Sinkhole In My Heart: A Love Song to the American South

Robert Dafford/

Opening panel from Robert Dafford's Wall to Wall mural for the City of Paducah.

It's nice to know that Lurleen Wallace became a lake eventually. I've always felt sorry for onetime Alabama governor George Wallace's first wife, who was dying of cancer when her term-limited hubby—yes, Mr. "Segregation now, segregation forever" his own self—got her to run in his stead, with a broad wink to the populace, in 1966. But I hadn't thought of her in years until the sign reading "Lake Lurleen State Park" popped up on Interstate 59 amid the Tuscaloosa exits. As a friend later said, there's something pre-Raphaelite about that watery destiny.   

Fond as I am of the statue of a windblown, prematurely spry young George H.W. Bush adorning I forget which terminal of Houston's airport, you just don't get these  grace notes when you fly someplace. Credit a niece's wedding in Louisville for my first serious jaunt in some time on the great American road. On my way up from New Orleans, my perch of choice for the past four years, I was stopping in Tuscaloosa to have lunch with an old Village Voice colleague. Then I was going to swing out to Paducah to see two other pals before heading home, and aren't American place names wonderful?

I've voted in two different states that belonged to the Confederacy, the other being Virginia. Yet the way I dote on the American South—and I do dote, I do, fucked-up politics and all—amounts to the comedy version of Helen Keller's fondness for water. A rootless cosmopolitan by U.S. government fiat, bowled over by a region whose yesterdays never stop shimmering in heat as brutal as a house foreclosure, I've been known to mumble Prewitt's line in From Here to Eternity on road trips below the Mason-Dixon line: "Just because a man loves a thing, that don't mean it's got to love him back."

As for Louisville, which isn't as Southern as it affects to be—never forget Kentucky sat out the Civil War with Lincoln's anxious blessing, and sober-minded German brewers solidified a civic tone shared as much or more with nearby Cincinnati than relatively faraway Mobile, say—it's a city I've cherished since I first set eyes on it in 1980. That was soon after my closest college friend snubbed New York in favor of his hometown to form a defiantly local punk band. Whether they were post-collegians gone wrong or prole kids happy to find a new purpose in lowlife, Chip's example helped convince a clutch of other misfit Louisvillians to do likewise.  

"Stop 'N Rock," the Voice cover story that resulted from my exhilarated two weeks of slam-dancing to the Babylon Dance Band, Malignant Growth and the Dickbrains, among others,  did its best to open my snooty New York readers' eyes to the profusion of eccentric musical activity in secondary markets far from Manhattan. If I meant to rub their noses in it as well as open their eyes, no wonder: I was fed up with NYC chauvinism. Decades later, it's hard not to see those 1980s nuggets of unpedigreed, Stratocastered creativity all over the map as the subcultural forerunners to the slicker arts scenes now thriving—in splendid disregard of Gotham's withered verdict on their importance—everywhere from Indianapolis to Winesburg, Ohio.

Outdone only by New York itself, Louisville's venerable downtown boasts one of the most spectacular arrays of 19th-century cast-iron architecture in the country. When I first visited 34 years ago, the whole area was pretty dilapidated, like so many other secondary-market downtowns around then. On subsequent stopovers, of which there have been many,  I'd tracked its slow renewal like a devoted out-of-town uncle, which happened to be my literal job this trip. But since I had a few hours before changing for Julie's wedding, Chip offered to show me around a Market Street so transformed by artsy this-and-thats that I might as well have been strolling through a kinder, gentler SoHo.  It's even got a new and similarly cutesy nickname: NuLu.

Is it allowable to have mixed feelings about this kind of regeneration? Sure. Years ago, after my ex and I got our first bemused gander at Memphis's theme-parked Beale Street, we spent the next few hours of drive time in a lively debate over Disneyfication's merits when the alternative is decay. Anyhow, the Louisville version preserves the area's cast-iron facades even when the rest of the building has been gutted, a trompe l'oeil trick I first got intrigued by during a 1999 vacation in Berlin—to which, in its former guise as West Berlin, my State Department family had been posted once upon a Cold War time. In both cases, who am I to complain? I'm a native of nowhere, just somebody barnacled by increasing associations with the places I pass through. Heck, the facades are as far as I ever got anyhow.


Came the wedding, and I got to tell my niece exactly how much I love her. On my way up from Nashville on I-65, I explained, I'd spotted a sign advertising the National Corvette Museum. Only Julie's nuptials could have prevented me from bailing on the upcoming family shinola and peeling off toward Bowling Green instanter.  

Fully agreeing with my thwarted priorities, the bride's eyes lit up: "Do you know about the sinkhole?" I didn't, but apparently everybody in Kentucky did. Back in February, one opened up underneath the building. "It is with heavy hearts that we report that eight Corvettes were affected by this incident," the museum's media alert read. (Yes, really: You can Google it if you like.)

