Though this space is usually dedicated to literary fiction, I would like to concentrate today on a somewhat lighter species of literature, the New York Times’ Escapes article. Specifically, last Friday I read “At Ole Miss, The Tailgaters Never Lose,” an Escapes article by William L. Hamilton that tried to capture the unique scene at the Grove in Oxford, Miss., when the University of Mississippi has a home game. Being from Mississippi and having been to the Grove on a handful of occasions, I cannot resist annotating this article.
First, the scene: the Grove—essentially a big circle of grass with a stand of trees—sits in the middle of campus and it is the tailgating spot for all home games. And actually, tailgating isn’t a strong enough word for what goes on there. The scene there is part reunion, part pagan ritual, complete with virgin sacrifice. Overall, I think Hamilton does a good job of describing what it’s like—the faithful, energetic partying; the inexorable power of a family tradition—with little to no regional sneering. This is quite a feat when writing about the South. I’ve even coined my own name for this affliction, where otherwise sensible writers turn callow and petulant—or simply shallow and stupid—when discussing the South, where writers often exhibit the same flaws they find in the South: racism, xenophobia, a slippery grasp on history, overall political idiocy, demagoguery instead of intelligence, etc. and so forth. There was an essay sort of like this that appeared in the New York Review of Books by Charles Simic called “Down There on a Visit” that reeked of an east coast superiority, and the essay—discovered in my beloved New York Review, no less—got me so mad I got lockjaw. I began and abandoned several letters to the editor. I talked about the article obsessively (for about three days). Every once in a while I take the essay back out—I’ve got a file of offenders, like some prison-state hit-list (or The Believer’s snark-watch; take your pick)—and get re-pissed about the whole enchilada. It doesn’t matter if Simic has a point in the essay; it matters that he makes it with a sneer; it matters that he’s spitting on my bit of concrete.
Or to put it another way: making fun of the South if you’re not a southerner is like your girlfriend making fun of your sister. “I can make fun of my sister because she’s my sister, but you, my dear, better shut your face.” It doesn’t matter if your beloved is on the mark or not about your sister.
So anyway, there are still some bits I’ve got to add to Hamilton’s article. For example: the liquor laws. The article doesn’t even touch on this. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the alcohol just flowed forth like sunshine, when in fact north Mississippi is home to a whole weird spectrum of Blue Laws for alcohol purchase and consumption. I’m not really sure what the deal/history is behind all of this, and if I were a different type of writer (or if it weren’t 11 p.m. the night before I said I’d post this column), I’d do some research here, but take it from me that you can’t just buy everything you want exactly when you want it. For example, the last time I was there for any considerable amount of time, one could not buy cold beer at a gas station within the city limits of Oxford. You could buy unrefrigerated beer, and you could buy liquor, but no cold, just-got-it-from-the-Qwik-N-Go beer. (Restaurants are a whole different scene. I don’t know why. Next time I promise to research this.) What this means, at least when I had friends matriculating there, is that nearly every undergrad has a cooler in the back of his car, and that there are a handful of old wivish tips on how to get one’s beer colder faster. For instance, I’ve heard that spinning your beer in ice-cold cooler-water will chill your beer faster. I’ve even seen some sort of auto-beer-spin contraption that you plug into your cigarette lighter.
These Blue Laws change radically with just a step over the county line. I remember a certain gas station on the county line (city line? Really—next time: research) whose main claim to fame was that it was the closest geographic spot from campus at which you could buy cold beer. In Water Valley, where I once lived for a summer and which is about 15 minutes from Oxford, I don’t think you can buy beer at all, though we could hit a liquor store with a baseball from where my roommate and I were staying. I’m not sure if I’ve got a real point with this point, only to say that the article—because of where it’s appearing and length constrictions and whathaveyou—can’t point out some of the deeper anthropological weirdness of Oxford.
Which brings me to #2 on my list of annotations: Oxford as the center of the universe. The article touched on this briefly, how home football games in general, and the partying in the Grove in particular, is a big fat networking meeting of various movers and shakers, and those movers’ and shakers’ offspring who will some day grow up, couple, produce their own young, and go off to move and shake on their own. But it’s more than that. It’s not simply a bunch of good ol’ boys passing a cooler around. I have this strong, hard-to-shake feeling that Oxford is indeed the center of the universe, or if not the universe then at least the center of Mississippi. I don’t know if other states have this same town phenomenon; I think I would have to grow up somewhere else to tell, but Oxford, to put it gently, holds everyone I’ve ever known. I don’t see everyone every time everywhere I go, but when I go I always see people from my childhood, as if every friend from camp or the church youth group or just that guy who went to your school but only in the second grade—they’re all in Oxford, and you just have to walk around some to bump into them. I think this happens across generations. It’s like the town is this other dimension, or perhaps a worm hole or something, where you constantly catch your hand on splinters from the past. I was once in the Grove listening to the marching band play their post-game version of “Dixie”—an experience that merits a whole other column—when I saw a girl I had a crush on for a week when I was 12 at camp. Yes, you might say this is merely a coincidence brought on by geography and the limited options of state-funded universities. But no, I maintain that this kind of eerie spotting and bumping into happens constantly and on a scale that makes it Twilight Zone–level weird.
Finally, my third annotation concerns the photos in the article. The one on the second web page is especially perfect. Click to enlarge it to see what I’m talking about. In the left of the frame is a blonde coed doing something with her hair. She’s wearing a polka dot dress and a long string of pearls. She is beautiful in the Ole Miss way—pretty without being striking, if that makes sense. In the far right side of the frame is a male student, wearing a buttoned-down shirt, a tie, and blue khakis, along with a pair of flip-flops. Several people in the frame have those ubiquitous red Solo cups, those that simply beg to be used with a keg. (What is it with those cups?) In the middle of the frame is an older woman, not old old, but simply grown up. She’s been out of college ten, twelve years, say. Next to her is the back of some grown up guy. Look closely and notice the beginnings of love handles. This shot is a tiny panorama, a slice-of-life shot, a people-in-the-middle-of-fun shot. I think it captures the scene almost perfectly—the theatricality of the undergraduate uniform for the football games, what with the pearls and the tie but still the flip-flops. The flip-flops are a wink, a raised eyebrow. They are an admission that this is theatre, that the students aren’t really dressed up, or to be more exact, that the students are dressed up because that is what they do in this particular scene, this part in the movie called College. Then there are the real adults, dressed much more casually, the way you would on a Saturday where you take the kids to a soccer game. The dressiness of the adults and the students is almost inverted here. One group gets to be young; the other gets to be faux-old, faux-sophisticated. Then, the scene ends. There is nothing sadder than seeing a group of college students dressed to the gills barfing their fishguts out in the early predawn hours of a north Mississippi morning. Try not to think of that distinctive smell.
Hamilton writes about the accrual of generations in the Grove but it takes this picture to get a clearer idea—the ritualistic aspects and the nostalgic aspects and the ritualistically nostalgic aspects.
This ritual might seem foreign to you, absurd even. I can’t imagine where you are, out there reading this. Do you have your own corollary for the Grove? Your own nostalgic worm hole? Are you as bemused as me?