( Slowly But Surely, Heading South)
BY LISSA BROWN
My home state of New Jersey is fertile ground for a mystery writer. Look what years in the state capital, Trenton, did for Janet Evanovich. After living in Jersey for nearly 40 years, I decided to try out the rest of the world. All of my writing to that point had been for business, labor, and political honchos, and some of it was so boring that I could easily have become addicted to No Doze. Since I’ve always appreciated people who have a good sense of humor, I figured it was a good idea to head south.
My first stop after Jersey was the Washington, DC area. I lived inside the beltway, as locals describe it, in an interesting town that was a throwback to the sixties. The place was filled with aging hippies and others who found it difficult to play by generally accepted rules. Takoma Park was lovingly referred to by its antagonists as The People’s Republic of Takoma Park for its left-of-center politics. It lived up to that name in a variety of ways. I recall the time when the council passed an ordinance prohibiting doing business with firms that had links to anything nuclear. That worked until they needed new police cars and discovered that only Volvo met the test. Scratch that policy.
Animal rights activists had an inordinately large impact on city policies. When several residents objected to the influx of rats from neighboring DC, the town debated for months about a humane solution to the problem. Someone on the council must have been reading The Pied Piper of Hamelin during the meetings. They came up with a plan to capture all the long-tailed creatures and gently invite them into a large van. Mercifully, I was not witness to the process. Once the van was full, they drove it west to the area around Frederick, Maryland and dumped the rats. They got caught, and I’m sure they’re still apologizing to Frederick officials for their poor judgment.
Amusing as life could be at times in Takoma Park, the crime rate increased, and my aging legs couldn’t outrun muggers at night. Traffic was so horrendous that rush hour began at 6 a.m. and didn’t end until after 8 p.m., prompting a bevy of creative solutions to get anywhere. So, I picked up stakes and continued my southward trek, landing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.
People say New Jerseyans talk funny, if they’re being polite. When they’re not watching their manners, you might hear terms like ‘dead-end kids’ or Mafia slip out. But at least if you’ve watched James Cagney movies, most people can understand us.
I spent the better part of my first two years in NC trying to understand people. Not only did I have to contend with southernisms like ‘fixin’to’; there was the extra layer of mountainese with phrases like ‘you’uns,’ on top of that.
As a writer, I’ve grown to love the colorful descriptions inherent in southern speech. As a humorist, I find it’s a treasure trove. Where else can you hear things like, “He couldn’t win a piss-off in a brewery,” or “Scratch where it itches?” I have nearly mastered such convenient phrases as ‘all y’all’ instead of the cumbersome ‘each and every one of you.’
During the six years I’ve lived here I’ve learned that speaking southern involves much more than words and accent. One is actually expected to speak to strangers. Imagine that. And southerners have been doing that since way before blogging or Facebook. I do not go into any store, including department stores, without a list of appropriate topics for idle chit chat with clerks. Weather’s still the best one. A good second is the prowess of local sports teams, and a current one is whether the rumors about Home Depot moving into the former high school property might be true . If I’m experiencing a creativity block, almost anything will do as long as it’s followed by ‘Bless your heart.’ I’ve come to appreciate the sentiment on local bumper stickers, “We don’t care HOW you do it in Florida,” and have decided that this is as far south as I’m going. Y’all come visit, y’hear?