You Know You’re in the South When…

…everyone, literally everyone, says “y’all”

…I have yet to open a door for myself

…I’ve only worn a jacket once this summer, and only because it was pouring out

…”I used to smoke” is followed by, “but now I just smoke this electronic cigarette.”

…when someone says “my baby,” they’re probably talking about their motorcycle

…when asked what was wrong with the radio station you were complaining about, it’s not safe to reply “It was too… Republican.” Even if it is kind of a joke.

…the fried chicken is the best you’ve ever tasted

…there are 5 choices of Christian Rock radio stations to listen to

…the Panda Express at the mall has stopped trying completely and doesn’t even offer chopsticks

…you keep getting called a “Yankee” 

…schools do a great job covering the Civil War (Literally, these people know the names of more war heroes than my grandparents do)

 

Horror Story

Akash and I are in the car, driving home from Richmond. We’re about halfway home, and we decide it’s a good time to stop at a gas station, switch drivers, and look for a restroom. When we departed Richmond around 7PM it was light out, but now, an hour later, the sky is dark. I continue to focus on the road while Akash takes the GPS and looks for a gas station. Citgo, he says, is just four miles ahead.

We take the exit, drive down the road a bit, and pull into the Citgo. The parking lot is well-lit, but I’m surprised to see so many cars here at this hour. It feels a little strange, but I need to pee, so I don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Akash and I go to the front door and look inside. This is the smallest gas station store I’ve ever seen. There’s a desk with candy bars and magazines lined up in front of it, and cigarettes behind, but other than that there isn’t room for much else. I don’t see a bathroom, but I figure it could be behind the desk. The posted hours claim that the place is open until eleven, but when we try the door, it doesn’t open.

We move onto the next door over. A sign that I hadn’t noticed before reads, “Internet Cafe,” and as we approach, we see that inside are rows of computers. There are a good number of people here, none of whom seem to notice us staring in through the door. A printed paper states the rules. You must be 18 to enter. You must not wear a hooded sweatshirt. Violence and weapons are not allowed.

“What is this place?” I ask, peering in for a closer look. The computer screens are all on, displaying various games. “Are they gambling? Is this a gambling place?”

“I don’t know,” Akash replies. He paces from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable. I’m about to suggest that we go in and ask for a bathroom, when Akash says, “I think we should leave.”

Suddenly I’m just as uncomfortable as he is. We head back to the car, and I notice what was making the parking lot so eerie. The cars are all parked at pumps, but no people are around filling up their tanks. The familiar price displays look ghostly without any numbers. I look around the corner and see a grill and some other trash. This is clearly not a gas station. Akash and I climb aboard the car and decide that we’ll get back on the highway and stop the next time a real rest stop is advertised.

DSC_0730 DSC_0731

We get back on the road and pass a sign that says “Silver alert, call 511.” In an adventurous spirit, I decide to call, thinking that I’ll be informed about the traffic on the other side of the state, or that construction somewhere will be starting in a couple of days. I make the call, and the tape starts rolling. I listen in silence, unable to take my phone away from my ear. I hang up.

“I would’ve put it on speaker, but I didn’t want to miss anything. There’s a man, diagnosed with dementia, who has gone missing. He’s twenty-four, wearing a white shirt and blue jeans. He has brown hair and green eyes, and is driving a Volvo. Last seen in Roxbury.”

Akash puts his hand to his mouth. “Twenty-four?”

We decide that this is by far the strangest evening the two of us have had yet. If our lives were a TV show, this would be CSI. Now, how could these events be joined together? Clearly, the first place we stopped had to be a drug front or something. Or the meeting place of a secret society. It wouldn’t come back into play until the end of the episode, when its connection to the missing man would become apparent.

“What if, just driving down the high way, we saw a man walking. White t-shirt. Blue jeans. Appearing to be around, say, 24?”

I cover my eyes. “That would be so scary. What would we do?” We continue playing with the idea for awhile, our story becoming more and more complicated. I wonder how on earth I will ever be able to fall asleep tonight. It’s funny how comfortable we are with scary situations when they happen in movies or on TV, but when it’s real life, I’d like to stay as far away as possible.

What if Everything I Thought I Knew is Wrong?

