The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.4 (Fall 2016)
History, Reminiscence, & Speculation
Historic Storefronts Can Be Preserved: Gentile Manners Melt in Electrons
John R. Harris
The tastefully restored historic storefronts of semi-rural Rome, Georgia, offer hope that our towns may still be built on a human scale—but architecture cannot save manners, even in the heart of the gentile South.
Rome, Georgia, is perhaps the only city in the United States where I have ever felt at home. (And the little corners of Ireland and Scotland where I had this same feeling three decades ago no longer exist, thanks to politics and “progress”.) The foothills of Appalachia are quite gentle here. They don’t make my plains-conditioned psyche feel altogether swallowed up, as do spots more northeasterly within the mountain chain. Their shoulders slowly push along placid rivers with Indian names (the Etowah, the Oostanaula, and the Coosa, to be exact), and their greenery catches plenty of sun and opens to blue skies at most times of day. The soil is good. Elijay, just up the road toward Chattanooga (and deeper into the mountains), is locally famous for its apples. When I married my wife here and we settled into our first house, blueberries grew beneath the dining room window the way a leaky faucet steadily drips water. As if in Eden, we only needed to reach for them.
The scars of contemporary urban living are relatively minor, since the city fathers, in their venerable wisdom, insisted on not allowing Interstate 75 to pass through their jealously guarded streets—an intrusion that would have left behind ruin far less reparable than General Sherman’s. A certain sleepiness happily remains; and while not a lot of quaint old structures survived Sherman’s scorched-earth invasion, one sees many a Doric colonnade and egg-and-dental cornice that resuscitate the torched Greek-revival ghosts of antebellum homes.
Beyond that, the town council’s worthies have consistently opted over the years to give the city center a facelift rather than tear down and build over with “state of the art” monstrosities” (an inclination which their counterparts out West appear to find irresistible). The grand old library, surrounded by scaffolding during our visit this June, was enjoying its turn at a good scrubbing. Locals always direct visitors to the bronze cast of a wolf suckling infants Romulus and Remus which Mussolini bestowed upon the town in 1929 as a good-will gesture. (We tend to forget just how popular Il Duce was with everyone before his ill-fated, reluctant, and diplomatically mismanaged alliance with Der Führer.) That rather dissonant curiosity stands gaudily before the library’s front doors, the she-wolf glowering out into Broad Street as the boys suckle beneath her custodial legs.
Dissonance: yes, I’ve never cared for that epochal bit of sculpture. The truth, as I see it, is this: the South’s affinity with the classical world is the result of historical accident that was very selectively absorbed into local colors and flavors. New townships down South were christened Athens, Smyrna, Alexandria, Carthage, Spartanburg, Cairo (pronounced “Kay-ro” in Missouri), and so forth almost as often as the endemic Creek and Cherokee names prevailed. The white man’s official class being well versed in ancient authors, a resurrection of the ideals implicit in citizen self-rule naturally sought out a fusion with Greek and Roman (and more broadly Mediterranean) words when the time came to create civilization from wilderness. As Greek revival dominated architecture, so classical allusion was prominent in formal naming.
Yet just as “Augusta” shared turf with “Toccoa”, so the tall white colonnades seemed almost to interbreed with lofty sycamores and luxuriously ambitious wisteria vines. The austerity of Parian marble rising from an Aegean-washed cliff was supplanted by the resolute stasis of planed and painted wood glimpsed within verdant waves. The Southern classical was, as it were, a cult of fixity—of staying put and recalling past glories. Its construction was laborious; but once constructed, it promised a future of no more than mere maintenance. How, after all, could one possibly find the energy to keep tearing down and “improving” when a competent preservation of the past consumed so much effort; and what, after all, had lately arrived under the sun which had not been seen before? The hills and forests themselves understood this: the Cherokee understood this. Living life is a matter of recognizing one’s immutable place within nature, and of closely studying the parameters of human nature mapped out so well by one’s ancestors.
