Originally published by DowntownLALife Magazine in August of this year.
Was a popular article at that time,
Thanks to all-
Michael A Martin
Jesus Ain’t Here No More
From historic Charleston to South Beach, from Norfolk to Tampa, and everywhere in between. And hey, there is a mother lode of ‘in between.’ Whether it be along tobacco road or that tired old Highway 17 laboring along the coastal plain- it’s all here: The house that jack built, and then deserted. The proverbial ‘fascism is capitalism in decay.’ And then the countless Singaporean taxistas that always said ‘America too big.’ And they were right: It is too big. Simmering, scorched and way so way too big.
A place where four-year-old shopping center #5 is antiquated and cancer-laden ‘cause everyone is going to the newest shopping center #6… for a year or two anyway. We are in a time and place like no other. A place where capital speculation and greed have scarred the Dixie piedmont to an unrecognizable, forsaken sort of place; a place where abandoned farm homes and rusted, hollowed-out silos polka-dot a sad and scraggly scape. And hey, yea, I did look up from my ‘hand held’ device just long enough to see all this; and to come to the foregone conclusion: Jesus ain’t here no more.
And if this is a jumbled road diary, remember: It comes from a fairly jumbled mind. Traveling Interstate 75 through south Georgia, it be common to see anti-Obama billboards along side, ‘You’re going to hell if you don’t repent,’ along side, ‘Lion’s Den Adult Super Store just 4 miles ahead.’ Golly that sorta makes my thinking go off kinda weird. But then there are all those once vibrant outlet centers—all dead now: Boarded-up, rotting places where SUVs full of vacationing families once stretched their legs on their long trek to beach land. Even the topless roadside coffee shop joints are closed. I see all this pretty darn clear now cause I looked up from my Pandora music selection just long enough to catch a glimpse of our present day southern Americana: Yea, Jesus ain’t here no more.
But… but hey: Everyone you talk to is kind and polite. Like, you can take the southerner out of hospitality but you can’t take the hospitality out of…ugh. Dang it. You know what I mean. People might hate certain ethnicities or not have a ride to work at the BP from their trailer park- but I’ve found them all to be pretty darn nice about it, regardless of their lot. I mean, you gotta understand: This is a time and place where plenty of folk are very misguided and confused. They believe what Fox or MSNBC tells ‘em (and hey, there ain’t much MSNBC down here), where government and freeloaders are the enemy, and where psycho-anger simmers just beyond Howdyville. It is a time and place where anything beyond the state highway, anything beyond that big cat caught on Zack’s 80lb dragline, anything beyond the shot-up deer being hoisted onto Billy’s Dodge Ram… anything beyond such serious stuff is either foreign or just downright evil. But all people really know that times are tough, and by God it’s somebody’s fault. And whether it’s reflected in the dwindling tithes at Liberty Monument Baptist or fewer loaves at the out-of-date bread store… it don’t matter. Times still be tough, damn tough. I know this ‘cause I talked with a girl named Rebecca at the filling station, gassing up and all. And you can only come to one conclusion when looking deep into Becca’s eyes or slithering ‘cross our scorched, southern flatland: Jesus ain’t here no more.
You know, I saw this stuff on the computer ‘bout children singin’ in some church; something like ‘Jesus don’t like homos’ or queers aren’t going to heaven. Well Hell. Just thought it was a funny thing that churches seem to be mouthing the good ole doctrine of exclusion and hate. Like everybody’s a bigot now, you know? Jus’ gimme a reason to hate somebody, blame some sick goat for my hardships. And screw you and your hardships- we’re talkin’ bout me and mine brother. Gimme Fox every night and Pastor Leroy’s fire and brimstone on Sundays and I’ll be hellaciously pissed-off at somebody. . . somebody pretty damn specific. And if I pray long and hard, I can stay that way all week… til next Sunday. This dude hates gays and this gal hates gay-haters even more. He hates preconception medicine but is an ardent supporter of electrocution. Like hey, you blow up my gay bar and I’ll blow up your juke joint out by the corn patch where you hold your rallies. Well hell, no one’s really got the balls to be blowin up nothing; but you sure can call Bob down at the Sheriff’s office, all anonimus and secret, make some threats. See, I finally be realizing all this, seeing mile after mile of deep-fried earth and degraded, potty-holed interstate. You know, I took a break from my handheld Facebook and did some thinkin.’ And you know what? Jesus? He ain’t here no more.
