A friend of mine named Yayne — a Black woman, originally from San Francisco, who now calls Nashville home — recently told me a crazy story:
She was in a grocery store, wearing a mask and minding her own damn business, when an agitated white dude started harassing her. This man, who apparently took exception to the face covering, conveyed his dissatisfaction by getting all up in Yayne’s grill and attempting to cough on her.
That’s when another white dude arrived on the scene. He was older, wore a Confederate Flag hat on his head, and had a pistol strapped to his belt (Tennessee is an open carry state). Turns out the gun-toting, ostensible Lost Cause-er was on Yayne’s side, and he stepped between my friend and the cougher until the latter could be ejected from the store.
To some, that might sound like something out of a Tarantino flick, but in Tennessee… well…
I suppose I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. My name is Stuart Schuffman, but plenty of folks in this city know me as Broke-Ass Stuart. I’ve been telling the stories of San Francisco — and the wider, weirder world — for close to two decades. I’ve written for Lonely Planet and Conde Nast Traveller, published three Broke-Ass Stuart travel books, and even co-created and hosted my own travel TV show on IFC: Young, Broke & Beautiful. As a number of Music City’s brightest stars have sung: “I’ve been everywhere, man.”
Which brings me back to Nashville.
For me, one of the greatest benefits of travel is breaking with routine, getting to know strange new places, and understanding divergent views. As wonderful as it is to live in San Francisco — cool weather, an appreciation of diversity, world-class burritos — after nearly two years of quarantine, I was eager to break out of the Bay Area bubble and visit a city where it would be not only be too hot to wear a Patagonia puffy in July, but also sartorially sacreligious.
I chose to head to the capital city of a state whose governor had basically thrown his hat in the air and yelled “Heeha COVID!” when all those bookworms at the CDC advised him and his constituents to mask-up and knock off the honky-tonkin’ for a spell.
Walking along Lower Broadway — past the numerous cowboy boot shops, cowboy bars, and weekend cowboys — I saw not one masked person. If I’d taken a shot of white lightening for every covered face, I’d have moseyed on out of Lower Broadway as sober as a judge.
Seeing as every place was packed asshole to elbow with drunken, red-faced people dancing, sweating, and shouting “Wooo!” — and given that we had parachuted into this bacchanal from San Francisco, where people were practically double-masking their dogs — we decided to saunter off to some place a bit quieter… and more appreciative of the germ theory of disease.
According to The Tennessean’s COVID tracker, Davidson County is only 48 percent vaccinated and only 39 percent of Tennesseeans on the whole have been jabbed to completion. Though the Delta variant was not dominating headlines the way it is now, and although I am fully vaccinated, I still exercised caution — wearing a mask every time I went indoors.
While I kept a couple of witty rejoinders at the front of my mind in case I encountered any Deliverence-style menace, I am pleased to report that I was never challenged to a dual — banjo or otherwise. What’s more, I soon met with a different side of Nashville entirely.
East Nashville is just across the river from downtown and is largely responsible for making this town a bright blue dot in a deeply red state. In East Nashville, rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs are everywhere. Bernie bumper stickers outnumber Trump decals 10,000 to 1. On this side of town, masks were a regular sight — especially among employees of shops. Some patrons went maskless, but plenty were covered up.
Rather than finding myself up shit creek with Burt Reynolds and John Voight, I was instead surrounded by Democratic Socialists with soothing Southern drawls, farm-to-table restaurants, punks with pink hair, and diverse dive-bar aficionados dismayed by their state’s COVID response.
In late December of 2020, as Tennessee hospital ICUs were pushed to their limit by a surge in serious COVID-19 cases, Gov. Bill Lee went on television to speak directly to the citizens of his state. As he had done before, Lee insisted that personal responsibility — rather than government mandate — was the key to beating back the virus.
While I disagree that the government has no role to play in ensuring the safety of the public — I believe that San Francisco’s consistently low infection rate is due in no small part to our elected leaders using the tools at their disposal to compel us to act in a rational way — I also can see where Lee is coming from.
Personal responsibility is important. But not in the way Lee means it. For Lee and all the other GOP politicians who have emboldened this virus, personal responsibility means “I’m personally responsible to do whatever the fuck I want.” In San Francisco, on the other hand, we know it means “I’m personally responsible to do the best I can to look out for myself and my community.”
Personal responsibility is wearing a mask because you don’t want to inadvertently get someone else sick. Personal responsibility is making sure everyone in your neighborhood has access to food, PPE, and water, just like the Neighborhood Solidarity Network did. Personal responsibility is donating to Patreons and GoFundMes for the artists and performers who lost all of their income when the entire world shut down.
Right now, as the Delta variant is on the rise, we are once again faced with a lot of uncertainty, but I do know that we will ultimately be OK because we care about each other.
Getting out of the San Francisco bubble is always nice; it gives me valuable insights into the rest of the world. But coming home to the bubble is even better because I know that I’m surrounded by people who want to make sure all of us get through this together.
Plus, here in San Francisco, we remember what so many in Tennessee seem to have forgotten: Cowboy boots have always paired well with face masks.