Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cats, Academics, and Bars in Macon, GA

I went to Macon last a conference on Transatlantic Studies where professors from Georgia gathered. I van-pooled from my institution with 4 other professors. It was a lively group: Inez from Education, Napolean, Dan, and Phyllis from political science, and following the van was Susanna, also from political science.

We bonded quickly on the four hour trip, sharing political frustrations and discussing our confusion about this "transatlantic" project. Having to vocalize hunger and bathroom needs has a quick way of inducing intimacy. Inez, my hotel roommate, was kind enough to share her toothpaste and answer my distress-call for soap in the shower.

The only thing I saw in Macon was the Marriott Residence Inn, a shiney new 8 lane Shell station, the campus of Macon State, and El Somethin'itoes where they have fine Marguerita's, tired waitresses, and a group of young men who assume most groups of white people in Georgia cannot speak Spanish. They were wrong, and Inez almost whopped one with her handbag, having distinguished a comment he made about us. I didn't hear the insult. My ignorance protected me.

I didn't see the Macon of the poem below, but it's still a place where feral cats fatten and sit boldly in groups at the edge of the forest near Macon State campus, watching drivers-by with a kind of curiosity that seemed gamely. They held themselves upright, a posture that connoted an unwillingness to kow-tow to humans or scram at headlights or gawking academics in vehicles. Maybe their numbers emboldened them. It seemed a large group: a dozen perhaps--not scrawny, not fur-matted, but healthy, strong and wild. They seemed to look each of us in the face as if reading a menu. What was the feeling of recognizing something lost, forgotten? Why did I feel like the scaredy-cat?

Here's the poem:

Writing On Napkins At The Sunshine Club; Macon, Georgia 1970
by David Bottoms (from Armored Hearts. © Copper Canyon Press, 1995)

The Rock-O-La plays Country and Western
three for a quarter and nothing recorded since 1950.
A man with a heart
tattoo had a five dollar thing for Hank and Roy,
over and over the same tunes
till someone at the bar asked to hear a woman's voice.

All night long I've been sitting in this booth
watching beehives and tight skirts,
gold earrings glowing and fading in the turning light
of a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign,
beer guts going purple and yellow and orange
around the Big Red Man pinball machine.

All night a platinum blonde has brought beer
to the table,
asked if I'm writing love letters on the folded napkins,
and I've been unable to answer her
or find any true words to set down on the wrinkled paper.
What needs to be written is caught already
in Hank's lonesome wail,
the tattooed arm of the man who's all quarters,
the hollow ring and click of the tilted Red Man,
even the low belch of the brunette behind the flippers.

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