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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Big Country Little Car Tour, Day 7

Submitted by on March 30, 2010 – 3:30 PM62 Comments

I had about a half dozen different days in one on Monday, starting off at the National Civil Rights Museum. I’d forgotten Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and the museum is on the site of the motel where that occurred. Approaching it on a sunny morning, the plaza around it nearly empty, nothing going on but birds, is unsettling; on top of that, having visited Graceland the day before and then, for whatever reason, selecting an oral-history biography of RFK as my bedtime reading the night before, I had alternate realities on my mind — what that world is like in which any or all of these men got to get old.


The museum itself is, put simply, oppressive. It’s laid out well given the sheer volume of material, but then: the sheer volume of material. I got so angry. Just let James Meredith go to fucking school, and if you don’t want to hang out with him, don’t fucking hang out with him! How hard is this? That aspect of racism is just baffling to me — not that I “get” any of the other aspects, but leaving the (im-)morality of going to these harassing lengths aside, don’t racists have anything better to do? TV to watch? Jobs to go to? Card game? Something? I mean, there’s the crappy beliefs themselves, and then there’s living in the room above the dude and bouncing a basketball on the floor for hours at a time so that he can’t concentrate on studying. I don’t mean to make light of it, but: get a life, racists, Jesus H.

I stormed out to the car, exhausted, and the road out of Memphis into Mississippi didn’t help my mood much; for much of the way, it’s flat, straight as a string, with no turn-offs and not much to look at besides casino billboards. After a while, I decided the hell with it — I need coffee, I like blackjack, and my mood needs changing up.

ballysInto Bally’s in Tunica I went, promptly dropping the average age within by about 40 years. Blackjack in Tunica is dealt more informally than in Atlantic City, which took getting used to, and my mood wasn’t the only one in need of an adjustment — our dealer, Dorothy, was Frisbee-ing the cards at us like a sullen Bond girl. She did favor me with a handful of twenty-ones, though, and I left up $45 and made my way to Greenville and the McCormick Book Inn, where the owner offered me coffee, and waited until I’d already purchased a book about the 1927 flood to tell me everything the author had fouled up (he’d spent the bulk of my browsing time on the telephone, chasing down evidence on the same subject). It’s a welcoming store, and the coffee is delish, but while the owner is nice, do not get him started on Rising Tide.

The rest of the afternoon I spent either driving aimlessly around Greenville — a postcard town, at sixes and sevens in some areas, in which pothole repair is not a priority — or reading Shelby Foote’s book about Vicksburg in a sunny parking lot. Three different people stopped to make sure I was all right, which is very sweet, and then couldn’t get their heads around the response, “Just reading a book.”I’ll grant that a lunchbox with pedals containing a big blonde with her feet up, reading a Civil War history, is perhaps not an ordinary sight, but I got the feeling the bafflement proceeded primarily from the reading part. Do any other readers get that from well-meaning strangers, or even acquaintances and friends — confusion at the idea that you read when you don’t have to, when it’s not for school or out of desperation, that they want to ask, “But what the hell would you do that for?” but somehow knowing they shouldn’t?

Then I went to Doe’s Eat Place to meet friends of a friend. That place is awesome (I’ve had apartments smaller than a single shrimp on my plate last night) and so are the friends, who politely weathered the “I haven’t seen anyone I know personally in three days; I will now share some thoughts” gale.

It didn’t feel that late when I got on the road again (…okay, it may have taken some time for me to stuff myself into the car), but going to Monroe, only the moon kept me company. Wait, that’s not true: I did have a nice visit with the entire staff of a McDonald’s in Arkansas. The employee at the first drive-through window, where I paid, tipped everyone at the second window to the incoming motorized M&M, and when I pulled up to grab my coffee, it looked like a phone-booth frat prank in there, all the night-shifters crammed around the window to take a look. “Evening, folks.” “…Awwww!” Into Louisiana, I drank coffee and listened to Bob Dylan’s country album and thought about trips home from Grandma’s as a tiny sprout, when I would sternly tell the moon to stop following our car, and I was glad she hadn’t listened.




  • attica says:

    That the reading was in a parking lot would suggest to me that the reader is killing time waitin’ on a tow truck.

