Southern Ladies & Gentlemen
By Florence King
St. Martin's Griffin Copyright © 1993 Florence King
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780312099152
SOUTHERN LADIES & GENTLEMEN1"Build a Fence Around the South and You'd Have One Big Madhouse"or: The Tip of the Iceberg
I have good reason to know that the only way to understand Southerners fully is to be one. When I was in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, I found myself party to a drunken kidnapping and ended up in a rowboat in the middle of a lake at 2:00 A.M. with an hysterical Southern belle who kept hissing: "Kill him, Wade, kill him!"Suddenly I wondered: How did I get into this? What am I doing here? How was it possible that a sane young woman like myself could merge so effortlessly into a situation that bizarre?The answer came to me just as suddenly. I was not sane, I was a Southerner. It is interesting to speculate on the moment when a child first realizes that he or she is a Southerner. No one ever actually tells him he is one, but something always occurs at a very tender age that helps fix it in his mind. The moment of truth tends to arrive in a burst of comprehension, following an incident in which an important truth suddenly becomes perfectly clear despite the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Once a child successfully negotiates this psychological legerdemain and snatches chaos from the jaws of logic, he wins his crossed cavalry sabers.My red-letter moment occurred in the Year Eight of Franklin D. Roosevelt as I stood in front of the candy counter at Woolworth's. The sign on the counter read: TAR BABIES 20¢ LB. Inside the bin was amountain of little licorice candies shaped like black children. Everyone privately called them "nigger babies," but my grandmother had taught me that using the word "nigger" was one of those things no lady could do and still remain a lady. Granny wouldn't even say "tar." And so, to avoid hurting the feelings of the blacks who were standing up at the end of the segregated lunch counter where she was seated, she swiveled around on her stool and called out to me:"Do you want some babies to eat in the movies?"As the blacks looked up and stared at her, everything fell into place. Granny was an arch-segregationist with perfect manners; it's all right to segregate people as long as you don't hurt their feelings. Furthermore it is much better to be known as a white cannibal than as white trash who uses words like "nigger," because to a Southerner it is faux pas, not sins, that matter in this world.I bought a nickel bag of tar babies, and Granny and I went off to the movies. The film was H. Rider Haggard's She
, which I assumed would be a newsreel about Mrs. Roosevelt. (I had grown up hearing: "It's not his fault, she
made him do it. She
got them all stirred up, she
thinks they're just as good as she
is.") I sat through the film waiting for the First Lady to appear. Finally, when the withered old woman died in the snows of Tibet, I asked Granny: "Is that Mrs. Roosevelt?"She snorted and said: "Would that it were."For the second time that day, I heard the click of regional identity in my brain. Now I understood how it was possible for my family to worship FDR despite all the things he had done during his administrations that enraged them. They had used Southern logic to "straighten everything out just fine." It was very simple: Credit Franklin, better known as He, for all the things you like, and blame Eleanor, better known as She or "that woman," for all the things you don't like. This way, He was cleared, She was castigated, and We were happy.Once my regionalism was launched, there was no stopping the stockpile of Southern contradiction that built up in my mind. As we emerged from the movie, Granny was busy making a grocery list and did not notice that I was still eating tar babies. But suddenly she turned, looked down, and gave me the Southern woman's all-powerful silent reproach known as "freezing." This is a look that needs no words. It is an exercise in pained hauteur and courageous endurance topped off with flaring nostrils and a stiffening just this side of rigor mortis. Despitemy tender age, I knew instantly what it meant without being told: Ladies don't eat on the street. Granny did not have to tell me why, because my burgeoning Southern instincts told me: It looked trashy.
