I think Kenny Stabler, the NFL Hall of Fame Oakland Raiders quarterback from Foley, Alabama (which is just north of Gulf Shores), and star for the Crimson Tide in the sixties, coined the phrase “Redneck Riviera”. Or maybe not. The origins of the phrase are obscure. But “Redneck Riviera”, the way Stabler originally meant it, referred to the short stretch of Gulf Coast that Alabama negotiated away from Florida when the state lines were being drawn way back when. Now it seems that the whole northern Gulf Coast claims the moniker–stretching from Ft. Walton in the east to Galveston in Texas, but such an expansion sounds like a chamber of commerce tourist-promotion idea more than anything.
There’s two types of rednecks the phrase describes. The first is the nouveau riche redneck of the South, living in their lily-white suburbs with gargantuan houses on expansive lawns that arrive in their gargantuan black or white SUV’s, or maybe muscle cars, to soak up the salt and sun of the beach. The other is the type redneck that populated the area before it became a tourist mecca. The first type is the redneck the local tourist boards wish to cultivate a relationship with. The second, they’d rather prefer to ignore.
Everyone seems to want some colorful folklore and history to go along with their favorite places to waste time and money, but the Redneck Riviera really hasn’t much to speak of. Not like South Carolina’s Low Country, which has fertile soil and therefore had a thriving antebellum culture, including a specifically black “Gullah” subculture, before the Civil War destroyed it all, scattering its people to the four winds. The idea of the Redneck Riviera stretches back as far as, maybe, the (nineteen) seventies. Before then, the place was mostly ignored because it was mostly useless. To be sure, the few locals qualified as rednecks, just as every other rural Southerner living on land too poor to plantation farm qualified as a redneck, but there were no steady stream of tourists to witness them at the act of being redneck. So far as the world was concerned, they didn’t exist, and don’t even now. None of them are or ever were foolish enough to live on the beach. The tourists headed to the one place they always avoided just whiz past the scrub pines and brush struggling to gain purchase in the sandy clay inland soil where the traditional rednecks live, refusing to acknowledge their kinship with the life and the people they see along the way living in the run-down single wides and two-bedroom brick ranchers with decades-old four-wheel drive pickups parked outside. To the suburban redneck that sits in traffic jams on 280 in Birmingham listening to Nashville’s canned country sound, the sort of redneck that populates the inland is too real to be a redneck of the Riviera.
There can be no way that “Redneck Riviera” refers to the whole Gulf Coast as if such a thing were some monolith culture. Louisiana’s Gulf Coast is hardly a tourist mecca, and its Cajuns might take exception to their characterization as rednecks. Cajuns are not descended from the same stock as white rednecks. Cajuns came from France (by way of Canada). Rednecks came from Ireland/Scotland, a few, maybe from England. Mississippi barely has a Gulf Coast–just enough to float a casino boat in Gulfport. To be sure, Mississippians are rednecks, but are there enough of them on the coast to matter? And Floridians from Destin and Ft. Walton and Pensacola might also disagree as to the characterization. Destin and Ft. Walton are for the beautiful people of Northwest Florida. Pensacola is a Navy base. And, except for some of the inland areas, Florida was settled by people several degrees of separation from rednecks.
Having spent the Labor Day Weekend in Gulf Shores, on part of the original Redneck Riviera, I can vouch that the description is apt, so far as it applies to the tourists that come to visit. Legions of overweight, beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking rednecks descended on the place from points all over this weekend. Some came from as far away as Texas; quite a few from Louisiana; most never left their home state. Which is how Alabamians are. Ever since Frederick came and wiped the beach clean in 1979 and the ensuing building boom meant that Alabama had its own little slice of Florida-type beach resorts, Alabamians that go elsewhere to pickle themselves in the sun are considered snooty traitors, and especially this year, what with gushing oil wells detrimentally impacting the flow of non-native tourist dollars.
The beach down here is thin. Less than fifty yards at its widest. The condos, massive structures ranging from ten to thirty stories high, sit as tight to the water as even the development industry, red in tooth and claw and voraciously devouring everything in sight, could countenance. It appears there are more high-rise structures crowding the Gulf than are in the state’s biggest city of Birmingham. It’s hard to imagine what the beach would look like if all the residents of all the condos spilled out onto the narrow strip of sand at the same time. Sea lion colonies would blush at the overcrowdedness. At any rate, the high-rises stand as a monumental testament to man’s folly. It’s not a matter of if, but when, the sea rises up to flatten them all, again. None of the terrible hurricanes of the mid-aughts directly hit the Redneck Riviera like Frederick, so the damage that did occur during the onslaught was deceivingly slight. One day soon, (one anyway hopes) a Frederick will return to lay bare the folly of sticking nature’s eye with such hideous over-building of overwrought structures.