    Blackjack scares me. I’ve never lost money so fast as the few times I’ve played. I like roulette so much better; that ball is mesmerizing to watch, and everybody gets the bad news at the same time.

  • Jamie says:

    I don’t get the “why would you want to do that?” re: reading as much now as an adult as I did as a kid. (Or maybe other kids are more likely to ask, since they haven’t developed the idea that they shouldn’t?)

  • Anlyn says:

    During our 16-hour trips from Oklahoma to Ohio, Mom would tell me the man in the moon was watching me. Because of that, I was scared of the moon for *years*. Thanks a lot, Mom. I think she meant it to be comforting. It…wasn’t.

  • Robin says:

    I have Rising Tide in my pile of books to read because I loved his book on the 1918 flu (which makes me sound weird). I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say.

  • Amie says:

    Re: Reading
    A few years ago, I was waiting for my car at a Jiffy Lube. I was reading “The Psychology of Survivor”, which, yeah, is real analysis by real scientists, but is about the dumbass TV show Survivor, so it wasn’t like it was something completely erudite or esoteric, and the book does not look academic or scholarly at all. A man saw me reading and commented “Aren’t you studious!” in a way that I can only describe as a mix of bafflement, disdain, and condescension. Like, the fact that I carried my own book with me, rather than passing time with the old Newsweeks, car magazines, and cable news was a puzzle.

  • emilygrace says:

    Aw, you made me miss Greenville. The weather in NY doesn’t help. I bet it’s more the sitting in the car than the reading that caused the confusion – I’ve spent a fair amount of time parked on the side of the road in the south (work related), and constantly gotten checked on, but I’ve read in some weird places and not had anyone bat an eye.

  • Amanda says:

    My coworkers, no matter where I’ve worked — two academic offices, a shipyard, and a department store — have always had the same reaction to the sight of me reading on break or at lunch. “What are you doing?” “Reading a book.” Then either they ask me what the book is about, then sneer, or they skip asking and just sneer. What up with that.

    This series is tempting me into a quick roadtrip around my region between the end of the semester and the start of my summer gig. Not sure my 16-year-old Saab hatchback would weather it quite as well as the Smart, and I know for sure it wouldn’t get the same reactions. But it’s still tempting.

    I love that “tiny + cute = leverage” can apply to both the Smart and Master Stupidhead. A tag more versatile than we once thought!

  • Kate says:

    “Do any other readers get that from well-meaning strangers, or even acquaintances and friends — confusion at the idea that you read when you don’t have to, when it’s not for school or out of desperation, that they want to ask, “But what the hell would you do that for?” but somehow knowing they shouldn’t?”
    God, yes. In fact, when I first saw this xkcd comic, I wanted to ask the artist why he was spying on me:
    (don’t forget to let your mouse hover over the comic for a bit, to read the alt-text. Hee!)

    The whole racism thing reminds me of today’s brouhaha over gay rights and gay marriages. Just let them get married, people. Jane and Janice want to marry each other, not you, so what do you care?

  • Kari says:

    I enjoy reading about your trip, but today, I was reading a little too quickly near the end. I thought, “She’s tipping the drive-through people at McDonald’s?? That’s surprising.” A re-read was good for clarification and a laugh at my own expense. :)

  • stanley says:

    Oh, I’ve gotten the baffled stares and comments when reading in public before. “Are you…in school?” as if that’s the only reason to read a book, especially a book that is not by Nora Roberts or John Grisham. Of course, I deal similar baffled stares to people who get on a plane for a five-hour flight with NOTHING to read. I mean, really? Seriously, what are you going to do for five hours while stuck in a little seat? No, I mean I really want to know what the plan is. Because I’m not talking to you, if that’s what you were thinking. But I’ve gotten off-topic.

    Love the updates, Sars!

  • Lauren says:

    I don’t understand the why read attitude but I’ve gotten it a lot.

  • Sharon says:

    Hee, “motorized M&M.” Every time I see one of those Smart cars, I think about you, Sars.

    Also, welcome to Louisiana! :)

  • Bea says:

    Ah, the “What Are You Doing? READING?! Well, Ok Then, Weirdo” look of bafflement. Yes, I’ve gotten this reaction since pretty much right around the time I learned to read. Seconded only by the same person seeing me later and exclaiming, “Another book? Wow!” like I was only going to read one book EVER in my life.

