More towns beat the drum of normalcy
OXFORD, MISS. — There is a timelessness to this place, a sense that favorite son William Faulkner could still walk down Van Buren Avenue toward the town square, with its whitewashed courthouse and Confederate memorial, and not be surprised by what he saw.
Students congregate on the wrought-iron balconies of red-brick restaurants in the guiltless procrastination of a Saturday afternoon. A few solitary shoppers rustle the silent streets below, enjoying a rare quiet weekend while the Ole Miss football team is away.
With the exception of the cars motoring by, this cloudless afternoon, it seems, could be any in the past 150 years - as close to the battle of Vicksburg as to the morning of Sept. 11. But it is just that normalcy, so elusive during the past few weeks, that suggests Oxford - like the rest of America - is slowly returning to the natural rhythms of everyday life.
For most people, the attacks in New York and Washington remain a part of each day - an inescapable presence on television, or a subject of continuing prayer and reflection. But in this tiny college town, residents are coming back to cafes for their morning bagels. Farther north in Memphis, Tenn., tourists are letting themselves dance to the street music again.
Across the South and nationwide, Main Streets and shopping malls are beginning to look as they did a month ago, not in a sign of defiance against terrorism or in a gesture of unity, but because more people simply feel it's time to move on.
Few folks around here have been left unchanged by the recent weeks - one woman says she feels the continued threats of terrorism like "a dark cloud" over the nation. Yet there's a growing distance between today and the images and voices of three weeks ago, some add.
"Although it's on TV, it's almost forgotten," says David Moore, a shaggy haired 20-something. Standing behind the counter at the Bottletree Bakery in Oxford, he says business has returned to normal after a few bad weeks, too.
"It seems like the whole thing happened a year ago," adds coworker Meghan Grace.
In the calming warmth of Mississippi's Indian summer, even lunch feels like it happened a year ago. Ever unhurried, Mississippi measures time like its famous river, creeping languidly through the deep South's ruddy soil.
This is a long way from Washington or New York - not in miles, but in state of mind - and some here have noticed a mounting normalcy in their routine. Cara Sumners is one - which is somewhat surprising.
Since the first moments after the attack, Ms. Sumners has been an outspoken voice for peace on the University of Mississippi campus here. Through the Internet, she's charted the growing pro-war fervor, and in response, she helped organize a four-professor roundtable to discuss the events of Sept. 11.
Today, however, she's sitting on the balcony of Square Books, talking with her sister and a friend. She's adamant that she will continue her campaign, but lingering over her drink, she sounds glad to simply soak in the dregs of this blemishless day and not think about terrorism.
"At first, I was righteously indignant. Then I was sad," she says. "Then I was indignant again. Now, I just don't talk about it anymore, because it's emotionally draining."
Adds her sister, Sarah, "You don't hear people talking about it anymore."
Not that the imprint of the attacks has vanished. Red, white, and blue bunting colors every corner of the town square in Oxford. An hour north, along Beale Street in Memphis, marquees ask God to bless America, and nightclub windows are curtained with the taut rectangle of Old Glory.
The time of mourning and paralyzing sadness, however, seems to have passed. For one, the crowds have returned to this four-block blues mecca in downtown Memphis. For another, they're not afraid to be happy. In front of one street-corner band, a group of girls gyrate and holler. More-sedate visitors tap their shoes on the brick of Beale Street.
"People were pretty fragile about it last week," says John Lowe, who owns a local bookstore and helps local guitarist Richard Johnston with his street show. "But we're singing songs about it, so it's now in the canon of legend."
Amid the thicket of neon on Beale Street, music rises from dozens of restaurants and nightclubs, somehow blending into a seamless thread of brass, bass, and steel strings in the street center.
Every so often, snippets of conversations about the attack filter by - someone talking about an airline flight or latest news. Without question, there is a new sense of caution, both here and across the country. For most, the sense of American isolation and safety has been forever shattered. But even in this new reality, people are finding a way to return to the lives they had.
Georgian Janice Barrett has come back to Oxford, her childhood hometown, for the weekend. She's still uneasy about what will come next for America, but as she walks down Jackson Avenue on the north rim of the square, she says it's time to get back to a regular life.
"I feel that things are getting back to normal. It's almost as if the flag went up to full mast, and we went forward."
Previous installments of this series ran on Sept. 21, 24, 25, 26, and Oct. 2 and 3.