Monday, July 6, 2009

Around this town

I may have mentioned that a few years ago I decamped New York for Charleston, South Carolina. This was an unpopular decision, but by that time, I was getting accustomed to that position in the universe: I chose not to be a lawyer. I chose to quit a job where I worked for a manic with no other job in site on Good Friday. I chose to leave Donna Karan. I chose to leave New York. I ate a lot of unkind words and stabbing looks at each of those turns from people who spent their entire lives in fear of making a move; in fear of living. In the end, my successes were measured in the usual ways for those so concerned I was on an uncommon path which would also be a fabulous flop (aka run home to Dad, who told me so...). My Dad was not someone who threw caution to the wind or ever let a safe thing go to pick up the tail of a kite.
He preferred I not be one of those, either.

I turned out okay, though. I tell him that at night before I go to sleep. I think he knows it, I cannot be sure. He was still alive when, as a pup executive, it was my job to get up each morning and go head to head with Phil Knight's 800 pound gorilla. There was no time to point out that we made headway each day. That we were in the fight. I am not sure he understood or was pleased that I got my ass kicked by Nike everyday. But in the clothing game, there is no thing I would have accepted being kicked in the teeth by every day, and no thing I was ever more tee'd up to go head to head with. Few people can say their partner in the dance that is the war in the business field is Nike. Few people's names but their own are known on the merch floor at Nike. But they knew mine.

He did not know that. He knew I did not practice law and that I had a great office with a view of half the city on the day I quit and went to Charleston. But that was before, before Nike. Before my time in Europe and Asia. Before I made a similar decision from an even loftier spot. He might say I was good at the, "just screw it" choice. I thought I was good at deciding what brought me joy and turning it into an economic boon.

He spent a lot of time reinforcing what I dreamer I am, how he did not trust this kind of thing or me, and how my thinking was not the kind of thinking that ever pays off. For my part I have always thought it is in the way you define, "pay off." Wealth does not do it for me. Beauty, staggering unabashed aesthetic goodness of every kind: Now. There is a co-pilot. There is a driving force to help me unearth myself and guide my attention. It has been an overwhelming and unleashable determination,something far beyond a pursuit. For the longest time, I could not understand what drove me, then I met me. Way on down South.

These days, I tell stories for a living. Dad would not see the usefulness in this. But his was a different age. Anyway, like I said, I went to Charleston. I met my future husband in a hotel lobby there. A little while later, I moved altogether. I came to know the place intimately but there is so much to still discover. For a person driven by beauty, Charleston is a place where the desire is ever-nourished. My happiest days were there.

So, I thought we would take a ride, you and I. Not to the places you see in vacation blogs on Charleston. You would hardly need me, then.

You should wear pants, if you are a man. A dress or skirt if you are a girl. Shorts in Charleston belong to the tourists exclusively. You don't have to believe me but I dare you to show up at Miss Jane's afternoon cocktails on Tradd in shorts. The first question you will hear is, "Are you enjoying your visit?"

Now, then. Before we leave town, we should eat something. I like the stuffed cinnamon and raisin French toast with fresh peach sauce at Toast on Meeting. Have some bacon, pork is part of this way of life.

Here are your boiled peanuts. They should be big, fat peanuts not those emaciated sickly things they serve at Hyman's Seafood. Put them on the dash and the paper bag on the floor by your feet for your shells. Be careful not to get the boiling water on your patch mad sundress when you bite into them. They are salty, have some tea. In some parts here, asking for water is still something of a sacrilege or a red flag.

Head out of town. I will take the old road, Highway 17, the Savannah Highway, because the old towns are out that way: Walterboro, Jacksonboro, Ravenel. But also more popular places like the sea islands: Edisto and Kiawah. If you follow 64, you will see signs like this one, at a corner of live oaks, covered in eerie cob webs, giving directions to hallowed grounds of farms, slavery, wars, economic rises and collapses, and once-great Southern towns no one wants to go to anymore.