The progressive Mussolini, in contrast—the strongman, the doer—thought to honor the quiet Southern city of Rome by harkening to his own ancient capital’s humble origins, her mythical first rung in a she-wolf’s den that would become the Jacob’s ladder to empire. Per aspera ad astra, wrote Vergil: “through toil to the stars!” But then, this most gentle-souled of poets was really no progressive of the Augustan stamp (let alone a blackshirt). Though paid by an earlier, more estimable strongman to write jingoistic propaganda, Vergil beat the martial drum to the tempo of a dirge. In literary history’s most brilliant and sustained double entendre, he left behind an epic that chronicled for subtle readers the ultimate folly of exchanging one’s humanity for the nation-state’s glories. The maestro would have understood the South, as I think the South (in her most refined minds) thoroughly understood him. Mussolini just didn’t get Rome, Georgia, any more than Augustus got Vergil’s Aeneid.
I brought a lot of mixed emotions with me in June. My wife’s family was growing old, and much of her time was spent trying to smile at people who couldn’t rise from their chairs. I felt out of place on some of these visits. On the first day, in particular, I passed much time alone in and around the hotel. I couldn’t resist walking the paths that lined both sides of the Coosa River, a stone’s throw beyond our second-story room’s window. The day was softly humid just before the official beginning of summer; and when a round white cloud wasn’t partially shielding me from the sun, I could usually slink along in the embankment’s shadow or steal a few seconds’ coolness from an overhanging bridge. Other pedestrians greeted me every third minute: the retired, the elderly, a young mother with two kids (one of whom kept getting too far ahead), white folks and black folks… no one refused a polite nod and a word or two (except one jogger—and jogging shifts one into a parallel universe, as I knew). I might have been back in Austin during the days when my grandfather would take me along Congress Avenue, long before the University and its colony of intellectualist invaders destroyed the city. Sherman again sprang to mind…
And so, of course, did Berry College, Rome’s elite institution of higher learning that appointed me to my first tenure-track position (more years ago, it seemed, than separated me from my grandfather’s side). I had walked some of these very paths in the evening after my campus interview, which I had been assured went quite well. I had imagined then that I would nestle into a philosopher’s quiet life in a place where people understood quiet—where they lived philosophically even when they didn’t discuss books or ideas; where they had the idealism to refuse an interstate’s pot of dirty gold. Within a month of beginning my first semester, alas, I found out why I had really been hired. The Old Guard was excited that I was a classicist and thought that I would tug at their end of the curricular rope, while the Young Turks thought that I, being also young, would do whatever it took to advance my career: specifically, that I would provide the swing-vote in their bid to transform course offerings into a bunch of “studies” options permitting content to be made up along the way. In fact, I was discreetly threatened by a Uriah Heap sort of character with a Cockney accent within one week of the Fall’s first class (a different kind of quiet from what I had dreamed of, that slimy serpentine hiss of a whisper). The deal was as simple as, “Vote our way or be terminated.”
I resigned before I could be terminated… and so began a decade in which my new wife and I logged a total of eleven distinct addresses, our beautiful new home being the first casualty of the gypsy life. All for the sake of what? An ignoble profession where scoundrels hid like ticks on a polecat? And why, then, had I needed a decade to recognize that profession’s invincible ignobility?
A cloud had settled over my walk as the sun continued to band the river beneath me. I was crossing an old railroad bridge transformed for pedestrian traffic, its complex shadows lengthily riding the confluence of the Oostanaula and the Etowah that formed the Coosa. Teenagers had apparently clamped padlocks by the thousand to the trestle’s structure, names or initials carved or written upon the pads. How many of these thousands had actually stayed together to have children and share a life? How many with children still shared a conjugal life? How many dead leaves had slowly drifted along the Coosa into Alabama?