I already knew that ladies did not smoke on the street. My mother, who smoked five packs of Lucky Strike Greens a day, was always announcing an oncoming nicotine fit with a fluttery moan, an unfinished gesture toward her handbag, and her favorite dire pronouncement: "If I don't have a cigarette, I'm goin' to fall down dead." Yet as much as she loved tobacco, I had never seen her smoke on the street. I had seen her shake on the street and I had heard her become incoherent on the street, but she had never smoked alfresco because it looked trashy.No one ever told me what "trashy" meant, but I never asked because I can't remember ever not
knowing. As any Southerner can verify, the definition of trashy is trashy.Granny and I went to the Fourteenth Street arcade market after the show. It took us nearly an hour to make our way down the sawdust-covered main aisle--Granny had to stop and "pass the time of day" with everyone she knew, which was just about everyone in the market. She sailed in, a two-hundred-pound neighborhood chatelaine in a lace bertha, bifocals, and a ten-year-old Empress Eugénie hat tilted at a rakish angle.Instantly, the air was thick with her Tidewater Virginia drawl and those view halloos worthy of John Peel that she emitted every time she saw a friend. Traffic in the aisle was soon backed up to the Bundles for Britain booth beside the front door, but Granny talked on, the spotted veil on her hat fluttering like an ensign in a high wind."Oh, look, there's Miz Whitmore! OOO-HOO! Miz Whitmore! You come right over here this very minute! I haven't seen you since the fall of Rome!"She meant two Saturdays ago, but I suddenly understood the principle behind the Southern internal time clock. Granny, a genealogy buff, was sunk like a Wasp dinosaur in the muck of prehistory, in love with any bygone age she could lay her hands on.Another regional click: What is past is perfect.After Granny had finished making her gracious way down the aisle, we bought a "mess" of pickled pigs' feet, a "mess" of oysters in the shell, and a "mess" of Maryland soft-shell crabs. Then, laden downwith enough unfit edibles to make us stagger, we stopped by the kosher deli for a "mess" of bagels, which Granny persisted in calling doughnuts."How do, Mr. Silverman! How in the world are you? Law, I haven't seen you since the Age of Pericles!""But you were here day before yesterday, Mrs. Ruding," Mr. Silverman pointed out. I looked at him strangely, realizing for the first time that he never picked up on Granny's figures of speech."Let me have a mess of your wonderful doughnuts, please, sir."Again, he looked puzzled."How many?""Twelve," said Granny.It was not the first time I had heard these two confuse each other, but now I gave some hard thought to their communication problem. How could anyone not know what a "mess" was? Everybody
knew that it meant a dozen or a pound, unless, of course, it meant a bushel or a peck, or, in the country, a truckload. My maturing Southern mind conceived a clear, concise picture of a "mess." It was a neatly arranged and properly weighed collection of anything edible. If it was more than the usual unspecified amount, it was a "nice mess."It was to be many years before I realized how Mr. Silverman must have felt. Day after day, he had to stand in his hospital-clean store and listen to Southerners order a mess of his beautiful, ritually slaughtered, and rabbinically approved foods.
It has been said that when two Greeks meet they will start a restaurant, two Germans will start an army, and two Englishmen will start a silence. It is not necessary for two Southerners to meet in order to start something because we have taken a little nervous problem called schizophrenia and raised it to the level of a high art. When one-half of a Southerner meets the other half, the result is folie à deux.It is this simple fact that Yankees always miss.The best-known Yankee who missed it was that nineteenth-century traveler, Frederick Law Olmstead. Judging from his journals, his mind was blown soon after he set foot across the Mason-Dixon line.A much more recent casualty was one Dr. Jonathan Latham of Boston, who wanted to win the Pulitzer prize in regional studies.It all began on a Southbound plane, in which Dr. Latham was contentedly sipping a Scotch-on-the-rocks as he planned his scholarly attack on bourbon country. He was headed for a small city in Dixie, armed with an attaché case filled with three-by-five cards, which no Yankee sociologist can live without, and a heavily underlined copy of The Mind of the South,
by Wilbur J. Cash, which no Yankee sociologist can live with--because, after all, Cash was himself a Southerner and therefore incapable of cool objectivity, that quality which alone can solve the mystery of Southern psychology.Dr. Latham, a wholehearted believer in the infallibility of the scientific method, was firmly convinced that his frequency charts and cluster-grouping graphs would triumph over the Southern penchant for irrational behavior and contradictory thought processes. He knew his forthcoming book about the South would be a brilliant success because he intended, with the aid of the objectivity for which he was deservedly famous, to drive the spike of logic through the opaque mist of contradiction and paradox that floats like a vapor over every Southerner's head.Warmed by this pleasant thought, Latham took out his copy of Gone with the Wind
