With Kayla Rae Whitaker
How long have you lived here: One year. Still feels very new.
Three words to describe the climate: Because it’s July, humid – on some days, the air feels like drinking cotton. In the winters, damp. But in the fall – particularly the long falls – and the spring, it feels forgiving.
Best time of year to visit? NOT DERBY. May is a beautiful time in Kentucky, but Derby snarls Louisville traffic in the worst possible way. I say this as a newcomer to the city (while I wrote about Louisville, I had never lived there until this year). It only took one Derby weekend for me to see some of the most ridiculous displays of driving I’ve ever seen. Early summer is a good bet. Fall’s nice too.
1) The most striking physical features of this city/town are . . .
The incredible patches of green overgrowth. Louisville is one of the greenest places I’ve ever seen, disconcertingly so, for a city. It’s a wild, unkempt green that just seems to spring up in unexpected patches: downtown, in fits and starts around the shoreline, around the railroad tracks. There are, for instance, long stretches of road beside the river, so close to downtown you can hear traffic from the three interstates that thread through there –so thickly wooded that, once in a while, a deer will come nosing out of the brush to watch the cars pass. It’s a reminder that it is a city – but it is a city with nature pressing in on it, constantly.
2) The stereotype of the people who live here and what this stereotype misses . .
Louisville’s in a funny place – caught straddling the Midwest and the South. I’ve done readings where I’ve been referred to as a Midwesterner and ones where I’ve been referred to as a Southerner. I suppose the place is subject to whatever stereotypes apply to those two labels. I am not a native, but I think it may be both, a Midwestern/Southern city that bucks both of those stereotypes frequently. It is its own creature.
3) Historical context in broad strokes and the moments in which you feel this history. . .
Louisville is, among other things, a rail city. It’s a metropolitan area for a state that is largely rural, and so it is a hub, and always has been: for commerce, for culture, for travel, and so it makes sense that this was once a major stop for the Louisville and Nashville. It feels like a hundred different tiny veins meet, and then converge, in Louisville – and that feeling is particularly strong around those old L&N, now CSX, tracks. My first home here was in a neighborhood called Clifton, and I would encounter the train at minimum three times a week as it ran through the city, often stopping in my car at crossings for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, watching the cars pass. There’s a particular rumble and rattle that comes from a train that you don’t hear or feel from any other source. You can feel it below the skin. It’s both odd and compelling.
5) Local/regional vocabulary or food? The easy answer is the Hot Brown, a sort of open-faced turkey sandwich covered in cheese, bacon, and Mornay sauce that originated at the Brown Hotel. The hidden jewel of Louisvillecentric food, however, is the Modjeska, a marshmallow pillow covered in caramel. I’m a candy disciple, and the Modjeska has a special place in my heart. Muth’s makes a pretty great Modjeska, as does Art Eatables, which actually makes the Modjeska in flavors, like orange. Also, Hi Five Doughnuts sometimes does a Modjeska donut that is truly the bee’s knees.
Kayla Rae Whitaker’s work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Split Lip Magazine, Bodega, Joyland, Five Quarterly, American Microreviews and Interviews, and others. Her novel, The Animators, comes out in paperback from Random House on September 5. She has a BA from the University of Kentucky and an MFA from New York University. After many years of living in Brooklyn, she returned to Kentucky, her home state, in 2016 with her husband and their geriatric tomcat, Breece D’J Pancake.