The Mary Poppins Zone: Zonin', Listenin' and Why I Changed My Name

August 30, 2019


This is an editorial about the current zoning issue in Dade County. But first: a confession and a funny story.


Confession: For 29 years I have lived under the name Robin Ford Wallace, but my legal name is plain old Robin Ford. 


I really am married to Mr. Wallace, with a blood test, a white dress and a preacher--well, kind of a preacher. He was a Universalist Unitarian Unobjectionable, or something. He called God "oh great spirit moving among us for love" and in our wedding vows made us promise to respect each other's space and support each other's personal growth.


The wedding didn't offend the Fords, who weren't religious but seriously sarcastic, and the Wallaces, who were devout Baptists, all commented it was a beautiful ceremony, making me realize that nobody listens to a word preachers say. But it embarrassed me and I remember standing there in my wedding dress--well, kind of a wedding dress; I don't know if it was meant to get married in but it was on half-price sale at Rich's and anyway white--listening to the New Age babble and wishing I'd spent the weeks before the big day writing our vows instead of drinking beer with my girlfriends. (Which BTW also resulted in my exploding out of the front seam of that dress during the reception and I haven't seen a size 8 since, at least not from the inside.)


 (That's not my funny story. The funny story comes later.)


Anyway, the wedding might have been a little flaky but it was all perfectly legal and I've got a license to prove it. But I didn't change my name from Ford to Wallace.
This was Atlanta in 1987 and nobody even seemed to expect me to. Plus I'd written a piece or two in an alt newspaper, some stories in the confession mags, stuff like that, and I had the idea I was making a name for myself as a writer.


(What a joke that was! The confession stories didn't print bylines because they were first-person and supposed to be written by the "I" in the story, the woman whose husband had been stolen by a witch, or who was in love with a smuggler, or whose sister had turned out to be a serial killer. Nobody would publish my novels, and even the little newspaper went under, ahead of its time as it turned out because these days how many newspapers haven't? So writing did not turn out to be so much a matter of making a name as a lifelong exercise in humility, that has kept a girl from harboring ideas above her station.)


But now for the funny story. Fast-forward to 1990, when we moved from Atlanta to rent a crackerbox house in Rising Fawn for a kind of experiment, and ended up living there 11 years. The landlady looked at the check I gave her and said, "I thought you were married. What's this other name on the check?"


That threw me into a panic. People in the country were old-fashioned, I thought. It wasn't just that they were unused to the idea of married women using their own names; they suspected us of living in sin. People in the country were more religious than city people and they took sin seriously. What would they do to us? Burn a cross in our yard? I had visions of them coming to our door at night with pitchforks and torches, maybe shearing off my hair while screaming I was a slut, like the villagers did to Sarah Miles in Ryan's Daughter.


One afternoon the phone rang. Phones hung on the wall in those days and when you answered them you had no idea who was calling. I was alone in the house and I picked it up. The caller sounded intelligent and friendly, reminding me a little of my brother Frank, but there was something creepy in his voice. He explained he belonged to the local Ku Klux Klan. He congratulated me on being a white person but said people were concerned about our different names. People were old-fashioned around here, he said, and took sin seriously. He had a question for me: Was I married? In a church? Where? Could I prove it? 


I don't know how long I stood there and took this, one hand holding the phone and the other at my throat, a sick feeling in my stomach. To my shame, I initially tried to humor the guy. I think I even told him about the white dress and the preacher. But finally I worked up my courage enough to tell him he had no right to bother me like this and I was going to hang up now and call the police. He said:

"Don't hang up, it's me! What's wrong with you? I didn't even disguise my voice."


It really was my brother Frank. He could be such an asshole!


Still, I worried. I was young and timid and in a new place. I wanted people to like us and accept us. And that's how it happened that I tacked the Wallace onto the Ford and began 29 years of confusion with the SSA, IRS, DMV and finally the TSA, to the point that in 2017 was almost barred from getting onto an airplane.


