Sunday, May 23, 2010

The perils of travel to the South and back

I spent the last week in Atlanta and rural Georgia. As I child, I spent tons of time in Atlanta, because I lived there, but also in other parts of Georgia: Savannah, Augusta, the Okeefenokee Swamp, Sea Island, Gainesville, Jekyll Island, Dahlonega, Macon, Cleveland, Helen, and others. These are all places that aren’t widely known to the people in my current social circles, but would easily qualify as small town in rural Georgia. But to me these were childhood destinations, worthy of long car rides traversing the largest state east of the Mississippi (Do you remember the Trivial Pursuit Question? The answer was Waycross. “What is the name of the largest city in the largest county in the largest state east of the Mississippi River?). We spent hours on those pine-packed throughways linking Atlanta to our weekend destinations, often my dad’s medical meetings, keeping track of the license plates that we passed, because nothing else could be spotted outside the car windows: an occasional church, lots of forests and swampland, and some mountains. I was always so proud of my home state, with its capital city – my home – shared by the Braves and the Falcons and the Hawks and the Chiefs and the Flames (before Calgary stole them away), Underground Atlanta’s cool penny arcades, the High Museum, the multi-level world of Sid and Marty Kroft indoor amusement park, the massive Hartsfield Airport, WTBS, and more malls than I had seen in any other city, with Lenox Square as a regular weekend and evening destination. I read book after book about the history of Savannah and Atlanta, and was filled with sorrow that Atlanta had been destroyed by those damn Yankees, but felt it had been rebuilt as one of the best cities ever.

And now I go to Georgia and see a state stuck in the past or growing out of control in almost every way. Atlanta is too large to manage, and not in a good way like New York City. The street network, perhaps the worst in the US, was never built to handle the level of traffic that now clogs every roadway. The city’s suburbs have sprawled far beyond any lack of natural boundary that might have been suggested. But some interesting things have happened. Whole neighborhoods that were once white are now Black and the reverse is also true. Many of the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods in the urban core are fairly diverse, more than they were when I was a kid, and feel welcoming to everyone. Even some more progressive politics are spreading out into formerly exclusively conservative bastions.

On this trip to Georgia, I ventured into an area known as the Heart of Georgia, unfortunately abbreviated HOG. I picked up a coworker at the now awkwardly named Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport and we zipped south to Macon (pronounced like bacon) in the middle of the state, arriving around 10:00 PM. Macon isn’t an especially glamorous locale, and my most recent memories of Macon included a stop at a Zaxby’s with my salmonella-poisoned friend Mike and not-poisoned friend Viet. Prior to that, my friend Anita and I had stopped to explore the Indian mounds, albeit on a 99-degree and 99% humidity sort of day, making exploration more of an endurance competition than an archaeological expedition.

On this trip, my coworker, Alice, and I stayed at the hotel, a Homewood Suites on the north side of town, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But it wasn’t until the next morning that we really headed to the middle of nowhere. We drove south from Bibb County and make it to Bleckley County, and further south to Dodge County, arriving in the City of Eastman – a very small town, but one large enough to have a Piggly Wiggly and two motels… and a nice airport. And that’s where we went: straight to the airport. Not to get out of Dodge on a plane, but to conduct a workshop with a wide array of human service agencies and county administrators to talk about transportation. The guests were friendly and participated fully in the workshop, and they were also very Southern. When I say Southern in this context, it’s (1) an observation, (2) a commentary on what I expect of them, and (3) a genuine appreciation for the friendliness of the people. Nowhere can I go in California and hear women whose first names are Sue Ann, Anabella, or Beatrice referred to by young men and old women alike as Miss Sue Ann, Miss Anabella, and Miss Beatrice. But they most certainly do that in the rural south. Hair salons in rural California cut women’s hair short or long, but in this community where hair salons clearly outnumber restaurants, the women sported hair I can only describe as fluffed, rounded, and frosted. And at my meetings in other communities –in just about any other state – the food brought in for lunch is usually sandwiches and salads; here lunch was a large tinfoil tray of finely chopped smoked pork, a couple of tins of a mustardy Carolina-style barbecue sauce, a large tinfoil tray of Brunswick Stew (one of my favorite dishes from Georgia, but not something I find on menus in San Francisco), a large tinfoil tray of creamy potato salad, and several plastic-wrapped loaves of white bread. And plenty of sweetened iced tea. Always have to have the iced tea. I was really glad my kosheresque vegetarian coworker Richard was not there, or Linda, who only really eats crunchy things and hates anything mushy or creamy. Had they been there, I would have had to explain their awkward reactions and make excuses for their not eating this food at a meeting. But Alice and I, both being from the South, were able to play the southern card. I even heard my accent get more and more southern the longer I stayed and talked to people. And it wasn’t really fake or forced. That’s what’s so weird. It just was what it was.

After our workshop ended and the participants had left the airport, a young man came in to introduce himself. He’d heard “outsiders” from Massachusetts and California were in the building and wanted to meet us because he really liked talking with “normal people,” though I was starting to wonder if I was less normal than everyone else around me. He was charming and friendly and suggested the best restaurant in town for us to have dinner. He came running back 15 minutes later to talk to us about restaurants in New England and to tell us about a recent visitor from New York. We thanked him for his dinner recommendation and headed to it an hour later, only to learn the finest restaurant in Eastman is actually only open on Friday nights. Feeling despondent, I went to Google maps for other restaurant options. After the five fast food joints that showed up failed to entice me, I clicked on the other barbecue place in town (the one that didn’t cater lunch) and read the sole review (one star: “This place used to be good, but now their food is all greasy and nasty…”) and Alice and I found ourselves in a near panic that we wouldn’t get to eat. Would we have to go do Captain D’s or Dairy Queen? On a phone call, Alice had her mother Googling other dining options, and she came up with ”Chik King,” reading us the very positive review over the phone. “The best fried chicken around” was enough to tempt us, and so we ordered at the counter and waited for our Styrofoam plates of fried chicken, fries, onion rings, coleslaw, and my lemonade, to which I added a few tablespoons of cherry syrup. I don’t really know why I did that but figured I’d already eaten a not-so-healthy selection of foods in the last day, so a little cherry syrup might be just what I needed.

The next morning, we packed it up, did a little bit of fieldwork and had some informal meetings with a few of the people who attended the workshop and drove back to Macon. Outside of Macon, we stopped at a truck stop and I bought a Styrofoam container I filled with boiled peanuts – salty and porky – to snack on as we headed north to Atlanta. Overwhelmed by the salt, I ate one of the fresh Georgia peaches I’d bought the day before and felt a certain pride that my home state produced delicious peaches.


Anonymous said...

Uh, how can Waycross be the largest city, in the largest county, in the largest state, east of the Mississippi River, if Georgia is smaller than Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin?

Joey said...

Sorry Anonymous. You're wrong on that one (Are you including water??)

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