How to Know When You’ve Left the South and Arrived in Manhattan: Two Tales

Tale #1: My own story begins with the tallest building of my youth, the McWilliams Building in Clarksdale, Mississippi, about thirty miles from my hometown of Marks. It was 6 or 7 stories and proudly bore the name of its owner. It was, I’m sure, the tallest building for several counties around.

When I visited New York for the first time (something I did in high school with my family), I was like most kids from small towns, amazed by the forest of skyscrapers, many with famous names.

But what struck me most was walking down a side-street in Midtown, looking up at a 60 or 70 story building, and noticing that its name was only its address. That told me: “Buildings this tall are so common here that they don’t always get a special name.” They might, of course, but the fact that many did not told me how commonplace they were.

Tale #2: I thought of that today, reading the obituary for a New York Times’ reporter, Roy Reed. He was from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and one of the paper’s lead reporters during the Civil Rights Era. The paper turned to him frequently when they needed a reporter who knew the South. (Obituary here)

Over the years, he wrote several books, but I was particularly intrigued by the title of his memoir, Beware of Limbo Dancers.

His story about that title is much like mine about the McWilliams Building, a variant of “you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The title, he wrote, came from a message neatly written on the inside of a door in a bathroom stall in the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street.

“This was a style of wit that I had never before encountered,” he wrote. “I suddenly knew that I was a stranger in town — not unwelcome, just a stranger.’’ –New York Times

 

 

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