By Richard Lutz.
South Carolina, snuggled between Georgia and North Carolina, has to be most polite state in America. It’s all ‘Yessir, can I help you. and ‘Thank you Ma’am for coming into my shop/. My gas station/ my life…’
It’s a place with a great sense of place. The first state to secede from the Union 150 years ago; a state that still flies the rebel flag over its capital in the tiny city of Columbia; and, one of the primary states to rebel against the power of the British Empire in the 1770’s.
But beneath the calm and the courtesy and the weight of history runs a deeper vein. Steve, a retired lawyer from Pittsburgh, tells me: ‘There’s a saying here when a Northerner questions too many entrenched values. They say: ‘Friend, there’s a Delta flight leaving here every morning for the north.’
The attitude is if you don’t like it, start heading for the Mason Dixon line and keep moving. The South and this state will not die – and will stick to its values on education, race,politics and the military which houses many if its massive bases here and feeds off the young unemployed for its voluntary enlistments that keep recruitment figures up.
You have to accept other things too: guns and religion.
First of all, you can’t move for churches: Dutch Fork Baptist, Fire Baptized Holiness Church or the Tabernacle Christian Church are just a trip that pop up on a short run in the car.
And you can’t really ignore the crazy American obsession with weaponry. I head into the mall cinema to see The Source Code. Right next to the ticket booth is a sign:: ‘No concealed weapons inside.’
Wait a minute. Does that mean it is OK to carry an UNCONCEALED weapon inside? I mean, can I walk in, buy my popcorn at the stand and then shoulder my Uzi as I cuddle down into a mega seat for the main feature?
Can I publicly brandish my Gloch as I take the kids to see a Harry Potter blockbuster? Is that OK?
Or, more legitimately, does it really mean that there have been so many crazy escapades with illegal guns inside South Carolina moviehouses that there is a real need to remind folks that no shoot outs will be allowed once the main feature begins?
But, despite this ominous undertone, the friendliness and courtesy remain.
We head for Charleston, a beautifully kept historic city on the coast. We sit down to eat. A voice from the next table seems to be launched in our direction, a real slow southern voice: ‘Y’all like arr hushpuppies?’ it asks.
I realise it’s directed at us. Our hushpuppies? What’s this voice talking about- shoes?
‘Ya’ll like arr hushpuppies?’
The voice repeats. I look over. A smiling man and his wife are expectant.
The hushpuppy is a fried doughball, akin to a bhaji without the onion or the taste. It is pegged on to his fork and he is offering us a bite.
‘Sir, y’all beddah try one of my hushpuppies. Darn proud of them heah.’ He plunks this fried piece of friedness on my plate. His wife smiles on benignly, expectantly.
‘Very kind of you’ and I swallow it and thank him, the restaurant, the chef, the great state of South Carolina and every gun toting movie goer in Charleston.
Later Terry, whom I am staying with on her lakeside home, explains: ‘No matter what anyone says, there is no such thing as Southern cooking.
There’s hospitality, for sure, but food down here is drowning in fat and batter or smothered in wadges of gravy. Stick with MacDonalds or pizza or
KFC- now, that’s real southern food, food that folks around here actually eat.’
One reason may be that South Carolina is poor by American standards and the fast food world is the cheapest way to eat. But in a state that is so lush, so fertile and so full of rich farmland, it seems ludicrous that the people here are not simply living off the land, plucking fruit from trees, reaping rice from the marshy Low Country area of the state or harvesting watermelons from the loamy green farmlands that slowly roll up to the Appalachian foothills.
But none of these issues- religion, guns food, race- is on the public agenda in the bars or malls of South Carolina these days.
If there is one hot button debate though, it is written large and bold on every street in the shape of the price of fuel for the car. There in big letters at the gas stations are the bottom line numbers: a gallon of the stuff costs $3.70.
But back in June 2010, less than a year ago, it was $2.70. Americans, and the good folk of South Carolina, are paying a buck more per gallon since last summer.
And for Mr Obama, in a country that loves its cars, that could spell votes. You just don’t get in the way of an American and his vehicle.