by Angela Kubinec
For my New Year’s Day celebration, there is a cultural imperative to consume a traditional meal. Superstition dictates that eating specific foods on this day will keep me from changing into something worse than the year before. To be different from who I am is something I want, and, as the page turns to blank boxes on the calendar, I fool myself that all is fresh, that the new me will be better, for the length of time it takes to eat one meal. While optimistically dreading the future, I eat cornbread, collard greens, a dish known as Hoppin’ John, and some kind of pork—preferably hog jowls that were boiled in the pot full of collards.
My forebears claim that pork insures good health (fatness being a sign of robustness and prosperity for many generations), collards will provide you with “folding money,” and peas represent coins you will collect. Hoppin’ John is just peas and rice with a lot of seasoning pork. The rice doesn’t mean anything, but it tastes good with the peas. Cornbread just tastes good with everything else—it doesn’t mean anything, either. I would like to be rich and healthy, which is different from what I am, so I take pleasure in the possibility of change being as easy as chewing and swallowing.
Now the secret envy in the questionable neighborhood of my head is no longer secret. Health, wealth, happiness, and other stuff: I want it all. My theory is that everyone envies something, and envy of geographic place can compare to envy of personal trait or circumstance, and sometimes feels like the same thing.
When I taught, my colleagues referred to the central district office as the “Big House,” a throwback to antebellum times when being relieved of backbreaking work in the field meant the difference between life and death. Life was far more likely indoors, and allowed upward mobility beyond those who toiled outside to support the Big House’s comforts.
The district office was consistently a reasonable temperature, with sturdy upholstered furniture and clean carpet, tucked into a tidy landscape. The posh-seeming environs of the Big House office was envied by those of us in sub-standard schools performing difficult daily interactions with students (which can also be life or death, depending on one’s emotional fortitude and steadiness of character).
I would like to be rich and healthy, which is different from what I am, so I take pleasure in the possibility of change being as easy as chewing and swallowing.
The inhabitants of the school’s Big House were soft from sitting at a desk most of the time, and deemed clueless, as they no longer struggled aside educators. Here, place was envied more than characteristic, and where you had been defined you as equally as where you were now. The most important part of this human equation is in its inequality.
Envy of place is not limited to typical work environments, nor is it bound by so small a scale as is described above. Places can even envy one another, the collective nature of cities being a reflection of history and inhabitants, and relying on advantages to promote their self-images. Think Orlando, Florida vs. Yellowstone. South Carolina is a long-time observer of the envious skirmishes amongst southern geographic regions, but has kept the details to itself. In revealing a very tiny bit of this tradition, I risk being excommunicated to Iowa. But I think the world should know of these odd (or not so odd) attitudes, and maybe someone from a state like North Dakota will come forward with their own tale after reading this. It would be sociologically appreciated. Texans need not apply.
Though little known, Atlanta envies Charleston, South Carolina because ATL has little historic architecture (having been burned to the ground a few years ago). Atlanta is even described in small snarky circles as Charleston’s jealous second cousin, who couldn’t afford to go to finishing school, but has achieved new money—new money being something of an embarrassment to certain minds.
Charlotte, North Carolina envies Atlanta, although both are clogged with vehicular traffic. Why? Atlanta’s economy never really depended on something as folksy as towel-weaving. Charlotte even copies Atlanta’s dreary modernist architecture, and produces soft drinks which are no match for Coca-Cola (whose home is ATL).
If Atlanta is Charleston’s less fortunate cousin, Charlotte is the less accepted member of Atlanta’s middle school clique. To console itself, Charlotte placed white wooden rockers in its airport. At least, they are assumed to be wooden. What Charlotte forgot is that most of Atlanta’s porch rockers are now located in suburbs like Alpharetta, where no one sits.
Why doesn’t Darlington, South Carolina, home to a tiny race track, envy Charlotte’s fast ties to NASCAR? Because anyone who knows anything knows that you are supposed to be in small bleachers and close enough to a car race to be in danger yourself. You should leave in a set of clothing that has to be put in a burn barrel, fabric covered in rubber and asphalt dust. There should be a resulting photograph of you and your friends, drunk and laughing, and nearly unrecognizable from the soot on your faces. You should not be able to hear yourself afterward. That’s how you know you’ve been to a real race.
All these petty notions are across state borders. What about inside South Carolina? Does this silliness end once people are all citizens of the same state? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s worse.
Sadly, no other city in South Carolina envies Myrtle Beach. It is hard to imagine any geographic entity in the United Stated looking to Myrtle Beach as a model of urban grace. How can this be when large numbers of genteel people have retired its warmer clime? But even Myrtle Beach denizens wish they were Hilton Head; they just don’t have the cash, so they imitate the latter’s landscaping and signage.
Myrtle Beach itself has golf-course-green envy and shame, the result of its rumored fertilization by the arrival of a carnival. Their offspring is a collection of discount beachwear shops with no soul or sense of place. There are even people who consider “The Beach” to be an unfortunate annex, needed more for tax revenue than any other purpose, sort of like a gaudy prostitute pimped out by the state legislature.