I will take you out to John's Island because it speaks to a Charleston nearly lost to suburbia now: Croppers shacks, heritage tomato farms close to belly-up every year, you-pick berry fields, post-Civil War settlements, and the ebb and flow of the ocean and rivers that helped the low country rise once before in the days when John's Island was about farming tea, rice, and vegetables. They brought the new rise too: People like me who love beauty and brought their fortunes here in the last twenty years: A circumstance met with mixed feelings by the old families.

It is a long ride from town, nearly forty minutes out 700 or Maybank to the Grace Chapel settlement.

I can give you the inventory of the settlement. I imagine it has not changed very much in two hundred years: Twelve homes, four churches, countless live oaks. And the water around. No stores. One paved road, the rest dirt and shell.

If you come back to Grace Chapel, I expect you will be respectful. It is silence which defines this tip of the island. And grace. It was accurately named in 1840. They will not have city ugliness here; if that is brought upon them, they will remind you where the paved road lies and that it will return you to the highway; go on and use it.

This is Grace Chapel. She is antebellum of 1840. Spared of the seiges and fires that fell her sisters on John's Island. If you think this looks like a fine place for a wedding, be cautioned that this chapel is precious and serves the families of the parish only. No destination weddings here.

These old live oaks share their piece of paradise with some cars for Sunday service but mostly people walk from the few homes out there.

The settlement ground is sandy, shells are as abundant on the road and in driveways as on the beach.

Let's head back to town. I want to show you the Charleston which will always make my heart warm from local eccentricities and dichotomies.

This is an old family home in the Battery. Note the laundry hanging on the top balcony. They did that long before it was environmentally sensitive and even when society dictated indicated one should get a dryer.

Charleston welcomes libertarians, individualists, and odd balls. They know all about these types. But they do not care for invaders or thieves. It would not be at all unexpected to see a pineapple welcome sign above the door bell even though you have just passed through this wrought iron defense on your way to a dinner party at this residence.

One of the things that happens in places where heritage is everything is that it sometimes takes a long time to let go of the family places. I cannot blame anyone. But sometimes, the inhabitants survive a lot longer than the inclination to preserve or the money. That is when some sad and dangerous things happen. Often now, the historic folks or the College steps in, and that is for the best.

More tomorrow.

And do not forget to enter the reader giveaway here for Garden & Gun magazine, voice of the new South.


Teacats said...

We adore Charleston! Our favorite place is the Peninsula Grill (decorated by the city's own brillant Amelia Handegan) in the Planters Inn. Another favorite spot is 39 Rue St. John -- a bistro with the best people-watching on Friday night! We sat at the bar with my mother and dad while waiting for a table -- and they asked where we want to be seated -- my mum replied "somewhere INTERESTING so we can SEE people" Of course they kindly sat us at the best table with the views of wonderfully-dressed Southern men and ladies. It was the first time I saw "LBDs" in linen (with pearls of course) But my mum was fascinated by a handsome older man in white summer pants, dark blue jacket with an ascot and dark blue slipper-type shoes -- embroidered with a crest! Also -- a wonderful shop (and catalog) -- Charleston Gardens .....

Jan at Rosemary Cottage

Miss Amy said...

i made a similar 180 degree life change... i felt twinges of sadness initially, but the feelings of "what took you so long" are what carried me through. well, that, and these 2 quotes : "If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all." and "Failure's hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you're successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever." - Po Bronson. i LOVE your SC photos.... stunning!! i can't wait to visit again....

Things That Inspire said...

This is a view of Charleston that I have never seen, and wonderful to read the commentary. I like the observation that it is just the tourists who wear the shorts. Once, as a tourist in Charleston, I wore a wide brimmed hat as I am very fair skinned (but not shorts). Several cars passing by, filled with uncouth boys, derided my choice in hat. I ignored them and kept on walking. I have very few wrinkles because of my avoidance of the sun, which is worth a few unkind words every now and then!

Blushing hostess said...

Teacats - yes, that is one of my favorite spots too, maybe I say you there? Wink. And the retailers you mentioned, those are wonderful bankrupting sites!