Mom and I were at the local produce stand when an old, clean-shaven man struck up a conversation. He was wearing a double-breasted suit, though it was hot as shit outside. We would later recognize this as the first sign of trouble.
“So,” he said. “What church do you attend?”
I was five at the time. Our family wasn’t religious, but in rural North Carolina in the ’80s, a lot of folks broke the ice by talking about religion. Nobody asked, “Do you go to church?” as that was like asking, “Do you inhale oxygen?” It would’ve been stupid to answer “I don’t know,” as this only invited more questions. But it would’ve been suicide to say “nowhere” — this was the mark of the heathen.
To avoid such awkwardness, roughly once a month throughout elementary school, my mom would quiz me.
“What do you tell them?” she’d say.
And I’d repeat, for the umpteenth time, “Swansboro United Methodist Church.”
Once I was climbing the shopping carts in the Piggly Wiggly when a woman with a jumpsuit and jet black hair strode in.
“You’re going to fall,” she said to me in a thick Northerner accent. And then she was gone.
Mom was talking to someone just outside the front door, but my kid sister was there, so I had a witness to prove that it’d really happened: An honest-to-God Yankee had spoken to me!
From an early age, my sister and I were taught to distrust Yankees. The y-word was like a curse word in our home. This would explain our obsession with the forbidden accent.
“Yah gonna fawl! Yah gonna fawl!” we chanted.
By the time we reached the meat section, we’d repeated the phrase at least a hundred times.
“Yah-Yah-Yah, Yah gonna fawl!”
We liked the first part of the sentence just fine, but it was merely a prelude to the final word, fall. Like coffee and dog, these were words that Yankees just couldn’t pronounce correctly. As children, it was our duty to exploit this.
“Hey you? Who me? Yea you. Yah gonna fawl!”
We probably wouldn’t have latched onto the phrase had this woman not looked so different: The black hair. The gold jewelry. That ridiculous track suit and determined stride, as if she had somewhere better to be than Piggly Wiggly.
On the ride home, the repetition continued and our mother reached her limit.
“That’s enough!” she shouted, applying the brake. “I don’t want to hear that Yankee talk any more.” She made a hacking sound, as if to clear the y-word from her throat.
“But what about the Starkes?” I said. Their son was my age and I’d sometimes sleep over. “They’re from New York. Does that make them Yankees?”
My mother considered this and said, “They’re different. They’ve been here a long time.”
I needed clarification, but when you’re seven, it’s not wise to challenge your parent’s logic, especially when there’s a carton of ice cream in the trunk with your name on it.
Thirteen years later I was sitting in a dorm room. My college was an hour-and-a-half drive from home, surrounded by tobacco and corn fields. I’d never left the South, had never traveled north of the Mason-Dixon Line. And I had no intention of doing so. Everything I needed was right here, and couldn’t nobody tell me different.
I became friends with a guy on my hall named Aric. Until coming to North Carolina for college, he’d never lived anywhere but New Jersey. I think we both found each other equally curious. Our first meeting was tense, but he set me at ease by offering me something called a Tastykake and complimenting my astroturf rug.
“These koffee kake things are pretty good,” I told him.
“They’re from Philly,” he said. “You’d like it up there.”
Yea, right, I thought.
My life as an unspoiled Southerner ended a year later when I crossed the New Jersey state line. Unlike the South, where driving is fairly straightforward, here there were pointless toll booths and a maddening phenomenon known as the jughandle.
Two days till New Year, Aric brought me to a house party where the girls wore heaps of makeup, earrings like barrel hoops, and the sort of deep, golden tan often associated with third-world fishermen. I thought, Where have ya’ll been all my life? I approached this one girl and introduced myself.
“Oh my Gawd,” she said. “Where are you from, sweet home Alabama?”
She was a younger, prettier version of the lady my sister and I had mocked all those years ago. Except now the joke was on me. My accent. My clothes. My farmer’s tan: I was an alien smack in the middle of a strange new civilization.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, my whole identity was built around being an outsider, a rebel. It’d never occurred to me that, outside the South, I might be considered straight-laced, conservative. For quite some time, this was a devastating realization.
In the end, traveling north helped me appreciate the South in a new way. It put things into context, but more importantly, it made me curious to see more. Of course, it would take another three years before I’d get the courage to pack my bags, drive west, and, once again, see the world for the first time.