Broad Street itself (Rome’s version of Main Street) stirred me out of my gloom with its bustle. At least three barber shops, six or eight sidewalk cafés, a furniture store, a fitness center, a doll shop, two used-book stores, women’s fashions, yoga and tai chi… the marquees and lettered display windows lapsed into a blur, but collectively they offered vibrant proof that small-town, person-to-person America didn’t have to die in the triumph of malls, highways, and the Internet. Even where yesteryear had not yet been fully remodeled for today’s, the scent of sawdust and the sound of hammers met me through wide-open doors. I had seen streets like this in my mind, their images reprised from my childhood and from certain scenes in rural Ireland. I think I had begun to question whether they might really exist any longer. Now I knew: they could live and live well, if only their human population demanded that they not be slain.
Pedestrian crosswalks halved every long block, with a tree-lined median allowing the foot-bound to wait comfortably if drivers showed an unwillingness to slow down. I saw little such reluctance, however. A new spurt of green-light aggression would even, miraculously, grind to a halt if a car in a curbside parking space hit its blinker to signify an intent of backing out. Who would have believed that the twenty-first century’s most deadly quadruped predator—the car—could itself learn good manners if placed in an environment of pleasant destinations rather than surrounded with drive-thrus and five-acre dealerships?
The only challenge to my resurgent optimism on that day was the “live entertainment” at one of these sidewalk cafés—a pizzeria—where my wife and I ate supper. We had once sat in this very spot a few years ago while accompanied by our son, so that happy memory was yet another ghost during our long day of drifting specters. We had, to be sure, gone hunting for a little Other World magic in coming here, for sometimes distant shades and echoes are poignantly delightful to encounter. (It was another Italian poet—Pascoli—who wrote that every sad experience has something pleasant in recollection, and every happy experience something sad; but he might have added that the recollective sadness of past joys stirs an enchantment all its own.) Unfortunately, no echoes of the sort could be detected as a DJ assaulted our eardrums with ragged snatches of quasi-musical detritus that diners were invited to identify in some kind of competition. This was a manner of nostalgia for which I was neither prepared nor suited. I didn’t care for Mick Jagger or Englebert Humperdinck or The Doors even when they were all the rage. I had wanted to resurrect a little afterglow from the golden days when my tiny family was all together—not the train wreck of tastelessness and vulgarity which was the Sixties and the Seventies (and which had some part in forcing me to wait long for a family). In any case, I could not at that moment, and cannot now, associate migraine-caliber racket with the mood involved in setting a few flowers on a grave.
Though it was still hot outside, we took our pizza and occupied one of the deserted tables along the shaded sidewalk. I couldn’t really fault the marketing strategy of “live entertainment” night, for we must have left three or four dozen satisfied celebrants pecking away on their smartphones to win a free feast. A ghost, I suppose, should not flit into a tavern looking for other ghosts. Yet I wasn’t merely feeling old. I felt a little deceived—and even betrayed; for surely the Old World charm of Broad Street had not been so painfully reconstructed for rowdy boozers to remember their favorite rock festival. Would you groom and stroke a Tennessee Walking Horse so that Sherman’s wasted-and-pasted grunts could play Bronco Billy in his saddle?
To find the Goths and Vandals in those regions where they regularly depredated was much less shocking. We visited an outlet store well off the history-haunted path of Broad Street in order to pick up a few items that we’d forgotten to pack. We might have been back home again. Spanish was the lingua franca once one passed the automatic doors and entered the air-conditioned pad-and-drywall structure featuring rack upon rack of cheap clothes. Two kids of perhaps kindergarten age were having their own party ripping hangered blouses off of turnabouts, their mothers no doubt two of the five mamacitas holding court in a fluid patois near the entrance. This will of course be thought a virulently racist comment… but back in Texas, sometimes you find disposable diapers—complete with fragrant deposit—in open public trash bins. Or they find you. We escaped an encounter with that particular fertilizer of the enriched postmodern multicultural environment.
