My friend in New York City called one day last fall to say that she was thinking of moving here. I think it was because of a picture I had posted on Facebook of a local apartment complex: clean, modest and mid-century fabulous.
Why am I taking grief from people in this crazy a place when I could just go somewhere quiet and affordable? is how one’s line of thought goes in NYC. I don’t need this. And so begin the fantasies of cheesemaking in Vermont or moving to a small city in the South.
When we lived in New York, people were always threatening to leave. The irony? I was never one of them.
Two weeks, a family friend said, was how long it would take to reacclimate if we moved back from London. When you were back, people weren’t too concerned about where you’d been (true of people everywhere). The city you returned to, like a self-absorbed friend, had its own issues and needs. Whatever exotic little habits you might have picked up from wherever were swept away by some new trauma about how they didn’t have that same particular muffin/soy drink/bartender at that place you always went to.
My friend is picturing a university town and thinking liberal and I’m saying not so liberal. International, yes. Educated, yes. It’s… conservative, I tell her. I mention one thing that had taken me aback when we arrived, Choose Life car tags. When I had last lived in America, your license plate said your state and maybe the state slogan, but not your college or your social or religious beliefs. Maybe other states all do this now, too, but I hadn’t seen it before. There was a pause. She was like, I’m going to have to think about this.
That pause, that slamming on of mental brakes, told us that one should not rush out of Manhattan. Maybe it was right to toss out something a little scary, like a test, but I reeled back from the force of the detail as it rebounded.
When we were looking at houses here I was shocked by a gun cabinet in the family room. There are a lot of ancient people driving beige Mercury sedans. Our area has a high incidence of tornadoes, low crime, most people own dogs. Do we base our decisions on statistics, observation or anecdote? We say that we have weighed up the pros and cons, but really we liked the way the color of the leaves went with the color of the paint, very Prada, very college housing, and we figure the people that go with this idea must be here, too. And they probably are, but so are people who use their cars to advertise lots of ideas you don’t agree with.
Do you remember the prophets of doom in the NYC subway, in those vast corridors between platforms at the 34th or 42nd Street stations, passing out slips of paper with densely written bits of scripture or poetry. Most of us did not share our beliefs or art so readily. There were men in signboards with the same close text inscribed, back and front, who held megaphones through which they foretold of the apocalypse, of our sins, at busy intersections, so we formed a river of the unrepentant that flowed around them. Your need to use your car to tell me who you voted for and why reminds me of them.
It is easy to imagine your life, simplified, in a bungalow or, as I imagine my friend’s life, minus the expense and hassle of the city, in a river-view apartment, on a floor that is three times higher than any building in this town, with space to think if not to move. There could well be a bicycle on the wall, a too-full closet, or things packed tightly under the bed. But I hear only a charming symphony of horns from overheated taxis and imagine a life decadent with choice and Shakespeare in the Park, overheard gems, parties at restaurants, readings at independent bookstores.
She does not move to Alabama. Not yet. Months go by. A bumper sticker makes me laugh: six zombies—two adults, two children, dog, cat—and the words, “Our family ate your stick family.”
Now come the Supreme Court hearings for the Defense of Marriage Act. A meme strikes. People are changing their avatars to show support for same-sex marriage. I support same-sex marriage, but I have my initial bumper sticker reaction to the avatar change.
In an article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell is quoted saying Facebook activism is for people who aren’t motivated to make a real sacrifice, on the other hand, the idea with the avatars is to show that there is popular support for equality in marriage and to make the abstract personal. As a person who grew up practically on Christopher Street and then attended college at Ivy League Whorehouse, one would not be surprised to find me sporting the red and pink equal sign avatar but, as a person living in the deep South, it’s more important to represent my region and in this region to stick up for what I believe, if only quietly and abstractly.
Alabama has red dirt and it is an agrarian place where people believe in the land. I placed some pebbles in the tire tracks of a red dirt road and made my own avatar. It’s indigenous. And, like choosing who you love, it’s natural and it’s personal. Like my friend grasping the social significance of the Choose Life car tag, symbols have power. Adopting a meme for your avatar is not much in the face of a much more profound issue, but there is a force in the aggregation of these images. Looks matter. One turquoise wall could contain a portal to a new life. Sitting in our cars, scrolling through Facebook, we notice these things, these small but telling details that could change your mind in an instant.