S-TOWN AND BESSEMER’S BLACK SHEEP
I’ve recently spent a few days back in Bessemer, and as I drive home to South Carolina, it occurs to me that this is a good time to re-listen to S-Town. I forget to download it, so I’m streaming and using up more data on my phone than I should. But when it comes to Bessemer and “Shit-Town” there isn’t enough data.
I read and evaluate essays for the journal Creative Nonfiction, and last week I considered the work of a man who recently found himself classified by DSM-V as autistic. Not to dispute this writer or this diagnosis, what really caught my attention in his writing was the part where he described himself and those like him as the kids at school you don’t really notice — the ones who stand on the sidelines watching the others play kickball or foursquare. The ones who dress differently from “the norm,” what we’d call today “nerdier” than the norm; the ones who don’t seem as aware of their surface differences as those who may or may not notice them do.
The ones who wear pleated trousers with low-top black tennis shoes.
I wasn’t a kid like that, and I didn’t hear the word “Autism” until my freshman year at college when, as a Social Work major, I had to read Dibs: In Search of Self. Though I gave up that major in my junior year, it was the one SW text I never sold back to the bookstore. So while I didn’t know anything about the autism “spectrum” in grade school, I recognize now those in my classes who were certainly on it. People like a kid also named Terry C. who was in my first grade class. Besides being the only other kid I knew who had “my” name, Terry C. stuck out to me because he was so quiet.
When I say “quiet,” I mean he didn’t said a single word that entire school year. To anyone.
“This is really his kindergarten year,” our teacher explained to some of us, though why she explained a five-year old’s issues to a group of six-year old’s — and why she selected me and a couple of my friends to tell — I never knew. But it wasn’t just that Terry C. didn’t speak. He never smiled or changed his facial expression at all. He had a slight downward stare always, his mouth in a perpetual O-shape. I don’t remember much else about him except that after this year of having no friends, of never being picked for any recess game, of never being called on to read aloud in our reading groups, Terry C. left our school, perhaps even Bessemer itself, and I never saw or heard about him again.
There were others. In high school, a kid we called “Hot Rod” because he’d burst through the halls on his way to class going “beep beep.” Always and forever, beep-beep. He had a buzz cut, which meant nothing really, though these were the 1970’s, and Hot Rod’s head had a strange, upward-sloping shape. So what I’m saying is that his buzz cut accentuated something, though not the positive. He wore those trousers, too, and those generic tennis shoes, while virtually all of his classmates wore skinny-ribbed shirts and bell-bottomed jeans.
When I got to college, I thought of Hot Rod again because one of my professors reminded me of him. Same clothes, only the trousers were double-pleated, the shoes, blue slip-on Keds. His shirts, straight out of the 50’s though I have to say, they were so strange that they were cool. Open-neck with wide lapels and strangely floral prints. He taught a course in Communism, and it may or may not surprise you to know that he “had no use” for any government.
Back in high school, there was the kid who was roller-skate skinny and played clarinet in the band — who also didn’t say a word and sat by himself every day at a square table in the lunchroom eating sandwiches he always brought from home. I heard that later in life he started writing belligerent, but highly intelligent right-wing letters to the local paper.
This backstory, these guys I knew, came to me as I was listening to Chapter Two of S-Town. The Bessemer part when Brian Reed connects with Tyler Goodson at his tattoo parlor:
The shop is called Black Sheep Ink, and I’ll learn that the guys who hang out here take the name to heart. They see themselves as a collection of misfits, of self-proclaimed criminals and runaways and hillbillies. And Tyler has built this place as a haven for them, a place to swap their tales of getting jerked around by cops and judges and clerks and bosses, and to cultivate a sense of pride in their status as the outcasts of their world.
These, of course, aren’t the autistic ones, and you don’t have to live in Bessemer or Woodstock to know these guys, these misfits. John B. ventured into their shop on many occasions, but he wasn’t a black sheep quite like them:
These guys dish it out, too. They tease John for his many peculiarities, like how he’ll devour whatever leftover food is around, no matter how old or rock-hard it is, his inability to buy new shoes to alleviate his athlete’s foot, which he’s allegedly had for three years, his extemporaneous solving of math problems, his utter aversion to being in a room with more than two or three people at a time, his living with his mom his whole life, his being a loner. It’s friendly, though. They like John. After all, John is the granddaddy of all black sheep, so this crew gets him. They truly seem to accept him….
And yet, there are the distinctions between these shades of black sheep. John claims to hate
tattoos — a claim that still makes sense even when we discover that his torso is covered with them. He hates narrow-mindedness, and he hates the racism that permeates this area. So how comfortable can he be in Black Sheep Ink hearing things like Brian reports this day:
I pretend to do a number of things that make me feel very uncomfortable in order to keep as low a profile as possible, such as act like I’m not shocked or upset or scared when someone says this to me, a radio producer with a microphone, in the first few minutes that we’re talking. At the risk of ruining any surprise, the statement is racist and nonsensical, replete with multiple uses of a terrible word.
