Jackson, Mississippi, August 2012
I wasn’t finding the conversation easy. His wife was smiling and nodding in all the right places, but every few minutes the husband turned to her and with a note of petulance, bellowed “Whadda they sayin’?”
Up until that point my friend and I had found Deep South accents seductive and hypnotic; being called ‘sugar’ was a particular favourite of mine. Having our Australian accents barked at over the shared table of an Amtrak dining car as we rattled through Mississippi en route to Tennessee, however, was another matter entirely.
We’d seen the lushness of Louisiana swamplands give way to cornfields, and with the dusk light spilling into our carriage, the view was superb. When we returned to our seats after dinner, Lisa and I grinned at the prospect of a new city to enjoy…even if it was Jackson.
Whenever friends in New Orleans had asked us why we were headed there, we weren’t quite sure of the answer. We couldn’t remember which of us had first suggested it, nor name a single thing to do in Jackson. But with Hurricane Isaac approaching, our bed and breakfast evacuated and New Orleans airport closed, we had little choice but to jump on a train and head north.
As we drew closer, there was really only one thing to do. I pulled out my i-pod and with an ear piece each, we hit Jackson city limits with high spirits and Johnny Cash.
We checked into a hotel by the station, and took a walk down the main road just as the street lights flickered on. We didn’t run into a single person in the next half hour. Shop after shop was boarded up, American flags faded behind dusty windows, chunks missing out of the pavement so large we had to step around them. We tried to find action – a bar with its lights on, some people, anything – but in the end returned to our hotel for a bowl of gumbo and hurricane updates.
The next morning would surely be better, we told each other. After all, it was bound to be bustling during the day. And so we strode though the hotel lobby after breakfast, humming ‘We’re going to Jackson, Jackson, we’re gonna mess around.’
Except we weren’t messing around.
I don’t think anyone has messed around in Jackson for a long, long time.
Cafe doors were still locked, and streets still so deserted that we headed back to the coffee shop in our hotel to ask for advice. I’ll never forget the look on the barista’s face when I asked “What do people do for fun in this town?” She stared at me in amazement for a moment before bursting into raucous laughter, the gingerbread coffee in her hand sloshing over the cup and down her long talons.
“Betty! Hey Betty! These folk want to know what there is to do for fun in Jackson.”
Betty, leaning against the counter and reading a magazine, looked up in surprise and then began howling along with her. We just stood there and watched, wondering if New Orleans in hurricane season had possibly been the better choice. Each time one of the women would start to wind down, they would catch the eye of the other and kick into fresh peals of heartfelt laughter. My coffee was getting smaller and smaller with each burst.
Betty finally calmed down enough to gasp “Why on earth you girls pick Jackson?”
I looked at Lisa as she turned to me. Neither of us spoke. I think it was beginning to dawn on us that there was really only one reason we were there, and we’d been singing it all morning.
Betty and Wanda had plenty of recommendations, it turned out. They found maps and a driver for us, and sent us into neighbouring Dogwood County, famed for its cinema and shopping complex. The fact that the recommended ‘most enjoyable’ part of Jackson was, in fact, twenty miles outside of the town limits, was not lost on us. But we had a truly wonderful day, eating burnt sugar salad in the hot southern sun, discussing blues music with our driver, Alston, and promising next time we returned to take a tour of Clarkesdale juke joints with him. When we pulled back into town, Lisa and I found ourselves nodding at the dusty, deserted streets like an old friend.
I can’t listen to the song without thinking of that day. In the midst of our hectic, sensory overload New Orleans to Memphis route, Jackson turned out to be the touch of small town slowness that we needed. It’s a town we’re now more than a touch fond of, even if Betty and Wanda wouldn’t entirely understand.
© Rijn Collins.