Driving from Huntsville to southern Tennessee, the Huntsville exurbs soon dissolve into rolling corn fields alternated with soybean patches and then the lanes shrink into just two. This stretch of north Alabama and south Tennessee is speckled with small towns that blend into one another, each announcing “historical districts”; their only real claim to fame is that one of them, Pulaski, was where the Ku Klux Klan got started.
We were going to Ardmore. There’s actually two Ardmores though, the Alabama-Tennessee state line crosses through Ardmore leaving one half of the town in Alabama and the other in Tennessee. You know when you cross over to the Tennessee side because the lottery shacks pop up everywhere, attached or within convenience stores, gas stations and the like since gambling is banned in Alabama except on reservations. These lottery shacks do a booming business with Alabamans who cross the border daily like an invading army to play numbers.
Mildred’s Restaurant lies on the outskirts of Ardmore; across the highway are rows of corn and cattle placidly chew cud behind. On the wraparound porch were dozens of rocking chairs, where people continue socializing and catching up with old friends after eating. Mildred’s has been a staple in the Ardmore area for decades and people flock there for heaping portions of good old Southern food served buffet style. While filling my plate, I looked at the decorations on the walls, which is a sure way to get a sociological sense when in unfamiliar surroundings. Most were humorous, such as a sign next to a cowboy boot saying, “Mind your manners or you’ll get the boot.” But a couple had more serious messages behind the humor. One said, “Count your blessings, not your calories” and another read “You aren’t fat, you are just easier to see.”
I thought how generous and humane these messages were; a retort to the coercive healthism so widespread elsewhere, what David Foster Wallace once described as the “really rather brilliantly managed stress everybody is made to feel about staying fit and looking good and living long and squeezing the absolute maximum productivity and health and self-actuation out of every last vanishing second.” Although probably no one at Mildred’s knows who David Foster Wallace is, they are a living rejection of the ethos he described. To them, there are more important things in life than worrying about one’s figure and obsessing over calorie counts. Food and good times shared with family and friends matter more; life is finite with no guarantees so enjoy yourself while you can. Like many small (and quite a few large) rebellions, it can make things worse, not better: obviously many people were going to have health problems down the road. But I couldn’t help admire this thumb in the nose snub at moralistic healthism, which has become yet another way class distinctions get drawn today, where a slim figure and abstinence from tobacco bestow virtue and demonstrate superiority.
I always enjoy the atmosphere at the lottery shacks, even though I don’t gamble. The last time I did, my first time at the horse races, I won $60 on a $1 bet, but following the advice of pros, who insisted I was on a winning streak and should bet “hard,” I lost another $20 in a few minutes before wisely walking away with $40 I didn’t have when I walked in.
Gambling at lottery shacks is, of course, a working class vice, but you also hear a lot of people’s hopes and dreams here and that’s what draws me. People with little control over working conditions and everyday life invest themselves with magic powers of intuition and gut feeling and, if they win, dazzle, earn admiration and draw envy from fellow gamblers. Of course, it’s an illusory sphere of control and freedom from regimentation because most people mostly lose most of the time; the deck is always stacked against the players. Yet although it rarely happens, potentially anything can, including hitting the Big One, which is the White Whale of gambling: often imagined, never captured. This shack, inside an Ardmore convenience store, where a few worn tables filled up a cozy back room, was no exception. The person I was traveling with, an inveterate gambler, was unable to resist the rolls of colorful scratch-offs beckoning behind the cash register; rolls coiled like the snake in the Garden of Eden hiding the Apple of Discord in $1, $5 and $10 tickets.
While my friend played scratch-offs, I listened and chatted with others furiously scratching away. An older African-American woman who looked like she could be a church mother (and possibly was), told me when she worked, she bought whole rolls of scratch-offs weekly. She also hipped me to gambling lore such as when you win big at the slots, like at Wetumpka, near the Women’s Prison outside Montgomery, you must hand $50 to the person working the machine to your right to keep your winning streak running. And if you don’t tip whoever sold you your big winning ticket, she warned darkly, be prepared for a long, long streak of bad luck. Everywhere.
I looked at the posters, placards and knick-knacks such as a plastic cow skull, filling every space on the walls. Most were of the garden-variety humor sort, but I was surprised to see several “left-wing” posters mixed in. There was the “Is Your Bathroom Breeding Bolsheviks?” and the famous poster showing Native Americans on horses with guns with the message “Homeland Security – Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” Curious, I got up and looked more closely. In the middle of the main wall was a photo of the owner, with his wife and daughter smiling and holding assault rifles. Next to the family picture was another poster:
“Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get one
Don’t like sex? Don’t do it
Don’t like porn? Don’t watch it
Don’t like alcohol? Don’t drink it
Don’t like guns? Don’t buy one
Don’t like tattoos? Don’t get one
Don’t like your rights taken away? Don’t take away someone else’s!!!”
I had no idea what it all meant; libertarian survivalism? left-wing militia-ism? A bit of both? Who knows? But in a context where you’re more likely to see flying American flags, “Make America Great Again” hats, and posters proclaiming “Welcome to America – Now Speak English” on walls, this was defiantly radical. Such is the Deep South, full of contradictions; mannered graciousness warring with murderous rage, sin with salvation and conservative with radical ideas, often within the same person.