“We just love Savannah” oozed my mother-in-law when my wife (her daughter, in case legal relations cause the same confusion for you as they do for me) told her we might visit the city while on vacation in Hilton Head. The mother-in-law said it in that insincere way women in the South say they love something when they know it is status-enhancing, or at least protecting, to profess their love, adding about three counts to the ‘u’ sound in the middle of the word. She said it like she was a Southern hipster (is there such a thing?) talking about kale (or is it quinoa these days?) being served at a dinner party.
By “we” she mainly, I think, meant she and her husband. But she might have been including her host of septuagenarian friends, all female, all white, with whom she is in frenetic competition. (Yes, even at her age, friendship is an illusion…the best can be hoped is that your frenemies aren’t too openly venal). Because among a certain set (old white women who fancy they are something higher on the social hierarchy than poor white trash), “loving” Savannah is de rigueur. But proclaiming that “we” love Savannah with only her husband and not her frenemies in mind would have been a mistake, or perhaps a fraud. There is no way in hell that her husband really loved Savannah, though she might have been duped by him into believing he did. (Incidentally, he’s not my wife’s father, but technically still my father-in-law, only it takes an extra degree of law—his marriage to my wife’s mother and my marriage to her daughter–to get there than is usually the case. A father-in-law once removed, perhaps? Fortuitously, we share the same last name, but are not related). He is a man who I’ve come to know well and somewhat admire, and so know that it would be doing grave injury to the truth to include him as part of a group denoted by the plural pronoun ‘we’ in any statement proclaiming love for Savannah. He’s a better man than that. There is no way he could ‘love’ Savannah. I know. I’ve now been to Savannah. Every bit of four hours or so, which was about three hours and forty-five minutes too long. No self-respecting heterosexual male could possibly love Savannah, or at least no man could love it for its value as a tourist mecca.
From Hilton Head Island where we were staying, Savannah is about an hour away by land; it’s an hour and a half by boat. So we naturally took the boat. That was at least partially my fault. I didn’t really want to go to Savannah, but I figured the boat ride would be fun. It wasn’t. On board the boat were scads of hearty, hale and gregarious Midwesterners. One family of blue-jean-short clad Ohioans had a young child of maybe a year old, who decided that sitting next to us friendly Southerners would be just the thing to do, maybe because they figured we Southerners are so hospitable that we love to listen to a crying infant not of our issue for an hour and a half nonstop. The boat ride was only slightly less miserable than the time, on a flight to Chicago, when a baby sitting behind us upchucked into the wife’s hair. The baby’s mother didn’t even bother to apologize, just figuring, I suppose, that my wife appreciated how it made her hair shimmer and glow and stink. Midwesterners, ugh. It almost makes me wish the South would secede again, and set up border guards who would shoot on sight any Midwesterner who tried to escape their miserably cold climes by coming South.
It’s not that Savannah is that far, even by boat. It was only thirty minutes or so into the boat ride that the Southern LNG (liquefied natural gas) plant’s terminal towers just south of Savannah came into hazy view. But oceanic navigation from Harbor Town in Hilton Head to Savannah’s waterfront requires navigating the intra-coastal waterway as it twists and winds from the island to the river. Most of the waterway in that stretch traverses salt marsh that would surely not be more than a couple of feet deep were it not for dredging. No boat could go very fast. And as this was a tourist boat, it intentionally took its time, particularly slowing down along the Daufuskie Island shoreline whenever passing by a potential point of interest on the island for tourists (the same charter boat we were on also ferries tourist to Daufuskie, which is a mostly uninhabited five by eight mile island west/northwest of Hilton Head). And the baby kept squalling, the whole intra-coastal waterway long.
The boat ride should have dispelled for the tourists any mythologized and romanticized notions of Savannah as a genteel town steeped in Southern culture and history. The rusting hulk of an abandoned sand dredge lying in a lagoon off the starboard side of the boat (for you landlubbers, starboard is the right side of the boat, if on the boat and facing the bow, which is the front) greeted our entry into the port area, followed closely on the port (left) side by two Panamanian-flagged freighters taking on a cargo of what appeared to be wood chips. Savannah may have a past worth romanticizing, but its present appears as gritty and real and practical as its true past surely once was. The waterfront actually works as more than just a tourist trap, if not so much along the Old Savannah portion of it where our tourist boat docked to spill its hundred and fifty or so passengers into the steaming, blazing sauna, weather that is characteristic of pretty much any Southern river town around mid-morning on an early summer day sure to be crackling with thunderstorms by the afternoon, but that is no sort of weather to brag about back home.
People see what they want to see, so it’s no surprise that the workaday Port of Savannah, bristling with activity all around us, was mostly overlooked by the tourists as they debarked for the tacky shops and restaurants arisen in Old Savannah specifically for serving the tourist trade. More than a few of the tourists shunned walking—perhaps the only thing Old Savannah is good for as it is flat and shaded and boasts pocket parks every few blocks—and purchased a ticket to ride the trolley around town so they might be sure to see all that culture and all those historical artifacts that they had been convinced they were supposed to see.
