Jul 15, 2007

Google Maps and the Christ Haunted Way to Jackson, Mississippi

    Obsession with the world’s best search engine and an itch to travel led me to plan a trip for myself earlier this summer with Google Maps.  With Google’s clever map service I can actually get satellite imagery of my own backyard, sans the barking dog, by typing in an address and presto -- after a couple of seconds an overhead satellite image appears on the screen. Like electrons swirling in a vacuum, maps are possibilities, discovery.  Looking from above like a god over a cosmic machine, I can see the earth’s surface, tops of houses, beaches along rivers, even the shadows cast by buildings. The ripples of water over a lake. Matchbox cars parked on sides of streets. If you peer closely, even mailboxes. Odd thing is, I noticed, after playing around for an hour or two -- the streets are empty, hardly a person in sight, which causes me to believe that the planet is vacant.  Where are the people? Inside, hooked up to high speed internet? Well, why not? It is delicious information accessible to the layman. It feels intrusive, yet enticingly fun; almost too powerful for the ordinary person. Without even being there, without the aid of an airplane, from a chair, I can pan over a river that follows a paved two lane road. When I click on the Hybrid button it indicates in startling yellow that this is Highway 17 (See figure 1). Wow.  Well. That’s awesome. I check out my friend Tony’s apartment.
   I can’t peer into his window with Google, but it’s pretty darn close. There are limitations to this voyeuristic peeping tom engine. Limitations. Restraint. I am restricted to the US and a little bit of Canada and Mexico and an outline of the rest of the world. As of this printing you can’t get a bird’s eye view of the Louvre or the Great Wall. And, even in the ole US of A you can’t see everything crystal clear. There are coordinates that Google won’t allow you to see. Either the satellites didn’t take pictures of these regions or Google technicians haven’t gotten to it. Or maybe Uncle Sam wrote them a letter, saying -- whoah now, you can’t be showing the tops of those oil refineries or those top secret coordinates. When I scroll over those areas with my mouse, it’s all a gray ambiguity but I can outline the details of every housetop in the French Quarter in New Orleans and survey the breach in the levee caused by Katrina along the industrial canal. I enjoyed the aesthetic of taking note of the design of the roofs, a strange patchwork of L’s and Z’s built on a solid uniformed grid. Strange.
    It is interesting what Google purveys to the common user and what it shuts out; maybe it’s arbitrary. Some of the satellite images are discolored and difficult to zoom into, but urban areas are crisp and easily zoomable. I can get a great shot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Lower Manhattan. I can even zoom over the roof of my own house. While I’m in it! It becomes a tad solipsistic: here I am with a laptop computer outside a coffee shop wirelessly tapping into the world wide web, looking from above, exactly where I stand. As I get a bird’s eye view of where I stand here, I stand before me, looking straight out into the parking lot. I look up into the sky to catch a glimpse of the satellite that took my picture. All I see is blue sky, clouds on the edge of the horizon. No sight of the all seeing eye. I found out later Google Maps is not a real time camera. The images are created by still landstat satellite images.
    And most practically, I was able to map out a trip to Jackson, Mississippi without using interstates.
    I wanted a Christ haunted trip through the old south. The back lanes of rural Mississippi. I wanted to see the white starched steeples of every church even before I drove by. So I packed some notebooks, a pencil, my Power Book G4, a flashlight, trail mix, a few books and a bathing suit in case I wanted to swim in the Bogue Chitto River or the Pearl and I set off in mom’s car. I was on a mission to find the South I had read about, her regal lords and ladies, white washed churches, myths and images of Eudora Welty, Beth Henley, Lewis Nordan, Walker Percy. Even O’Connor (not born in Mississippi, but I am sure that her characters populate its hamlets).
    And in reality there they were. I saw ‘em. On Sunday I was there. And saw. Looked. Wrote. Every town I drove through was like a queer recursive. In Tylertown. Georgetown. Monticello. Florence. Pearl. Lexie.
