Charleston, Charm, and Identity Crisis

Years ago, I won’t say how many, I wrote about attending the Spoleto Expo in downtown Charleston, SC, and about old world, Southern charm.

I know that the charm of the Old South still lingers about Charleston and its surrounding cities. The moss-draped trees and historic homes and churches still create a refreshing oasis among the clutter of strip malls, fast food joints, service stations, and sundry merchants. But the charm that really sets off the Lowcountry comes from the people themselves. Before I ever read that Charleston ranked first in the nation for politeness, I had been ruing that dying art. But I was to find that their humor and friendliness were right up there with their cultured decorum.

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My sister Katie (right), on a tour with me in Charleston

My friend Mickey came down from Augusta and took me to the Expo. We had quite a bad time of it at first. The rain and wind turned my umbrella inside out, dragging me several feet back down the pavement. A passing couple smiled politely and quipped, “Mary Poppins?”

We boarded a special bus filled to the gills with Expo sightseers, only to learn that our destination was only one block back in the opposite direction. So we were treated to a 45-minute bus tour. I was standing up holding onto the back of a seat, something I haven’t done since Birmingham 1969. Directly in front of me stood a giant of a man, at least six-foot four. I am five-foot two. When the bus lurched he stepped backward onto my foot. Looking down with a guilty, apologetic smile he shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s a bus,” I said.
“I’m glad you understand,” he replied, then gripped the overhead till his knuckles turned white so he wouldn’t cripple me.

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This polite Charleston mounted policeman stopped to give me directions in the confusing maze of one-way streets.

We exited and boarded crowded buses all that day, going from one exposition to the other. At one point Mickey and I got separated, she sitting – me standing. Directly in front of me was an older woman, and beside me, seated, were two young men. One of them leaped to his feet. “Take my seat, ma’am,” he said to me. I tried to protest but he wouldn’t hear of it. Then he turned to his friend.

“Get up, Jim, and give this other lady your seat.” His tone intimated it was not a request. When the woman protested and Jim remained seated, the young gallant fixed Jim with the evil eye.

“I said get up and give the lady your seat,” he said in that aggressive tone you can only use with a friend and not get decked for it. Jim reluctantly got up.

“Thank you, George,” I said, looking at his name tag.
“Oh, I’m not George,” he smiled sheepishly. “We share these name tags.”
During the course of the day, I met several Expo patrons named George who seemed puzzled when someone hailed them by that name. One was a girl.

I was thrilled that every time I exited the bus, no matter how big the crowd getting on, some man would offer his hand to help me down the steps. I was feeling very much the elegant Southern lady till a co-worker quipped, “It’s just that you’re finally showing your age, Linda.” Apparently her roots are not in Charleston.

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Beautiful Charleston

In Summerville, in the course of the week’s work, I met the mayor, Berlin G. Myers. I had thought that after a certain age a woman would be impervious to male charm. One scan0024might be until confronted with the genuine article in old world, Southern style. The word for the man is “courtly”. I vowed to change my name to Scarlett as he opened doors and gently warned me to watch my step. I was charmed down to my Dixie toes. One Summervillian added the observance that Mayor Myers “is not a politician. He is a statesman.” Summervillians also told me that his wife is in every respect the epitome of the Southern lady. What more can a town ask than a couple to reign with a magnolia and orange-blossom sceptre?

So, as you can see, I have had an exciting identity crisis this week. If I could be anyone I wanted, who would it be? Mary Poppins or Scarlett O’Hara?

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