here, born Alabamians, call me Miss Jean. They refer to my brother-in-law as Mr. Danny. Beyond paperwork, surnames are ignored, as if they are only a nuisance, something that gets in the way. They also use “Ma’am” and “Sir” for punctuation, a habit I’ve already picked up, courtesy being contagious.
The women here are even more tender. They employ all sorts of endearments: Hon, Baby, Sugar, Darlin. The first time I ordered a sandwich at the local Subway, the girl behind the counter buckled my knees with kindness. The fact that she was brutally overweight and not blessed with movie star beauty made her benevolence all the more touching. People here understand, are born knowing, that civility is a form of wealth—the most important form—and the poorest among them can be rich beyond measure.
My wife and I moved to coastal Alabama six weeks ago. Many of our Napa friends worried about how we would fare in a red state, particularly as a couple. Well, it appears that a pair of gray-haired lesbians is not sufficient cause for alarm. Folks greet us as we greet them, with smiles and handshakes. There could of course be more to it. Maybe Cindy has gained standing by way of her new John Deere mower, the Ford Ranger she drives, or the shop she is having built. Maybe they like my plantings, the shutters we’ve put up, the well we’re having dug. Our neighbors seem to respect these things, practicality being the benchmark of worth in the deep South.
You don’t see many Jaguars or BMWs here. You see a lot of trucks, tractors and ATVs. The men driving these vehicles know how to fix them; they know how to fix and build all sorts of things. This is such a DIY kind of place that it’s difficult to find a handyman you can actually hire. Forget about consulting Yelp or Angie’s List—most folks here express themselves in person.
Laborers move with deliberation, keeping pace with the temperature, and “soon” is a term you learn not to heed. Take a deep breath and know you will not be forgotten. A promise is a promise.
Municipal matters in Alabama are not handled in deadbolt fashion. Clerks are merciful and will often bend the rules a bit to accommodate citizens in a bind. If you are a California transplant, this clemency, when you first encounter it, will undo you.
There are plenty of places I drive right past, things that don’t pertain to me, like churches, gun stores, pawn shops. There is no shortage of enterprise here, and no shame if these ventures fail. People just toss the dice again and hope for a win; maybe a skating rink next time, a cupcake stand.
Utilities, products, services—most everything is cheaper in Alabama. I don’t know if this is because merchants don’t realize they can charge more or if they actually care more about people than profits. There is an expectation of decency in the south, a collective innocence that shames me a little.
You see quite a few emergency clinics here (all the DIYers?), but I have yet to spot a plastic surgery center. Women are easier on themselves here, as if they are loved without condition, or at least feel that way. For women especially, the south is a good place to grow old in.
I think the region itself enlarges this feeling of ease: the spacious yards, the endless lawns, the smooth straight roads, the long hot days. Land and water for miles and miles, all you could ever want. Coming from California, where the landscape is chronically imperiled by drought and fire, I am stunned by the green abundance of coastal Alabama, the toads, and turtles and tadpoles, the squadrons of dragonflies and pelicans. And fireflies! Those beacons of my youth, lighting the night woods, assuring me that all is not lost.
I won’t tell you that the humidity is not oppressive, or that I wouldn’t mind a few more libraries, a few less gun shops. What wounds me most is the careless damage: the plastic bags stuck in roadside shrubs, cigarette butts on a trail to the beach. You don’t know what you have, I think, snatching up litter on my evening walk. You have no idea the trouble we’re in.
What is there to do but help, to try and make better whatever place you call home? There is no curbside recycling here, but you can find salvage bins near grocery stores and city offices. Rather than throwing everything into my single gigantic waste receptacle, I am separating the cans and glass and plastics and loading them into my car, teaching, I hope, by example, the way I am being taught the ways of southern kindness. It’s not much to pay for a brand new life, for fireflies and box turtles and the pleasure of being called Miss Jean.