By the time we settled in South Carolina I had embraced fully my outsiderness. This is not to say that I didn’t want to make friends; rather, it’s more akin to a deathbed confession (without the death or the bed) that I knew all along that I was getting attention for being the smart, funny, eccentric, alien kid. And I was indeed an alien in Boiling Springs, South Carolina.
Upstate South Carolina today is every bit the salad bowl that The Country Formerly Known As Melting Pot (often abbreviated CFKAMP and written as an unpronouncable symbol) pretends to be. Presumbably this is due to the lavish tax benefits South Carolina offered foreign companies over the last three decades. Regardless, during my recent visit I shopped alongside Asians, Mexicans, Indians, the whole rainbow. I eavesdropped on Spanish-language conversations, which isn’t nearly as sinister as it sounds. After nearly twenty-five years as a Californian, my Spanish lexicon has expanded from the cantina menu to include abierto, cerrado, and los banos. Recently I tried to add the Spanish word for avocado to the list, but accidentally ordered “water cat.” My Hispanic shopping colleagues’ conversations were safe from my prying ears. I was just pleased to hear a foreign tongue.
When I left South Carolina twenty-five years ago, westbound in a Cordoba equipped with neither air conditioning nor Corinthian leather, the FM radio options were rock, country, and Jesus. Today terrestrial radio in the Upstate is an aural cornucopia: bluegrass, traditional country, and whatever you call what Taylor Swift does; classic rock, alternative rock, blues, and metal; oldies, indies, beach music; news, talk, and screaming. And Jesus.
What stopped me cold on my trip around the FM dial was the Ranchera station. Mariachis at the foot of the Appalachians? Ranchera music which, like habaneros and menudo (soup and band), is really just a practical joke that our neighbors to the South play on naive white people, is now a radio staple in Boiling Springs, South Carolina.
The Piedmont may be a salad bowl today, but when I stepped into my new fifth grade classroom for the first time thirty-five years ago I was without question the foreigner. There existed two distinct groups of humans at Holden’s Chapel Middle School: White Southerners and Black Southerners. Now there was a third caste: Yankees, population one.
I couldn’t have been more of a misfit. I called carbonated beverages “pop” when the correct taxonomy for these drinks was “Coke,” as in “What kind of Coke would you like?” “I’ll have a 7-Up.” I said “you guys” instead of “y’all.” I could care less about Clemson or the Gamecocks or college sports in general. I’d never eaten grits. My hair was shoulder length, I was rail thin, and my fashion sense ran toward Roach t-shirts with blistered transfers obscuring the brilliant “I’m With Stupid” put down plastered across my birdcage chest. I didn’t belong to New Pisgah or Boiling Springs First Baptist Church.
My most grievous sin was the one I was most familiar with. I was the new kid again, but this time I wasn’t the new kid by a year or two. These kids went back generations. They all seemed to be related in some way, and if they weren’t related they considered each other cousins because their granddaddies were babies together or some such. This was going to be tough. The outlook for line cuts at the twirly slide did not look good.
It wasn’t tough, it was impenetrable. The Civil War ended one hundred years earlier, but no one bothered to tell the fifth graders at Holden’s Chapel. I was a carpet bagger with an Adam-12 lunchbox. So I simply didn’t bother to try to fit in. I slouched like a Sweathog in my back row desk, cracked jokes and passed notes to Sandy, the overly developed girl two rows over. These had to be delivered by Harold, who had the misfortune of sitting between the voluptuous Sandy and me.
I didn’t care too much about my classmates because my sites were always set on the big kids. They had cool hair and cool clothes and turquoise jewelry shaped like pot leaves. They drove Camaros and Torinos and Chevelles with 8-track decks and Hurst shifters. They wore Army jackets and Levi’s.
My sister dated the coolest of them all. His name was Mike, and I was like a little puppy dog whenever he came around. To his credit he always treated me decently, which is saying quite a bit about his character since he was there to make out with my sister and I was the annoying little brother always cock blocking him. Eventually Mike hit on a brilliant idea.
For reasons known only to them, my parents plunked down money for a console stereo. The cabinet was designed to resemble a drop-lid secretary desk that when opened revealed a tuner, turntable and 8-track player. They put it in the finished basement of our new house and forgot about it. The basement had two other redeeming qualities – a couch and privacy – so that’s where Mike and my sister always could be found, eight feet from the hi-fi, wrasslin’ like Ricky Steamboat and the Iron Sheik.
And so Mike, the Zen Master of the Make Out, decided to go with the flow rather than resist it. Instead of arguing with me or physically ejecting me from the basement – potentially angering my sister and cooling her passions – Sensei Mike flowed around the little boulder that was me. One evening he arrived with what looked like a small briefcase.
“What’s in the case?” I asked.
“Jam. You like jam, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I like jam.” I had no idea what the hell I was talking about, but what was I going to say? He was standing there looking cool in his Army jacket and his black t-shirt, hair perfectly feathered.
“Well come on downstairs with us and you can check out mine. You got headphones so that you can crank it up?”
I ran to find my father’s headphones. When I got downstairs Mike had the stereo fired up, his 8-track case opened on the console’s “desk.”
“You like Ted?”
“Yeah, Ted is cool.” No idea who Ted was. Mike shoved Double Live Gonzo! into the tape deck.
“There you go man, enjoy.”
A quick recap is in order. As of that evening my record collection consisted of:
– Elvis soundtracks to GI Blues, Roustabout, and Fun in Acapulco
– John Denver’s Spirit album
– Barry Manilow I, II, Even Now, and Live
– and 45s of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Convoy,” and “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
I was ten years old, wearing off-brand Toughskins, headphones cranked to eleven, and this is what I heard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnMaSLCDxQc. I have no idea how many times I looped back around to Ted’s rap, trying to figure out what exactly he was saying. Even with such a beautiful and direct dedication to select members of his Nashville audience it would be a few more years before I understood what he was singing about.
I spent the rest of the night staring at the blue lights on the stereo, listening to Foghat, Nazareth, Aerosmith, KISS, Alice Cooper, Point Blank, and the Nuge, while Mike and my sister did whatever they were doing. I was in my own little world with my jams.
Not too long after that I gave my oldest sister my Barry Manilow and John Denver albums. I didn’t want to get mellow, so they could get the fuck out of here.