All in all, however, the spirits of the past retained the upper hand. No séance could have produced a ghost more welcome than the unexpected visitor who literally showed up at our hotel door the next afternoon: my son, wafted by the mystic wings of Southwest Airlines to Hartsfield-Jackson International on a surprise mission. Partly to pay what might be a final visit to his grandma, partly to lighten up my Father’s Day, he had taken a Friday off from his internship and given us a weekend. Moping about was now impossible: we were swept up in the habits of a very energetic twenty-one-year-old. My personal antidote to low spirits has always been the game of baseball, which I used to play (with more joy than success, perhaps) and which continues to feed my hunger for things long past. I have somehow managed to pass along this affection so well that my son has very nearly sent himself through college as a pitcher possessed of rare skills. I admire anyone—especially, these days, among the young—who imposes upon himself a disciplined regimen and pursues excellence to the maximum of his ability. I admire my son for doing this in his sport. Would I prefer that he had become a literary scholar? Why? So that my Berry College experience could be repeated a dozen times in his life, as it was in mine? A strikeout is a strikeout. The umpire doesn’t send you back a letter reading, “The last pitch showed insufficient mastery of technique to record an out. Its chosen genre was trite, its delivery off-putting, its awareness of significant precedents jejeune.” Screw that.
In the company of our young dynamo, then (whose conversation actually contains as much information about ligature and muscle groups as an anatomist’s and as much knowledge of food groups as a nutritionist’s), we had a quick meal in a less quaint quarter of town. This eatery made no pretense of being atmospheric, but the struggles of a grotesquely overweight woman who could scarcely extricate herself from a booth were a bit of comic cabaret that one sees just about everywhere in the twenty-first century. Her two minutes of entrapment between table and seating bank added an ironic postscript, it occurred to me, to the clearly audible harangue she had been delivering to her teenaged son over a plate of pancakes about not burdening his little sister with his critical opinions. Everybody has a right to think what she wants to think, ran her bromides (and to eat what she wants to eat, I suppose). Here before us was the allegorical representation, as in a medieval pageant, of Multicultural and Diverse Tolerance, so bloated on self-indulgence that mere motion was all but impossible.
I was also making mental notes about the number of apparently single women who (like the laissez-fairist behemoth beside us) dined out with children. Yes, I had subconsciously logged examples the previous evening, as well. Interesting. And it was difficult to believe that the man of the house was working late in this slow-paced Southern town on an ordinary weekday. More likely, I was noticing the proliferation of households where there was no such man… and how wholesome for the family budget and the children’s diet, under the circumstances: dining out on ordinary weekdays! I was obviously in need of the lecture on “non-judgmentalism”.
Afterward, we three took in a few innings at Rome’s State Mutual Stadium. Being within about an hour of Atlanta, Rome seemed a promising spot to seed a minor-league ball club, and the stadium supplied by the little city about fifteen years ago proved a pleasant and popular venue. Every community of any size should have its amphitheater or Coliseum, especially during the long, clement evenings of summer. State Mutual was a locale where, over the years, we had seen many young men vie for distinction who eventually ended up in the Major Leagues. McCann, Andrus, Saltalamacchia, Freeman… at one time or another, we had sat as close to them as parents sit to their padded kids at a high school football game. Spellbinding memories lurked here, as well—in abundance. My son’s room back home must harbor about a dozen baseballs with signatures collected shortly before midnight as he (at ten years old, then twelve, then thirteen and fourteen) staked out the clubhouse door that exited into the rear parking lot. The ink has blurred and faded, and most of the players themselves have long since hung up their cleats in surrender. One of them, doing rehabilitation in Rome on a day we chanced to attend, will end up in the Hall of Fame. I can still see my boy chasing down his black Escalade in the drizzle and persuading him to roll down a window, long after all the other boys had abandoned hope of seeing the superstar and gone home. Even then, my lad was a determined little cuss.