Paula Deen,, the famous, or infamous, television chef who foolishly replied honestly in a deposition when asked if she had ever used the word “nigger”, has a restaurant in Savannah, called The Lady and Sons. The buffet was visible through the window while walking by. It was loaded with staples of Southern cooking. Given the cafeteria-style buffet, it appears Paula Deen has essentially opened a Luby’s (if you hail from Texas) or Picadilly’s (if from the heart of the Old Confederacy). But it is in historic Old Savannah. And it is Paula Deen’s restaurant. So you just have to go. In Paula Deen’s defense, Southern cooking is quite amenable to cafeteria -style dispensation. The recipes are always easy to double, triple or more, while the taste stays the same. And dear heavens, the poor woman should not have been excoriated for having admitted to occasionally saying “nigger”. Every person in the South, white or black (and probably, truth be known, in the North, too) has said it at one time or another. And in a racially disparaging way, if usually only under one’s breath. Paula Deen was just the only prominent Southerner to lately have admitted as much. Trust me. I can practically guarantee that even Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has said it. It’s just part of the vernacular. The myth that thoughts and feelings and words can be stamped out by dint of public disfavor is as risible as the myth that Savannah is a town worth visiting for its history or culture or food. Paula Deen was honest. It is everyone else criticizing her that are the frauds.
The allure of Savannah can’t be understood without which Southern Gothic is understood, and honestly, I don’t get it. There is a dark forebodingly Southern essence supposedly expressed in the genre, a sense that the world teeters on the magical edge between darkness and light, and all that its deeply flawed, eccentric or disturbing characters can see are the shadows of grey at its edges–something of how Savannah was described in the blockbuster NYT bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which may have singlehandedly added Savannah to the list of must-see Southern cities with an antebellum past for the curious class of women who read Southern Living magazine and dream of sipping mint juleps on the porch in a petticoat during a thunderstorm, fawning for their brave and chivalrous squires away doing battle against those damned Yankees.
Women in the South seem nigh well obsessed with antebellum Southern culture. Even women who aren’t from the South but who move here later in life sop up the Southern cultural myths like so many biscuits dipped in red-eye gravy. My neighbor from Missouri, a state which I recall was part of some great antebellum compromise regarding slavery but never really experienced much in the way of plantation agriculture, was positively bubbly when her daughter was invited to become a member of the Southern Belles, a rather strange local (Birmingham) group that pretends to emulate Southern culture and tradition by having its girls (high school juniors and seniors) represent Old South ways by attending functions dressed in outlandish hoop skirt petticoats. My daughter was also invited. Their presentation ceremony, something like a debutante ball, was held at a local country club, and could not have been more ridiculous, not least because Birmingham hasn’t any antebellum past to speak of. It was only founded in 1872, well after the South’s plantation culture had been vanquished and Reconstruction was under way. The city was founded mainly by Northerners (carpetbaggers) intent on turning a profit on the wealth of iron and coal contained in its mountainous, rocky terrain, which was otherwise mostly useless for large scale agricultural operations. There was not a single black woman among the belles. My daughter wondered, jokingly, whether each girl might be issued a slave after the ball for having been accepted as a Belle. It was only funny because of how close it cut to the truth.
It must be a fairly common thing among women to dream of being petted and pampered and put on a pedestal, living the fairy-tale ideal of a princess, or in the American iteration, of an antebellum plantation owner’s wife. Else, explain the female fascination with the antebellum South, and places like Savannah and Charleston that are perceived to have traces of its culture that survive. Of course the myth is far from reality. The antebellum wife was a possession. She might have been pampered and put on a pedestal, but it was a life more comparable to that of a parakeet in a cage than that of a fully-formed, psychically-human adult. And nothing of the way of life survives, except in the wistful hearts of overly romantic women.
But it is easy to see why women love Savannah. It is hot, and women are more like reptiles than mammals in their inability to regulate their internal body temperature. Women crave heat and Savannah has plenty of it. Its old town is full of gigantic live oaks draped in Spanish moss, giving it an aura of well-preserved tradition that women so adore and in the manner that only century-old trees can afford. It has countless knick knack stores, enough to succor any woman’s need to while away the hours shopping. And the city is suffused with the supernatural; angels and demons and other ghostly spirits waft about in the evanescent mists floating in off the river. Ghosts are apparently so plentiful that companies offer tours to see their haunts, in repurposed hearses no less.
Even just the title of the celebrated book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, conjures visceral images of things the female heart holds dear (even as the actual book is so-called ‘faction’ about a homosexual murder in the late ‘80s). Midnight is the witching hour. Important things happen at midnight. Things can go either way until midnight rolls around and then the course is set. Every woman loves a garden, a perfect metaphor for the sensuality of her own body. And women far more than men see life as a morality play, an incessant battle between the good from which their sensuality arises and the evil that would suppress it. Savannah is a lustful, sensual paradise for women.
But my mother-in-law could only have been referring to her and her friends when she said that ‘we’ love Savannah. Or she may have been referring to no one, and was just saying it because she thought that’s what she should say. But if she was including her husband in the ‘we’, she was surely mistaken. He might have pretended to love Savannah for her sake (they had been a couple of times), because that’s what guys do, but he didn’t really love Savannah. No self-respecting man could possibly love the Savannah of mythology and lore—the Savannah as it is presented to tourists. The guys working the docks probably love Savannah, but for the more practical reason that it affords them a decent living. The rest of us guys who get dragged there by their wives, not so much.