Georgia on Mah Mind
Georgia is sort of a mirage come true.
I look up from my book and damn, if we aren’t in the midst of the Georgia Low Country. Couldn’t be better named: a shoreline thin as a Pringle perched on the horizon. Grasses, swamps, marshes, rowboat-navigable inlets. The outer cove smoothes out and approaches land lazily, petering out into moats of shiny dark mud. This, likely, accounts for the water’s dreary brown tint.
Sadly we’ve left the tropics far behind. Not for a very, very long time will I ease myself into martini-clear wavelets, mount my personal pony—an orange Styrofoam “noodle”—and trot it around the hull with toothbrush and sponge to scrub the waterline.
Memorial Day weekend, 10 AM and already 100 torpid degrees. That’s official bug temperature. Our decks are carpeted with about a million tiny, torpedo-shaped black insects, who’d be just as happy to alight on us—if only we’d stay still. But standing still is impossible, as we’re frantically dodging whiny, spindly-legged mosquitoes and big, biting horseflies—the kind that take a chunk out of you like you’re a hunk of dung. Also endemic is a species of insect that fly conjoined, one straddling the other, as if humping while hunting for tasty human flesh.
These are the “fucking bugs” you hear about.
Mission: lunch. We dinghy in to the rickety wood-slatted marina and hear our first 37 y’alls within scant minutes of tying up. I can’t help thinking we’ve stepped into some Deep South parody, a Chamber of Commerce holiday production for us visiting Yankees.
I don’t know about rednecks, but we sure see a lot of fat necks and double chins, not to mention jiggly flesh, fat tushies and thunder thighs. The coiffeur-du-jour for the Social Security Set seems to be a teased bouffant encased in a protective hairnet.
“There goes someone going somewhere later,” remarks Gary, thrilled, finally, to be able to extend his long-standing downbeat commentary on hair rollers worn out-and-about in daylight.
If you’re not being y’alled, you’re being honeyed and sugahed. But it is, actually, kinda sweet. Think about it: doesn’t “y’all” sound a whole lot better than “you guys,” as in “Y’all havin’ lunch?” rather than, “What can I get you guys?”
We’re sitting outside in a camp-mess-hall of a restaurant, swatting bugs, tearing off our napkins from the paper towel roll, watching a red-faced hippopotamus of a youngster operating a forklift just about his own size and a middle-aged couple whiling away the afternoon on a porch swing.
We’ve just about slurped up our bowls of Crab Boll (Boil) and licked our fingers clean of the pork barbecue. Our waitress, Johnnie, approaches.
“Heayah’s a coupla mints for yo’ breyath, so’s you can get some shugah laytah,” Here in the land of Johnnies and Hatties and Bobbie-Sues, they’re even happy to help improve your sex life.
But it’s not all treacle. Just as we’re expecting “Y’all come back, now,” the aging-hippie dock “boy” returns our neighbor-like goodbye with a temperamental toss of his tarnished gray beard and this under-his-breath grunt: “I hate fuckin’ holidays—whole bunch a land people buttin’ in on us.”
Actually, Jekyll.was once a hiding place of note. Along a waterfront stretch of the slender nine-mile-long island sits Millionaire’s Village—a cluster of some 33 carefully preserved residences, former winter getaways of the New York moneyed, circa 1900. These rambling painted-shingle “cottages” were Southern counterpoints to their more formal Petit-Trianon Newport summer digs, which they also called cottages, maybe on the theory, “If I don’t mention it maybe they won’t figure out I’m rich.”
The Jekyll cottages belonged to the likes of Morgans and Vanderbilts and Pulitzers and Rockefellers. Their former “clubhouse”—a many-winged, multi-eaved, buff stone building suffering no delusions of grandeur—is, today, a luxury hotel. We’re told most of the enormous cottages were built without kitchens. Everybody just took their meals at the club.
The state of Georgia now owns and maintains the site, which is shaded by towering old oaks. Nowadays it’s a place where turn-of-the-20th century hauteur meets 21st century tee-shirt tourism.
Spilling out onto a nearby jetty terrace is a casual bar, the aptly named “Rah Bah.” Inside The Rah Bah’s slightly more formal indoor restaurant sepia photographs line the walls, memorializing the languid, long-skirted, lawn-chaired summers of 100 years ago. Beneath these blurred snapshots of long-gone luxury—mannered children, plump laundresses, liveried manservants—sit the rubber-thonged hoi polloi of today (present company included) slurping oysters and guzzling ales.
After Florida and our spate of $200 dollar, 2004-style dining—hummingbird portions, Eiffel-Towered and Zagat-consecrated—we have our first actually damn good meal—and the check doesn’t stray too far north of 1910.
We’re 700 miles from home.
SavannahOddly, Savannah feels like coming home, though surely no home ever mine. Gracious shaded squares studded with statues of war heroes and civic notables…carefully planned grids and long, grassy esplanades…shuttered, balconied Georgians, columned Federals, ornate Victorians stunningly restored…a horse-and-buggy paced traffic flow—nothing could be more unlike my native Brooklyn, with its endless blocks of apartment buildings, haphazard sprawl and crowded, noisy streets. So why this feeling of home? It takes me a while: Savannah is the best part of home—home, where you’re welcomed, appreciated, loved. In Savannah: people take you in, take you on, like you’re their own. Savannah reminds me of living close, of unlatched apartment doors, of everyone watching out for everyone’s kids, of feeling globally cared for. Savannahians remind me of courtly, wispy-haired Mr. Seeham who, even during the all-for-the-war-effort 1940s, could always dig deep into a trouser pocket and produce a wondrous waxed-paper-wrapped octagon of Fleer’s Double-Bubble Gum. Savannahians always make time for a leisurely chat. They ask, unfailingly, “Where y’all from?” followed by, “Are you enjoying our city?” They can’t help out enough. And they seem to mean it. Our Georgia friend, Tracey, says, “It’s true, they do.” As long as you have the courtesy to leave, of course. Savannah is famous for its insularity, its we-do-it-our-way stance: gentle, but firm. Savannah said no-thanks to the USA Spoleto Festival—sent it to Charleston instead—and makes it a habit of spurning invasive corporate headquarters. As long ago as the Civil War Savannahians were self-protective: they saved the city from certain torching by handing it over, without a shot, to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who then presented it to his president, Abraham Lincoln. Boarding house On our first morning, a taxi driver calls all four of our restaurant choices, using his personal cell phone. He’s worried because it’s Monday of Memorial Day weekend. They’re all closed “Y’all put that guidebook away. Ah’m gonna you to a place you’re gonna love.”
