So the story goes a little something like this…
Tim: I’d like a Mexican pizza, with no beef—
Taco Bell Lady: With no beans?
Tim: No, with no beeF [emphasis on the F added]
TBL: Huh. Ok.
Tim: And I’d like a soft taco with no cheese.
TBL: What?! [said incredulously]
Tim: A soft taco with no cheese, please.
TBL: What, are you on some kind of diet or something?
Tim: No, I just don’t want cheese.
TBL: Ok I guess, just seems weird. Pull around to the second window.
…and so went the conversation we had with the speaker in the middle of a light-up menu at 3am in Rockford, Illinois earlier this week. Now I’ll be the first to acknowledge that anyone who’s working the graveyard shift at a Taco Bell in an Illinois town whose biggest claim to fame is sharing a name with one of James Garner’s characters from the 70s, probably doesn’t have the most firm grasp on what “appropriate banter” with strangers is, but come on. However, since when is it ok for the people taking your order to give you crap about what you’re ordering at their establishment? I thought the saying was “the customer is always right,” not “mock and judge the customer needlessly,” but I may have gone to a different school of service. Additionally, I’d like to suggest to the young lady working the drive-through that night that anyone who’s actually on a diet probably isn’t going to be EATING A MEAL AT 3AM AT TACO BELL. Taco Bell isn’t exactly known as a health food distributor, and I doubt removing a marginal amount of beef or cheese from any item they serve actually keeps it from registering at the top of the food pyramid. But the deeper issue here is that out of the many myths I’ve heard growing up (“good things come to those who wait”, “girls just want a nice guy”, “absence makes the heart grown fonder”, “Taco Bell is food”), the one I’d always believed was true was the myth of “southern hospitality.”
Just to help quantify things here, I’m referring to the “south” as any city whose population is less than 50,000 people and is located south of central Ohio. Exceptions: most of Florida, most of southern California, and Texas — because Texas is its own breed of people unique to the rest of the country. Don’t believe me? Repeat that statement to any native Texan and they’ll not only acknowledge it, they’ll probably be proud of it. Weird. Also, apparently everything is bigger in Texas, so that’s kind of any oddity as well. It’s the Super Mario Bros. 3, World 4 of America. If you don’t get that reference, you either had a terrible childhood or you were born after 1996, and either way, I pity you.
Over the past several years I’ve had the pleasure of being old enough to explore most of the country without just the random excursion to various tourist hotspots. Whether through work or random happenstance, I’ve seen the real parts of the country for what they are. And let me tell you, I’m not impressed. Specifically the stigma of southerners and their hospitality, because by and large they’ve been some of the most unkind, judgmental people I’ve come across. Now to clarify, I’ve met incredibly nice, polite, hospitable people in the south (and indeed, most places), but I was always sort of led to believe that this overt level of politeness and generosity ran as rampant in the south as their thinly-veiled continued support of the Confederacy. I’ve met a lot of rude and unkind folks in my travels, and I don’t think the south should be held to a different standard of kindness, it’s just that if the south doesn’t have hospitality going for it, then what does it have? The west has oceans and great weather/scenery, the north has wide open spaces and that laid back vibe, the east has fresh seafood and the most important branches of government, and the Midwest has…soy. But without hospitality, what does the south have? Hurricanes and racism? Hard to build a tourism campaign around that. “Alabama: come for the executions, stay for the humidity (unless you’re Puerto Rican).”
All things considered, I still love traveling, and I haven’t come across anything grievous enough for me to boycott the south entirely, I’m merely making the observation that as America becomes an integral part of an increasingly-global marketplace, it’s important that we — as a nation — put our best foot forward, and make sure we’re all pulling our own weight. So southerners, it’s time to either kick that famed hospitality into overdrive (I recommend baking twice as many pies) or come up with something else to be good at (being a pretentious, judgmental A-hole is already taken by me and most of the northwest, sorry).
Peace, love and rock,