The peninsula has produced, oddly enough, a people with the siege mentality of islanders. Observers have described Charlesto-nians as vainglorious, obstinate, mercurial, verbose, xenophobic, and congenitally gracious. Most of all, they elude facile description, but they do possess a municipal character that has a lot to do with two centuries of scriptural belief that they are simply superior to other people of the earth. If you do not subscribe to this theory or are even offended by it, well, it simply means that you are from away, that you are obviously not a Charlestonian.
The entire mythology of the city is dependent on the existence of an ancient, beleaguered aristocracy who trace their heritage to the first stirrings of the Colony. They live—or would like to live—in the splendid mansions and townhouses South of Broad Street, or SOB, the rather mythical and whimsical Maginot Line of society.
Each of these houses is a vessel of exquisite solitude and unrestricted privacy.
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Charlestonians have made an art out of living well, and the area South of Broad is arguably the most flawlessly preserved historical area in America. The rest of South Carolina has a keenly developed inferiority complex about Charleston, a complex that Charlestonians feel is richly deserved. Unlike other cities in the region, including Savannah and Columbia, Charleston never had to endure the full fury of an assault by the armies of William Tecumseh Sherman. Charleston survived the Civil War with her architectural legacy intact and her collective unconscious simmering with aggravated memories of bombardment, reconstruction, and emancipation as she struggled to become whole again.
The war succeeded in making an odd city odder, and it often seems as if Charleston still feels the presence of a phantom Armada holding the city under a perilous eternal siege. In Charleston, more than elsewhere, you get the feeling that the twentieth century is a vast, unconscionable mistake. The mansions South of Broad Street form a magnificent archipelago of exclusion.
It was not a matter of money that assured access to the charmed region; it was a matter of blood. The alloy of wealth and background was ideal, of course, but the century had proven testy and ungenerous in its treatment of some of the oldest, most celebrated families of Charleston. The descendants of planters often found themselves with the bank accounts of sewing machine salesmen. But a modest income alone never denied access to those haughty parlors; and wealth alone could never insure it.
If you were crass, lowborn, or socially offensive, it would have made no difference to the proud inhabitants South of Broad that you owned France; they would not invite you to their homes. I knew girls my own age who would as soon be courted by a palmetto as by a boy denied access to South of Broad society. They were often blonde, long-stemmed girls, thin and clean and frail, who attended Ashley Hall for twelve years, went off to college in the hills of Virginia, then returned buffed and polished to marry princely fellows who were perfectly at home with all the stiffness and formality of the realm.
But a casual inbreeding was beginning to have deleterious effects on some of the oldest families.
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During the day, the narrow streets filled up with ermine-headed children, with the eyes of Weimaraners, who were native to this land. Walking in their midst as they played games beneath the bored, distracted gazes of their nannies, I would look for chinless blonds or boys with nosebleeds. Too many blue-eyed men had married their blue-eyed third cousins, and it was not uncommon to find husbands and wives who looked like brother and sister. I was not immune to the pleasures and enchantments of Broad Street, I was not immune to pleasures and enchantments of any kind.
I admired the elegiac understatement of its streets, the whole taut containment of the lower city, fragrant in its vines, disciplined in its stones. In the presence of the people who lived here, I had learned much about myself and the way I really was. My flat Irish features often shamed me as I walked in their midst.
There was nothing understated or subtle about me, and my aura was one of energy, restlessness, and inadmissability. I bobbed precariously on the immigrant flood; I smelled of Kilkenny, the back seats of station wagons, and the chlorine of YMCA pools. It seemed that I had to dive down through the waters of history even to glimpse these brilliant gouramis and golden carp who dwelled so easily in the distilled fathoms of their heritage.
I was more at home among the multitudes than the chosen, and the chosen knew it very well. But I had come often to South of Broad, and I had learned that aristocracy was not a navigable river. One of my roommates was born and reared on East Bay Street. His name, Tradd Prioleau St. Croix, paid tongue-twisting homage to two hundred years of Carolina history.
Because of Tradd and his family, I had become familiar with the manners and customs of old Charleston. I found a parking space on East Bay and walked to the wrought iron gate of the St. Croix mansion. The house of my roommate was as splendid an edifice as I would ever enter without paying admission.
Architects considered it among the five finest houses in the city of Charleston. The Tradd—St. Croix house evoked a mythic, possessive nostalgia from the reverent crowds who walked single file through its hushed, candle-lit interior each April during the annual spring tour of homes, for it was emblematic of the most remarkable instincts of that form-possessed society. All the strict and opulent criteria of taste that had once brought pleasure to the wealthiest merchants of Charleston could be studied at leisure once you crossed the threshold of Twenty-Five East Bay Street.
Abigail St. Croix was waiting for me on the lower piazza. She leaned against one of the severe, rounded Doric columns, a large-boned, awkwardly constructed woman, silent in her meditative repose, watching me climb the steps toward her. Her movements were slow and languorous, without guile or stratagems, and as her large hands reached out to me I remembered how I had learned that there could be an immensely poignant beauty in the awkwardness of human beings from watching Abigail set a table or open a book or simply brush the hair from her eyes.
Will, I want you to see the garden before you go in to see Tradd and Commerce. I also want to have a serious talk with you before Commerce starts in on football and the seven seas. We walked to the rear of the house toward her huge formal garden, designed and planted by her husbands great-great grandfather. Upstairs, Tradd was playing Mozart, the music spilling into the garden like snow out of season. Abigail talked as we drifted toward the bench in the rear of the garden. I thought I wrote you that. It was such a grisly summer. Missy Rivers, the girl next door, you know the one, a perfectly charming girl but ugly as homemade sin, married a boy from a very nice family in Virginia.
Rivers was absolutely furious that Tradd was in England and missed the wedding. One of the children of the rector of St. The garden was scrupulously manicured and trimmed.
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It extolled the virtues of discipline in its severe sculptured rows and regulated islands of green and bloom. In this garden, few flowers were allowed to die on the bush or the trellis; most of them died in stale water contained within fragile vases near the reflection of family silver.
What are you thinking, you spectacle? Abigail asked, interrupting her abridged version of the past summers history. What must I do to become a Charleston aristocrat?
What do you think you have to do? Then I should become a hopeless alcoholic, chain a maiden aunt in an attic, engage in deviant sexual behavior with polo ponies, and talk like I was part British and part Negro.
It was in her garden that whatever physical grace Abigail St. Croix possessed asserted itself.
She moved among her flowers with consummate natural fluidity, enjoying the incommunicable pleasures of growing things with the patience and concentration of a watchmaker. In this, her small, green country, surrounded by an embrasure of old Charleston brick, there were camellias of distinction, eight discrete varieties of azaleas, and a host of other flowers, but she directed her prime attention to the growing of roses. She had taught me to love flowers since I had known her; I had learned that each variety had its own special personality, its own distinctive and individual way of presenting itself to the world.
She told me of the shyness of columbine, the aggression of ivy, and the diseases that affected gardenias. Some flowers were arrogant invaders and would overrun the entire garden if allowed too much freedom. Some were so diffident and fearful that in their fragile reticence often lived the truest, most infinitely prized beauty. She spoke to her flowers unconsciously as we made our way to the roses in the rear of the garden.
Then one part of your life is empty, she declared. You substitute basketball for roses?
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Each one is different. Every rose that comes to this garden has its own inherent surprise, its own built-in miracle. And the world needs more roses far more than it needs more basketball players.
I really do. When I play basketball, every shot is different, complicated; and each game is beautiful or ugly in its own special way.