Over the years I made stabs at getting my legal name changed but finally gave it up as too much trouble. My advice to brides is if you are going to change your name go ahead and get R done at the time of the wedding (as opposed to screwing around drinking beer with your girlfriends), or forget about it for all eternity. The red tape is so tangled you wonder how these serial wives manage.


By now I'm so used to being Robin Ford Wallace, my joke is that if Mr. Wallace left me for a Waffle House waitress I'd have to call myself Robin Ford Ford or find some other man's name to take, possibly from the phone book. But what I'm here to tell you is that it was all completely unnecessary. It wasn't long after the KKK incident that I began to realize that any number of couples, even here in God's country, really were living in sin and nobody gave a rap.   


Case in point was the couple who ran the old-fashioned store there in Rising Fawn. I remember the owner as a nice little woman with a pile of blond curls on her forehead and a Cupid's bow mouth, usually smoking a cigarette. Once I referred to the man who helped her in the store as her husband and she corrected me, saying something like, "Naw, hon, my husband ran off with my best friend and now I live with this one."


She was maybe in her 50s then, a self-confident business owner, and if anybody disapproved of her situation she would probably have told them to kiss her ass. Or maybe she was already used to disapproval because she owned a beer store? Looking back at it, though, I don't think anybody minded. I think it was 1990 and by then even Dade County had moved into the 20th century; and that people are realistic enough to grasp that even deep in the country some best friends are sluts and will make off with husbands. Anyway, whatever they thought about her, I am willing to bet you that no one in Dade County ever gave a flyin' flip whether I called myself Ford or Wallace or Mary Bleedin' Poppins.  


That was a long story, but I wanted to tell it to you because I think it's a good parable for what I'm seeing in the county gummint now vis-a-vis zoning. We had a situation recently where a group of Concerned Citizens begged the county commission to keep a chicken processing plant from moving in and blighting their lives. The commissioners stepped up to help them by putting a temporary ban on permitting such facilities, and they are now working on an ordinance for a more permanent fix.


I think they are acting properly and in line with what most people in the county want and would consider good sense. But while they do it most of them keep shouting THIS ISN'T ZONING! ZONING IS BAD! I'LL CUT OFF MY LEFT TESTICLE BEFORE I VOTE FOR ZONING! It reminds me of me in 1990 shouting WOULD ANYBODY LIKE TO FLIP THROUGH MY WEDDING PICTURES?


I think, like me back then, the county commissioners are trying to ward off pitchforks and torches that simply aren't there anymore. I know there really was a time that uttering the Z-word would get a local politician drummed out of office faster than announcing his membership in the Man-Boy Love Society. But now?


The Z-word used to mean gummint shoving its beak into a man's sacred home, telling him what he could and couldn't do with his own propitty, and I think that sort of thing would still go over like a lead balloon in these parts. A woman I met told me she was always getting citations for parking her car on the grass at the home she inherited from her mother in a fancy part of Lookout Mountain. Around here that would be a head scratcher. One car? And it still runs? And there's not a family living in it? And the problem is?


But as evidenced by the burgeoning crowd of neighbors imploring the commission to rescue them from the chicken-shaped specter that loomed over Wildwood, threatening to pollute creeks, clog traffic, poison the air and above all tank property values, zoning is now beginning to be seen as something that can actually benefit rural dwellers.


Since the Great Chicken Panic, I've heard more and more talk in favor of a few basic land-use restrictions at local gummint meetings, coming from the people who sit on the boards. “Overall, it’s to protect the residents,” said board member Larry Case at the last IDA (Industrial Development Authority) meeting. And District 2 Commissioner Phillip Hartline keeps suggesting some kind of sensible, agriculture-centered set of rules.  


But it occurs to me I heard pro-Z-word rhetoric as long ago as 2016, from an ultra-conservative candidate then running for county executive. "I will be damned if I want to spend $250,000 and 17 months building my house and then have someone put up a gravel pit or a junkyard or a hog pen across from it,” said Wes Hixon during that campaign.


