(You are now entering South Carolina. Got rogues?)
For those of you who’ve not yet visited, coastal South Carolina is an amazingly beautiful place. But there’s a downside: to get to the South Carolina coast, at some point you have to drive through South Carolina.
Part of the problem is its location. South Carolina has freeways that connect irritated people from the northern States with irritated people from Florida. This means that our highways are an endless Mad Max outtake, a road rage arena of alien people, all in a hurry to get somewhere else.
First, there’s the north-bound group, the hot, hurried, “had enough” hordes exiting Florida for various, often legal, reasons. This group includes:
• Shell-shocked vacationers, irritated because they just blew their entire Everglades holiday crouched in a damp unlit hotel room, hiding from three escaped pet Burmese pythons and eleven unscheduled hurricanes, all named Bob.
• Family Patriarchs captaining their Family Vacation Vehicles, irritated because, during the previous, intense six-hour period, they just spent over twenty-one hundred dollars on twelve speeding tickets in south Georgia, a money-sucking black hole estimated to be the single largest continuous speed trap in the known universe.
• Relocating registered sexual predators, irritated because they grew so prevalent in Florida that they were forced to join a union and file papers of incorporation, and they’re now classified as “too big to fail.”
• Indignant “undocumented workers,” irritated because their Social Security checks were late, their free health care didn’t include a free private hospital room, and they didn’t get a free gym uniform with their free in-state college tuition.
• Traveling citrus salesmen, irritated because a sudden outbreak of political correctness forced them to change their name from the “Indian” to the “Indigenous Disenfranchised Proud Culturally-Significant North American Human Beings” River Fruit Company.
• Patois-spewing drug couriers, irritated because, unlike in Florida, all the traffic signs in South Carolina are printed in English.
• Retirement-age Republican “snowbirds,” irritated because they’ve still got a really long way to drive, and they no longer own a colon.
And then, heading south, all hopped up on freeway exit coffee, are the tourists and the Jews, eager to “experience” the “Deep South,” to stand “in line” instead of “on line,” hoping to grab a glimpse of “old times there that are not forgotten,” or to get a photo of a “land’s sake,” or maybe a grit tree.
Now, personally, I don’t know or care how to spot a southbound Jew in a car. But all my life I’ve been hearing, from my elders and from stand-up comics, that all Jews eventually go to Florida and wear white pants. And I always trust comics (although many of my elders have pretty much turned out to be full of “deep south”).
This tourist fascination with “Dixie” has resulted in the establishment of an entire cottage industry, dedicated to marketing “quaint antebellum memorabilia” (literal translation: “incredibly trite garbage mass-produced in Taiwan”). Dotted along the off-ramps stuck to South Carolina’s handful of freeways, there are approximately 247 billion shops, dives, joints and turn-offs, each selling “A Jim Nabors Christmas” CDs, several versions of salt-and-pepper shaker sets painted to look like Al Jolson, and a fatal foodstuff known as the “pecan log,” a goo-laced mystery stick that is (to use the technical gastronomic term) pretty much full of “deep south.”
Besides their uncanny uber-caramel ability to extract completely healthy adult molars, it turns out that pecan logs are the item most often stolen from freeway exit shops. Maybe people are just too embarrassed to purchase the foul things. Maybe there’s some bizarre freeway contest going on, something larcenous bubbling just below the surface of normal society, some kind of sick citrus salesmen scavenger hunt. It’s possible. Freeway exit coffee can have that kind of effect on a man.
Often, South Carolina freeway culture is a collision of worlds. Here’s an overheard conversation at a restaurant counter, along an anonymous exit:
“Hey, honey. Wattle at bee?”
“What y’all eating, honey?”
“You guys got any hard rolls?”
“Naw, honey. All our bread’s fresh.”
But take any exit off the rod-straight 95 freeway in lower South Carolina and, within an hour, you’ll be embraced by some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable.
And some of the most haunted, too. That’s where I met Bessie, the ghost.
Okay, technically, I didn’t meet Bessie. I met her portrait. I don’t know how, technically, you meet a ghost, and I wouldn’t know what to say if I did.
“Human! Man, it’s been a while since I saw one of you.”
“Loved your portrait.”
“Thanks. Hey! You got any hard rolls?”
“Forget it. Hey! Wanna play a game?”
“Pull my finger … off!”
But I know Bessie was a ghost, because her eyes followed me.
You know what I mean? Ever been alone in a room with one of those unsettling paintings of people whose painted eyes seem to watch you as you walk about the room? Ever had that tingly feeling? I don’t mean that “mmm hmmm” glare they give you at the local IRS office, or at a freeway off-ramp that sells pecan logs, but that eerie feeling you get, left alone in the parlor of some ancient plantation home, with Jim Nabors echoing “rum pa pum pum” into the rafters.
The nice non-dead lady who was escorting me through this particular plantation told me that the little eyeball trick is actually a learned artistic technique known as the “Ubiquitous Gaze.” See, long ago, before cell phone apps, people used to pay other people to paint “portraits,” which were large drawings of angry people wearing exceptionally weird clothing and holding absurdly-heavy sharp objects, which may explain the anger. You’ve probably seen at least one portrait in your life: a famous one called the Mona Lisa. Not coincidentally, given that I’m talking “Ubiquitous Gaze” right now, the Mona Lisa is a classic example of “Ubiquitous Gaze,” not to mention another, lesser-known technique known along the freeway exits of medieval Europe as the “Mocking Smirk.”
During my plantation visit, I learned that painters who created “Gazers” employed a technique quite common to the Trompe l’Oeil school of painting (literal translation: “trick the eye”), a term derived from the ancient French expression “l’oeil tromper.” (literal translation: “Nice trick! I surrender.”)
See, long ago, Trompe l’Oeil was quite popular, because there were no cell phone apps. The main goal of Trompe l’Oeil was to create something that made people sit around, stare at stuff, and wonder: is it real or is it painted? Which undoubtedly led to gripping conversations like this:
“Your thoughts, Comte?”
“Oh, I just can’t tell!”
“Mademoiselle, your turn.”
“My turn to do what, oddball?”
“Yon object. It is real, or it is a painting?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Come, mademoiselle, indulge us. Play our little game.”
“Well, Knickers Boy, let’s see. It’s in a frame, nailed to a wall. There’s one clue.”
According to another ubiquitous entity known as Google, the Ubiquitous Gaze technique is “an effect of perspective” (not that we need to drag politics into this) and asking a painter to do up the old relative’s head shot in a U-Gaze was quite an expensive request, which means that ancient people used to pay extra out-of-pocket money to get pictures to stare back at you, which means that ancient people were (to use the technical gastronomic term) stupid.
On the other hand, to be fair to ancient people, our current crop of non-dead people purchase pecan logs.
Maybe they should get some Gazers at the freeway exits, to keep an eye on those citrus salesmen.