Personally (and you will already have observed my taste for nostalgia), I find minor-league parks much more attractive than the gaudy, impersonal, high-tech cattle pens at the far polarity of the professional game. There I feel like the guards at Auschwitz are treating me to a drive-in movie until the death chamber has a vacancy; here I feel like God peaking over a cloud at His little creatures trying to make something big out of their little lives. Most will fail, and their hearts will be broken, perhaps. Yet of these failures, most will also be quite ready to give it all up when they get their final release, knowing that they played out the hand they were dealt and that a different kind of life now beckons. What a lot is condensed into this drama that all of us must face, sooner or later, at a slower pace: the betrayal of bodies that finally can’t run on pure will power, the pyramidal structure of the adult world that won’t allow congestion at the top, the collision of personal vanity with the humiliating multitude of others more or less like us… I’ve wanted to weep, sometimes, when I think of these striving boy-men charting a course straight for disillusionment. I know that course well, retrospectively; and in my case, I was not “bumped” because I couldn’t perform as well as somebody on the bench, but because I performed all too well. I was once told (I tell no lie) by the dean of a Catholic school in North Carolina that I published too much and was irritating other members of department! The key to success there seemed to be observing the hierarchy with due subservience: for instance, greasing and slithering one’s way into the good graces of the “smoking buddies” in the faculty lounge. At least baseball has fair ground and foul ground: at least these young men could confront objective evidence of their failures. In my game, success was a matter of acknowledging the “immutable” presence of razor-thin foul lines wherever the major players decided to put them in an instant and on a whim. The failed ballplayer has perhaps learned to become a man; the successful academic may well have learned to become an unprincipled, gutless lackey.
While in North Carolina, my wife and I had attended several minor-league games (played by the Gastonia Rangers) where loudspeakers were used only to announce hitters, where you could hear only vendors of beer and peanuts between innings, and where fans were expected to toss foul balls back onto the field of play. Incredible: we might as well have traveled a century backward in a time machine. Now, even at small-town high school games, warm-ups between innings are serenaded by ear-splitting pop-songs, and during active play, every new hitter has a snippet of some hip-hop novelty as his “walk-up song”. The for-profit ventures use their between-innings minutes much still more aggressively. Even in the lowest minor-league venues (like Rome), their stentorian MC and roving “crowd-comber” stir in promos of local businesses, moronic guessing games, raffles, mascot races, marriage proposals and “kiss cam”… you name it. The music of the hot dog vendor and the popping mitt of the catcher receiving warm-up tosses are as oft-heard as the cry of a pterodactyl.
And the loudspeakers are so damn loud! More than once, I have had to stuff Kleenex in my ears—and never even once, I may add, to much effect.
My son, thanks be to God, has not acquired any tattoos. Yet he and I have had many a protracted conversation about the times and the customs. Naturally, he always defends his generation. The players who spectacularly flip their bat, for instance, upon driving a ball over the fence, trot around the bases like the Babe (who, one must remember, was running as fast as he could), flash some kind of semaphore at high heaven upon touching the plate, and then perform ritual antics with teammates in the dugout reminiscent of the triple-thwattled bellbird’s mating dance really, REALLY annoy me. Dimaggio would have hung them upside-down in their locker for a week. And why would you be parading this shtick in State Mutual Stadium? So you just hit a home run… you’re in low Single A, you dumb cluck! (I always want to scream).
My son, however, views all the scripted pantomime as self-expression. He associates it with honesty and “passion for the game”. To me, it reveals no more about personal identity and character than a tattoo (hence my mention of “body art” above). Every such display is but a cliché outburst distinctly partaking of the tribal, declaring to the world a) that one cannot contain one’s emotions, b) that one has no depth capable of sheltering uniqueness and mystery, and c) that the non-unique has indeed shrunk to the sad dimensions of the stereotypical. Walk-up songs send the same message to my ear: how do you compress your essential nature into a five-second scrap of mumbo-jumbo unless you haven’t much to compress? The same way, I suppose, that you reduce your view of any given issue into a tweet. Self-expression… I worry about him!
