The Donut Project: Recognizing Real

 

Watch Born for Hard Luck here.

Peg Leg Sam may be the realest person many of you will ever see. The realness of the man goes much deeper than any effect that his life as a huckster and a drifter could ever have. He bears the realness of the sweltering, depressed rural south. This is a quality of authenticity that resolves its host to perseverance beyond any struggle this life has to offer.

Sam lived in a small town in the upstate of South Carolina about three hours from my home. I was not aware of its existence before watching this video, but, when I saw it, I knew it as though I had lived there forever. The dusty dirt roads, corridors and tributaries of sleepy, simple life; the piles of weed ridden debris beside crumbling wooden shacks; the plank floored country store that doubles as a community forum and the designated source of all wasted time; slow talking old men telling stories in a nearly indiscernible dialect, laughing at themselves at odd moments; the heat, the sweat; collards, cornbread, sweet potatoes, green tomatoes; poor people laughing despite being poor, maybe not knowing any difference; characters; ubiquitous religious zeal that sings and dances and sits comfortably beside the less savory realities of being human, though it puts on a good show of abstaining; men sitting under trees, joking and eating good food; the chattering grunts of hogs penned up just out of sight; the high-pitched roar of insects at the tree line—all these things are in me, and I am of them. And so it is with anyone who comes from hard working, country people. It’s vanishing, but this is the only south I remember as a young child. A south where there is no real time and place beyond the immediate, only people being people and enjoying what they have.

The food Sam sings about is the food on the tables of all poor households in the south. The bond he has with his brother, after years of self destruction and absence from his family, is the immutable bond of all families who don’t have much besides each other. The sublime presence of humor in all things at all times is common among those who can only make life easier by defying it’s hardness with laughter. This quality of satisfying oneself with what’s really important, this presence, this authenticity, this culture, is transmitted in a single word: soul.

Peg Leg Sam’s face is so ripe with age and experience that it threatens to burst open and run soul everywhere. Every line on his brow is a map of the railroads he traveled. Every word past his lips echoes a chorus of gray haired spirits laughing under shade trees in eternity. The leg he lost: his sacrifice for finding the truth. Does he tell lies? Is he coarse? Is he uneducated? Has he been a scoundrel? The answer to all of those questions is an unapologetic yes. Sam doesn’t fear hell because he has endured hardships on earth, and has seen others endure, and has received only hardships as a heritage; yet he and his inherently possess the grace to laugh loudly, love others, and enjoy what simple pleasure can be had by their humble means.

I’ve read the celebrated work of sages of many colors, lands, and eras; and I see the same timeless truth in the heart of Peg Leg Sam. He represents a way of being that endures the universal struggle of life while embracing its imposition, this is the true foundation of benevolence. Sam isn’t refined or scholarly, he is real and he doesn’t need anyone’s help. Just give him a quarter.

You make pretty and sophisticated printed materials and build websites. You sell things to people. You curate the visual language of your society. Why should you find inspiration in the story of this man’s life? You are a communicator and the world you live in grows more artificial by the second. If you ever manage to find a voice that rings with a fraction of the realness as his, you may never need inspiring again.

 
WritingJason Richburg