Yesterday:

Sitting in starbucks, sipping my hot chocolate, and working on t-shirts for Amphibious Achievement –this is how I spend pretty much every evening. Today I decide to spice things up by chatting with the guy sitting beside me. We’re chatting about what brings each of us to Starbucks and what we’re working on, and he mentions that he’s planning on majoring in either English or Business. Because I have no idea what my future plans are and am therefore infatuated with the way people respond to questions regarding the future, I ask what he’s planning on doing after he graduates.

“Well, I’m working in a coffee shop right now, and it would be cool to open up my own coffee shop some day. I also like working on cars, so I’m thinking of buying cars, fixing ’em up, and selling them again.”

“Hmm,” I reply, “It doesn’t sound like you need an English degree to do either of those things.”

“No,” he says, smiling. He continues, “but I really like reading and writing. I might like to be a writer.”

I take a risk and say, “You know, David Sedaris was a meth addict before he became a famous writer. So I guess it doesn’t really matter what you do.”

He laughs, and I do an internal fist pump that he didn’t just get very offended.

 

Monday:

Sitting in the conference room at work. Jerry*, one of the technicians at work, stops in holding a 1973 yearbook as well as a photo album.

“I forgot last week, but today I remembered to get it before I left home.”

He leafs through the photo album, showing me pictures from his past. There’s a few pictures of his family, but most are yellowing newspaper clippings of high-school and college basketball games. He opens up his yearbook and challenges me to find him in the picture of the basketball team. He shows me his school picture, describing his hairstyle as a “TWA – a Teenie Weenie Afro.” I look at him – you can almost see the memories he’s reliving looking at these pictures.

“I wasn’t much into clubs or anything extra in high school. Just basketball. College was the same. That’s actually the reason I went to college – a basketball scholarship.”

Before heading out to continue with his work, Jerry reminds me, as he does every day, to make sure I’m focusing on grades, not boys, while I’m at school. “Boys can wait, Nicole, but grades…? School is important. Don’t get distracted by any boys.”

 

Tonight:

If there’s one thing that’s different about the South, it’s where priorities lie. Growing up, social rank was either determined by how much money your parents had or by how smart you were. Those that were not gifted in either sense were generally on the low end of the popularity totem pole. Here, neither of those things seem to be stressed. Based on looks, it’s clear that people want to be pretty. Based on conversations, people want to grow up and have families. “Single life” isn’t a thing – at least not a widely-discussed one, and aspirations beyond working on cars or at Starbucks are not commonplace. People want to be happy, but what even is that? When I first arrived here I thought that there was no way to be happy unless you went to college, followed your dream career, and made enough money to live a comfortable life in New York City. Now I’m seeing that there is a whole new way to define success and happiness.

Jerry is the only technician I’ve met at work met who went to college. How did he end up, after four years of additional schooling, in a profession where every single one of his coworkers started straight out of high school? Maybe he didn’t complete college. Maybe basketball took all of his time and he didn’t major in something that made it easy to find a job after graduation.

Or maybe he just had bigger things on his mind – a wife, a family, a way to support them – than finding the perfect career?

How strange.

Now I’m wondering about Brad, our Starbucks friend. He’s been in school for awhile, still doesn’t really know what to major in, but has a clear picture of what he likes and dislikes and where he sees himself in the future. Is an English or Business degree really going to help him? If he wants to be a writer, he needs practice writing. If he wants to open a coffee shop, he needs lots of time and the ability to balance a budget. If he needs college to learn how to do those things, then that’s fine, but let’s be honest: we learned grammar in 5th grade and arithmetic in 1st.

In my world at MIT, everything I do, especially for Amphibious Achievement, centers around the mantra that going to college is the end-all in terms of success. But what if it isn’t? What if some people would be better off without it? My initial thought is that if everyone went to college than we as a society would be more educated and would be able to make better decisions. But what if it doesn’t take schooling for some people to contribute to society? What if it’s holding some people back from pursuing something worthwhile?

9 Moments That Brought Me Through the Doors of the Baptist Church

one.

I’m talking to my mom on the phone. We’re catching up on life, and she asks if I’ve been going to church. “No,” I respond, as if it should be obvious. “You know,” she replies, “You should go to a Baptist church or something. Just to see what it’s like.” I’m inspired by the idea, “Yeah. It would be cool to see the real thing. A real Baptist church in the real South. And it’s not like I’ll ever have the opportunity to do this again.” My mom laughs.

two.

