In the interest of balance I played hooky from AWP for three hours and walked uptown to Piedmont and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Blue skies, 70 degree temps and all that Southern architecture between the hotel and the garden.
When I asked the concierge if it was possible to walk there, she sort of squished up her face in surprise. “I mean, are there sidewalks all the way?” I said.
“um, yes. But it’s a little, um, far.”
Cake. It completely escaped me to ask if the walk was safe—for a woman alone in broad daylight, how could it not be? It never occurs to me, actually, to consider the discomfort, danger or lack of wisdom—beyond being nailed by a vehicle—in walking anywhere. Living in Portland, where I have always felt 100% safe on foot, walking anywhere in the city is a usually only accompanied by the question: to bring an umbrella, or to not bring an umbrella?
Walking the first mile or so from the hotel gave me pause though. Not because it was any more or less dangerous than Portland, but because, in my geo-centric arrogance, I forgot that when Dorothy’s not in Kansas, things look different. She doesn’t necessarily blend into the culture and the story and the archetype. Dorothy, in her yoga pants and tailored jacket and pale, freckled skin was the oddball-on-the-street.
And—the initial dozen or so blocks I encountered zero women walking alone. There were several pairs of women, and a few groups of women, but no solo female venturers. I started to feel really self-conscious. I started to notice my whiteness, too. There were no white people on foot. Not one. That shouldn’t matter, right? Is it racist to be so self-conscious about one’s whiteness? Especially as I walked toward a boisterous group of African American men. I averted my eyes in nervousness. In racist nervousness. Then I thought, “No, I’m not going to keep looking at the ground, because I’m being rude and projecting all this discomfort and, y’know, fuck it. I’m just going to smile, like I would smile at anyone I passed in Portland. I’m going to give that group of African American males my biggest Portland smile.” Which I did. And they smiled back. There were six of them, and five of those guys smiled benignly. Just one of them did a lude thing with his tongue, but maybe (I told myself) he had something in his mouth he was trying to get rid of.
It seems sort of shameful to be this uptight and reflective about walking in a city where my color and probably my standard of living is anomalous. Especially on the heels of having attended a seminar where one of the panelists talked about the profound grace of connecting to the consciousness of another human. I don’t always want that connection, after all. Sure, when I’m reading a book and someone’s spilling it, yeah, that’s nice. But not when I’m walking down the street. Walking down the street I tend to fear confronting the consciousness of my fellow man. Particularly when I’m sucked up into my own flawed consciousness.
Okay, so I had to confront my flagrant racist, narcissistic self, and, once in the Garden, yet another flaw unfolded—my Philistine-like indifference to one of nature’s most cherished flowers. The Atlanta Botanical Garden boasts a world-renowned orchid collection and the current exhibit in the exalted greenhouse has combined this with an internationally acclaimed artist’s delicate, detailed glass orchid sculptures. The script calls for oohs and aahs when you enter the greenhouse—the perfect white blooms, the magenta ones, all set against tropical plants and mist and humidity and all that’s missing is a Phillip Glass score.
Instead, I found myself drawn to the gnarled tree trunks and hanging willowy tendrils of foliage. The humming tropical insects and chirping birds and overwhelming fecundity—so sensual and Southern and succulent. The collections of glass and real orchids set out like my Grandmother’s crystal under display cases or peeking from behind signs that, in faux whimsy, begged the viewer not to touch by deliberately crossing out those verbs of tactile invitation, well, I trotted right by ‘em. Too much perfection for this gal. Makes me nervous.
So—where does that leave me? If I’m too nervous to sidle up next to Southern humanity, and too unappreciative to be awed by exotic spectacle, am I a lost cause? Am I a faker in an authentic land? Am I just an old gal immune to new tricks?
That said, I completely get that Georgia is a ripe peach. There’s so much life, so much history, so many stories. I hate to think I’m getting in the way of channeling the stories. That’s why I came, after all. For the stories.