Sunday, November 9, 2008

The UFO that Ate Charleston

by Andrew

Without doubt, Charleston is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. Mix one part Key West, two parts New Orleans, a pinch of Georgetown, shake thoroughly, et voila! We visited in late October, with the weather crisp but sunny and nary a tourist in sight. We got the distinct impression, though, that party-hearty hordes descend on the place during the summer months, which probably tips the scales too much to the vomit and honky-tonk side.

As an African-American, I was understandably a little wary about exploring a city that was, after all, the port at which most of the slaves sent to America arrived. But with another African-American standing on the cusp of the presidency, I felt it was time to turn the page and forgive. I won't hold it against whitey any longer.

So what really captured our imagination in this city that dates back to the 16th century? Was it the grandiose 18th-century homes of prosperous traders and sea captains, with their broad verandahs and shady gardens? Was it the giant oaks cloaked in Spanish moss that gave the cobbled streets a sense of cool mystery? The slave market with its echoes of unimaginable human suffering? The glorious churches with their overgrown graveyards? Nah. It was a leaf.

As our children ripped at a vine in order to reach some long seed pods that contained helicopter seeds, Louise discovered a UFO (Unidentified Furry Object) on the underside of a leaf. To me, it looked like something that had been left in the back of the fridge too long, but the science teacher in Louise recognized it as something that we in the business call a teachable moment. The only problem about teachable moments is when the teacher doesn't have a clue what she's teaching.

So started our quest to discover the identity of this furry object and the seedlike polyps that lay within. Charleston boasts a wide number of tourist stands that advertise--quite stupidly in retrospect--that their representatives will answer any of your questions. Louise marched up to one such stand and demanded an answer to her particular question. The fellow blanched perceptibly and took a step back. Finally summoning his courage, he peered at the offending item from a distance before announcing that they didn't pay him enough to know the answer. We marched on, leaving a trail of Charleston residents with two pressing questions: (a) Who let that loony Yankee in my town? (b) What the hell is that thing and am I safe living here?

Eventually, Louise cornered a gardener from the city's parks department, who solved the mystery with breezy insouciance. It was a fungus that was among us. And with that resolved, Charleston lost its air of excitement and mystery. We headed for the car and continued south.

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