and reread his favorite part, marked with one of his red plastic find-it-fast markers, about the second Mrs. Calvert, the Yankee governess who had married a widower-planter.Mrs. Calvert seemed ready to weep. She had somehow made a blunder. She was always blundering. She just couldn't understand Southerners, for all that she had lived in Georgia twenty years. She never knew what to say to her stepchildren and, no matter what she said or did, they were always so exquisitely polite to her. Silently she vowed she would go North to her own people, taking her children with her, and leave these puzzling, stiff-necked strangers.An amused smile played over Dr. Latham's mouth. He took out his slim gold pencil to make more marginal notes--a favorite activity of his--on the already crowded page. "Nonsense!" he wrote. He
was not going to let the South upset him ... .The first thing that upset him was the political confusion that fillsthe polling booth in which the solitary Southern voter acts out his problems in multiple personality with the blithe confidence that characterizes Dixie's true child.Latham discovered that the typical Southerner:--Brags about what a conservative he is and then votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt.--Or brags about what an isolationist he is and then votes for Richard Nixon.--Or brags about what a populist he is and then votes for Barry Goldwater.--Or brags about what an aristocrat he is and then votes for George Wallace.--And is able to say with a straight face that he sees nothing peculiar about any of the above.Next, Dr. Latham encountered Southern political morality in a typical tavern called Johnny's Cash 'n' Carry. He went there for the purpose of observing and taking notes, but when he took out his slim gold pencil and a three-by-five card, a potbellied beer drinker demanded in a hostile drawl: "Are you a member of the press?" Suddenly the paranoia in the air was so thick that it could have been cut with the knives Latham saw sticking out of several back pockets--which inspired him to pretend that he was merely writing down the phone number of a girl he had met. The angry man relaxed immediately and grinned."We fellas got to git our nooky," he said genially. "You like football?"Latham felt that this was somehow a non sequitur.The man invited him to join the group at the bar. Latham himself soon felt awash with beer, but there was nothing else to drink unless he wanted to travel thirty miles to a "wet" town. Wet? He was already beer-logged enough to sink the Titanic
merely by stepping aboard; what could be wetter? But no, his companions said, this was a "dry" county. It all had to do with something called "local option," which meant, they explained, that anybody can do what he damn pleases as long as an election is held first."Local option is kinda like states' rights," one of them elucidated. "Only it ain't as much fun."Latham stared at him. States' rights was fun?
Before long, they were waxing nostalgic about the good old days, when there had been no hard liquor at all and their beloved state had been empowered to collect a Black Market Tax from the bootleggers."A what?
" Latham asked."Why, shore. Used to be, there weren't no legal hooch a-tall, so the bootleggers was makin' all this money, see? Waal, you got to have tax money to run a state, so the legislature passed the Black Market Tax on hooch so the state could git tax money from the bootleggers.""You mean it was actually on the statute books?""'Course it was," said Latham's informant. "You got to make it legal.""But the legislature had also passed a law saying liquor was illegal
!""Thass right. They had to please the Baptists," said the man, with a shrug that seemed to say he had now made everything clear.Latham persisted."Didn't the Baptists object to the passage of the Black Market Liquor Tax?"The men seemed too surprised to speak for a moment, but then one of them explained."Waal, don'tcha see? The Baptists and the bootleggers have always been hand in glove 'round here. Neither of 'em wanted anybody to drink legal hooch. It was bad for both their businesses, you might say. They was both afraid that the state would go legally wet, so they got together and pushed this bill through the legislature."Latham shook his head in disbelief."Didn't anybody feel a sense of ... of conflict?" he finally asked."Waal, I reckon the legislator who was both a bootlegger and a Baptist deacon had a right good laugh when he collected bribes from both sides."The next revelation came to Latham during Homecoming Week at the state university. The sexual identity that Southern men drew from football boggled his mind. They could talk and think of nothing else but The Game, and although they were all planning bacchanal weekends with women, they got very anal with each other. There was a great deal of butt-slapping and goosing. It was all accompanied by detailed descriptions of their potency with women, of course, but it upset Latham nonetheless. Other American men weren't like this ... were they?The Homecoming Queen, a waxily ladylike creature with a perpetual sweet smile who reminded him somehow of Pat Nixon, made a speech in which she announced that her bodv was a temple and that she did not believe in premarital sex. When a reporter asked her what man she admired most, she replied, "Jesus." As Latham studied her, he knew with slow but certain recognition that she was the ideal wife/daughter for an American politician to drag out and plant on a platform while he made a speech to the assembled multitudes. Despite Women's Liberation, or perhaps because of it, there was still something about a woman who reeked of Pathood that soothed American voters everywhere and made them feel that all would be well if they elected a man whose wife could cross her ankles, say the proper thing, and keep a locked Wasp smile on her face.Latham wondered: Had the Southern Homecoming Queen represented an image of women that non-Southern Americans of both sexes still
