Laurel, Mississippi (Part 1)

I spent the weekend doing something I have always wanted to do: I took a train to a town I knew nothing about, for no reason other than just to do it. 

This is a daydream I’ve had ever since I first read “Travels With Charley” — one of Steinbeck’s only autobiographical works, in which he decides to travel the country in a camper truck with his standard blue poodle Charley. Steinbeck wrote it for plenty of complicated reasons — he had spent a lot of time abroad witnessing some of the horrors of war, for example — but the generally accepted primary purpose for his road trip was that most of his fame came from writing about America, so he set out to really see it.

I read “Travels With Charley” when I was 15, and at first I liked it because it was sort of funny, and most of the literature you’re forced to endure at that age is deeply serious and often Russian. I liked that Steinbeck had a poodle who said, “Pfffft” all the time — that was just the kind of absurdist edge my teenage mind needed. But then I got to this chapter where Steinbeck stays in a hotel room that hasn’t been cleaned yet, and he goes in anyway, and pieces together everything he can about the person who stayed there before him. I read the chapter again and again. The idea was fascinating to me: each and every one of us is just walking through our lives, mostly alone, with our own hopes and dreams and desires. We all have moments of privacy that belong only to ourselves in fleeting moments, at once integral and instantly lost to the infinite shadowy wells of human history. Most things that happen are never known. I could think of nothing more fascinating or beautiful.

I started obsessively thinking about the things I could never know. Sitting at the doctors’ office, for example, I’d notice that a handle on a drawer in the waiting room was missing, and I’d wonder when it fell off, and who last used it, and where it went, and how the person felt who felt the knob come off in her hand. I’d wonder who’d made the drawer handle: Who was the tenth person in the assembly line responsible for molding drawer handles that went on drawers in doctors’ offices? What was that person’s favorite movie? What was the best meal she ever had? I could entertain myself for hours with something as simple as a missing drawer handle. I began riding the bus just to stare at people and make up invasive questions about their lives I would never know the answers to. 

At some point in college, I discovered that may small local public libraries have shelves where they keep public records. Sometimes there are old yearbooks, or obituary records, or, if you are really lucky, microfilm from ancient and forgotten newspapers. On those shelves exist books that were not published through gigantic publishers; stuff you can’t buy off or even eBay, because no one thinks anyone would want them. Without fail, these libraries usually contain a skinny edition written by a local historian about the dirty little secrets of the town: “The Untold Story of Backwoodsville,” or something like that. There is nothing I find more wonderful than a shelf in a small-town library with a rabble of misfit tomes about local history.

When I decided to take last weekend off and hop on a train to Anywhere, USA, I picked Laurel because that’s where my finger landed when I closed my eyes and pointed at a map. A quick Wikipedia search yielded nothing interesting. (Except that apparently Lance Bass — the notoriously gay NSYNC member who wanted to go to space — is from Laurel. Now that I have spent some time in Laurel, I am unsurprised that Lance Bass is from there. Everyone in Laurel is basically exactly like Lance Bass.) I had a sense that going to Laurel might be a huge, boring disaster. But I checked to see if they had a library (they had a library) and a hotel (they had three!), and booked the ticket anyway.

I took a friend, and we rode bikes to the train station early in the morning so we wouldn’t have to wake anyone up or take a cab to get there. The train ride was exceptional: foggy, lots of water, early morning shore birds, etc. It was basically a scene out of a British dramadey set in the late 1800s. Laurel is only three hours by train from New Orleans, which was actually a little disappointing, because I think I feel most at home on a train. I like to be sitting still but also in motion. That may be the greatest metaphor for how I do everything in my life. 

When we got there, there was a brief moment of panic during which I thought the library might have been shut down. The “historic downtown” portion of Laurel looks like an abandoned ghost city. There are more empty store fronts than there are functional businesses, and we didn’t see a car for miles. It kind of felt like we had wandered onto the set for a movie that studio executives had decided not to use. Just walking on the brick road felt almost like it might be illegal.

But then the library materialized, and by a happy miracle, it was open. (Libraries in this day and age are never open when you want them to be. Frankly, they are rarely open at all. Such are the consequences of a dying institution in a technological age. I would love to talk about this more at your local nursing home and/ or retirement center, where my opinion on this subject is generally lauded as “radical” and “fresh.”) Not only was the library portion of the library open, but so was the “Genealogy Wing” of the library, which was something I had never in my wildest dreams hoped to experience.

The Genealogy Wing of the Jones County Public Library was essentially a wet dream for me. It was a small-town local history shelf amplified fifty-fold: an entire room of yearbooks, city records, family trees, and (unrelatedly, but still awesomely) handmade “Significant People From Laurel” action figures in glass boxes. I know you think I’m making that up, but I’m not. I have pictures.

My companion was patient while I sat down with stacks of old yearbooks at the big round table intended for researching one's family history. (I should give this person more credit: he was maybe even interested. After all, he was the one who found the shelf with six — SIX — separate books about Laurel’s unique town history. Also, we sat there for two hours. I don’t think you can do really anything for two hours in good spirits unless you’re a little interested. Or a little drunk. Or getting paid for it.) The earliest yearbook was this gorgeous old edition from 1923. I scanned the pages for passages that were overtly sexist or racist. It wasn’t difficult: everything in Mississippi in 1923 was a little sexist or racist or both.

We also looked at the books about black history in the state, and slave history, and obituary records of lynchings or worse. There was a lot. It doesn’t take long to get disturbed.

But this is exactly what is so important about little shelves in little libraries. Our tendency, when we look at history, is to dehumanize it. We put numbers on deaths; not names. We find patterns. We don’t look into anyone’s faces.

When you sit down and look through an old yearbook, you recognize yourself in the pictures. You’ll see a girl who was clearly having a bad day the day her picture was taken, smiling through some difficult conversation she had just had with her boyfriend, a few of her hairpins out of place; you’ll see a boy who wants so much to get a football scholarship to Ole Miss that he’s given up basically everything to bulk up and play hard. At some point, you’ll look into someone’s eyes, and you’ll see someone who looks a lot like someone you know. At some point, you’ll see you.

But these are people who lived in a time when we excluded people — beat people, tortured people, killed people — because of the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation. These were people who believed so fundamentally in their superiority that you couldn’t shake it from them even if you pleaded and cried and empathized. And that gets you to wonder what deeply-held beliefs you have that can’t be shaken. It gets you to ask what you might be getting wrong.

In one book at the Jones County Public Library, I read a historical summary of the Mississippi Choctaw Indian population. This is a community I admittedly knew nothing about. The historical summary boasted of the beautiful baskets the Choctaws made, and of the rich cultural traditions that “still thrive” there. Then there was a sentence that said that in 1831, there were 15,000 Choctaws living in Mississippi; but in 1832, after the first “removal,” there were 5,000; and by the next year, there were 1600. And that was all the book had to say about that.

I get it: it’s easier to summarize things that way. But what if there was a yearbook of all the people who were forced by the government to move from their native land to Oklahoma? What if there was a yearbook of all the people who refused to move, and were systematically murdered? How would the story be different?

We all need to be humanized. People who are oppressed and oppressors are all just people. Each and every one of us is just walking through our lives, mostly alone, with our own hopes and dreams and desires. It can feel huge, to carry the weight of that knowledge. But that is exactly what will save us. That is just what we need.