Many years ago, I watched Out in America, an HBO documentary including the profiles of a cold call stockbroker whose coworkers painted a Jolly Roger on the hood of his black sports car, and a woman working in the kitchen of a Cracker Barrel in some backwater state—I want to say Alabama, but it could have been Mississippi or any of those other southern states whose public image is indelibly linked to images of children grinning under the mangled and lifeless guest of honor at a lynching or photos of the car in which civil rights activists were last seen alive. The third profile was of a man who lived in some similar backwater who was murdered because he asked the wrong man for a date. His friends and relatives were interviewed one after the other, alongside a dirt road, in front of a two-pump gas station, or outside the bar in which the greatest number of people last saw the man alive.(http://www.andersongoldfilms.com/films/documentaries/oaw_au.htm)
The woman worked for many years as a cook in the kitchen of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. She and her lover were raising a son who attended public school. Cracker Barrel corporate issued a memo delineating corporate policy that no employee of Cracker Barrel could be homosexual as the employee’s sexual orientation or “lifestyle choice” was not consistent with the public image of the corporation as a family friendly establishment. The woman figured the memo wasn’t about her; she didn’t interact with the public. She was back in the kitchen cooking. Her manager interpreted the corporate policy differently. She was terminated. She sued. During the lawsuit, her son suffered exactly the kind of bullying abuse at school one might expect. She eventually won her lawsuit. I like to think she took her money and moved north and coastal.
The documentary must have aired over a dozen years ago, but I haven’t forgotten it. And until recently, I had never eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, despite many road trips on which a Cracker Barrel would have been a reasonable alternative to a steady diet of gas station snacks and Happy Meals.
Visiting Cracker Barrel was a socio-political experiment in expanding my cultural literacy as much as a dining experience, like ordering grits, fried green tomatoes or fried okra in the South. I live in Indiana. There are Cracker Barrels everywhere. This surprises me as much as seeing a Waffle Hut in downtown Los Angeles might. Or a rebel flag hung on the flagpole of a house in Province Town or Fire Island. Indiana was a Union state, and yet rural southern Indiana is dotted with houses whose front porches are hung with Confederate flags. Paddle faster, I think driving past them.
A Confederate flag snapping in the Atlantic breeze above a house on Fire Island. Now, that’s an image! There is no way for anyone encountering such an image to not giggle a little at the incongruity. Like Lee Iacocca and Liz Taylor zipping around on Harleys, a Confederate flag on Fire Island would be ironic; it could be nothing else. It would be a smartass decoration for a hoedown-themed brunch or a wry attempt at annoying despicably self-satisfied and pretentious neighbors. No one in the real world of college degrees and gainful employment takes such things seriously, right?
While watching Sunday Morning a few weeks ago, Beloved huffed in annoyance over the report that a majority of polled Americans do not support the Health Care Reform bill. The poll asked people whether they supported President Obama’s bill. A majority said they did not support the historic reform. However, of the majority, a large percentage believed the president didn’t push for enough reform: they believed he didn’t go far enough. The newscaster reporting this failed to mention the point that a majority are glad it passed and most of those people think the bill was watered down and should have done more, more not less, to piss off Republicans and corporate interests.
My beloved said, “This is exactly Bob Cesca’s point!”
Bob Cesca wrote in a recent blog post that America is a left of center country but has been convinced that it is something else. Cesca argues that various media and polls frame the political debate with the presupposition that to be liberal is to be un-American. The questions asked in polls skew the results that wind up in the news. Bob Cesca opined that what these polls really ought to ask is whether or not the poll participant is a “vaguely gay elitist who hates America.” I said, “Hey! I need that on a T-shirt!”
Beloved said he’d look into getting me a t-shirt, and added, as he does often lately, that we really do live in two countries: one educated and urban, the other uneducated, disempowered and rural. Together, Beloved and I often marvel at the skill involved in convincing that other demographic that the Republican Party is actually on their side. The American Dream (anyone can make it, any Joe the Plumber can hit it rich if he works hard enough, prays hard enough, does what needs doing) is held before the workingman like a sad and withered carrot. Sad and withered!? Sad and withered?!
Yeah. You heard me right. Sad and withered. Sure that stuff happens. People win the lottery. People settle out of court for undisclosed sums. People start with one corner shop and soon have twenty. Oh. Wait. Wal-Mart put all of those guys out of business. Ok, people start with one Taco Bell franchise and buy another and another until they own fifty. Sure. That stuff happens. Far off in the distance, and to someone else. In forty-five years on the planet, I’ve been acquainted with only one person who has gone from something to millionaire in a private jet. Notice he started as something, in this case, a dentist.
When’s the last time you heard of anyone going from the crap side of Anytown to Central Park East? (Rappers and rock stars don’t count. Athletes either. Why? What percentage of the American population are they? 2 percent? Less than half a percentage point?)
Most of us get as much education as we can (or as we can stand) and vie for the sweet job at the Wal-Mart distribution plant, with City or State government, UPS, Federal Express, the airport, a hospital, or Eli Lilly. That’s the list for central Indiana. Failing one of those, the service economy always needs wait staff and sales people.