    Kate, I love xkcd and that particular comic describes my life. Heh.

  • Jaybird says:

    I get the “Why’re you READING?” guff a lot too, and always have. You live to be my age, you let it roll off. Plus, lately it’s usually a Dan Simmons or Elizabeth Kostova or a Carlos Ruiz Zafon chunk of a tome, handy for whackin’ on whomever gets too uppity about the reading. You could stun a buffalo with one of those things.

    I grew up in Birmingham (a.k.a. “Bombingham”) and STILL don’t get the racism thing. Life is tough enough, people. Especially in an area that has more bugs per square foot than the Amazon, and so much humidity you can move too fast and make it rain by accident.

  • Natalie says:

    Oh, yes. I frequently get the sideways look when I get to a restaurant, movie theater, etc before my friends and pull a book out of my purse. It’s not a snake, people.

  • JennJen says:

    When I graduated college, I had few friends (they weren’t and still are not big fans of reading) who got these odd looks when they came to my house and I said “hold on, let me finish this chapter” or when they called and asked what I was doing and I replied “just reading.” They actually did ask me why. But, to be fair, I did spend a lot time complaining about reading in school, so they didn’t quite understand why I’d *choose* to read. Then again, reading a fictional book about magical creatures and such is much more interesting than reading about different aspects of accounting and why the stuff I learn the previous semester was wrong.

  • Toni says:

    Hell, I keep “emergency books” in my car for those times when I inexplicably get stuck somewhere with nothing to do. Stranded without food or water? No problem. Stuck in a line at the DMV without a book? Horror!

  • Merideth says:

    Oh, Sars, you hit my pet peeve.

    When I take the bus, and I have my MP3 player and my book, it means that I do. not. want. to. talk. to. you.

    Please don’t interrupt me! Often, I have people chat with me so I “don’t have to read that book!”

    Grrrrr…. Argh!

    Of course, the fact that my bus stop is on the same line as the local methadone clinic might have something to do with my reluctance to shoot the breeze with my fellow passengers. But still.

  • Susan says:

    I had a reputation at my last job as “that woman who reads books”. To the point where, if I used a word in a meeting that they didn’t understand, one would turn to any new person and explain it away as “she’s the one who reads” and everyone would nod their heads. Sigh.

  • Salieri2 says:

    My experience as ‘Exhibit A: Reader’ is usually different: not confusion at the activity but disregard of its status as one. Generally I get people who treat my reading as a conversation-starter, a jumping-off point for a monologue they want to have near me about, initially, books THEY’VE read and then, inevitably, movies. It rarely fails. Clearly reading, to them, is not something absorbing or interesting enough to give them have any scruple about interrupting me: I must be reading only because I have no one to talk to about TV shows or movies. Fortunately, they’re there to save me from my boring substitute pastime.

    They approach me to ask “What’cha readin’?” [I wave the cover, warily. Perhaps I shall change this tactic to “Nothing now; I’m talking to you.”]
    “Oh. I’ve never read that. The last book I read was [X]. I liked it OK, but the movie was better. It had [Y] in it, and he was great! Not as good as in his other movie, [Z], remember that one?” “No, I never saw that, I–” “You WHAT? Are you an AMERICAN? I saw that movie four times, my favorite part was that scene where…”……blah blah blah.

    I guess it might be a form of the why-read attitude, but more kindly meant, from people who only read as a last resort and see a person reading as a socially isolated unfortunate. I am sure they mean well. But it makes me stabby.

  • JoAnne says:

    Sars, if you are going near New Orleans and haven’t been here before, make sure you stop here for a meal. Awesome food and I’d be happy to offer recommendations. Bread pudding is a must!

  • Laura Beth says:

    Welcome to Monroe!! I wish I had paid attention to your route so I could have offered to take you out to dinner.

  • ferretrick says:

    Sars, what are the signs in the pictures about? I can’t make out most of what they say, the picture is too small.

  • Jen says:

    I complain about living in Boston for lots of reasons, but I will say that since I moved here I don’t really get weird looks (that I notice) or comments when I pull out a book to pass the time in public.

