In Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, Oliver Gant, after learning stonecutting in Baltimore, moves to the Reconstructed South and stays sober long enough to meet his first wife. Eighteen months later he’s relapsed, and she’s died of a hemorrhage. Rootless, adrift, and scared of dying of tuberculosis, he sets out westward seeking anonymity and ends up in the mountain-valley town of Altamont (Asheville, North Carolina). He wonders: Why here?
I immigrated to North Carolina thirty-three years ago after I was laid off during New York City’s financial crisis and my girlfriend was moving here to be closer to her mother.
I helped her move, driving a big U-Haul full of her belongings from the Long Island town of Sagaponack to Durham and then down Rt. 1 (the Jefferson Davis Highway) to Southern Pines in the Sandhills, a rural region of ancient dunes near Pinehurst, the famous golf resort.
After arriving I stayed a couple of weeks and then returned to Brooklyn. Over the winter my girlfriend and I talked about our future. I didn’t know if or when I’d get my job back; we missed each other, so I decided to join her.
I’d never lived anywhere else and, unprepared for provincial small-town life, I went into culture shock. Within six months, although my girl wasn’t happy about it, I decided to go back home. So I packed, rented a car, and was driving back to the city on I-85 on a clear, starry October night when I had what can only be described as a mystical experience. Something, I think it was God, told me to go back to Southern Pines. I did and I’ve been here ever since.
Living here has brought me both gifts and afflictions. The Lord giveth and taketh away, works in mysterious ways, and it’s said that everything happens for a reason, but sometimes I’ve wondered if Descartes was right when he posed God as an evil deceiver. God’s gifts come with strings attached.
Every spring the thick, brittle leaves of the magnolia near my driveway drop, hitting the asphalt with a crack. When the wind blows you hear them scraping, and if you step on one it crunches. After a shower, piles of leaves heaped all over town emanate brown liquor reeking of primordial swamp. When the trees bloom they have large, white blossoms most people find attractive but I see as ungainly. They’re short-lived and languishing under their own weight; they’ll yellow, flop over, and die.
It’s also the time of year my windows are open before the heat sets in, and the large Presbyterian church around the corner sometimes broadcasts hymns after tolling the hour and I have no choice but to listen to them. My parents were French-Mexican, Catholic and Russian, Jewish. After living here for a decade I found a job I loved and started attending conferences. The proceedings always started with a prayer to Jesus, common in the Bible Belt, but that I never found appropriate.
I met my girlfriend at the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan, but after we married—she was raised Episcopalian—we made a foray into local religion. It was a social initiative, an attempt to blend in to the community, but I always felt like a stranger in a strange land. There were fewer immigrants in those days, and what appeared on the surface as a friendly community was also set in its ways, class bound, and parochial.
North Carolina was a red state until Obama, although historically more progressive than the rest of the South. It has some of the largest military bases in the country, and I live a short distance from Fort Bragg. I’ve been apolitical most of my life, except during the Vietnam War and since the advent of the Iraq War, the onslaught of flag-waving, and the local military buildup. I found myself dispensing antiwar, liberal views in a forest of conservatism. Years ago I wrote a wry letter to the local newspaper, The Pilot, complaining about the 82nd Airborne’s cannons rattling my windows. The responses to my letter characterized me as little less than a traitor.
I want to say this without sounding bigoted. There are good people living here and even if they don’t know you they have a seemingly benevolent need to wave at you from their cars. In New York City you never made eye contact on the subway and never waved or smiled at anybody you didn’t know.
Recently, on my way back to North Carolina from northern Virginia on Amtrak, as we approached Rocky Mount, I experienced an internal smile as I looked out on the familiar countryside. When we stopped in Raleigh I observed a family from Boston on their way to Orlando. The dad, covered in Celtics logos, affectionately called his son stupid, and I winced; the people appeared so crude. When I lived in Brooklyn years ago they would have sounded like everyone else but living here has changed me.
It took a long time, but I was inoculated with a slow-drip titration of Southern culture and civility and fell in love with North Carolina and maybe even this illiberal, hybrid resort town. Along the way, I’ve developed a yen for iced tea and bourbon, and given a choice, would eat a biscuit as soon as a bagel.
These days I want to put a wall around North Carolina. The heavy immigration started in the 80s but attracting tourists to the state has been developing since the late 1800s. North Carolina, formerly known as the “Rip Van Winkle” state, has become urbanized, suburbanized, and more diversified. As Thomas Wolfe believed about his beloved birthplace, Asheville, degrees of native charm and culture have suffered, and much of the prime land in the state continues to be broken up for upscale resorts and developments.
There are things I admire about Southern culture and things I don’t, but I don’t want the South to lose its stubborn, inimitable soul. Right now I’m working hard to understand North Carolina, its history and people, because I want to come to peace with living here, but I still wonder. Why here?