Back to Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is decorated nostalgically. The nostalgia is, apparently, for a rural “country” America of a long gone past: low country farm house architecture with a big front porch (like the one in the happy ending of the movie The Jerk), washboards and simple wooden board games (checkers and the golf tee game) that harken back to a time before the era of the high tech. There is no place for a computer in this decorating scheme. Admittedly cash registers are complex pieces of technology, but they don’t scream “digital age” the way an Apple desktop might. Inside the Cracker Barrel, even the registers are concealed behind board and batten siding like that one might find on the side of a barn. A small family farm barn, not the big corporate feedlots and dairy barns that comprise the majority of the beef and milk business nowadays.
The gift shop portion of the store includes children’s clothing, candy, country wall décor and knick-knacks. A large display is devoted to novelty candy in packaging from the first half of the twentieth century. Cracker Barrel is Christian, not spiritual, nor does it cater to any other concept of God. Bill Gaither books and CDs are displayed for sale, as are Gaither-endorsed china platters and wall hangings. (The menu features Sunday Dinner specials.) Automobile parts—sparkplug boxes, cases of engine oil in early 20th century packaging are displayed in tasteful tableaux on the tops of shelving units in the country store. Cracker Barrel is agrarian: farmer’s popcorn still on the cob is offered for sale, the objets d’art offered are made of cornhusks or decorated with barnyard animals, milk cans of many colors and sizes are used as display receptacles for toy swords and princess wands. Note, though, that this is an imagined agrarian past of bucolic small family farms, not the squalor of subsistence that I would argue exists solely in Appalachia as the only remnant of family farming.
Decorative wall hangings in the dining area include late 19th century portraits of ancestors one can only assume represent the glorious past now Gone with the Wind. (One, having grown up with a Southern mother, would be familiar with the complex set of associations such family objects carry.) Tin advertisement signs for cola and other products from the early 20th century, notably not Coca Cola, but brands that are either fictional or long defunct hang on the walls around diners.
Cracker Barrel is the antithesis of the digital age. Cracker Barrel is agrarian. Cracker Barrel is nostalgic for an America that existed at least 60 years ago, maybe longer. The oil lamps on the tables touted in a current billboard campaign along Interstate 65 come from a newly industrial America before electricity made it all the way out of the major cities. One of the wall hangings is a sign extolling rural electrification projects. Cracker Barrel imagines a world that is not urban, sophisticated, or by extension, liberal. If Cracker Barrel were a movie set, I would place the setting in the late 1920s and 1930s but the only set dressing that pushes Cracker Barrel further into the 20th century are the nostalgia candies for sale from several decades spanning the middle of the 20th century and the sign for rural electrification. Overall, this is an imagined rural community left behind, blissfully untouched by the complications and stresses of urbanity, technology, and an information age economy.
Cracker Barrel must then serve as a salve and comfort to the masses who identify with this particular brand of Bible Belt hospitality. Somewhere in the meaning of what it is to enjoy dining at Cracker Barrel lays an explanation of why those living far from even the margins of any constituency that could be said to benefit from Republican policy would believe in the rhetoric of the Republican Party.
Policy is not rhetoric. I find it difficult to believe that Cracker Barrel types agree with Republican Policy except where it must coincide with the more craven race baiting and fear mongering rhetoric that wins elections. Is it fair to say that true blue ‘Mericans, These Colors Don’t Run types are vaguely racist and homophobic? Well . . . if we did a full mouth of teeth count among those Americans brandishing sock monkeys at political rallies . . . what would those poll numbers be?
Wait. Sorry. Disrespectful. All too easy for elitist Left Coast me who has always had access to dental care, if not dental insurance, to cast dispersions on those who haven't and don't. What I meant to say is maybe there's a statistical correlation between owning clothing with John Deere or NASCAR logos and having a neck that is slightly red? Sorry. Someone stop me! It's hard to summon compassion for people who frighten us . . . and maybe that's the point here.
What I meant to say was—maybe people who are overwhelmed by late capitalism with its lightning fast processing speeds, its global village of ideologies complicating homespun truths that were once so comforting, its Fox News with constant reminders of which people of color are most frightening this week, its Entertainment Tonight with those horrible drunken lesbian girls flashing their bits and pieces, its Negro Presidents, its fierce competition for good middle class jobs that have evaporated with the fall of the unions—maybe those good, honest, hardworking people who used to be guaranteed a certain place in the world because they and all their friends always had been guaranteed a steady job, a decent home, and a neighborhood school free of the kind of shenanigans going on in those crazy urban neighborhoods—maybe those honest, hardworking people aren’t getting their slice of the American Dream Pie anymore and they’re looking around for someone to blame.
Fox News is already telling them morning, noon and night. Glenn Beck will tell them where blame belongs. Rush Limbaugh will tell them. The PTL Club has been telling them for years. The Republican Party will give a wink and a smile while tapping its toes to the faint strains of banjo music. And when all of that noise gets too loud, they can retreat to a quiet Sunday Dinner at the local Cracker Barrel where they can imagine they live in a small rural town, far apart from the syncopated frenetic rhythms of the big city. They can sit in rocking chairs on a big front porch and smile beatifically at neighbors who are easy to love because they look and act so much like themselves.