Gulfport, Mississippi is a nowhere/somewhere place. It is but it isn’t. In my memory it is a lot of different things. I mostly remember it as somewhere that was drawing to a halt. It had been, at one point, “the Riviera of the Gulf Coast,” but by the time I was growing up in the 1960s/1970s those days were done and Gulfport was dying slowly, fading into a kind of dusty used-to-be-ness. Yellowing wallpaper, carpets that were worn down to where you could see the floors through them. Where time was measured not by what was going on now but what went on a few years ago, or 10 years ago, or back when Mr. Ladner ran the place, or when Mr. Walters was alive, or when, when, back when. When, then, but never now, not now.
That was what gave Gulfport the feeling of being suspended in time, cut off, cut out of the rest of the world. Things happened but they never seemed connected to the outside world. Gulfport was a little nostalgic and a little sad. The checkerboard tablecloth was made of plastic and had cigarette burns in it. Back from when you could smoke in restaurants. Yes that was a thing. The melba toast in the little dish next to the ashtray with the melting butter was stale and the overhead fans flicked in the heat while the groaning window unit whooshed and growled. Nothing was new and everything needed to be fixed.
I knew there was another world out there. I saw it on TV. It existed in another place, a place where time ran forward and was not stalled out. I went over to Grandmother’s house, she had a color TV, and her TV was able to pick up the New Orleans stations. She watched WWL-TV Channel 4 and WDSU-TV Channel 6, seldom the sad little WLOX-TV Channel 13 that broadcast out of Biloxi that my family watched every day, primarily because it was the only channel we could pick up out there in the woods, where time ran even slower than it did in Gulfport because nothing ever went forward in the woods, in Orange Grove, barely named at all or seen on a map in those days. WLOX had nothing to recommend it, cardboard backdrops, strange little sad shows that featured Leon Kelner and his Orchestra playing swing tunes from so far back nobody remembered, disconnected again from time itself, dusty and sad. The same things the same way all the time the way it was supposed to be, because nothing was to be invented and everything was to be remembered and re-enacted the same way it was forever and ever.
By the 1970s everything had pretty much declined into remnants of itself. Mississippi has never been much of a place to resist fast money, and good con men and bad businessmen rip through the state to this day, leaving half-constructed buildings that collapse in high winds, or half-planned businesses that limp along for a few years and self-destruct under the pressure of nepotism and poor quality. The 1970s were where Gulfport, and the neighboring town Biloxi, tried to come to some semblance of life but the most of the towns lived off of the servicemen who came to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, and the Seabee Base in Gulfport, and the ever-decreasing tourist trade. It was simpler and more showy for the tourists to go to New Orleans, only 60 miles west, so tourism got tinier and tinier, and the few tourists got older and older, people who were wanting to sleep by the beach in motor court cottages and look at houses in the area to see where they could retire to. I was here when I was in the service, Maybelle, and it’s a nice quiet place now, see?
I wish I could be like so many of my family and friends are, sometimes. I sometimes wish I could have been content with what Gulfport had to offer, the dusty, yellowed, endlessly decaying nothingness of being somewhere-nowhere, slow and empty, sleepily genial as long as you didn’t push the boundaries too much. A lot of people went dead crazy in Gulfport, eroding into insanity just because of the stasis. I would have gone mad as a hatter if I had stayed in Gulfport. I am afraid I would have turned into a monster, a fiend of some sort simply because of the inertness, the airlessness of the place. Or worse; I would have been a Methodist, a plump little combover man with a plain mouse-haired wife and three kids, sending them off to college now, wearing my fat man’s shorts with white socks and a four-pocket shirt, voting Republican, or being an apologetic semi-Democrat, but in my mind seething, my heart burning, full of self-hate for not being something more. I stayed too long as it was. There are times when I think I should have left the state at age 18, just set fire to absolutely everything and left. I think the dreaming dreariness of the place kept me out of focus, kept me from planning or doing anything that would let me reach escape velocity. And of course my own fear of failure and the terrible depression, undiagnosed for years (and even if it had been diagnosed, what did they have? Librium and electroshock therapy). Not an excuse, but a reality that I wasn’t aware of. Awareness was not something valued in Gulfport in the 1970s. Awareness would make you realize how inadequate it was, and how inadequate you were, in a world that was rapidly changing. I had awareness to go with my fear and my depression. It was not comfortable or pleasant for me. I thought I was insane and that the problem was with me. Everyone else seemed to be fine.