The Grand Ridge Factor
The Golden Lariat is right off the Interstate, and just outside of big-city civilization. That’s when your customer base changes from families to truckers. The usual sign that you’ve hit such an area is that, when you go to use the bathroom, there’s a condom dispenser on the wall. But the Golden Lariat’s gas station threw a new one at me: their magazine rack, while mostly empty, contained at least six gay porn titles. (I wish I could remember all the titles, but the only one I can still recall was Young Twinks. Which I think is redundant.)
My curiosity piqued. Gay porn? In the rural South outside a western-wear shop? Didn’t that violate red-state zoning? I asked the lady behind the counter, and she said, “We keep it because it sells. Of course, it hasn’t sold much lately, which is why we’ve got gay porn still here and the rest of the rack is empty. But it’ll pick up in a few weeks. It always does.”
Of course, that was the gas station attendant. It was almost too easy, and I was itching for some righteous dander. Surely the existence of gay porn can’t have been a popular with everyone in this small rural community. (Hell, I grew up in big-sized Tucson, and there were a few years there where convenience stores, bowing to community pressure, wouldn’t even carry Playboy.) What did their neighbors over at the western wear shop think?
So I went over there and talked to the thin gray-haired man behind the register. Carefully wording myself to be noncommittal, I said, “Wow. I was just at the gas station and I was surprised. You’ve got a lot of gay porn over there.”
The man smiled and shrugged. “It sells. I try not to have an opinion on it one way or the other. We just try to keep our customers happy, and that’s what a lot of our customers want.” He looked at my face a little searchingly, and I guess he saw something he felt safe with. “Besides,” he added. “If we were all the same, this would be a pretty dull world.”
This has been coming to mind recently because when I left the Bible Belt, I was excited at least in part because I thought, “I’ll be in Manhattan! At last, I’ll be in a town where most people hate Bush, gay rights and women’s equality are taken for granted, and where there are no Bible thumpers anywhere!” But just as was the case with Tallahassee—where I could predict that, every semester, half of my female students would write essays about cheerleading, but where there was also an occasional Grand Ridge to surprise you—Manhattan is actually loaded with literalist religious people and conservatives. Every time I ride the subway, at least two people are studying the Bible (or the Torah), and last night I even saw someone reading a Jack Chick tract—the nadir of religious intolerance. And whenever I’ve attended an open mike comedy night, someone is always priding themselves on their political incorrectness and saying racist and homophobic bullshit. The difference in Manhattan is that there’s so much obvious diversity on every corner that the religious extremists don’t try to run everything; they know in advance they don’t have a majority, and they have to learn to compromise. Ditto for the homophobes, who are only one set of voices in a city with a huge gay population. They keep their opinions to themselves and, I imagine, avoid shopping in Chelsea. But they’d never dream of trying to outlaw gay adoption or prevent homosexuals from teaching in elementary schools or—god forbid—turning into South Dakota and banning abortion altogether. They simply don’t have abortions themselves and teach their children to do the same. That seems more in keeping with actual, messy, unidealized democratic praxis.
This is something that Barack Obama mentioned in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004: “There’s no such thing as red states and blue states. Not really. We love our kids in the blue states and we appreciate diversity in the red states . . .” Et cetera. I’d nodded at the time and figured it was just standard political everyone-to-everyman-ism. So it’s nice to see that it’s really literally true: people will always surprise you, and you can’t accurately lump everybody by their region. (Although you can certainly generalize, as any black male who’s driven through Simi Valley will tell you.) And now I think it may be the salvation of our country: diversify! If everyone lived like they do in New York (or Miami or Chicago or other big cities), with not only different opinions but actual whole entire different cultures at every neighboring restaurant table, we’d really appreciate our country all the more. And maybe we could finally get rid of “In God We Trust” from our money and return our national motto to what it was from 1778-1954: E Pluribus Unum, baby!