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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Pickles and Peanuts

Melina's diary

The first few days here in Jackson have been eventful. We have had lots of orienting-type activities. They got off to an excellent start Wednesday night, when my boss in the history department took all of the interns, the fellows, and the Institute's president to what he thought would be a fun, campy 70's movie, called "Revenge of the Cheerleaders." Well. It turned out to be one of THOSE seventies movies. The cheerleaders were naked before the end of the opening credits, and within another 10 minutes, so were their boyfriends (at the ice-cream store) and their down-the-street rivals (in the gym). We all just sat there, not particularly offended but sort of wondering if we were getting hazed, until my boss couldn't take it anymore and hustled us out of there, embarassed beyond embarassed.

Our office is very informal in other ways as well. The president's daughter keeps wandering in ("Daddy!" she hollers) as do his two parents who can't be a day under 80 but still happily drive around, harass their son, introduce themselves to interns and try to persuade people to come out to the lake with them and go fishing. The president himself is an almost unflappable micro-manager, who likes to tell the same shaggy dog stories over and over again to see if he can get you to flip out. His charisma and dedication, and in fact this same ability to retell the same stories again and again (for potential donors or potential employees), are what has allowed him to build the entire institute from scratch. His personal magnetism is phenomenal. The entire institute revolves around him like he was his own gravity-producing body; like he was the sun.

The second day, we went on a tour of downtown Jackson and were forced to eat boiled peanuts as sort of a local experience. Not my thing but some folks liked them. The vendor stuffed a quart-size plastic bag totally full of them and then put the whole mess in a paper bag where we threw the gooey shards of shell. Obviously, this broke within five minutes and grody peanuts started rolling all over the Institute's van. One of the other interns, unwisely, ate a pickle that this same guy sold him (out of a huge jar that had been sitting in the sun all afternoon) and threw up for the entire afternoon. But the peanuts seemed to be okay.

The pickle/peanut vendor was a riot, actually. We told him the name of the institute that we worked for, which identified us as Jews. "Ohh!" he exclaimed. "Y'all are so funny. Do you ever watch that Seinfeld? I think he's just so funny. Do y'all know any of them Seinfeld jokes?" He gave us free strawberry smoothie samples but we could not come up with any good Jew jokes for him.

Downtown Jackson is bizarre. It's totally gutted, sprawling; there are a few big banks and corporation headquarters, but no people walking around outside, nowhere to eat, no shops. It's that typical situation where everything has left. Even desegregation itself has contributed to this - areas that until 40 years ago were compact, thriving African-American business and culture and music districts are now
ghostly, burned-out, abandoned buildings for block after block -- as upwardly mobile people, both black and white, have deserted the city for the suburbs and outlying neighborhoods. The mayor's office has finally realized that this is totally unacceptable and is trying to revive the area (or as my guide more cynically put it, "convince white people that it's safe to be downtown at night.") As a result, the worst and most bombed out of these streets (albeit the most "historic") has just received a new gorgeous cobblestone paving job, and supposedly the mayor has contracted with some businesses to give it a go down there. But nothing is there yet but the paving. It's both hopeful and creepy to see drive down the blocks and blocks of chi-chi terra-cotta streets, with 40-year-old dead hulks of restaurants and
blues clubs on each side.

I tried to go out today and get a tour book but (apparently for the second time that week) a construction worker had driven a bulldozer right into a power line and the power at the bookstore was off (fire trucks everywhere). They said to try again this afternoon. I also stumbled across the state high school rodeo championships being held at the state fair grounds this evening, which I am definitely planning to go back and see. There were all these 10 year olds practicing their lassos when I went by and a pen of goats off to the side. I even stopped by the farmers market and I got about 10 cucumbers for a dollar.

For your education, here is from the "Jackson Survival Guide, 2005" the historian wrote up for us:
"So you've moved to Jackson, Mississippi. I'm sure your friends and parents are amazed and maybe a little scared. Maybe you are too. But have no fear, Jackson is a fascinating and increasingly vibrant place. All that Jackson needs is more people like yourself. So as a Jackson resident, let me thank you for your presence.

"A few things to note about the culture here: it's very Christian and very polite. Most everyone goes to church on Sunday morning (and Wednesday evenings for some reason). If you go to one of the few restaurants that are open on Sundays, you will feel like a pagan in your shorts and t-shirts. Everyone else will be in their church
clothes. People may ask you, "what church do you go to." I always say 'Beth Israel,' which is an entirely acceptable answer....

"Total strangers will talk to you in public here. After a while, you'll be doing it too. I know this may take some of you cynical Yankees aback, but it really is one of the best things about the South. People are VERY polite. I probably say "thank you so very much" at least twice a day... Sure, there is a fake element to this. (I think it was Hodding Carter who said, 'people in Mississippi are friendly, until they try to kill you!") But it does create a friendly feel to the city.

"Food: What can you eat here? Regarding food, the southern motto seems to be, "we'll fry anything." From the obvious chicken and catfish, to the not so obvious pickles, green tomatoes, and even (God help us) Twinkies, southerners love to dip food into burning hot vats of oil. Much of it is quite good, if not quite good for you. Another peculiarly southern foodway is reverence for the pig. Pork is king. Barbeque is pork here. They'll put pork in most anything. 'Vegetables' often have pork in them. If you're at a restaurant ordering southern-style vegetables, you may want to ask if they are cooked with pork. (You might also want to go for the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. It's up to you.") Eating out in Jackson, you can begin to understand the difficulties our ancestors had keeping kosher in the South. It's still hard...."

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At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Revenge of the Cheerleaders"?! OH NO. I remember that movie, because of a very, very embarassing incident in which I watched it on a date, also NOT REALIZING it was one of "those" types of movies. FYI, don't rent or watch "The Pom Pom Girls" either - same problem. LOL.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger kenju said...

Interesting post, Melina. Welcome and hurry back to write some more.

At 9:19 PM, Blogger Don Ball Carbajal said...


On Monday, I'll be moving my retired mom to Jackson (well, Brandon, actually). It's a place that she nor I have any familiarity with. She's from Peru and lived in Chicago area for the last 40 years, I was raised in Chicago and live in Minneapolis. But, events have landed her there and I'm wondering just what kind of place it is. I've heard about the whole bible-belt thing. Jews in Jackson? That's encouraging. I also take heart that New Orleans is just 2 hours or so away. Anyway, thanks for your post. I'll look for more!



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