Poor Myrtle, she is so confused about her identity that she has naughty dreams of Atlantic City. This is a Direct Violation of Envy Procedure. No place in South Carolina is allowed to harbor a secret envy of any outside place, even Virginia. Virginia is beautiful, as is Montgomery, Alabama—but not so much as to incite the indelicate emotion of envy. New Orleans has a rich and lovely multicultural dialect, but so does South Carolina, and South Carolina’s is older, rendering the possibility of jealousy automatically void.
Sometimes, though, Beaufort, South Carolina forgets this policy and becomes wistful regarding Savannah, Georgia. It is only because they are across-the-water pals. Then Beaufort awakes and remembers that Savannah is in Georgia and blushes over the serious breach of the ban on secret out-of-state envy. Beaufort is then instantly grateful that it is not pillaged every St. Patrick’s Day by a bunch of sloppily inebriated outsiders with dubious claims to Irish descent, like its unfortunate neighbor. Thank goodness for clear unchanging boundaries, like the Savannah River.
There is a competitive sibling problem within South Carolina’s borders where one-city-thinks-it-is-two and no one else can see why. This is because they are so similar, such as Tampa/St. Pete or Minneapolis/St. Paul. Envy for one another in this case is as pointless as being jealous of one’s reflection in one’s own mirror, or so it seems from the outside. Greenville, South Carolina and Spartanburg, South Carolina have this relationship, so if one acquires some type of improvement, the next month the other must be comparatively rewarded. They must stay in absurd stasis while growing at the same time. The two have become so indistinguishable, even to other areas of the state, they are referred to as “part of the I-85 corridor.” The loss of their names places them in a dangerous flirtation with Atlanta, just down the road, whose childish attitudes toward others were mentioned earlier.
There is an occasional anomaly where two small towns wish they could be one, like Hemingway and Johnsonville, going so far as to claim “Twin City” status. This is conversely as strange to outsiders as the nature of Spartanville or Greenburg, or whatever they will eventually call themselves.
We remember the textile mill, but people prefer their underwear to be cheap and from far away. Maybe they don’t like the idea of a sister-in-law stitching the crotch.
Isn’t anyone jealous of the state capital, Columbia? No one I know. However, Charleston is so vain that it is unable to envy any city in the world. Not even Venice, which has boats in its canals. The canals in Charleston are supposed to be streets when it is not raining, and when it is raining, one has to shelter in place and drink until things dry up a bit (oneself not included). Then the dermatologist’s appointment—the one that took six months to get in the first place—can be grudgingly rescheduled.
Young people envy each other’s college towns, unless they hate each other, like Clemson and the University of South Carolina. Florence was overly optimistic in its naming, but it does enjoy a bit of envy from frustrated farm boys and overly healthy girls in its surrounding areas like Pamplico and Timmonsville.
So what about my own South Carolina town? What city (in state, of course) is my small burg hankering to imitate? What makes you think we could possibly be jealous? We were home to a most significant Revolutionary War hero, whose verdigris-tainted statue is supreme over a circular fountain across from the courthouse. The town drunk elected himself keeper of the traffic circle until he was replaced by a new intersection and a traffic light. We remember him well, and that was nearly fifty years ago. I say we remember, but I never saw the guy. We remember the annual tobacco auction where the tobacco company reps gave out free packs of cigarettes, before all the folks had to go and quit. I say we remember, but I was wearing training pants. We remember the textile mill, but people prefer their underwear to be cheap and from far away. Maybe they don’t like the idea of a sister-in-law stitching the crotch. I say we remember, but I only went into a mill one time, on a field trip in second grade. We have good architecture, representative of every past era in our history, which is the foremost consideration in town-to-town envy. We love a few aspects of the past, but absolutely not all of them. South Carolinians never forget anything, even the awful things we’ve inherited from history and avoid mentioning.
We love to visit Charleston, and we knew her long before Conde Nast did. We knew her when she was a nasty little port with less than a square mile of safe streets, which she does not enjoy hearing us whisper in her ear. Blue lights, arson, hidden bars specifically for homosexuals—many of us enjoyed visiting her even then, and occasionally had trouble getting back home. We like to shop the outlet malls at The Beach, but only with a close friend who doesn’t tell of our excursion to such a sad place. Sometimes during those Beach visits, we make a pilgrimage to its legacy of the carnival, a huge Ferris Wheel that overlooks the ocean. We do our own little sneering at the even smaller hamlets nearby, though we have little reason. We are the former debutante, the once parade queen. We may even be Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, but with more fertile eyebrows.
We enjoy peculiar New Year’s Day meals and the tearing town of the Christmas glory that follows, like everyone else. But we are not jealous in any way at all. We are not now where we were. This inequality favors absence of envy toward us. That’s a good enough seat to occupy at the geography of the state table. It is as contentious as anyone’s human family can be, on any holiday we can name.