Last November, I was scheduled to go to two trade shows, back to back, one in Macon, Georgia, and one in New Orleans. It was my job to bring them in within budget, and when I crunched the numbers, taking into account flights, shipping trade show materials, taxis to and from airports, it became obvious that it would be more economical to drive.
If I’d have been stuck with an irritating co-worker, I might have pushed for the flights anyway. But I was traveling with an easy-go-lucky colleague, and the drive sounded like fun to her, too. So one November, we scrunched our catalogs and trade show backdrop into the rental car, pulled out of our lakeside Milledgeville AirBNB, and started meandering south in the general direction of the Gulf of Mexico.
I had always wanted to see the Deep South for myself. I’ve always lived just outside New York City, so I imagined a cross between Deliverance and Mississippi Burning. Still, I’ve always had something of a secret affinity for the south, too. Some of their clannish and family-first attitudes feel familiar to me, similar as they are to my Hispanic upbringing. There’s a certain part of my imagination that longs for verandas, mint juleps and Spanish moss, and that’s where the south lives in me.
Much of the trip involved going through Alabama lengthwise. I’ve been thinking a lot about that drive as I’ve watched the Senate election coverage of the race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones. I know driving through a place doesn’t make me an expert on it, but I did get a glimpse of its soul, and I loved what I saw. Sure, there was some of the stereotypical, rural living a northerner would expect. At one point, curious, I looked up one rundown but rambling property on Zillow and saw that the house and its acre could be had for $19,000, which wouldn’t even get you a driveway repaving in my neck of the woods. But Montgomery was awesome – jumping, beautiful, full of personality. I had one of the best meals I’ve ever had in a restaurant with exposed brick and old-is-new-again gas lights.
And the people were lovely. Sure, I stayed away from discussions of politics, but it did my heart good to note our common humanity. I’ve often thought about going back and really trying to understand, especially in the wake of a presidential election that has torn my heart in pieces. If they could be kind to the stranger, and ready with a smile, how could they stand behind bigotry and lack of morality?
In the lead-up to this election, I wondered how the people I’d had casual interactions with might vote. What would that nice waiter think of the sordid activities of Roy Moore in a mall full of teenage girls all those years ago? What about those people walking hand in hand down the street? This election seemed engineered to test decency and our shared human values. Not southern, not northern, not left, not right, but human. Could the people of Alabama really be that different from me?
They aren’t, it turns out, and in a year full of outrages, that has given me an outsized joy. I should be careful not to overstate it: Jones squeaked out a one-point victory in what should have been a blow-out, and a majority of white voters went for Moore despite his utter lack of qualification or moral standing. Still, in a state that Trump won by nearly thirty points, it was a minor miracle, and much-needed balm for my tired, wounded heart.
Yes, there’s a bottom. Yes, decency still matters. Yes, there’s a path we can walk together. For me, I found it in Alabama.