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Carryin' On

And Other Strange Things Southerners Do

Carryin' On by R. Scott Brunner
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Pat Conroy said that R. Scott Brunner’s Due South “delivers the goods and delivers them Southern fried”; Rick Bragg said that Brunner “writes like people down here talk, with beauty.” Carryin’ On more than delivers on the promise of its predecessor, with more of the disarming and hilarious insights that made Due South an instant classic. Here are the essays like “Common Is as Common Does” (what kind of behavior is just plain tacky, and what isn’t), “Tastes Like Summer” (a beautiful meditation on bean poles), “Real Southern Places” (a wry look at Steve Wynn’s attempt to create a southern resort), “Paschal’s” (a paean to a haven of classic southern culinary comfort — in the middle of the Atlanta airport), and “The Last Time I Saw Parrish (a fond ode to his grandparent’s Alabama hometown).

Carryin’ On celebrates culture, the food, the eccentricities, the habits, the language, the spirit, the talk — the overall carryin’ on that makes the American South a magical place.


From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group; July 2001
ISBN 9781588360281
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Carryin' On
Author: R. Scott Brunner
 
Excerpt
Common Is as Common Does

there was a time in the South when being common meant something, and it wasn’t good. For generations of Southerners — my parents’ and grandparents’ generations in particular — to be common, to exhibit the behaviors that were part and parcel of commonness, was to find oneself seated on the lowest rung of the social ladder, toes planted in the muddy gumbo underneath. God may have been no respecter of persons, but where commonness was involved, we Southerners certainly were.

In those simpler times, mommas of any refinement at all strived to rear up their sons and daughters to “know better” than to do common things, understanding that commonness was not only the behavior itself but the accompanying cluelessness about the error of that behavior. Commonness, it was thought, was so deeply ingrained in common folk that they hardly knew they were behaving commonly.

(There were exceptions to that perception, of course. I mean the kind of brazen commonness that clung to immodest, slatternly women: those demimondaines who dared peroxide their hair or wear ankle bracelets, who wore short shorts or who carried on with married men or who were connected in any way to rumors of licentiousness. To be so flagrant and superlative in your commonness was to be not merely common but “common as pig tracks.” Any Southern woman of a certain age can attest to the seriousness of such blatant impropriety. Better to have been thought a ninny than to have been so common, she’ll tell you.)

The beauty of such an old-fashioned notion, and what made the mere suggestion of it so effective in keeping decently bred folks close by the straight and narrow, was that commonness was not just an individual malady but by association afflicted entire families. If you were common enough to be seen kissing in public, it said something about your momma. She’d surely be whispered about at the next bridge club soirée, so if you cared anything at all about her, you’d best do right. (If your daddy was bad to drink, on the other hand, you were already marked for life, so it didn’t much matter.)

In this way, commonness defied class distinctions. While it was surely a scarlet C worn upon the breasts of the obvious common folk — those who hailed from the wrong side of the tracks, went to the wrong schools, held the wrong jobs, wore the wrong styles — it also could be effectively hung upon anyone who disgraced her raisin’. Even if the offense was isolated or inadvertent, she’d forevermore be suspect in the eyes of those who kept track of such things.

The snobbishness attached to the word “common” allowed respectable people — proper females, mostly — a comfortable (or comforting) measure of noblesse oblige. Because poor, common folk, it was thought, lacked the breeding, not to mention the drive, to be anything more than . . . well, than what they were, their unrefined behavior was a foregone conclusion; however, just as refined folk would never toler- ate such commonness in their own children, neither would they actually confront a clueless commoner with his commonness in public. Much more appropriate simply to pity him in public — with knowing nods and sharp, sanctimonious glances — and then to condescend to him, educate him, if need be, in private. Pity any commoner got hold of by a good, upright matron bent on “speaking the truth in love.”

Then, somewhere along the way, commonness began to lose its stigma. Ever more enlightened times gave rise to a kind of reckless, egalitarian informality that tramped over the quaint propriety of the era that had preceded it, discarding it like spent peanut hulls on a barroom floor. The arbiters of good taste, overwhelmed by the bra-burning, trash-talking, populist zeitgeist of the later twentieth century, went into retreat, abdicating their responsibility for social rectitude and turning inward, there to commingle and interbreed until, shortly, they were reduced to a bunch of chinless, whiny, ineffectual moralists content to rail shrilly against the system, the government, Hollywood, and the like rather than expend their moral capital on anything so capricious as individual, unpolished human beings — those commoners back home.

