You have to be careful at Franke's cafeteria here in Little Rock, a combination senior center, local eatery and longstanding tradition (founded 1924), or some wild driver like me will drive right over you with his walker. The same goes for Bryce's in Texarkana (founded 1931), another local institution. Both have that hard to define but immediately recognizable sense of place.
At lunchtime the other day, a gentleman of a certain age came by my table and paused politely before mentioning that he'd just read my column in the morning paper. Not to be outdone, the lady with him said she'd read after me since I was writing for the Pine Bluff Commercial. They used to live in Wabbaseka, she explained. There you have the combination of time and space that makes for a sense of place. It's more than just a matter of locale. It includes all the memories that have accumulated there -- like so many geological layers.
At a gathering the other evening, someone used the phrase "a sense of place," but it brought only a puzzled expression from one of the guests. She seemed to think it referred only to her neighborhood. Of course she had a sense of place, she said. She'd lived there for eight years. And before that in other places, though she didn't go into any detail about them, or even mention their names. It was clear enough that, to her, a sense of place was a sometime thing -- transient, variable -- and had about as much emotional impact as a change-of-address card.
I was at a loss. As I so often am. How do you explain the sense of place to someone so clearly without one? For it is more than a geographical designation, a sense of place. It has to do with identity, with shared roots not just in the land but in the language, with the look and feel and life of a place. And maybe its death.
Nor is it only a Southern thing, a sense of place. Just ask a White Sox fan on the South Side of Chicago how working-class Comiskey Park differed from ivy-covered Wrigley. He'll understand what a sense of place is even if he doesn't use the phrase. And how precious it can be. And inexhaustible.
Faulkner may have put it best when he said he realized early on that he could write for a lifetime without exhausting the possibilities of his "little postage stamp of native soil" in Mississippi, which is not just a state but a state of mind.
Yet others may be deaf to the music of their place. They may fly from one coast to the other without changing, never having acquired a sense of place to change. To them it's all just flyover country down there. They mystify those of us whose sense of places is natural, understood, obdurate, so accepted that there is no need to mention it. Indeed, to do so would be in bad taste, like spelling out the obvious.
Someone with a sense of place will be filled with grief if he must leave it -- a nostalgia gone sour. It's even worse when the place changes, and so leaves him.
Faulkner was able to make his fictional -- but never false -- Yoknapatawpha County a whole world unto itself. Because it was a whole world -- not just to him but to anyone who understands what a sense of place is. As for those who don't, they inspire a certain pity, the way anyone homeless does, and yet a certain envy, too. Imagine being free of your past, able to lay that burden down, and free yourself from your ... self.
It's not a simple thing, a sense of place, but that doesn't make it any less real or rewarding -- or painful. It can be transmitted without a word being spoken, with just a look, a shrug, a gesture, a wry smile, a shared silent presence. I noticed how it works while in the Army, when northerners had to use words to say what they meant. Southerners, whether black or white, could communicate with each other wordlessly.
The next time some innocent looks puzzled when a Sense of Place comes up in conversation, it occurs to me that there's a simple, two-word definition of it: William Faulkner.