    My husband of fifteen years, though, will regularly come into a room where I’m reading and ask, “What are you doing?” I’ve never figured out what else he thinks my answer might be.

  • Dawnathan says:

    “motorized M&M” made me smile… Thanks!

  • Patricia says:

    @Kate, you have made my life pointing out the alt-text in xkcd. I’m a big fan but somehow never knew it was there! Now my life will be wasted as I re-read every single comic to read the alt-text.

  • StillAnotherKate says:

    Maybe it’s living in NYC where so many people take mass transit, but no one bats an eye when you read on the subway or bus. Those not reading are either glued to their cellberries or have an uncomfortable look as if to say “Dammit, I left my book at home this morning. How the hell am I going to get through the bus trip across 34th Street now?”

    I don’t even get inquisitive looks about my Kindle anymore. Just yesterday I saw two other people reading a Kindle or Kindle-like device and that was just in the way-back section of the bus where I was sitting.

  • Cyntada says:

    “…and thought about trips home from Grandma’s as a tiny sprout, when I would sternly tell the moon to stop following our car, and I was glad she hadn’t listened.”

    Beatifully stated as always. Reminds me of a lot of late-night childhood drives.

    Count me among those who have received some funny looks for daring to read something that is neither a textbook nor a current bestseller.

  • Cyntada says:

    Oh, and @stanley: I’ve been known to never take out the book I brought on a five-hour flight, and there could be a lot of reasons: I’ve got something to think about (although that invariably involves writing/sketching); I have a sketchbook and I’m probably drawing you; I have some new tunes that deserve my complete attention; I have old tunes that deserve my complete attention; I have a window seat and a camera (night flights included!); else, it’s a red-eye and I’ll be asleep before we leave the tarmac.

    That said, there is always a book(s) in my carryon juuust in case any of the above entertainment proves inadequate for my in-flight needs. For that matter, the book could be at the top of my list and you won’t hear anything but pages turning all the way to LA – especially if I got stuck in the middle seat.

  • Chris says:

    I think the world has become accustomed to seeing people on iPhones and such, so seeing someone with a book seems odd to them. But the attitude and sneering, well, that’s just people being rude. And that probably has nothing to do with us and our books.

  • JanBrady says:

    Totally agree with you about the overwhelming–and yes, oppressive–nature of the Civil Rights Museum; my friend and I wondered afterwards if it COULD have been laid out or edited better, somehow, to avoid such sheer information overload. (Though, I mean, civil rights–I guess it’s not exactly going to be all sunshine and levity!) Had I known you were going, I would have suggested you walk around the corner to eat afterwards at the famous Arcade diner. Best breakfast in the world (I’m partial to the Eggs Redneck–biscuits, gravy, eggs, sausage, hashbrowns, grits, sheer heaven).

  • Liz in Minneapolis says:

    While I got the weirdo edit all the time for reading in K-12 (rural Ohio,) I don’t get responses these days questioning the reading itself – it’s hip to read in Minnesota! – but instead people are critical of me wanting the time to myself, as if it’s bizarre that I don’t seek human companionship at every possible opportunity.

    I used to get sympathy lunch companions at various workplaces – “Oh, you’re reading? Well, let us join you so you can have some company instead!” Maybe the reason I sneak off every day at a different time than the group lunch and read a book off in an isolated corner with headphones on is because I DON’T want to eat lunch with you, people – or, more kindly, because my work drains me and I need to recharge introvert-style at lunch. Luckily, I work for a nice introverted IT department now.

    Also, if I’m not careful and don’t present a completely dead, closed off face when I’m reading in public, I get people who ask what I’m reading and if it’s good, and then won’t leave me alone to continue my reading – almost always ponytailed guys in their 50’s-60’s trying to hook the vulnerable lonely spinster bookworm, which is funny for about 2 seconds before it becomes hideously intrusive, insulting, and threatening – I mean, they don’t leave me alone, and they touch me, and start telling me what a wonderful lovely person I am, and can they have my phone number, iand I have to get up and literally drive away/hop a random bus to escape – during which time they follow me and try to hug and kiss me. I wish I was kidding. And while this has gone on since I was in my 20’s and my weight still started with a 1, I’m now 40, gray, and hugely fat, so it really is pure predatoriness their part, not a compliment to me in any way. Yay, Gift of Fear, I guess.