I hate the beach. I have never understood the compulsion to leave a perfectly miserable stretch of summer in my Birmingham home for the pleasure of intensifying the misery with salty and even more humid and hotter air (hard to imagine it’s possible, but it is) and fine sticky granules of sand invading every crevasse of the human body. The sun relentlessly beats down on the azzure-blue and emerald green of the Gulf and the slightly off-white sand, providing any number of ways to fry the human epidermis into unrecognizable boils and blisters.
My views on the attractiveness of the beach make me something of a pariah, even within my own family. We are at the beach because my wife loves it. She is down there now, enjoying (?) the sun’s relentless sizzle, the sound of the waves lapping on the shore assuredly drowning out the world for her for the moment.
But not everybody thinks I’m bad for hating the beach. As we were waiting an hour last night at some little dive restaurant for a table, a couple of half-drunk middle-aged women from New Orleans sitting at the restaurant bar chatted me up a bit while I was getting the wife another Sauvignon Blanc to replace the one she’d spilled in our daughter’s lap. After I leaned in to place my order to the friendly female barkeep, using a mock French accent to emphasize the “blanc”, just because I’m a smartass that way, the closest of the New Orleanos asked, “So, how did you keep from getting sunburned today? You don’t look to have gotten any sun.” I replied that it was because I didn’t go to the beach. She pressed, “Why didn’t you go to the beach?” I started to explain that I’d had a cold (which was true), but instead just blurted out, “I hate the fucking beach” (which was also true, and more immediately relevant). They both cackled at my honesty.
“So, why are you here?” They asked.
“Because the one that I’m getting the Sauvignon Blanc for loves the beach.”
And then, most remarkably, the one sitting closest to me, said “Isn’t that sweet. What a good guy you are.” She must have been drunk. And horny. Maybe both, I don’t know.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I thought I was a troll or something for hating the beach.”
“But you’re here, just for her. In my book, that makes you one of the good guys.” She answered.
“Wow”, I thought. Either men on average are really toads, or this woman was really desperate to find something good in me.
The women were gone by the time I returned for the next round, but I’ll carry around with me for a while the idea that hating the beach but doing it anyway is an act of love for which my wife should be appreciative, even if I’m pretty sure she doesn’t see it that way.
There is no oil or tar or slimy pelicans or bloated brown fish washing up on the shore down here. There’s really no clue to the blow-out oil well having spewed oil for so long into the Gulf. Man insults, nature recovers. It’s happened with the oil spill. It’ll eventually happen again with the high-rise condo’s.
The only outward evidence that spilled oil had actually washed ashore at some time in the past were the signs instructing people to “protect our pool” by washing oil and tar off the feet before entering the water. “Protect our pool”? Really? Like a swimming pool is some sort of endangered wetland that warrants intervention and protection, preferably, I’m sure, in the form of federal dollars flowing straight from the treasury to the Gulf. Or, perhaps, from BP to the Gulf. The “pool protection fund”, perhaps. Of course, there were billboards and television advertisements for lawyers that could ensure you get your slice of the BP pie because of all this, but there was very little evidence of “this” to speak of.
One of the reasons the Gulf will likely recover much quicker than, say, Prince William Sound in Alaska, is because, relative to Prince William Sound, the Gulf is an ocean desert. Its waters are too hot to carry much oxygen, so it has far less life that could suffer damage. The water wouldn’t have that clear hue were it filled with aquatic life. That, and the spill happened very far offshore, where the ocean is relatively deep. As the oil spread out it was quickly diluted. In Prince William Sound, the oil remained concentrated in a small area, and likewise washed ashore in concentrated amounts.
By next year, this “worst environmental disaster in history” won’t even be a blip on the environmental radar screen. Such is the cheapening of language these days. All people like to think they live in the only age that ever mattered. When they don’t, such as now, they try to make up for it through extravagant observations of their circumstances. Words are to culture what money is to economics. They get cheaper the more there are in circulation.
As I write, a most incongruous sight passed by the condo window. A dingy, dark-brown barge was being pulled by a tugboat about a mile or so offshore. In other words, it appeared the ocean was actually being used for something more than just its visual effect. For a moment it seemed that we humans had not completely forgotten the reason we were first drawn to the sea–reasons that didn’t include lying around on its shore like lizards or bathing in its shoreline waters like children in a baby pool. For a moment it seemed there remained a usefulness to the connectedness the sea provides. Then it quickly passed out of view. To be replaced with a Cessna, flying low over the beach, pulling a sign, “Eat at Desoto’s”.
Ugh. That’s where we ate last night. It took over an hour to get a table so we could order some very average pasta dishes (the kids) and some overcooked fish (the wife). I got a hamburger. Which wasn’t on the menu, but the waitress offered that they could do one anyway. Which seemed odd. Why be courteous and nice and offer such a thing? After all, she’s got another hour’s worth of customers behind me, and I waited an hour myself. Perhaps she knew. I was a good guy. Doing the beach for the wife. Or maybe it was just a standard request that she got from the rednecks, down here in their Riviera. I don’t know. But the burger and fry plate was the only one clean at the end of the meal. I had to share with the kids.