Have you seen the Portlandia sketch “The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland (aka Portland: The Place Where Young People Go to Retire)”? You know, “Remember the 90s? …people were talking about getting piercings and tribal tattoos and people were talking about saving the planet and forming bands. When they encouraged you to be weird…It was an amazing time where people would go to the Jim Rose Sideshow Circus and watch someone hang something from their…” I’ll end there. Cue the stilt-walkers and ironic clowns on unicycles and organic paper-makers and hipsters who work “a couple hours a week at a coffee shop”:
I felt like I was stepping into some early 20th century Southern Gothic version of Portlandia while reading The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. And I loved it! (But I do not want to move to Portland.)
There are two fantastical characters. Miss Amelia, “…a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from her forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed.” She is 30 years old, has an extinguished 10-day marriage under her belt, sells chitterlings and sausage, and otherwise keeps her sour attitude to herself. My mind wandered to a taller version—Miss Amelia is over 6 feet tall—of Kathy Bates in Misery.
And then Cousin Lymon, distantly related to Miss Amelia, appears. Cousin Lymon is a hunchback. “He was scarcely more than four feet tall and he wore a ragged, rusty coat that reached only to his knees. His crooked little legs seemed too thin to carry the weight of his great warped chest and the hump that sat on his shoulders. He had a very large head, with deep-set blue eyes and a sharp little mouth…He carried a lopsided old suitcase which was tied with rope.” I can’t really conjure any movie star mental images, but here’s a rather interesting visual when he gets upset or wants something from someone: “He would stand very still, and, with just a little concentration, he could wiggle his large pale ears with marvelous quickness and ease…He fluttered his eyelids, so that they were like pale, trapped moths in his sockets. He scraped his feet around on the ground, waved his hands about, and finally began doing a little trotlike dance.” Hollywood, get on it.
The rest of this novella’s characters are very typical Southern sorts; if you stepped into small-town Georgia in 1951, you’d have no problem finding a Merlie Ryan or Stumpy MacPhail.
Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon, of course, are outcasts, which is partly why they grow to love each other. McCullers takes care to mention Miss Amelia’s “premises” regularly. In literal terms, the author is describing the store that becomes the after-hours café. After she marries her first husband, he is finally “allowed on the premises.” With Cousin Lymon now residing with her, the store turns into a cheerful café, a meeting point for all the “regular” folks. Miss Amelia remains aware of her “premises,” but now people are allowed to infiltrate it—on her terms. The day after Cousin Lymon’s arrival, she “stayed locked up inside her premises and saw no one.” Similarly, “…both the porch and the street before it were the property of Miss Amelia, and no mistake about it – but she did not regard them as her premises; the premises began at the front door and took in the entire inside of the building.” Doesn’t it make sense that “premises” also refers to Miss Amelia’s personal space, her boundaries, her sense of self? She is not quick to let people in, but she will—again, on her own terms.
One could easily make the argument that McCullers is promoting a “together we’re better” ethos. Perhaps this is the 1950s version of contemporary cries for “authenticity” or “transparency” that are somehow morphed into an obsession with sharing everything—and I do mean everything—on one’s mind. I don’t think it’s that simple, though, for even after Cousin Lymon infiltrates the town, and Miss Amelia’s home, she still keeps a bit of distance on her own terms.
He is different, though, as his arrival marks a spark in the town, and especially in the store that eventually becomes the café. Cousin Lymon “has an instinct which is usually found only in small children, an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world.” I suppose you could say he’s a less physically attractive Tony Robbins. At the very least, he’s what Malcolm Gladwell would call a “connector,” in some weird and surprising way. Presumably because of him, the café gains traction. He “has a grand opinion of himself” and “took a passionate delight in spectacles.” We’re supposed to like this Mr. Underdog-yet-Extroverted-Meeter-and-Greeter, right? Well, here’s a spoiler: He ends up doing something to help an enemy and destroy Miss Amelia and put her within her tightly contained “premises” for good. His hyper sociability has disastrous consequences for the woman who welcomed him. So what are we to make of that? Maybe Cousin Lymon’s “openness”—and the fact that Miss Amelia came under its spell—results in her downfall. Perhaps he should have taken a hint from Miss Amelia’s “perimeters.”
I wonder if our inability to keep anything to ourselves makes us look like a parade of babbling curiosities. I suppose it’s up to the individual to determine where his “premises” rest, but isn’t any boundary better than none? After all, McCullers writes, “People are never so free with themselves and so recklessly glad as when there is some possibility of commotion or calamity ahead.” I imagine if aliens were to take a look at us, we might look something out of Portlandia to them. The dream of no personal boundaries is alive in 2014!