    Sorry, downer, but maybe it makes casual prejudice against reading look better by comparison?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I guess it might be a form of the why-read attitude, but more kindly meant, from people who only read as a last resort and see a person reading as a socially isolated unfortunate.

    This was true in my case as a kid; I’m still not sure if reading was the cause or the effect. The implications of being a non-reader are different when you’re school-age, though. I think I often assumed as a child that people who didn’t read didn’t read because they struggled with it, and I didn’t think they were dumb or anything, but I may have acted like we wouldn’t have much to talk about (and because I was permitted next to no television, that was often the case, at least on pop-culture topics). Among adults, it’s different — some people may assume that I have no use for conversation and am snobbily removing myself from human interaction with a book, and that isn’t really true. I’m…just reading. You want to chat, tag in and we’ll do that instead.

    The main problem with the conversation at this point is that it has nowhere to go. “Whatcha doin’?” “Reading.” And then if there’s no follow-up question, it’s just kind of awkward. “So…it’s a book about…this? And I’m going to…go back to reading it. I’m sorry.”

    Like I said, I think there’s sometimes an assumption that the reader thinks she’s “better than” because she’s choosing to read instead of…I don’t even know. Playing well with others, I guess. For me, it’s almost always “more bored than” or “more on time than,” and if my other option is staring and fidgeting, I don’t think that’s snobbish. But then, I’m indoorsy.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @rick: I’m not sure what the signs are about myself. I think it’s a protest of some expansion of the museum? But then it seems to be in favor of the museum itself and has been going on, if my math is correct, longer than the museum has existed (it opened in ’91, I believe, and then there’s a sign about how this woman has been protesting for 22 years). And there is a shopping cart involved, which would seem to be another indicator of mental pathology.

    @Still: This never happens in NYC. Certainly when I’m traveling by myself, which is often, whipping out a brick of reading at the dinner table is viewed, I think, as somewhat sad by the waitstaff. “Aw, she’s got nobody to eat with — she has to READ.” This is actually a fun meal for me, though; I don’t have to cook and I get to read.

  • Ellen says:

    I’ve always loved Bill Hicks’ take on the “What you reading for?” question:

  • robin says:

    @Susan, I’d rather be known as “that woman who reads books”
    than as “that woman who doesn’t/won’t/can’t read”. Because to me, someone who doesn’t read is no better off than one who can’t read, and a lot worse in attitude.
    Besides, if we didn’t read, how would we ever have such lovely book hunts in the Vine?

  • Kate says:

    @Liz in Minneapolis:
    …Really? Damn.

  • Tanya says:

    Wikipedia has this to say about the across the street stuff:

    From your picture it looked to me like some sort of pro-James Earl Ray thing. Glad or relieved that it doesn’t appear to be that.

  • Jen says:

    The Civil Rights Museum is one of my favorite museums of all time, and I saw it a dozen years ago. From the actual bus that you can board and be told “Get to the back!” to the wheel of Why-You-Can’t-Vote-Today, to the walk through the actual hotel room/balcony where MLK was shot, I found it to be an incredible experience. Sars, I can’t get a read on whether you liked it or not…?

  • Dorine says:

    @Toni, I am so going to start doing that! I make sure to have a book with me any time I’m in the car with my husband — road trips, quick errands, doesn’t matter, because he will find some way to get distracted, add extra stops, take extra long at whatever he is doing. . . so it has really helped our marriage that I just make sure to have a book along because then I don’t care how long I have to wait for him wherever we are.

    But I am definitely going to stick some short story anthologies or something in the glove compartment (which is probably big enough in my Nissan Altima to hold Sars’s entire Smart Car) from now on.

  • Jen S says:

    I don’t go anywhere, except on our weekly grocery shop, without a book. I don’t buy a purse unless a standard-size paperback can fit in it. I haven’t had meal by myself that hasn’t included a book since I learned to pour cereal. I consider this completely normal.

