Despite some perceptions, hospitality is not a Dixieland vestige, but rather a prevailing characteristic of the ever evolving New South. Recent arrivals looking for genuine southern cordiality, however, will find it not in excessive flattery, elaborate welcome mats or tourist town gimmicks, but in subtle expressions and random acts.
Just ask a client---a New Jersey transplant, nonetheless---of my father's upholstery business who took note of Dad's nearby vegetable garden when she pulled into our driveway one early summer morning. She entered the shop harping, "You already have ripe tomatoes!" "Yeah, I started some plants kinda early," Dad replied in his trademark drawl (the result of rural South Carolina upbringing and a mini stroke that had slightly drawn one side of his mouth). "I put out some Early Girls...Rutgers...Big Boys..." Interrupting his rambling, she inquired, "Do you say 'toe-MAY-toe' or 'tuh-MOTTO'?" Without a moment's hesitation, Dad quipped, "Ma'am, I say 'MAY-der'." We all had a good laugh, and Dad taught an impromptu refresher course in southern dialect, enlightening Mrs. Jarvis about archaic words in his vocabulary such as "poke," another term for bag or sack. Following discussions about furniture and fabric yardage, he insisted, "Them big 'uns make good 'MAY-der' sandwiches. Pick you a mess of 'em b'fore you leave." Giddy as a lark, Mrs. Jarvis stuffed a used plastic Wal Mart bag (I mean poke!) with vine-ripened tomatoes and went on her merry way.
Then there's Dr. and Mrs. Leitch from Michigan. He, a retired dentist, and she, an accomplished classical pianist, are examples of a couple whose intent was to come South and enjoy the region for what it is rather than attempt to change it. Reflecting on the friends they have made here and the beautiful surroundings and mild weather the scenic foothills afford, Dr. Leitch once commented, "I wasn't born here, but I got here as soon as I could."
It's no wonder that newcomers share those sentiments. With hands gripping the steering wheel, southerners often greet oncoming cars with standard one-finger, equally acceptable two-finger and (when in rare form, of course!) Granny Clampettesque waves. (Try that in Philadelphia, according to one of my northern friends, and it might get you shot.) Additionally, a native won't hesitate to hold the door as you exit the Dollar General with purchases in tow. When you're sitting in an oak rocker on the front porch of the Cracker Barrel waiting to be paged, the elderly couple across from you just might strike up a little chit-chat. And should you ever fumble for a dollar and change to pay for a Coke at the Quick Trip, don't be shocked if the stranger behind you offers the fifteen or twenty cents you need to avoid breaking another dollar. It's not that he thinks you're broke. He's just nice like that. As for metropolises, kindliness flourishes in those, too. In the middle of intense traffic snarls in Atlanta, Louisville, Charlotte and Nashville, motorists have politely allowed me to change lanes so that I might merge onto the clogged freeway or avoid missing my turn. They didn't even exhibit an obscene gesture or appear to grit their teeth behind fake smiles!
Yes, southern hospitality still abounds, and for good reason. A simple act of smiling, caring, helping, giving or sharing is phenomenally contagious. And that's reason enough.