Akash and I are riding home from the beach on Saturday evening. As the only other intern staying near enough to carpool, he has become not only my driving buddy, but also my exploration buddy. I mention one day on the ride home from work that although I don’t frequent places of worship, I’m thinking of going to see a Baptist church, because, you know, it doesn’t get much more authentic than here in the south. I’m only mildly surprised when Akash expresses interest in joining me, and we make plans to meet the next morning dressed to impress.

three.

I pick up Akash at 10AM on Sunday morning. The past night we looked up multiple churches to explore. It was hard to decide where we might find the most authentic experience, but we settled on the First Baptist Church of Durham. We plug the address into the gps and head out.

four.

We’re about 20 minutes into our half-hour journey, when the surroundings start changing. Paint is flaking off buildings, closed businesses encourage people to stay away with bars and metal grating outside of windows. Akash and I snap some photos through the car windows. Feeling a little unsafe, I start wondering if it was a good idea for us to come here in the first place.

ImageImage

five.

We pull up to the church. From the outside it looks pretty, but inside, it’s even better. The air conditioning hits us as we step inside, and we are immediately greeted by three or four people. They hand us goodie bags full of glossy pamphlets. “Are you two new here? These will tell you all about all the programs we offer.” Two more people stop to introduce themselves as we make our way to our seats, and at the third offer of coffee we decide to partake. We head through some doors at the front of the church and enter into a huge room with large tables and comfy chairs and a beautiful view of the parking lot. As we sit down, we decide to keep track of the number of people we see who aren’t white. We’re at three when an announcement is made the the service will be starting soon, and we head back to our seats.

ImageImagefo

six.

The service starts. As more people file in, our count raises from three to eight. We’re both amazed as the lyrics to the songs all come up on huge projectors at the front of the room. The songs end and the main preacher begins speaking into his hands-free wireless microphone. The topic of the day is suffering, and this preacher talks about splitting suffering into two ‘umbrellas’: one type of suffering affects everyone, while some types of suffering only affect Christians. His shirt and jacket combo look pretty dapper and as I listen I wonder – if this is his full-time job, how much is he making?

seven.

Several mentions are made of the suffering experienced by the families this church has sent abroad on mission trips. Eastern Asia is apparently a popular place to be, and noted many times are lack of air conditioning and normal toilets. I can’t help but wonder why so much emphasis is placed on international aid, when it is clear that there is substantial need nearby. I’m reminded of the spring break I spent in New Orleans and how as a group, my friends and I would walk from our weeklong home on Magazine Street to the KIPP Central City school in one of the roughest neighborhoods of NOLA. I recall how interesting it was that such a stark difference could occur in communities that were so close to each other in proximity. I wonder how many of the people from the nearby community come to this church, and how long the drive is for the rest of the attendees.

eight.

The service ends, and we are reminded that since it is the first Sunday of the month, there will be no evening worship today. We are invited to “invite a friend over for dinner,” or “just relax.”  I’m impressed with the amount of time the people around me put into going to church. The woman sitting in front of us points out the other college-age attendees and recommends that we meet them. If I hadn’t just sat through an hour and a half of picking through bible verses word by word, I might have had more energy for that sort of thing, but Akash and I are running low on stamina so we head out.

nine.

I’m home, and telling my friend on the phone about my experience. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at the way the service went. People were extremely friendly – eager to welcome us. I was expecting some mention of the recent DOMA stuff that had happened, but the preacher stayed true to his topic and only discussed suffering. In fact, there weren’t too many directions given about how we should live our everyday lives, other than remembering that everything we have is a gift. Not too shabby of a take-away message, I think.

My Addictions

My Addictions

Currently two things are ruling my life that have never seemed to have any influence on me before. These are tv shows and chocolate. I’ve probably spent at least $15 in the past 2 weeks on various selections of Lindt truffles and chocolate bars. And I can’t stop. But something has a tighter hold on my than chocolate, and it’s Greek, the trashy, stupid tv show about a made up college and made up sororities and fraternities. I can’t go more than a day without watching an episode, and most evenings I don’t call it a night without watching at least 3.

I’ll spend 2 or 3 hours downloading episodes at Starbucks every day, then I’ll go home and spend another 2 or 3 hours watching them.

I don’t know what to do about this. I’ve never enjoyed anything on a TV screen other than the occasional spongebob or Phineas and Ferb, and this is definitely not in the same category as those.

I guess for now I’ll just enjoy the fact that I have time to spend hours watching tv.