But I also have hope. The next morning, for instance, as we were visiting his grandmother, he asked me if I would walk down the country lane to the railroad track with him. We had gone that route perhaps a hundred times in the score of years that our two lives had overlapped, whether to and from a playground on the far side of the tracks or simply to wait for freight trains to come roaring past (as they still do, about every half-hour). He remarked as we walked how “same” everything stayed in the country even as urban environments kept sloughing off their skin month after month. In his tone was satisfaction. My own conviction is that people need a background of sameness to acquire a sense of life’s rhythm—to measure how far they themselves have moved in this or that direction, and to understand that all mortal motion ultimately takes place within a grand framework of stasis. If the South has more of such stasis than the North, then the countryside certainly has more of it than the city, even around Rome. My boy’s generation has so little opportunity to stop and think, and indeed is exploited so shamelessly with the marketing of constant and instant novelty, that his own passing appreciation of these fixed childhood scenes gave me a heartening glimpse of a mind not yet captive to our post-cultural maelstrom.
Of course, some things had indeed changed. I pointed out to him the overgrown ramp that used to take the little road over the tracks. You could now pass on to the mill village only by climbing afoot through tall weeds and stumbling over the fragmented slate that supported the great ties. The factory on the far side was fully shut down now. We could see its broken windows and rusted “keep out” signs, and the parking lot’s tarmac that released a shimmer into the unobstructed sun seemed to mirror the corrugated iron sheets of deserted buildings. I gathered a couple of cast-off, oxidized railroad spikes from our side and took care to keep them off my pants as we walked. Cleaned up, they make excellent weights to hold a book open over lunch.
Back at the hotel that same afternoon, we were able to find a much more manicured park than the old mill village’s, just on the other side of the Coosa and a little off the footpaths. In fact, the three baseball fields were considerably upgraded from the time I could remember my wife and me bringing the little tyke out here for a picnic. Back then, those diamonds were merely three backstops with the chain-link screens peeling off them; now, their grass watered and mowed, their infield dirt weeded and raked, they were apparently too good for the use of casual visitors. The fences seamlessly enclosing all three were padlocked, and nowhere did I see a speck of rust. I also noticed nobody besides my son and me in this expensively upgraded riverside park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Games by appointment only.
Every well-made backstop has padding behind home plate, which we would happily have put to use if locked gates had not met us at every turn. Now we had to improvise, and my son picked an outer section of fence for his workout. With pride, he pointed out to me how the links were steadily being molded inward by the velocity of his pitches; and with a little secret and vengeful satisfaction, I sneered over my shoulder at invisible civic Mussolinis, probably on a plush golf course somewhere, who didn’t want their impressive public works sullied by a virtuous but sloppy plebs. In retrospect, I suppose that we were faintly defacing public property. At the time, my annoyance that this public property was inaccessible to the taxpayer held the upper hand.
We made one more trip to State Mutual Stadium that evening, partly because the ballpark restaurant makes the best sandwiches in the South, and partly because circumstances had forced us to leave the previous night’s game early. It was our misfortune to have blundered upon Car Giveaway Night. The place was packed (or as packed as a stadium that holds about 5,000 can be). We happened to arrive late enough that entry was easy, but so late that the best tables along the restaurant’s outdoor balcony and overlooking the home-plate area were taken. We managed to find a spot where we could follow the action by weaving our heads this way and that way to counter the moves of the people just in front of us. Their conduct became almost as much a spectacle to my wife and me as the play on the field (which eventually ended in a dramatic ninth-inning “walk-off” hit). Four solid citizens of “a certain age”—two males and their ladies—were putting together a really impressive run of empty beer cans. The blonde directly in my line of sight, especially, had either made a yeomanly contribution to the total or else simply couldn’t handle her share. She was up and down constantly, screaming in that fashion that I associate with high school cheerleaders and audiences of game shows when the “applause” sign lights up. Trim and petite though not without a few cruel wrinkles about the neck, she appeared to me to draw fond looks from the banker-type chap who kept plying her with libation. Loud as the speakers surely were and well oiled as the crowd surely was by this time, her shrill warbles and war hoops were probably audible all around the stadium—perhaps because she cut loose with them in response to no particular cue from the field.