It was our kind of lunch. Not brunch, mind you, but a big Southern lunch—at Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House. You wait outside an 18th century brick house with a bunch of other salivating folks. When a table comes available Mrs. Wilkes' 40-plus granddaughter, Marsha, ushers you in and sets you down with eight strangers at an oval wooden table.
A glass of iced tea waits at your place. Iced tea
pitchers—sweetened and unsweetened—dot the table, as do bowls of pickled beets
and cucumber salad. This warm-up fare lasts through the warm-up conversation,
during which convivial time you realize you really need to start figuring out
Southern-Speak. It's not unlike New Yawkese—it’s spoken at the same 100 miles
per hour but the attendant lilt/drawl makes it not much different than listening
The Mrs. Wilkes’ regulars at your table—some come once a
week—learn you up right quick: proper boardinghouse etiquette says pass
counterclockwise and if you'd be so kind as to bring your plate to the pantry
when you're finished...
And the food is heavenly, if somewhat on the sweet side. Actually, about as sweet as the people.
Take the woman of about 75, sitting at the far end of the table. She wears a dated flowered shirtwaist; an upswept pompadour rises from a patrician forehead. Imperious, yet soft-spoken and utterly charming, she takes charge of our Savannah visit, passing along museum recommendations, walking-tour advice, restaurant musts and must-nots. Her husband, equally engaging, makes concurrent notations on our map. The two exude fine, maybe faded, Savannah aristocracy. After lunch, they insist on driving us to the Visitor’s Center to put us on the right trolley tour.
Turns out they’re not married, but brother and sister. They’ve lived together for decades. Neither ever married.
“I never left—he joined the military and saw the world,” she says, somehow without sounding resentful.
“Eventually, I retired, returned and attended law school,” he adds.
I picture him ambling through Chippewa Square some dappled morning en route to one of the white-shoe law firms that occupy many of Savannah’s finest old mansions. Given the buildings’ ages and the city’s austere preservationist standards, it’s the lawyers and not necessarily the old Savannah families who can keep them from sinking back into decrepitude.
“So, you’re lifelong residents,” I say, making not exactly scintillating small talk.
“Not yet,” he says, putting me to shame in the droll wordplay department. I see I need to work on verbal fitness if I’m returning to the real world, where people do not only talk about what broke yesterday.
The pair say goodbye, waving aside our thanks. They’ve merely done their civic duty. I know, this is textbook Southern hospitality, but those are mere words until you’ve gotten your own personal dose.
Before our trolley tour we stop at the railroad museum, housed amid the old Georgia & Pacific’s roundhouse and maintenance shops. There we encounter Tommy the Ticket Person, a shellac-haired wonder with arms that semaphore as he speaks, as if he’s personally signaling the trains in. Savannah, we remember, is famous for its eccentrics.
Tommy loves his trains, his museum, his job, his city, his new wife, his mama and his daddy so much he gets (and displays) goose bumps about every 10 seconds. Having taken our money, he won’t pass us beyond until he tells us just a smidge more about his railroad, his job, his city, his new wife, his mama and his daddy…Tommy, the motor mouth of the motor museum.
We board the trolley and fall further into Savannah’s thrall. Along the way I begin eyeing “For Sale” signs, placing mental bids, ready to select chintzes, cornices and tassles.
Our trolley driver/ tour guide, is a 50-some-odd-year Savannahian named Barbara, who has a million facts, an upbeat personality and a snappy delivery.
Barbara soon becomes the high scorer in our YPS Sweepstakes. That’s Y’alls Per Sentence. One y’all per sentence is fairly ho-hum and most Georgians can sprinkle even a snippet of conversation with two, but Barbara tops four-to-one at least six times in our 90-minute acquaintance.
The tour ends at the quaint, restored Central Market. Someone, apparently starving, needs to sample a milkshake at one of the ice-cream parlors. Guess who?
“Y’know, it's just like Chinese food—you're hungry an hour later.”
We place our names on the wait list, hoping for a
Pepto-Bismol dessert soufflé.
Savannah never hits a false note. We attend a show at the Lucas Theater, the oldest continually running theater in the country. Lining the walls and stairwell are posters and daguerreotypes of the famous who performed there—Lionel Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Sarah Bernhardt, Charles Coburn, Oscar Wilde. The show we figure will be fey, amateurish, but surprisingly, the performers and band players are extremely talented and versatile.
A friendly bookstore owner we encounter chooses our restaurant that night, and it may well be the best restaurant we’ve eaten at in many years—anywhere. Three young brothers, scions of an old Savannah Jewish family, have resuscitated the defunct family business—Gottlieb’s, a once-prosperous bakery and deli. The bakery couldn’t survive the mid-20th century juggernaut of mass production and market penetration that reached even into Savannah. The boys, culinary institute graduates, reinvented it as a first-class gourmet restaurant—that’s solid, real, understated but sensational gourmet—with crackerjack service.I love this town.