secretly favored?The question led him into a survey of Southern sociosexual mores. He had often heard that the South was a land where men were men and women were women, and certainly their names bore out this theory. Many men had virile first names like Vance, Lance, Chance, Slade, Cade, and Wade. As for the women, their names alone were enough to render Latham smitten. He met heartbreakingly sweet girls named Nell, Daisy, and Jennie; arch, saucy girls who had what the South called "fire" and who tended to have names like Nan, Rhonda, and Dana. He also met professional sexpots who had been baptized Solange or Désirée, and one delectable creature he would never forget named Royal Montgomery, who rode sidesaddle.And then he ran head-on into the South's sexual no-man's land, where baptismal fonts go bump in the night.--Three-hundred-pound Good Ole Boys named Vonnie, Lynn, Shirley, and Beverly, who hold forth about "what my daddy said."--That fine old Southern custom of bestowing the mother's maiden name on children of either sex, resulting in women named Rand, Taylor, Prentiss, and Ewing.--The large number of Southern women who are named after their fathers. Some of these patronymics were quite dashing--Blaine, Ames, Ramsey, Dorcas--but Johnsie and Charlsie got on Dr. Latham's nerves.--Women who were really
named after their fathers. The classic example in this group must ever remain Commodore Vanderbilt's Alabama-born wife, née Miss Frank C. Crawford.Latham's most serious nomenclatural trauma occurred when, exhausted from hours spent poring over telephone books in search of a cluster-grouping, he took a Scotch break and read the local paper.He opened to the woman's page, and there was the headline in all its glory.
MRS. BALL HOLDER SOLICITS WOMEN FOR RELIEF WORK
Who in the name of God was Mrs. Ball Holder and what kind of cluster grouping was she
working on? Latham read the article, which turned out to be a commendable plea for volunteers to aid the victims of a recent flood.He reached for the phone to call the woman's editor, then stopped. Mrs. Holder might be a paragon of Christian virtues, but there was no way he could discuss her name in mixed company, much less ask the question that he wanted to ask.Instead he called a professor he had recently met at the university, Dr. Dabney Darcy Dalrymple III, who had offered Latham his aid in the most hospitable terms."Call me anytime, I'll be more than happy to help you in any way I can. Now don't you hesitate a minute, you hear? No matter what it is, you just pick up that telephone right quick."Dr. Dalrymple, who was about sixty, had also instructed Latham to call him "Little Dab." Everyone called him that, he explained, because he was the son of the still-living Dabney Darcy Dalrymple, Jr., who was called "Big Dab." Latham could not bring himself to call anyone Little Dab. He wondered, moreover, what Little Dab had been called while his grandfather was still alive. Tiny Dab? Dabby?"Oh, Christ," Latham muttered as he dialed the professor's number.Dr. Dalrymple answered the phone himself."Jonathan Latham here. I'd like to ask you about this Mrs. Ball Holder.""Oh, yes!" said the professor. "A fine woman. I'm so happy you'vehad the pleasure of meeting her. A tower of strength, that woman. She's a rock!""I haven't met her," Latham explained. "I just saw her name in the paper. It's her name that I wanted to ask--""That woman has worked her fingers to the bone for this town," Little Dab said, whereupon he launched into a paean of praise that went on for five minutes, interspersed with that curious compliment, "She's a rock." Latham made a note to find out what a Rock was.At last Little Dab stopped talking long enough for Latham to ask his question. He expected a hearty male laugh and a locker-room quip or two, but the professor seemed completely unaware of the connotations in Mrs. Holder's name."Mrs. Holder, née Mindy Lee Ball, married Houghton Grenier Holder," Little Dab explained. "They were divorced. There were no children, but of course Mindy didn't take back her maiden name and call herself Miss.""Why not?" Latham asked.There was a startled pause on the line."Why, someone who didn't know her might think she had never been married."" ... Oh.""Our newspaper, like all Southern newspapers, has very strict rules of etiquette. The proper way to refer to a divorced woman is to use 'Mrs.' and both of the surnames that she has carried in her life. It's incorrect to refer to a divorced woman as 'Mrs. Mindy B. Holder.' That would sound flippant and undignified. Down here we believe in tradition and niceties, so in order not to embarrass Mindy, the newspaper refers to her as Mrs. Ball Holder.""I see," Dr. Latham lied. "But ... couldn't they just call her Mindy Holder?""A woman without an honorific? Somebody might think she was single, dead, or even colored!"
