New England and Carolina . . . nasty and nice?
As Mason said to Dixon, there's a line to be drawn here somewhere.
The Super Bowl teams -- the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers -- have much in common, including classy coaches and dynamite defenses. Also: comely cheerleaders, loyal fans, rags-to-riches histories on the gridiron, and high hopes for bringing home this year's NFL championship trophy.
Less ballyhooed, although equally revealing, is a recent survey of driver behavior in America's 20 most populous cities. It rates motorists in Charlotte, N.C., hometown of the Panthers, as the least rude in the nation and number one in safety, earning A's in both categories.
Boston drivers, meanwhile, rank third overall in rudeness (behind New York and Miami) and a woeful 19th in safety (only Chicago is worse). The Hub's grades? A pair of F's.
What, you were expecting gentleman's C's?
And then there's Boston magazine's cover story of December 2000 -- which posed the tantalizing question: "Is this the rudest city in America?" -- placing Boston among the league leaders in aggravated assaults and automobile accidents, among other unwelcome statistical categories. The magazine even quoted Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who would decamp for Buffalo two years later, as saying, "There's a sense in Boston that there's almost something to take pride in to be nasty."
Hey, Drew, don't let Tom Brady's Super Bowl XXXVI MVP trophy hit you on the way out.
Still, Bledsoe had a point. (Not a job anymore, but a point.) For not only did the story create a huge stir, according to Boston editor and Hub native Jon Marcus, but in attempting to quantify whether Boston could rightfully lay claim to America's rudeness crown, he says, "The surprising answer was, yes."
So mark this Sunday's pigskin showdown -- Sunbelt vs. Frostbelt, barbecue vs. baked beans, Krispy Kreme vs. Dunkin' Donuts (the rivalry list is longer than a Bill Belichick discourse on zone-blitz packages) -- as a contrast in civic temperaments, too. Maybe not along the lines of John Kerry vs. John Edwards, both of whom have played Mr. Nice Guy effectively in Campaign 2004. But more like, say, Edwards vs. Howard Dean, the madman of Montpelier.
And in that personality contest, the madman would be. . .
Massachusetts! Maine! YEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAGH!
"There's a favorite anecdote" set down by another writer, says best-selling novelist and North Carolina transplant Jill McCorkle, who's been living in the Boston area for the past 10 years, "that a Northerner will ring your doorbell, aim his rifle, and shoot you, whereas a Southerner will hand you a casserole, wait for you to turn around, and stab you in the back."
In what constitutes as something of a Super Bowl role reversal, at least compared to the Patriots' last championship game against the high-flying St. Louis Rams, it's New Englanders, not the genteel folks from Carolina, who are the get-outta-my-way leadfeet on the road to this year's Super Bowl.
Charlotte may be nuts for NASCAR, in fact, but compared to Pats fans, Panthers rooters putter along at 55 miles per hour with their turn signals blinking and one foot on the brake. At least twice in the past couple of weeks they've held college-style pep rallies -- sis, boom, bah! -- for their underdog Cats, whose team mascot, a cuddly feline named Sir Purr, would be instant dog food in the frozen streets of Foxborough, one suspects.
Charlotte magazine editor Richard Thurmond jokes that when fans in old-line NFL cities such as Boston gather for a downtown rally, "that means the pepper-spray crew is already on the way," not the pom-pom wavers. Yet Charlotte more than lives up to its laid-back reputation, he maintains. Not just in sports but in other arenas, too.
Anyone in Charlotte playing Hub-style political hardball "risks being run out of town -- politely, of course," says Thurmond. The South's civil image is a well-deserved one, he adds, whereas Bostonians are much blunter, if not meaner. "We're more diplomatic down here," he avers, sometimes to a fault.
Charlotte Observer columnist Jeff Elder agrees that the two teams competing in Super Bowl XXXVIII are much closer stylistically than the cities and regions they represent.
"Charlotte is a banking town, and like all banking towns it's a little bland," says Elder, who grew up in Tennessee and writes the paper's Glad You Asked column. In it, Elder addresses reader queries, recent examples of which include why cars in Charlotte don't have U-turn signals ("In most of the places I have lived a U-turn was against the traffic laws," wrote one perplexed reader, politely) and whether cold water boils faster than hot water -- questions not often tackled in the "A" sections of major metropolitan newspapers. Then again, not many papers warn hometown fans, as the Observer did in a front-page article prior to the Panthers game at Philadelphia, to take precautions before venturing into enemy territory.
McCorkle, divided in her football loyalties -- she's a Brady fan yet passed on buying a "Nothing Could Be Finer Than Beating Carolina" T-shirt this week -- says moving from North Carolina to New England has demanded some adjustments.
"When I came here 10 years ago, I'd wander through the Back Bay making eye contact and speaking to everyone," she says. "It never even occurred to me not to, until my husband said, `What, are you crazy?' Getting up the nerve to drive into Boston was my greatest challenge, though. I'd never seen a rotary before."
With the national media having two weeks to fill with New England vs. Carolina chatter, no angle is likely to go unexplored. It's probably inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between Boston's tough-guy image (roll those "Mystic River" Oscar clips) and Charlotte's Southern gentility.
And that's fine with natives, and Pats fans, such as Marcus.
"Let's face it," he says, "this is football. It's not supposed to be polite. That's what we do up here. We're not like Carolina, where they look you in the eye and smile but don't really mean it."
Gee, that's a little harsh, isn't it?
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.