You know, we had a tax-free labor. It didn’t have nothing to do with a bunch of niggers picking cotton. And we worked our ass off, and we got — we earned everything we got.
So now we have no — if you got a taxpaying job, you got to take care of some nigger’s wife that’s in jail because she’s drawing a child support check —
Later, Bubba will display a rather fluent knowledge of the differences between various white supremacy groups. Mind you, we’re in a majority-black city right now, Bessemer, about 20 minutes from Bibb County, heading towards Birmingham. But everyone in here is white, including me. Someone mentions offhand that the small tattoo area in front is about as much shop as you want here in Bessemer. Otherwise, the place will be filled with black people who’ll piss you off and won’t pay anything — hence the secret door.
S-Town is making more and more sense to me now. John B. doesn’t drink cyanide because these guys are racist; if he were an ordinary guy, he goes along and probably shares their view. But that’s just it: John B. is about as ordinary as Terry C., or Hot Rod, or the clarinet kid, only he is also highly intelligent, liberally-oriented, and understands both where he is and that he is different, which is the writer in the Creative Nonfiction essay’s point, I think.
I know many guys from Bessemer who killed themselves, and if they weren’t all geniuses like John B., they at least understood that they didn’t fit the mold formed for them by their parents of their town. They might have been on the spectrum, but even if they weren’t, they were judged by the popular cliques and might have tried to fit in by growing their hair long or dealing pot. They might have been Boy Scouts; they might have hung out on or near the periphery of the in-groups that gathered at our local Pasquale’s on Friday and Saturday nights. They might have even been tolerated from time to time, but they were never anyone’s best friend.
And when they left us, it was just a momentary blip. We might have attended their funerals, but their passing didn’t change many of us, or perhaps any of us. You can’t say they were missed because, in reality, they were never included or wanted at all by most of us.
Some of these guys were gay, though I don’t know if they were “celibate” as Brian Reed considers John B. to be. Mainly, if they were gay, they hid their desire, though if they made it to Birmingham, they at least had the clubs: The Gizmo, Chances R, Belle’s.
Or, they wandered the streets like the man I wrote about in this essay:
When I think about the John B.’s I knew in Bessemer, I understand that my hometown can’t be summed up in a coherent sentence. I’m glad I have some understanding and now, much sympathy, for my John B.’s, even though while mildly depressed some of the time, I maintain what I consider to be a healthy perspective on my life and past.
But I do hear and empathize with John B.’s lament: “I shoulda left this shit-town.” It isn’t easy to leave any place, for where will you go and how will you make it? So you stay until you can’t take it anymore and then you might very well leave for good. And all.
Back in Bessemer, I talk with Wanda and Joe at WT’s about S-Town and Bibb County. I ask them about the county seat, Centreville, a stop on the road from my college town, Montevallo, and Tuscaloosa where we would head some fall evenings to hear bands or see a football game, or just hang out at The Chucka. On some nights, my girlfriend back then, Lynne, my friend Billy Watt, and Lynne’s roommate Bebe would head to Centreville’s finest eatery, The Saw Meal. I say “finest” but I really don’t know much about that town, and I only visited The Saw Meal after midnight, for breakfast.
“It’s still there,” Wanda says. “It’s about all there is there.”
I wonder if John B. ever ate there, or if, when he attended Birmingham-Southern College, he ever went to the Tide and Tiger or to Nikki’s West.
Brian Reed suggests that John B.’s only escape from Bibb County was to Black Sheep Ink, and even then, he didn’t go at night, not wanting to have to drive back home so late. I Google Mapped this Bessemer tattoo parlor and found it on 14th Street, aka US Highway 150, and 1st Avenue, about a block away from a house that is no longer there, a house my mother and her friend Jane once rented for their antique shop, The Pecan Tree, where I know they regularly welcomed the John B.’s of that time.
I met another of this type recently, another “John” though “met” isn’t really right. I left him a message and he left me one back, only on my mother’s phone. I had heard he might know something about my other Bessemer obsession, Moose Park.
“He left a five-minute message on my phone,” my mother told me. “In that proper southern accent, he told me that my son Terry, a professor in South Carolina, had called him…”
Though his message apparently rambled on, the upshot was that he had no idea about Moose Park and had never heard of it. My mother tells me that this man, in his late 70’s, still lives in the older part of Bessemer, in a place of rundown, genteel squalor. As my mother put it, he’s just another “old bachelor,” driving the car left to him years ago by our former church organist, a woman who died when she was 101.
I wonder what this John or John B. was like in the first grade. What did they wear to school, and did they participate in schoolyard games? Were they quiet then, and if not, when they talked, who listened to them, and what response did their listeners make?
Who were they to the others in their life, or were they anything, anyone at all?
These geniuses, these loners. These men of “our town.”