Written by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Photography by Donna Huffman
Eccentric: a person whose behavior is habitually unusual or whimsical
Eccentricity: the quality or habit of deviating from what is usual or customary
Bluffton Eccentric: any Blufftonian known about town for their endearingly quirky behavior.
ccentric is a word that is generally complimentary, except perhaps when it is used as a polite euphemism for crazy. In Bluffton, however, we embrace crazy, at least in its non-life-threatening forms, and the word eccentric has become a badge of honor. The Bluffton Eccentric is a local hero, a person who cares not what the rest of the world may think and casually follows his or her bliss—whether it be drinking whiskey from a tea pot, decorating with trash, dressing all in yellow or floating down the May River on a beer cooler—as though honestly believing they had no other choice.
Many think the golden age of Bluffton Eccentricity has come and gone, that the true Bluffton Eccentrics, like so many other species of wildlife, have been pushed out by development. But I say there are still plenty of habitually whimsical people here, if you know where to look. Having occasionally been labeled “a bit different” myself, I tend to run in eccentric circles (note that another, more technical definition of the word is “not concentric, not revolving around a fixed center”) and so felt rather qualified to write an article that attempted to resolve the following questions: what is eccentricity and why is it so at home here?
What I found out is that there are as many types of eccentricity as there are individual eccentrics, and the potential for variation on the eccentric theme is infinite. Furthermore, most people define eccentricity according to their own personal brand of it, so for once in my journalistic career I was able to ask a question over and over without ever getting the same answer twice. How refreshing!
To start my investigation, I would consult a veritable fount of eccentricity: artist Amos Hummell. Among the people I have come to know most thoroughly in this town, Amos is one of the originals. Having the art thing in common, we used to spend a fair amount of time together painting at his studio, back when it was still located on Calhoun Street. Let’s just say that there have been enough instances where I walked up on him talking to himself or doing something strange (spraying his still-wet paintings with a garden hose, for example, or walking around the studio with his flailing arms stuck through two round cut-outs in a wooden box) to state unequivocally that he is a true eccentric. He surely fits my own criteria of eccentricity: that you have to be weird when no one is looking.
So I asked Amos to define eccentricity and this is the answer I got: “It’s like a tether ball with no tether.” He went on to talk about planetary orbits and rings of rocks revolving around Saturn in uniform belts that corresponded to the majority of humanity. And then there were the “strays,” rocks or people who somehow avoided getting locked into that concentric course and spent their life passing in and out of the rings in whatever arbitrary fashion seemed to suit them best.
“Ever since I was 14 I’ve thought about it in planetary terms,” said Amos, who admits to having been eccentric since kindergarten. “Most people tend to gyrate towards the center, but I’ve always been out.”
One of the questions that I found particularly relevant to any discussion of eccentricity was, where do we draw the line between eccentric and stone crazy? When I posed this question to Amos, his answer surprised me.
“Eccentricity is based on reasoning while crazy is not,” he said. “I can justify everything I do.”
“Really?” I asked incredulously, thinking of all the seemingly absurd acts I’ve caught him in. Then it dawned on me, he was right. True eccentrics don’t just do random stuff for the sake of being weird; it’s all got a very logical purpose in their minds. Only their reasons aren’t apparent to others and so they are perceived as eccentric. Particularly impressive to Amos are the lengths that eccentrics are willing to go to attain their purpose.
“It’s no small task to create a whole world,” he said, citing examples of people engaged in elaborate time travel studies, or who have invented their own calendar while living in a converted ambulance covered from bumper to bumper in strange, colorful paintings. “That somebody would put that much energy into it... it’s so much easier to be normal and punch a clock.”
Another person in town who shows unmistakable signs of eccentricity is architect Matt Taylor. A quick glance at his extensive library will instantly incriminate him; among the hundreds of titles are books like A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, 5-Star Cooking for Dogs, Mysteries of Ancient South America and UFOs Attack Earth. Furthermore, it seems like every time I go over to his house I am witness to his latest obsession.
“Look!” he’ll say excitedly as I stare in disbelief at his dining room table. “I just got in this shipment of 50,000 vintage buttons. Do you want to help me sort them?”
One day last winter, my sister Gioia (herself a bit of an eccentric, riding all over town on her pink vintage cruiser bicycle, complete with basket and bell, and harboring a closet full of aprons, petticoats and dresses, some designer and others from the little girls’ section of Target) tried to look for a second-hand cape on E-Bay and was dismayed to find there were none for sale. Come to find out, Matt had already bought every single one because he planned to start manufacturing capes and wanted to research styles. He quickly recruited Gioia and me to try on the capes in his collection—an entire closet-full—so that he could see which ones looked and fit the best.