Cigarettes, Motorcycles, and Tattoos

These three things seem to be following me everywhere I go. Everyone at work talks about their motorcycles, the people at the pool have tattoos everywhere, and when I sit in Starbucks to do work, the most common conversation that I hear is someone bitching to the barista about the new rule banning smoking within 25 feet of the store. The weirdest thing for me is that I’ve been raised to avoid all of these things, and now I’m surrounded by them and by people who think they’re okay.  

I was sitting at starbucks, doing my daily tv-show downloading, when I heard the conversation again. The Barista said to a customer, “Hey, I don’t know if you heard, but we’ve got a new rule that you can’t smoke outside within 25 feet of any starbucks.” The man looked surprised, and the Barista continued, “I hate that I have to enforce it. I mean, I smoke too, and it’s just really annoying. It would be one thing if this was like California or something, but people here smoke. For the community that we’re in, this is just pissing off the customers.” 

What struck me was that the barista didn’t like the rule. He was …proud? of being a smoker? What? He was defending his community? of smokers? Now I’m sitting there, just really confused about how this could be possible. I let it sink in for a minute, and I guess I kind of agree with this guy. It is kind of rude of Starbucks as a company to think that everyone wants the same thing. They’re trying to make a statement by enforcing this rule, but it’s also kind of an insult to people, like the people here, who like to have a smoke with their coffee. I still think smoking is stupid. And I still don’t like breathing in second hand smoke. But it’s weird to me that I’m in the minority here. I held my breath as I left, passing the same customer from before standing exactly 25 feet away from the door, cigarette in hand. 

Welcome to Walmart City

It’s day 1, and I’m determined to make myself dinner. After struggling with the idea for a good 30 minutes, I resolve to make the trek to Walmart to get a bottle of stir fry sauce, since stir fry is pretty much the only thing I know how to cook. I make myself a nice little list that includes honey for the oatmeal I’ll make myself tomorrow morning and lemons for the cute ice cubes I want to make. Feeling like a winner, I text my friend, “You can go ahead and start calling me Rachel Ray,” and head to the store.

I see the sign for Walmart, and drive until the huge blue sign appears behind a vast parking lot. I think to myself that the store in itself could be its own city. I walk in and head to the grocery section of town, and quickly locate my stir fry sauce and lemons. I wander around a bit more, but I’m becoming increasingly frustrated as it takes longer and longer to find the honey. At least three times I’ve passed the same two girls who seem to be having a casual conversation at the intersection of women’s clothes and groceries, and who are in no apparent hurry to get anything done today.

I still can’t find the honey. It’s not with the peanut butter, and it’s not classified as an ice cream topping. It isn’t a dessert or a baking item, and the deli worker I ask for help leads me in the complete wrong direction. After searching the aisles to try and find a worker and contemplating the number of minutes it would take for someone to find me if I was to sit and cry in the baby clothes section, I make my way to the pharmacy section to ask the woman behind the counter for help.

At the last minute, I decide not to use the southern accent I’ve been practicing, but still use words that sound weird coming from my mouth in an attempt to sound a little more local.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I start off, “but I’m looking for honey and I can’t seem to find it anywhere.”

The woman looks completely bewildered for a good minute, before realizing that no, I am not asking her opinion on painkillers or where I can find the Pepto-Bismol. She thinks for a minute, and then points me in the direction of the coffee and tea.  I walk over, and in this city-like store where there is an entire aisle just for peanut butter, I find one dinky bear of honey. One.

Are you serious?

I almost ask it out loud, but catch myself. I don’t want people to find out I’m crazy this early on. I grab the honey and trudge down the aisle, balancing my bag of lemons on my arm. Why didn’t I think to grab a cart? Down the aisle, I find the rest of the honey and trade in my bear for a cheaper one.

The next thing on my list is something to read in my absence of wifi, and I make the mistake of thinking that Walmart might be able to help me out. Thinking there might be an area in this giant city with some magazines, I head to the front of the store and ask a woman at the front.

“Do you know if you’ve got Time?” I ask. The woman laughs. “I really doubt it.” Embarrassed for asking, I head to the front and settle for a Cosmo. On my way out of the store, I pass the optometrist, the walk-in clinic, the nail salon, and the bank, realizing that this one store has more businesses than the entire downtown of some towns.

I had always thought of Walmart as a kind of land of milk and honey, but today they really disappointed me. I guess at least they have a lot of milk…