Without the opprobrium that once accompanied improprietous behavior, without the spur of social ostricism, commonness really began to flourish; it became fashionable even, creeping across social strata like so much kudzu, obscuring old class distinctions altogether and throwing rectitude to the wind. I’m not talking immorality here — not per se, anyway, though now it oft’ goes hand in hand with lowbrow behavior; what I’m talking about is pure-dee bad taste. And not just any old bad taste, either, but audacious bad taste — taste and judgment and comportment so self-congratulatingly over the top that it required a new name (or, rather, it co-opted an older, mildly pejorative expression and redefined it). The result is the modern “redneck,” that class of cocksure cultural reprobates who live to revel in their commonness.

A distinction is necessary here: common and redneck are not the same thing. Every commoner is not a redneck, though most rednecks have enough common in them to fill a fleet of Budweiser trucks. The modern-day redneck is a commoner who simply is more confident in his commonness. He is almost a self-parody: common plus ignorant plus opinionated plus prejudiced and dang proud to be so; he cultivates his redneckness and flaunts it self-consciously to the world.

As redemption goes, the rednecks are a lost cause, basking as they do in their lack of sophistication. Commoners, on the other hand, are nowadays merely a disappointment — a significant disappointment, mind you (to those few who still know commonness when they see it), but there does linger over them the possibility of redemption, of self-improvement. It’s taken for granted that any common person wouldn’t behave that way if they just knew better. Rednecks do know better, and don’t care.

It is redneckness, then — crass, belching-in-your-face bravado — that has obscured mere commonness — has not only obscured it, but has darn near relegated it to the ash heap of popular culture. Darn near . . .

A PRIMER

but the flame of rectitude has not been snuffed out. Not yet, anyway. There remain some among us who still know common when they see it: my mother, of course . . . maybe yours, too. From their retreat under the cultural bushel, they level a knowing eye on the world, cataloging each tongue ring, each sex scandal, each fashion faux pas, and they long for a platform from which to gently educate the masses of poor, misguided wretches who wouldn’t know common if it bit them on the fanny.

And so for them — in the dim hope that it might stoke again that waning flame — I offer a contemporary primer on what may just be the defining malady of latter-day America; rank commonness.

(Understand, of course, that there are gradations of commonness; some offenses are worse than others. Taken separately, many of the following items would amount to little more than an embarrassing faux pas. But beware the slippery slope: where commonness is concerned, one thing inevitably leads to another, and before you know it, you’ll be stuck with a bad tattoo and a worse reputation.)

Short-sleeved dress shirts are common. Wearing dark dress socks with athletic shoes or white socks with dress shoes is common. Formal wedding attire for men that is color coordinated to the bridesmaid dresses is common. Wearing a sundress with your bra straps showing is common, as is wearing dark-colored underwear under light-colored clothing. Wearing dresses with uncovered shoulders or plunging necklines to church is common. Wearing white shoes outside the prescribed Easter–Labor Day bookends is, of course, common.

A bad dye job is common. A good dye job is okay until the dark roots begin to show, at which point it becomes a bad dye job.

Well-applied fake fingernails are not themselves common, but losing one in public is. On the other hand, fake fingernails airbrushed with tropical scenes and the like are common, regardless of how well applied they are.

Fat men who wear Speedos are an embarrassment but, sadly, are not particularly common. We have the Europeans to thank for that.

Artwork bought at a home party or street corner is common. So are Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

Wearing hose with open-toed sandals is common, as is indiscriminate use of light blue eyeshadow. Applying makeup in public is common. Wearing too much perfume is common. Not knowing how much is too much is especially common.

Flossing your teeth with a strand of hair, whether your hair or someone else’s, is common. Toothpicks are thought to be common, especially the reusable kind, but most would agree that they’re better than flossing your teeth with your hair.