    I started out on Highway 437. It’s called Lee Road by the locals because supposedly General Lee marched down it with his troops. I stopped at the corner store to fill the gas tank. As is usual with corner stores, there is a dumpy matron positioned behind a counter who serves you without a smile, suspiciously eyeing any stranger who walks in; I wasn’t a regular so I didn’t get a cordial “hello,” just a stare. I was in and out of there but I did notice on the way out the cover of the Times Picayune: Local Gas Stations Fudge Tax Rates. Through no fault of their own, it seemed, local corner gas stations were overcharging tax on goods without realizing it. 
    From seven in the morning until three in the afternoon everyone was in church. Every time I drove by it was a different stage of worship: the gathering at the steps; the sunday waltz inside the main doors, the big bosomed belles pulling themselves out of their cars in time for service. By half past one I was still seeing the same scene, becoming a little afraid that I would be caught inside this never-ending reel of praise and worship. On Sunday along highway 27 the only “hopping” places are the churches. If you aren’t in church you’re reminded of Jesus on every corner. Jesus saves. Jesus the Lord of All. Have you read your bible today? Jesus over Tunica. Get right with Jesus. It is a constant reminder inscribed on every inscribable pulp, branch and tree. Names of the churches stick in my mind: Abundant Life Church. Starlight Church. New Life. Living Word. King Solomon’s Church (White and small with a big propane tank out front with a graveyard on the side). Cornerstone Church. New Bethel. Saint Paul the Apostle (that was the one Catholic church I spotted). Some churches were plain white clapboard edifices while others were veritable theaters, replete with jeweled studded bas-reliefs on the sides which at night lit up in neon like the downtown cineplex. All the Baptist churches had similar architecture. Reddish brown buildings with a simple white steeple. The differing characteristics were the size and the extent of the stained glass windows. In one town, the largest Baptist church I saw, boasted tall windows detailing the life of Jesus in stained glass. Graven images, I thought. But no. These windows are didactic, not worshipful.
    Also status. The name of the pastor printed in large letters on the front. People ask, “Which church do you got to?” At the Catholic church, the priest processes out with a handful of children at his side, the electric organ bubbling away orthodox tunes while boys sitting next to me snicker and yawn. At Greater Starlight Church there is a menagerie of color and light, the pastor not processing out but skipping, jumping. Not chaotic. It is very organized. As if everyone knows their role. The older folk get into it much more, while some of the younger people fold their arms. In one church there is a coffee shop just outside the sanctuary so you can get your joe on the way out, just before picking up the kids at Children’s church. Clever. One church proclaims: Make your family apart of our family. Doughnuts and jam available in the parish hall after Mass. Signup sheets for vacation bible school.
    I swear I was waiting to see Manly Pointer come out of church with his hard top bible and shitty grin, gin underneath the flaps of his books. But I didn’t seem him. Nor Hulga. Everything looked clean and decent. But I didn’t check the contents of folks’ bibles. The dilapidated Hard Times junkyard was certainly O’Connoresque. As well as the propinquity of the bars to the churches. The downtowns were unchanged; old store fronts. Some closed up with boards while others still open for business. 
    Walking the streets of Jackson on a Sunday afternoon confirmed my suspicion the South is still alive. A car stopped at an intersection I wanted to cross. The window rolled down. A beefy African American woman eyed me down. “Wanna come to my place?”
    “Ummm. No. Have a good day,” I said.
    I walked around her car. And walked through the park. I realized the city was mostly dead. Everything was closed on a Sunday. But the park was full of people. And the few cars circulating traffic were ladies looking for a quick fix. I was not really in the mood to pay out cash for a quickie, especially with a beefy lady. And none of blokes in the park looked that attractive. So, I found my mom’s car and fled Jackson and headed for the burbs. Ate Chinese food. Found the interstate and avoided the Christ Haunted route.         


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