At no point did any of the four at this table ever turn around to check if he or she might be blocking someone’s view. In fact, there were dozens of passers-by who ambled along the path between our tables and the bleacher sitting and simply decided to stop in their tracks, whether to follow a pitch or to use a cell phone. I did not observe a single one of these persons to do so much as deal a look over the shoulder, let alone drop down or hustle out of the way.
Then there were the pre-adolescents who persisted in kicking something the size of a soccer ball, but apparently lighter, into random sections of the bleachers. My wife and I had already reached tacit agreement (I could tell by the look in her eye) that we would stick a knife in the thing if it chanced to land in our food. Never did anything that might have gone by the name of “adult supervision” impede the progress of the bouncing ball. So it goes these days. All parents think that whatever their unbridled kids do is “cute”; and if you should happen to think otherwise, then you risk verbal and physical abuse, and there’s most certainly something very wrong with your psychological profile. Probably the same thing that might make you want to see a ballplayer just circle the bases, sit down, and shut up after hitting a home run. How weirdly sociopathic of you!
And to be fair to them, the little twerps were really no more responsible for threatening one’s food and drink and blocking one’s view of the game than the two tots in the outlet store had been for ripping clothes off of racks. I understand that social media are lit up these days with the indignant question, “Where are the parents?” every time a kid falls into a gorilla’s cage. Well… where are the parents? I’m supposing that some of them, on this occasion, must have thought that a beach ball randomly smacking heads and laps was a suitably festive accompaniment to play on the field (not reflecting that certain spectators might actually attend a ball game to see the ball game). Others were texting. I really don’t know why more young women, especially, are not carried out of ballparks in stretchers; for a hardball can transit into the bleachers at about 100 mph, and having your face in a smartphone isn’t the smartest way to prepare for impact.
But, at this particular event, probably most of the parents were busily draining their grog or addressing the after-effects of soaking up three or four pints within an hour. Cute little ice-buckets of nine cans apiece, collectably featuring the Braves’ logo on their side, had shone up in places far beyond the reach of my petite screaming blonde in the dining area. As we took our seats down below for the final innings (they actually weren’t our seats: my son appears to be a past master of occupying vacant, more expensive vantages right under an usher’s nose), I realized that the crowd was pretty liberally soused. Yet another relatively recent fixture at professional ball games (at least in my experience) is the line of people streaming to and from restrooms, reminiscent of industrious ants working their way to and from a picnic table. It hadn’t used to be that way… not nearly so much. And in Rome, of all places—a town of a dozen churches within walking distance of our hotel on Broad Street (half of them Southern Baptist)! Dante quotes a proverb somewhere: Nella chiesa coi santi ed in taverna coi ghiottoni (“In church with the saints, in the bar with the guzzlers”). Now there’s a verse that has stood the test of time! Every ballplayer understands that a game is composed of special situations. Romans, too, apparently understand that at State Mutual Stadium you pass the cute little nine-count ice-bucket, not the collection plate.