Not surprisingly, Matt defined eccentricity in large part according to a person’s intellectual curiosity and the diversity of their interests.
“An eccentric is somebody who wonders,” he said. “They are willing to take the path less traveled and to see the beauty in that, rather than in mainstream popularity.”
Matt believes he is eccentric “to some degree” and he credits this to his early educational opportunities, in particular his attendance of one of the first Montessori schools in the country. This learning “without limitations” is what has allowed him to question everything throughout his life, an essential quality, he believes, of the eccentric.
“I think everybody’s born eccentric,” said Matt, responding to the question of whether eccentricity is a genetic trait or simply learned behavior. “It’s the world that makes you conform. If, in the first six years of life, you are left to your own devices then you will have a good chance of expressing your eccentric side.”
Some people seem to be born with a predisposition towards being atypical, and I believe (from personal experience, might I add) that such individuals will never, ever be normal, no matter how much they (we) try. Then there are the people who start out normal until, as Amos put it, “something knocks them out of their orbit.” But if Matt was correct in saying that everybody’s born eccentric and only later does the world beat it out of them, then a stimulating, tolerant environment during early life is crucial in allowing kids’ eccentric sides to develop. Is this what Bluffton provides?
Matt went on to say that he doesn’t consider himself nearly as eccentric as some of the more famous Bluffton characters, mostly because he is a professional and therefore must retain a certain semblance of conventionality when the situation calls for it. Or, in Gioia’s words, he’s “high-functioning eccentric.”
Continuing my quest to delve as deeply as possible into this subject, I journeyed from Matt’s house in the converted mercantile building back up Calhoun Street to find a woman for whom eccentricity is so important, her business is actually named after it. Nancy Golson, owner of the wacky store known as Eggs ‘n’ tricities, is the type of person who best expresses her eccentric side through her physical environment. When I think of Nancy, I think of the cabinet of curiosities that is her house—birds’ nests, arrowheads and jars of pottery shards vie for space on antique tables, posters from wine festivals and religious icons hang alongside folk art made from beer bottle caps. Old floats and cast nets clutter her porch while French words are painted here and there to give the place a real cultured touch. To walk into her store is to experience her tastes in a more commercially viable format.
“I think an eccentric person views life from a different angle,” Nancy said. “Where most people want a manicured lawn, I want the bushes to grow up in the road so no one can see me.”
Nancy’s right-hand woman at Eggs ‘n’ tricities is Patsy Hodge, a fascinating person whom I wouldn’t necessarily call an eccentric. Patsy is in a category all by herself and if I had to think of a name for this category, I’d call it “timeless classic with a touch of hilarity.” Nevertheless, she immediately joined our conversation about eccentricity with the statement, “An eccentric person is one that doesn’t accept change.”
At first I thought she was talking about other people, but it soon became clear that she listed herself among the eccentrics’ ranks.
“We are so used to doing things the old way that we cannot accept change,” Patsy said. “We cannot accept that the Piggly Wiggly is gone.”
The three of us discussed the question of Nature vs. Nurture when it comes to eccentricity and Nancy said that, while she believed normal people frequently became eccentric after realizing that it’s a lot more fun, she herself had never been normal. As a child she preferred reading an encyclopedia over playing outside, an admission that caused Patsy to exclaim dramatically, “Well, that is just about the most abnormal thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”
So what about other outward symptoms of an eccentric?
“They usually collect something,” said Nancy. “I like snake skins.”
Both women agreed that the May River fostered eccentrics, that creativity and eccentricity went hand-in-hand, and that development was bad for all of the aforementioned. Back when the town was clustered right around the water—what we now know as Old Town—and before all this new development set in and ballooned Bluffton’s boundaries out around the 278 corridor, new-comers to the town were welcomed into an atmosphere of laid-back tolerance.
“When you came here, you were just accepted for who you are,” said Nancy. “Everybody respected each other’s differences.”
As a newcomer myself, I can say that this attitude is, for the most part, still alive and well in Bluffton. I have hung out in the historic district long enough to expose my own idiosyncrasies to Blufftonians like Nancy and Patsy, and have generally felt embraced not embarrassed. Which led me to my next question: could Bluffton support a new generation of eccentrics in the 21st century?
“Yeah, if they stay in Old Town,” said Nancy.
“If they stay on the river,” said Patsy.
“If they stay on the fringes of life,” was the final comment of Nancy Golson, advocate of all things eccentric in Bluffton. So far on my first day of investigating, I had encountered plenty of relevant, stimulating information without even venturing off Calhoun Street. This would be a revealing examination for sure.