Latham took a quiet trip to Richmond to see a psychiatrist whose name had been given to him by his own shrink in Boston. The Richmond doctor, unfortunately, was also a Yankee."Latham, I don't know what to tell you," he said in a comfortingNew England twang. "I've been here five years and I don't understand Southerners. All I know is, there's a family tree under every bush. They lie here on my couch and tell me so much about their ancestors that I never hear about what's troubling them.
""Could you give me a clinical opinion on Southerners that I might quote in my book?""Sure. They're nuts."Latham put away his notebook with a sigh."Well, then, could you give me some tranquilizers? I'm all out.""Try these," said the psychiatrist, writing out a prescription. "They help me a lot."
On his way back to the Richmond airport, Latham shared a taxi with that species of elderly Southern woman known as a Dear Old Thing. A white-haired matchstick figure in a hat and white gloves, her timid wave made the driver stop so suddenly that Latham was thrown to the floor."Aw, looka there," said the driver. "The dear ole thang. Les' see iffn she's headin' anywheres in your direction."She stuck her head through the window and gave Latham a twinkly smile as she launched into a monologue, oblivious to the backed-up traffic behind them."'Deed I am so sorry to intrude on you, but if you don't mind, would you be kind enough to let me share your cab if I promise to dance at your weddin'? When I saw two such handsome men I said to myself, I said, 'Law, it'll just be the most wonderful treat if I could ride with those lovely gentlemen because it's been many a year since I was escorted in such style.'"The wrinkled lids fluttered over her azure eyes. She tossed her head in sprightly little jerks from Latham to the driver and back again, then awarded each of them a denture-clicking smile.Where in the world had the old biddy escaped from, Latham wondered?"Now, ma'am," said the driver, "you're jes' havin' fun with us. You know good 'n' well you say that to every man what asks you to go fer a ride.""Why, you wicked thing!" she giggled. "Upon my soul, I meantevery single word I said, and now you're takin' me for a flirt!"Latham looked first at the clicking meter, then at the pile of traffic behind the cab."Now don't you get het up, ma'am," said the driver. "You're jes' a ladybug. You know we'd be more'n honored to carry you wherever you're goin'.""Where are
you going?" Latham interrupted, and immediately noted the disappointment that flickered across both their faces."To the Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field," she said, cocking her head to one side.Latham visualized a landing strip running through a cornfield for the convenience of people with very small private planes; or perhaps she was going to an air show of World War I antiques put on by an historical society."I'm going to the Richmond International Airport.' he offered."That's right, the Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field, said the Dear Old Thing as she climbed in beside him."We old Richmond folks prefer the original name. It's so depressin to think that Richmond has an international anything. Whv, I remember ... .'She talked nonstop all the way to the airport a disjointed potpourri of old blood, new blood, old money new money old blood and new money, new blood and old money; the "bohemians" who were ruining something called the "Fan District,' where she had lived all her life
the rotting tree that the City was trying to make her cut down, but which she refused to touch because it was a dueling oak
; how terrible it was that the Episcopal church was allowing morphodites
to hold meetings in the basement; the cobblestones in the Fan District which another old lady--they'd gone to school together--had defended with her very life
by stationing herself in the middle of the street and refusing
to let the construction crew work; and how horrified Mr. Tazewell, her late husband, would be if he could just see how Richmond was growing.
