One of the side effects of my eye issues is that we’ve spent way more time in marinas – in cities – than we ever anticipated. 19 nights of October and 16 days in November were spent firmly attached to a dock, first in Hampton,VA and then in Charleston, SC. Quite aside from the unexpected expense, the feel of being downtown but aboard is simply different. The boat becomes an apartment that happens to have a very wet basement, but it’s otherwise very much like living on land.
But the experience has been a real eye-opener (Ha! “Eye opener” – get it?) in another way, too. We’ve learned something about cities, something we didn’t expect: They change people. Or perhaps they form people. Whichever it is, the humans who inhabit a city take on a character from their location even as the city takes on a character from them.
Our time in Hampton was the light side of that change. We found the people we met there to be welcoming, friendly, eager to chat, to connect, to look you in the eye and get to know you. There was the store owner who – when he didn’t have the sprouting seeds we were looking for – picked up the phone, found a source, then stood up and said “You ready?”
Yes, he bundled us into his van and drove us across town to the garden nursery that had what we wanted! And once there, the lady behind the register saw us walk in and greeted us with “Were you looking for the bean seeds? I’ve got ‘em behind the counter so nobody else would buy them before you got here.”
Smiles, handshakes, eye contact and soft voices greeting every stranger of every race with “Good morning” and “Good afternoon” and “How are you?” With that little pause that gave us time to answer the question…. That was Hampton.
And not just Hampton. Belhaven North Carolina:
Little towns, yes, and friendly. Folks made a couple of yankees feel like their day was just a little brighter because we’d stopped by.
Then we got to Charleston.
Charleston, South Carolina has a reputation for incredible architecture, and it’s well deserved. We love looking at architecture of all sorts, so we stopped just for that – Well, and an eye appointment.
(A quick aside: What’s not widely known – at least in the North – is that those old buildings evaded the torch of General Sherman’s march to the sea only because the residents lost their nerve (due to being hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned) and abandoned the city to the advancing Union troops. They call it the “Great Skidaddle” around here.)
The buildings in the historic district are lovely. The style is a fascinating mix of Antebellum mansion, Federal, Gothic and Greek revival. Zoning and building codes are carefully written to make preservation possible and modernization or replacement onerous, with the result that amazing amounts of money are poured into the shell of a building that one could push over with a sneeze. Property prices are astronomical, (We were told most of the buyers are European, Asian or Northern), and the city is growing by 15% each year. Gridlock is normal, infrastructure is stretched to beyond capacity….
And the people? Closed. Maybe they’re stretched too.
The first thing we noticed after we’d been there a few days was that we felt lonely. A marina (one of several) with 300-plus boats, and a high percentage of occupied boats, yet we were starved for some human interaction, some casual conversation – some connection. Walk down the docks, or down the sidewalks in town, and people coming the other way will wait until you’re just close enough for contact, then turn their head completely away from you to walk past. This isn’t just watching where they’re walking – they aren’t looking at their feet. They’re avoiding seeing us. We don’t exist.
And then we noticed something even more interesting. Interesting, and a little disturbing to this northern liberal. The Whites didn’t see us, but the Blacks did. Real smiles, real expressions of appreciation for the morning and our place in it, eye contact and casual greetings and doors held open…. those came from the people of color we met.
And that’s also where we saw expressions of profound surprise when we met their eye and said “hello”. Shock, a moment of confusion, and then a grin and an enthusiastic burst of “Well good morning to you!”
Somehow in seeing these beautiful dark-skinned people, we were crossing a line we never really saw, but they welcomed us over and met us right there with a crossing of their own. That never happened with the folks that looked like us.
There’s no moral message here, no great revealing of the secret to happy race relations or city living. God knows I wish there was, considering the current political climate in the USA. Whatever side of the ballot box you were on, you can’t help having the feeling that things are a little precarious in that regard.
I know we’d love to stop in Oriental or Georgetown again, but not Charleston. We got my eye fixed and our prop tightened, and for that we’re grateful, but the city held only a sense of brooding discontent otherwise.
Thank you, Charleston, for what you gave us. And good luck.