Honking the car horn to summon your date is common. Taking your date to the Kmart snack bar may well be common, but if it’s the best you can do, it’s also kind of sweet.

Chewing gum through your entire wedding ceremony is common. Chewing gum during sex is common, too, but who’s to kiss and tell?

I think bumper stickers are common, even political ones, but some folks don’t.

Plastic or silk flowers are common, even at the cemetery.

The mention (or, worse, discussion) of bodily functions in public is common. Also in that vein, remote-controlled fart machines, like the ones they sell down at the Jiffy Mart, with five realistic fart sounds, are most assuredly common, as is anyone who would truly want to own one.

Leaving that little piece of tissue paper in your wedding invitations when you mail them is common, but practically no one knows it. (For the record, it’s something the printer uses to keep the ink from smearing.)

Canned music at a wedding is common unless your church will not allow a piano on the premises, in which case canned music is merely ironic.

Serving food on plastic or paper plates at your wedding reception (or other supposedly formal occasions) is common, especially if it involves those little cocktail weenies in barbeque sauce, because they tend to soak through. Not sending thank-you notes is both rude and common.

Framed portraits of Jesus are common, unless they hang in a museum somewhere.

Taking your kids barefoot to the A&P is common, although taking your kids (the younger ones, I mean) barefoot to church, for some strange reason, is not.

Carrying a handbag so large it could apply for its own zip code is common. Emptying it on the counter in the checkout line at the grocery store as you hunt for your car keys is maddeningly common.

Buying meat from the back of a pickup truck is common. So is cutting the grass on Sunday and owning a satellite dish that can be seen from the road.

Taking pictures at a funeral is common. Selecting a casket for Daddy in that sparkly shade of blue that looks more like a bass boat than a box for burying a person is also common.

Lounging in your La-Z-Boy in the back of your brother-in-law’s pickup truck while cruising down the bypass is common, even if you’re in the midst of relocating.

Telling people what your latest high-priced toy cost you is common. Knowing the intricacies of caller ID, three-way calling, call forwarding, et cetera, is annoyingly common.

Hooting at a graduation ceremony, beauty pageant, or National Honor Society tap-in is common. Making change from the offering plate at church is also common.

Borrowing money from your children’s savings accounts is common. Borrowing from your father-in-law is merely ill-advised, but not common.

Jerry Springer, Survivor, poor grammar, and vulgar language are common, but that goes without saying. Telling dirty jokes or demeaning ethnic or gender jokes is not only common as pig tracks, it’s rednecky. Not knowing that a joke is dirty is just plain stupid. If it’s doubtful, it’s dirty.

A person who doesn’t know what common is is most certainly common. Pointing out the commonness of a common person in public is common, too. Likewise, making a list of what is common so that common folks will know without you having to point it out to them is itself . . . admittedly . . . common.

Understand, though, that rural and common are not always the same thing. Neither are lower income and common. As a friend of mine reminds me, graciousness and elegance can actually coexist with yard art and year-round outdoor Christmas lights, even today. Plastic tablecloths are not automatically an indication of commonness. Crudity can occur as easily over crudités as over Krispy Kremes. The only sure defense against being common, she adds, is diligence and a kind, uncommon heart.

And, ultimately, that may be exactly what’s lacking today: not so much an understanding of common but an awareness of uncommon—which is, of course, harder to put your finger on but surely still exists. Uncommon has less to do with who designed the clothing one wears than with one’s sense of propriety in the way one dresses in public. Uncommon has less to do with the brand and price of the wristwatch than with respecting other folks enough to be on time. Uncommon has less to do with the kind of silver or china (if it’s china at all) than with one’s willingness to be gracious and hospitable. Even the arbiters of good taste (wherever they are) could stand to be reminded of this, for rectitude without the right heart is nothing more than snobbery, and a snob is simply a commoner with too much money.

So write these things down . . . that last part, anyway. Impress them upon your children and your children’s chil- dren so that they will shun tattoo parlors and The Jenny Jones Show and all other manner of commonness. Teach them that even in this age of equal opportunity — of familiarity over form, of practicality over propriety, of self-expression over self-control — how they are still speaks volumes about who they are.

As it has always been, common is as common does.