But quelle surprise, the cars caught in Mother Nature's maw triggered an uptick in visitors. Now the plan is to preserve at least some of them in their victimized condition under glass. If I'd thought I was smitten before, I hadn't known the half of it. So why didn't I barrel on over there the second Julie got done saying "I do"?

Because I had to get to Paducah, that's why. When I first knew Dan and his longtime partner Lucas in New Orleans, they were the meticulous owners of the most exquisitely lavish B & B I've ever been afraid of breaking something in. Then Lucas's health problems made them decide to reconfigure their lives, and so they've moved back to Dan's hometown. The novel he's writing is set there.

Recalling the opulence of their NOLA digs, I did a "Hmm" as I pulled up in front of an unprepossessing 1970s-style ranch house on a lane off Route 60. Then Dan welcomed me inside, where the cream of their B & B's familiar objets d'art—paintings, sculptures, a grandfather clock, tasteful cats, and so on—had been lulled into harmonizing with the house's ultra-suburban layout and furniture, not to mention the abruptly David-Hockneyesque pool in their Paducah backyard. Spot the metaphor, folks.

"You seem to have settled in quickly," I muttered, and Dan cocked a tolerant eyebrow: "We're gay." So they are, and he and Lucas are already getting sick of every closeted gay woman in town surreptitiously coming out to them. "My God, they're all lesbians," Lucas marveled. "Starting with our housekeeper."

At least if you're me, not many treats top being given a tour of Paducah, Kentucky, by a deeply amused fiftysomething gay man who's been everywhere and nonetheless plainly loves his hometown. We drove past Dan's childhood home: "I knew everybody on this block," he said, unaware that by my lights he was bragging. We drove through the once-genteel residential neighborhood that had gotten awfully run down when it was repurposed as—what else?—an arts district.  We drove by the vintage Coca-Cola plant that's now being repurposed as well. We dawdled at Robert Dafford's wonderful open-air civic murals along the floodwall on the Ohio River's bank: 45 panels in all, depicting Paducah's history from the day Lewis and Clark passed by on their way someplace else to now.

But then I had to hit the road, headed for another joint. I was hoping to make Jackson, Mississippi, by nightfall, and didn't. My trusty new 10-year-old convertible and I wound up in an Econolodge in Grenada instead, and why anyone looks down on motel chains like Econolodge and Best Western beats me. They're clean, well-lighted places that treat guests with genial respect and offer infinitely more value for money than the preposterously chichi places I'm sometimes parked in on GQ's dime. Predictably, The World's Smartest Woman groaned on the phone when I sang the praises of Econolodge, but go figure: She digs Prada. Someday I'll meet a gal who hates Prada and propose on the spot, and we'll cheerfully settle down in the Unabomber's old cabin and wait for Alzheimer's to kick in.

As for me, I've done the odd bit of political reporting in my time, and the hell with designer accessories. My ageless red tote bag emblazoned with "Houston Welcomes 1992 Republican Convention" has stood me in good stead for 22 years and counting. So I chucked it in the car and started for New Orleans, ruing all the other sights besides the Corvette Sinkhole Museum I hadn't had time for this trip. If skipping the George S. Patton museum in Fort Knox triggered a pang, passing up the battlefield where Confederate general John B. Hood failed in his desperate bid to reconquer Nashville felt even worse. A sentence from Shelby Foote's The Civil War has stayed with me forever: "Hood had wrecked his army, and the army knew it."

Dan had tipped me that driving west instead of south from Paducah would drop me to New Orleans like a bullet via Missouri and Arkansas once I hit I-55,  incidentally letting me claim that I'd been through six states in four days. If I felt an onrush of melancholy as my convertible and I crossed the Mississippi and then we crossed back into Tennessee, that wasn't because anything especially saddening had happened: far from it. I'd just known all along that my road trip to Julie's wedding was my farewell tour of the part of the country I love most, at least for the foreseeable future.

Two days before leaving for Louisville, I'd realized or decided that there's just no freaking way I can go on making a living doing what I do so long as I'm based in a secondary market like NOLA. I had a pretty good run at making Mt. Mammon come to Mohammed, but those days are gone and a future as a Walmart greeter has little appeal. (It does have some, mind you: blending in at long last!) In today's, ahem, market, the only realistic choices for the likes of me are New York or Los Angeles, and the only way I'll ever move back to New York is in a body bag. Or maybe several of them, the better to muffle my posthumous protests.

And that settles that. Sometime in the next couple of months, my trusty convertible and I will be rolling toward Mr. Disney's fiefdom. There I will live. I haven't since Bill Clinton's first inaugural, the year after the LA Weekly sent me to cover the 1992 Republican convention.  But I've got plenty of apparently ageless friends in the City of Angels, along with a couple of promising opportunities for freelance gigs. That The World's Smartest Woman lives there too is just—as we say here in New Orleans—lagniappe. If heading back to L.A. after all these years won't feel quite like going home, it'll feel mighty close to it, and I learned long ago that that's as good as it gets.

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