    Luckily, I live in Seattle, where it’s considered quite the thing to be a reader (Elliott Bay Book Co.’s move to Capitol Hill was front page news today) and find books more useful than not in fending off the overly friendly bus guys (I apparently look like a LOT of peoples’ ex-wives.) Though I did have one asshole who sat down beside me, would not shut up, and wanted to WRITE HIS PHONE NUMBER on the inside cover of my BRAND NEW HARDBACK. Dude, nobody writes on my books except the author of them, now hands off before you pull back a bloody stump.

  • Faith says:

    I’ve never gotten the weird looks or questions about my reading. Never. I’m thinking back over life, and I just cannot remember a time when anyone approached me and questioned my choice to read a book. I’ve never spent more than a few days south of the Mason-Dixon line, though, so maybe that’s where the difference arises from!

    100% agreed on the angle of reading while out to eat alone being a fun meal.

    On one of my recent flights, the kid next to me chose to get drunk instead of doing anything else. I really wanted to offer him one of my 2 books I’d brought along, but didn’t think an early-20 something dude with multiple drink coupons on his way to Vegas for God knows what would enjoy my Jen Lancaster memoires as much as I do. (I was really, really happy we arrived without him throwing up any vodka or Bud Light all over me. Really happy.)

  • attica says:

    I have a wonderful fold-up bookstand that I whip out at restaurants, making it possible for me to read hands-free (and also not get pasta sauce on the pages), and it has never. once. failed. to get a comment from waitstaff or passersby. I frequently have to answer where’d I get such a marvel of engineering, which I am happy to share. I find then that curiousity about the gadget supplants curiousity/sympathy over the book/act of public reading.

    I can credit a storm-caused circling pattern over Allentown for allowing me to slog through a bio of John D. Rockefeller. Dead-fascinating material; not the liveliest prose. But I was stuck in my seat, and finish it I did.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Jen: It’s…not really something you “like.” It’s informative and powerful and I’d definitely recommend checking it out, but…you know. It’s like Elie Wiesel; “like” is kind of the wrong metric, if that makes sense.

  • MizShrew says:

    Like I said, I think there’s sometimes an assumption that the reader thinks she’s “better than” because she’s choosing to read instead of…I don’t even know. Playing well with others, I guess.

    I’ve gotten this a lot. Probably because my husband is a musician, and often I am reading a book in a bar while he’s setting up/tearing down for the evening. People find this very strange, I guess, and some guys seem to think it’s an ideal pick-up opportunity — until I point out my 6’5″ husband as I explain why I am squinting at a book under the one decent light in the bar. Then I get the “you think you’re smarter than me” thing. Which I totally didn’t, until they said that.

  • Patricia says:

    @Faith: I’ve never spent more than a few days south of the Mason-Dixon line, though, so maybe that’s where the difference arises from!

    Come on now, that’s a bit unfair- people read in the south! And I’m seeing comments from people all over that indicate that the “You’re doing what now?” attitude toward reading is more or less universal. I myself have spent most of my life in Georgia, most of it also with a book at hand, and while I got that kind of static a lot in school in the dinky town I grew up in, I never get it living in the middle of Atlanta as I do now.

    We’re not dumb or illiterate just because we’re southern. :-)

  • Barbara says:

    @attica Do tell! I’d certainly like to know how I could get hold of such a marvelous device!

  • Grainger says:

    “[D]on’t racists have anything better to do?”

    No. For the most part, no they don’t. They’re underemployed schlubs stuck in dead-end jobs that their father did and his father did. They have a vague sense that there’s a big world out there with plenty of fun stuff, but they aren’t smart enough to understand how to get there, and they know it. The closest they’ll get to influencing anyone is when someone comes in the store and wants to know whether Bridgestone or Continental makes a better tire.

    So along comes this extremist viewpoint that says “sign up here, and you’ll be part of something big“, and they just can’t stop themselves turning into Eric Hoffer’s True Believer.

  • Sam says:

    For real, Patricia. I’m from Texas and no one ever treats me weirdly for reading all the time. I picked up that habit from my grandma (‘course hers were dirty). Us south of the line do like us some book-learnin’. You know, when we aren’t picking our teeth or marrying our cousins.

  • Sue says:

    @ Grainger – C’mon now. “Blue collar” does not automatically equal “racist.” LOTS of people from LOTS of walks-of-life, education levels, economic levels, etc. are screaming racists. A does not equal B there.

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