Surely Bacchus and his brew are responsible for one further innovation to ballpark culture that well explains why shotguns are not allowed inside: the spike-howl. I don’t know what else to name it. My wife figured that teenaged girls must be its origin because of the high pitch; but no, it is too throaty for that in most instances. It starts at the tip-top (or the spike) of the register, both in pitch and in volume, and then slides down, consuming a second or two. Its capacity to annoy is extreme—I might even say maximal; and its occasion might be a strikeout, a hit, a good play, or a rolling cerebral brownout. As if booming loudspeakers, rock and rap music, kiss cam, beach balls, and immovable obstructions with cell phones on their ears were not enough distraction from the intimate duel of pitcher and hitter, now we have stewed idiots screeching randomly just behind us or on either side. It’s all the rage now. When we returned home and I resumed watching an occasional big-league game in the evening, I was able to detect this new kind of racket in the background. Another trend. How do you define “sociopath”?
Letting my son off at the airport on Sunday afternoon left a hole in my heart, as it always does. I am proud to say, though, that when he was a boy, he didn’t wander about tossing things into rows of spectators—and that, now in his early manhood, he does not (as far as I know) liquor himself up until he becomes a public curiosity or abuse his body (whether with food or pinpricks or piercing and rings) until he resembles a refugee from a circus sideshow. I guess we didn’t do so badly, my wife and I.
Yet certain imprints of this trip, despite its many moments of rare pleasure, continue to pinch me hard at some pressure point that I’m struggling to find. I still love Rome. I still may very well choose to retire there. And I mustn’t refuse a barrel of good apples because a few on the bottom have rotten spots; I well remember all those walkers who greeted me politely on the riverside trail. I think it may be precisely because Rome is indeed overwhelmingly the sort of rooted, gentle backwater whose civility I prize that the drip-drip-drip of crudity, observable even there, comes as a sobering reality. We can’t escape it: the world is louder, more egocentric, less controlled and dignified, more ostentatious and in-your-face… everywhere you go, everywhere you look, it is decidedly more so than it was a decade or two ago. Maybe our keepers in local government are right to limit our access even to a public playground, since we are increasingly becoming a tribe that chucks empty beer cans as a goat sheds hair, leaves disposable diapers in trash cans, carves initials (or obscenities) on anything flat and upright, rides dirt-bikes and skateboards over anything thirty degrees off the upright, and forgets to close the opened while passing through in a feverish flurry of texting. Perhaps we need Big Sister, the Supernanny, enforcing with fines and revoked memberships the common manners no longer commonly taught. And, of course, once Supernanny wears a badge and uniform, enforced behavior will no longer really qualify as manners—and even our best-preserved relics from a civilized past will become a museum visited by sixth-graders under a guard’s watchful nose rather than a valued corridor of our home.
Much as I might like to, however, I cannot leave a concluding emphasis upon the intrusions of government bureaucracy. Robotic civil servants exacting polite behavior with a lift of their blackjack… yes, that’s at least as dissonant an image as Mussolini’s progressive-toned she-wolf on the lawn of a Southern library. But intrusive bureaucracy is not really what I saw in Rome: not at all. Except for those padlocked baseball diamonds along the Etowah, I saw no evidence of the public’s being high-handedly monitored. Maybe what I saw was the looming necessity of such monitoring. If a squad of “manners cops” ever comes to exist on our streets the way the PC Gestapo polices our campuses, it will be because we ourselves just can’t keep a lid on our “self-expression”, any more than we can keep half a dozen pull-tabs from exiting our six-pack before we get home. We don’t take care of what few fine things survive around us. We don’t respect the purposes for which fine things were created. We may value the aesthetic qualities of the slower, more natural life at some level and during some few moments; but we don’t value slowness in any of its useful forms, and we don’t understand either our own nature or the nature of the broader reality of which we form a part.
We can fight to preserve some of the architectural coherence and pedestrian-level humanity of our cities and towns, and we may win some of those fights; but if we will no longer allow the persons around us a little peace to think or have private conversations and a bit of uninvaded physical space to make their own particular way, then, indeed, historic markers might as well be placards before museum casements.
You can draw the foul lines ever so straight, but you still don’t have a game unless you know the rules.
Dr. John Harris founded The Center for Literate Values and serves as its current president. He is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.