He didn't win, but in my role ("Nosy Local Journalist More Obscenely Interested in Local Politics Than Anybody Who Ran for Office That Year") his poor showing at the polls was more from his own lack of enthusiasm than his stance on zoning. (I called him the Un-Candidate, and in fact after the election he seemed relieved to have lost.) 


I bring Hixon up because what he said back then about zoning pretty much exemplifies what I'm hearing more and more these days from other people: He said he wanted to shoot his high-powered rifles on his own land without hearing any grief about it, mow his grass when he felt like it, and not be told how many cars he can park in the yard. But, like the Wildwood neighbors, he didn't want some big smelly monstrosity--landfill, slaughterhouse, whatever--to move in and ruin his life. 


Cruising the net for public opinion, I still do see some ZONING IS THE GREAT SATAN posts. But I think they're outnumbered by DELIVER US FROM THE CHICKEN OF DOOM posts, and anyway seem to come from people who spend most of their lives trolling through cyberspace looking for a fight.


Anyway, I could be wrong, but I would suggest to politicians afraid of the Z-word that the crucifixion crews have mostly retired. And if you want to be sure, why don't you have some public meeting and ask people?


Because another thing that all the I'LL NEVER VOTE FOR ZONING screams reminded me of was the way the county commissioners carried on back during the liquor-by-the-drink referendum: I NEVER TOUCH A DROP! I'VE NEVER HAD A BEER IN MY REFRIGERATOR! I DO NOT PERSONALLY INDULGE!


I'm not questioning anybody's sincerity (though there are two commissioners inextricably entwined with moonshine in my mind). What I'm questioning is whether they're at all in touch with the public these days. They kept up with the WINE IS A MOCKER biz even after Dade had voted squarely 60-40 wet, and kept making ridiculous small-business-squashing rules for liquor afterwards, intoning sententiously: "We have to represent those who voted against."


But let's not fight that one again! What I'm saying here is that the Temperance Hall audience the commissioners were aiming all that NEVER A DROP HAS PASSED THESE LIPS stuff had stopped listening years ago, dead or deaf or retired to Florida, and everybody else was drinking beer and laughing at them.


I am not writing this to express any opinion about or shed any light on zoning, though my sympathies are of course with the Wildwood residents who don't want a chicken plant next door. I am as puzzled by those who take the other side as I was when the same arguments were made in defense of the old Florida lady who was clearcutting Lookout Mountain to supplement her inherited wealth. She wasn't defending our sacred American freedoms, she was unleashing the flying monkeys! And anyway, as I said then, this isn't a high school debate, it's home.    


What I am writing this for is to say that, first with the booze and now with the zoning, the commission seems to be as out of touch with what the denizens o' Dade are thinking as I was as a silly, self-absorbed young incomer in 1990. What I did then to get my finger on the pulse of the public, and what I think the commissioners should do now, is: go to the beer store. 


Not really. Well, actually, having a beer with constituents at Jefferson's might not be a bad start if they want to get an idea what people think. But what I am asking for is that one way or the other they go out to the people and: L I S T E N.


There was a time--I think it was early 2012--when the commission went from neighborhood to neighborhood listening to the concerns of each community. I loved it because I got paid by the hour back then, but also because I was impressed the pols really cared what their constituents thought.


These days they've stopped all that nonsense! Last year, with the TSPLOST referendum coming up, and people organizing solidly against it, the commission announced there would be public meetings about it. Not one was ever organized. And guess what? The TSPLOST failed miserably, and of the two sitting commissioners who were up for reelection that year, one didn't run and the other got beat. There's a lesson there.


This time, the commissioners acted to help the Wildwood citizens after actually getting out of their offices for once and attending a citizens' meeting in the North Dade community hall. But that backfired PR-wise because they didn't invite the general public or the press, thus turning a rare public meeting into more accusations of backroom-dealing.


So what I'm saying, commissioners, is GET OUT AND LISTEN. It's not just a PR problem, it's a relevance issue. Zoning, booze, whatever, you need to clue yourselves in on what the county thinks before you start making rules. And that's the truth or my name ain't...


Robin Ford

Robin Ford, oh, hell


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