A Georgia Kid in New York City
When Salvation South editor Chuck Reece first moved to New York City, he felt like he had something to prove. But he didn’t know exactly what that was. In this week’s commentary, he reports on what he learned from an audacious experiment.
After I graduated from the University of Georgia, I took a job offer in New York City. My journalistic colleagues there heard my accent and started asking me the oddest questions, like, “Are your parents moonshiners?”
Well, no. And anyway, I explained, I grew up in Ellijay, the apple capital of Georgia. And the folks who made illegal whiskey there didn’t make corn liquor. They made apple brandy. They did not believe me.
So, the next time I went home, a family member who shall not be named scored me a pint of Gilmer County apple brandy, and I returned to Manhattan with it in my backpack.
Before we all left work on the Friday after I got back, I pulled out that pint and asked my editors — my bosses — to gather around the water cooler. They pulled little conical paper cups from the dispenser, and I poured shots of brandy until the pint was empty.
If you’ve never had homemade apple brandy, let’s just say it tastes and smells wonderful until it gets about halfway down your esophagus, at which point it feels like an entire orchard has caught fire inside your chest.
My editors were impressed.
The following Monday morning, I got to the office early, and my big boss, the editor-in-chief, was already at his desk at the front of the newsroom.
“Mr. Reece,” he said. “Get over here.”
I did as he asked. He looked at me and said, “I don’t know what was in that stuff you gave me on Friday, but at 11 o’clock that night, I found myself in a rental car in the Bronx, and I had no idea how I got there.”
I definitely felt like I had proved something to them. But in retrospect, I think I had proved something to myself — that the South had been imprinted on me so deeply I could never truly escape it.
Not long ago, Salvation South, the magazine I edit, published an essay by a young woman named Ellen Corry, from Watkinsville, who had just finished her freshman year at New York University in Manhattan.
I so related to what she wrote, particularly this paragraph: “I could easily confirm every belief New Yorkers have about the podunk, simple-minded, American South. Yes, I have known my fair share of out-of-season camo apparel and blatantly racist ignoramuses. But I’ve also felt magnolia trees mothering me during my drives past places where old couples sell me peaches for a discounted price because they thought my dad was sweet in high school.”
For centuries, young Southerners have ventured northward, looking to prove something to themselves. And we all wind up learning how deeply our home had imprinted us. To the rest of the world, Southerners may be hard to understand. I guess it’s enough that some of us at least understand ourselves.
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.