Friday, February 10, 2017

a local story

Though the Rensing Center does an admirable job of fostering community, it is not yet the true community center of Pickens County. That role is still filled by the flea market just down the road, a weekly morning of commerce in a wide muddy field.

Without corporate America there to mediate the buying and selling, one can appreciate the vastness of South Carolina's wants. Some vendors, for instance, have strewn their tables with nothing but rusty bits and bobs of metal--a truck hitch, say, and the business end of an old mattock. Before actually seeing two men haggle over rusted iron, I would have been dead certain you'd have to pay the landfill to take it.

Take a few more steps for the chance to buy a caged rooster and a stars-and-bars bandana from the same woman. Or, if not interested in ethically questionable poultry, why not buy a controller for a video game console that hasn't been manufactured in this century? Come on. You know you want it.

Which of course just goes to show what we already knew: there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. As we all do when we travel, I arrived with my own notions about what things belonged in the category called "valuable" and what things belonged in the category called "trash."

The categories we put the world into become a story we tell, a declaration of what we believe to be important, and I have appreciated the chance at the flea market to get acquainted with the story those in upcountry South Carolina are telling.

That story seems to have two centers. The first is Jesus, whom I run into again and again. His face is on the art I see for sale and his name is all over the books I thumb through, including the one I actually bought: Becoming a Woman of Excellence, a bible study extolling the womanly virtues of obedience, demure dress, and silence. The vendor suggested I give it to my wife—once I have one, that is. That I am to be put in the category called "Christian," I have come to understand, is simply assumed at this market.

The story's second center is race, which is entwined of course with Jesus. That he, a Semite born in the Middle East, is invariably presented as white at the flea market says it all. But race rears its head everywhere and even in the most surprising ways. For instance, the lonely man selling adult DVDs separates his grand collection into three categories: "White," "Latin & Asian," and "Black." Race, apparently, is also sexual taste.

All of which troubles me, but is perhaps not quite so different from much of America. What makes me feel most foreign in Pickens County is something wonderful: everyone seems to put me in the category called "important."

When I was fifty cents short on something I wanted, another shopper simply gave me money. People ask me where I'm from and how I like it here. Many seem excited to meet an actual writer. The produce man at the supermarket seemed happy to drop what he was doing to help me. Even the postal workers here seem concerned with whether or not I am having a good day.

Having spent my adult life in places where the polite way to show you respect a stranger is to leave them in peace and let them do their thing, I am consistently caught flat-footed by the local friendliness. I have no idea what to say when someone wants to make small chat with me, but it has at least shown me how, elsewhere I've lived, letting someone be often becomes just an excuse for not giving a damn.

I like this part of the Pickens County story, where the welfare of strangers is in the category called "everyone's concern." The trick, I suppose, is learning to voice care while also leaving people space do their thing. It will be my goal, when I leave the Rensing Center, to learn to do just that.

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