Saturday, April 22, 2006

Spring Break

Several of my friends have written movingly in their blogs about what it was like to visit the gulf coast post-Hurricane. Recently, my normally ironic friend who keeps the Superannuated blog reported, with the analytical passion she normally reserves for bad dates and the semiotics of trivial annoyances, on the condition of New Orleans--a fucking mess, as one might expect.

Which leaves it to me to pick up the irony slack I guess. I'm here on the hurricane-shredded Gulf Coast, and I'm on vacation.

And tomorrow, my mother and her friend, who have been vacationing here all winter, are going to take me to gawp at Dauphin Island which, like many of the overdeveloped beach towns here, was pretty well flattened by Katrina. Devestation as tourist attraction, whee!

A moment of rationalization. I didn't come here _just_ to gawp. The pretty white and breezy barrier beaches of coastal Alabama have been, up until recently, the well-kept secret of middle-class southern summer vacationers and budget-minded northern snowbirds for the past several decades. My mom (northerner) came down here to join some friends who have vacationed here for the last decade, and come here every summer, even though Hurricane Ivan of two years ago tore up half the condos. So they were coming here anyway--the gawp potential was just an extra added tourist activity that doesn't stretch the budget. (Will the fact that I refused to let them take me to gawp at Biloxi earn me five fewer minutes in the place in hell reserved for those damned because they participated in even a moment of Schadenfreude Tourism?)

It's freaky down here anyway. The whole tropical vacation vibe seems forced at the outset here in the redneckiest end of Alabama. You have to drive through miles and miles and miles of too-fast highway, stripmall, blighted small town, gunshops, rebel flags and dreary gas stations to get here. When you do, the effect is as if a company of alien developers accidentally dropped a Generic North American Vacation Spot at random on a happenstance plot of empty beach and live oak brush. While southerners have their own party style, it's not remotely tropical--there's something all wrong about a Southern Baptist on a surfboard.

Even though the cause-effect relationship between overdeveloped barrier beaches and unprecedented hurricane destruction is empirically obvious here, equally unprecedented is the wholesale (or retail) escalation of highrise building right on the lakeshore. The funky little family summer homes on stilts, the modest stilty condos, the boxy littlle vintage motels, the goofy souvenir shops and the smattering of grander mcmansions that Hurricane Ivan tore up in 2004 and Katrina finished off are being left to rot themselves into official condemnation so the developers can tear them down and build 20+ story condos even closer to the water. Which they are doing even as I type. When the next wind hits, those things are going to go down like dominos from here to Pensecola. Nobody cares. They'll just collect the insurance money, which the big developers will get, even though none of the local homeowners and small businesses will ever see a dime. And it's all about deals and favors and influence anyway. The woman whose job it is to hand out building permits happens to be the police chief's daughter. Several federal indictments have already been handed out to condo developers in the next town for even less ethical practices. A litlte payoff here, a little political sponsorship there--it's all part of doing business down here.

Apparently, this place was also once a big spring break destination for the college kids, but hardly any of them showed this year. It harshes their mellow, the prospect of partying in devestation they didn't gleefully cause themselves.

There's also stuff I like here. There's a club called Florabama on the Florida/Alabama border. The whole thing--two stories of it, is built all out of scrap plywood and plastic walls, PVC pipe and plastic tarp for the roof, some galvanized metal pipe for rails and some creaky wooden stairs. There's mardi gras beads and women's lingerie dangling from the ceiling, and all the bathrooms are porta potties. The whole effect reminded me of Burning Man, only this place is permanent. I like the fine white sand and the bluegreen water and the warm chilly breeze. The place where my mom is staying is incredibly cush for a middle-class budget, with views of the much more tranquil and less fucked up lagoon. Also, the seafood is awesome. I've been gorging on gulf shrimp, hushpuppies and frivolous cocktails.

This morning, watching local tv news, I developed a theory about the inexplicable religious fanaticism of the deep south. On local tv news were three consecutive items: 1. Two men who had been arrested for dragging a donkey behind a truck for several miles 2. The arrest of the minister's wife the next town over for having shot and killed her husband (infidelity was not her motive! says the tv) 3. a political ad for the Lt. Gov of Alabama that touted the following qualifications: he was a Conservative Christian; he led Bible study groups; he had no prior political experience.

People pray so much down here because they're already neck-deep in this funhouse Hell, and whatever they imagine The Bad Place to be makes this all look normal.
Mon, March 27, 2006 - 10:55 PM — permalink - 0 comments - add a comment


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