And then there’s the ‘other side of the tracks.’ Whether it be Sarasota, Fla. or Georgetown, South Carolina, we’re talking poverty here: Poverty of the darker persuasion. LBJ? Lincoln? The Emancipation Degradation? The Civil Plight Movement? Dead, dead, and deader still. Just ‘cause some federal-level politician made everybody equal back in the day didn’t do squat ‘bout educating anybody on any side of any doggone color spectrum. We’re talkin’ bout rural and town ghetto: The real deal. But on matters of inclusion, we’re now in post-modern times, and those metaphorical railroad tracks don’t mean what they used to, not anymore. Ain’t nobody down here got a monopoly on ‘poor.’ Strange to look up from my handy-dandy navigation app and see a sad row of ten maybe twelve trailers, overgrown with weeds, abandoned rusting cars, doors swung open, sofas and chairs strewn about in the kudzu- And lo and behold, people actually be living in those things. And just beyond that, say a mile or less up the highway, you see a partially completed subdivision of six or eight humble, ranch style homes, baking in a scape void of trees, mostly abandoned or empty. Guess poor old Henry down at Heritage Savings just couldn’t pony up with funds when Joe Mac and Bobby Sue came looking to take on their first mortgage. Ugh, don’t matter no how since Joe Mac lost his job when Nichol’s Farm Supply shut down. No, I best keep my eyes on the road and my attention on my ‘device;’ looking at the scenery ‘round these parts just ain’t gonna do nobody no good. Sorta leads to the conclusion that Jesus most certainly ain’t anywhere near here, not no more.
But hey, there ain’t nothin’ more important than a good, hearty meal when you be on a long road trip of exploration and discovery. And nothing stirs the southern soul more than the prospect of hog jowl, black-eyed peas, corn bread, and some squash; so we best start looking for that hallowed, special hole-in-the-wall type place. Surely every little town’s got one. And there should be plenty to choose from, mile after
mile after mile. Ah! There’s one! Nope. Shut down. My Lord, looks like it’s been shut down no shier than twenty years. So we go on… and on, starving. Darn. After maybe a hundred miles or so, it becomes clear that if it ain’t a burger or a fried chicken franchise, we’re just shit out of luck. And when you finally do break down and hoist yourself into one of these places, everybody… Everybody is fatter than hell. Like way, way down at the end of the proverbial humanoid-heifer scale. We’re talking- XLarge took a right and bought a bunch more Xs on that hideous highway to sweaty fat folds and disability by gluttony.
And speaking of gluttony, if there’s one place that epiphanizes all that we humans can bellow up and vomit upon our wondrous land, it is Route 17 through Myrtle Beach, S.C. And if Jesus did happen to make an appearance here, I believe he would give Michael the nod to violently excise this oozing, ulcerous hole from our hearts, heads, and dirt. This is where you can selfishly wheel your monster SUV with motorboat in tow, across six lanes of traffic, after buying discount Golf ware at one of countless outlet malls, blazing by and through everyone acar or afoot, all to get across to the stripper club that is running their Pina Colada ‘Boobs on Review’ special. And yes, that would be absolutely normal and expected. This is where bruisers show their guns and hide their guts, where obese women shamelessly show their … their .. I won’t go there but it’s not pretty. This is the parkway of the putrid, the boardwalk of the … God, I can’t go on with this. No respectable person should even ponder the ‘lostness’ of humanity that such a place so proudly espouses.
So I’m finally in Charleston, our city of ghosts, the town of our forefathers, this cobbled, cornerstone cradle of our lost confederacy. It is somewhere past 1:00am as I trek down Market Street. The palms and the antiquity, the restoration and the brick: The surreal affect of how light reveals a place that is surely not any of the America I have recently borne witness to. Fuzzy light beams dance jazz in some sort of drunken slow motion- palm shadows sliding across spooky relic fronts.