Once they arrived at the Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field, Latham found himself appropriated and turned into a lackey with a deftness that belied her fragile appearance and fluttery soft voice. He fetched and carried, checking her luggage buying her a "drink of Co'Cola," and scurrying around for a copy of yesterday's newspaper because she wanted to read the obituaries to see if anvone she knew haddied. In response to "Oh, Law! I just can't read upside down! Why, I can hardly read right-side up!" he found himself explaining the airline schedule to her. All the while, she kept gazing raptly into his face and saving things like: "Oh, I just don't know how vou can figure it out! You're just like Mr. Tazewell, so smart and so clever at explainin' things."Next the screw came out of her eyeglasses, which brought on a stream of "Oh, Law's!" and a breathless plea to Latham to "Oh, please, do something!" He ended up on his hands and knees searching for the world's smallest screw. He found it, which meant that he had to put her glasses back together again. By this time he was trembling so badly that he dropped the screw into his lap, which necessitated a search that the Dear Old Thing tactfully avoided watching by turning to comment on the terminal's hideous modern architecture, which the late Mr. Tazewell, an architect, would have deplored.By the time Latham got her glasses back together, she had exactly five minutes to catch her plane. "Oh, Law! Whatever am I goin' to do!" she cried, whereupon she dropped her opened handbag. Latham found himself on his hands and knees once more, gathering up loose keys, packs of subscription envelopes stamped with a red Episcopal cross, a bottle of smelling salts, God knew how many prescription bottles empty, wads of transfers from the Richmond Transit unused), and a sheaf of engraved calling cards.Latham stuffed everything back into her bag, commandeered a wheelchair and deposited the Dear Old Thing in it, then ran like hell down the ramp and across the field to get her into the waiting plane. She hobbled up the steps babbling: "You're just the sweetest thing I ever did see! I don't know what I would have done without such a charmin' escort because I've just been on the horns of a dilemma since Mr. Tazewell passed on and I haven't had him to do for me. 'Deed I just can't cope with the quandaries of life without a smart gentleman to turn to.At the door, she turned around, gave Latham a twinkly smile and a pert wobble of her head."You come see me, vou hear?"The exhausted Latham found that he had missed his own plane. He couldn't take it anymore; he felt his mind slipping away."I'm getting just like them. he muttered. "Nuts!"A vision, dearer than Tara, rose in his mind: Joy Street, complete with dog droppings. Home! He was going home!To hell with the book, he decided. Then he spoke those famous lines from the Yankee Swan Song: "Build a fence around the South and you'd have one big madhouse!"
Yankees always make the mistake of going home the moment they realize they are going mad, which is why they have never understood the South. They do not grasp the simple fact that losing one's mind is the most important prerequisite for fitting in with Southerners. Sanity has never held any charms for us; in fact, we're against it. We long ago realized that madness was the only weapon we had: if you're crazy enough, people will leave you alone. Madness has also helped us survive the rigidly stratified, comformist society that our fear of change forced us to build around ourselves.Southern madness is marked by a devotion to the Very Old Math: two plus two equals five, and any psychiatrist who tries to tell us it doesn't ought to have his head examined.America could use a little Southern madness right now, for it is the sort that stands like a stone wall against the onslaughts of creeping technocratic sanity. Ours is the kind of madness that psychiatry has ruined, that the boys in the blue suits have white-papered to death.It enabled us to start a war without owning a single cannon factory, secure in the belief that such things are of no consequence to aristocrats. Thanks to our mad decision, we became the only Americans to know military defeat--an experience that made us America's cinder blocks: Once you have been through fire, you can never burn again.The psychology of defeat has been bad for Southerners in many ways, but it has also been good. Being the product of a region that was once collectively guilty of high treason has its advantages: gloomy contemplation of the national navel is simply un-Southern. Knowing, alone among our countrymen, what it is like to lose a war has made supposedly hokey Southerners America's true sophisticates. We may not know wines or gourmet cuisine, but we are chefs of survival who have learned to emerge from sad and disgraceful events with courage and humor intact.Everv good recipe has a secret ingredient. Ours is a blasé acceptance of contradiction and ... well, "colorful" behavior.SOUTHERN LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. Copyright © 1975 by Florence King. Afterword copyright © 1993 by Florence King. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Continues...
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