It is late. And here I be. Road weary and more. And like always: Searching. For what? I haven’t a clue.
I guess a Southern Belle might refer to my ilk as just another one of those ‘tortured souls;’ one of those sad people that got in the cursed habit of looking for things that were never there to begin with- trying to quench a tortuous thirst with the nectar of a fruit that God never zapped into being outside of Eden’s gate. All the cynicism, all the bitterness, all the toxic satire laid bare: Just one more blooming idiot that listened just a bit too long, looked just a bit too far, felt just a bit too deep, and never learned how to turn it all off. Unable to stop and smell the roses, disabled from being still and knowing that there is a God and I was never him.
So here I be: Ambling down the cobblestones, way in the wee hours, watching palm shadows dance across ancient facades, mixing and mingling with mists and vapors from unknown places.
I am old. I am restless. I am exhausted. Frankly, at this point, I just don’t know if I…
She was partially hidden in a cramped alleyway somewhere off Market, and it wasn’t one of those exotica, pretty style Charleston alleys- this one had some empty beer boxes and a dilapidated dumpster. I wouldn’t have seen her but for one leg partially sticking out from the shadows; but when I looked closer, her eyes conquered. Maybe it was how they bulged out beyond her gaunt yet pronounced cheek lines; maybe it was the smudged mascara- Nah. They were what they were: Big and saucer-shaped and impossible to read.
Being an expert on such matters (bullshit #417), I realized that with the shoulder length, dirty brunette hair, loose black tank top and baggy dark pants; this skinny little girl might be Goth or gay or . . . And she might have been a cutter based on the profound markings on her lower arms. Exactly why I stopped and looked at her, I really don’t know. Maybe because we were the only apparitions left playing in the shadows this time of night. Maybe because . . .
But it was also the way she looked back at me. There was no conversation, no banter, no innuendo: Just an old man and a wayward looking girl staring at each other at a strange time and in a stranger place. We communicated- well maybe, or maybe not- maybe a faith thing, maybe madness- but just in that solitary moment- in that dark, shadowed corridor. And it was like speech was not permitted, at least not until she said: Please, feed me. On any other cynical day, this would have launched my thinking into, ‘Shit, is she a ghost, a vampire, or what?’
But I knew: She was simply talking about food. She was hungry.
We walked together, silently, in the dark, below old Charleston lamps. We searched. We searched together. There were a couple of strange grimace-through-mortar type smiles. Sort of. Mostly, it was just walking. Finally, we found a deserted bar that had some sort of menu. We sat in the back, in a booth, under pathetically bright light. Still, stillness, and no talk.
She was a beautiful girl, but thin and dirty, and yet with some aura- like some underlying, ironic mix of need and power. Sort of like everything and nothing got together and met at ‘0.’ God that sounds wacked. I really don’t know how to describe any of this. She ordered a sandwich; for whatever reason, I ordered a soda. She gorged. I tried my best not to look at her, stupidly gazing at antique, rusted gasoline sign décor.
After only 25 minutes, I somehow knew that it was time for us to leave; and not only leave the place- but leave each other. How can one feel the weight of complexity and simplicity all at the same time? Well, you figure it out; I know now that I never will.
Outside the bar, standing by my side, she softly gripped my right hand as it lay by my side. She looked up, those saucer eyes, puffy lips; almost a whisper, ‘Thank you. Is anything worth more than your soul?’ I couldn’t move, frozen, locked down, and yet some hidden, hysterical laughter from somewhere deep inside. God, I’m just so tired.
Then she slowly looked upward toward the night sky, or maybe just the old lamppost above us, who knows? … She let go of my hand and took a step back, still looking skyward.
I also stepped back; staggered a bit as my left foot had gone to sleep- you know that ant-crawly feeling. She continued moving away, slowly, one step at a time. I finally asked, ‘Wait! What is your name? What just happened?’
She smiled, the most abundant, full sincere smile- like a gushing torrent of innocence or something much bigger than I will ever understand; but it was real- my God, the realest, deepest of smiles. Then she replied….
‘You know who I am. Since the beginning, you have known.’