Doin’ the Charleston
Moving north from Savannah, we stop in Beaufort, Georgia (pronounced Bew-fort), a popular film locale. Tom Hanks and Sally Fields, Pat Conroy and The Prince of Tides permeate the place. We hop on a buggy and take a tour. The ante- and post-bellum South continues to captivate us. Would that we women could be preserved as spectacularly as these old houses.
Charleston we find gorgeous, perhaps even grander than Savannah, boasting even more regal old churches, grand mansions and better-preserved homes. Many are deceptively small-fronted, but peer down along their more private sides and they ramble on seemingly forever.
In Charleston we get a better sense of the old pre-Civil War South when we rent a car and visit the outlying preserved plantations. Gated, columned, enormous—from shaded porticos you sight down magnificent, oak-shaded driveways and picture horse-drawn carriages arriving with eyeleted, bonneted Miss Scarletts and Miss Mellys. Eight or nine brick cottages, miniscule slave cabins, sit close by the mansions’ sides, in their very armpits, the message clear: the manor house needs serving.
Much of Charleston remains intact, with very little destruction of its historic home inventory, due to an early, persistent preservationist mentality. Street after street, whole neighborhoods, are faultless examples of authentically early American homes, plus a big range of plagiarized, reinterpreted European architectural styles.
Savannah, on the other hand, owes its current beauty to a restoration movement that didn’t even begin until the mid-1950s. Much of its remarkable downtown area was slum, the grand old buildings either rotting, abandoned, used as whorehouses or subdivided into tenements. Significant landmarks had already fallen under the wrecking ball, which accounts for the presence of, say, an ugly parking garage or a charmless modern federal building in many of the squares. Only one of Savannah’s twenty-one squares is historically intact.
If Savannah is a marvel of can-do, then Charleston is a monument to “Don’t Dare.” Though Savannah would never own up, the two cities are rivals in glory. Smitten with Savannah, we find Charleston more off-putting. There’s more splendor than we can bite off in mere days. Having spent years in small, unprepossessing islands, we finally get a sense of what an unsophisticated tourist might feel like confronting New York.
Since our marina skirts the historic center, we can’t hop off the boat and be drenched in ambiance. Suddenly we feel the inaccessibility and insularity of the South. Part of this is illusory. The other truth is, yes, Charleston’s bigger, but our guidebook sucks.
First, it makes us wait for a taxi in the sweltering midday heat. It’s sending us out of town for lunch, having this to say about the restaurant: “Don’t miss it. If you only have one meal in South Carolina, make it here.”
I’m schvitzing profusely and tapping my feet like mad on the hot pavement. It’s Saturday, cruise-ship day, and taxis are hard to come by. I call three different companies, while hoping this doesn’t put us on three blacklists.
The place has only 16 seats and it’s already 12:30. What if they run out of the very best fried chicken, very best fried whiting, best fried pork chops, best chicken-fried steaks in the whole South? (We have yet to discover they ran out of bests a long, long time ago.)
At last a cab arrives.
“Martha Lou’s Kitchen,” I say, with some urgency, the “and step on it” implied.
“Never heard of it.” Should have been the first clue. Charleston’s big but it’s not exactly Hong Kong.
We pull up to a pink cement Quonset hut on a dusty commercial road, looking like that cinematic cliché, the lone gas station in the middle of the desert. There is not a single vehicle outside, unless you count an abandoned rowboat. Regarding the empty parking lot, I hope the painted “We deliver” sign on one wall is taking a positive entrepreneurial tack. I myself am looking for any optimistic sign because the taxi has already pulled away. I decide the painted cartoon of a puffy-eyed fish trying to look aggressive, like he was a hard catch, is an acceptable come-on.
The screen door thwacks behind us. Sixteen seats? In a lapdance contest, maybe. Two pre-World War II diner booths each list a different way. The third “booth” consists of a single automobile bench facing the back wall. Everything is covered in a quilt of piebald vinyls, all duct-taped together.
The counterman, a wizened black man with a friendly smile, says, “Hey.” He’s reading the paper, presumably while waiting for the lunchtime crunch of “We Deliver” call-ins. He seems completely bewildered by our presence, though maybe just by the presence of anyone at all.
We consult the menu, one only a heart surgeon could love. Besides the fried chicken, fried fish, fried pork chops and chicken-fried steak, Martha Lou’s offers stewed pig feet, fried pig ears and some other fried items—presumably most of the pig’s innards—that we don’t recognize.
The waiter, that wizened black man with the friendly smile we just met, shuffles over to take our order.
”What you be havin’ today?” he asks.
Still delusional, we order fried chicken, fried whiting and fried pork chops.
While we’re waiting for the wizened black man with the friendly smile to fry our lunch, I amble around, hoping to discover why we’re here. There is not a sign, nor a hint of former culinary glory. But there is something else quite nice. The walls are plastered with curling photographs; yellowed news clippings; graduation, wedding and death notices; church supper and fraternal lodge announcements; picnic and party memorabilia. Taken together it’s a social archive, a snapshot of Martha Lou’s extended family. With some time, a bit of inside information or a degree in urban archeology, one could piece together the story of a small, interconnected black community.
Now I know why the counterman/waiter/cook seems so flummoxed—or maybe merely amused—by our presence. Martha Lou’s is not a hangout for white folks, unless you’re the UPS man, the mailman, the local cop.
Lunch is not much more than ordinary. But if scientists suddenly announced grease deprivation is deleterious to our health, Martha Lou’s would be the place to take the cure.
In these situations, where I have schlepped us far and wide pursuing the tiniest shard of praise from a passerby—fairly literally taken us on a wild goose chase—I try to put on an optimistic face, turn everything into a signature dish.
“Aren’t these collard greens tasty? How do you think they get whiting so small and dainty? What a great crust—do you think they fry in Crisco or lard?”
It’s the diametric opposite to my traditional, prove-it-to-me, who-sez-this-is-flaky? stance at all other dining experiences.
“Honey,” I say, ‘Let’s give the guidebook the benefit of the doubt. I think Martha Lou died quite a while ago and when she died she took the recipes—and the heart of the place—with her.”
“Lou, face it: the only correct word in the review was “miss,” he says.
Our guidebook continues to suck. Late Sunday afternoon we find ourselves thoroughly wrung out from a unique confluence of touristy events: First, merely walking Charleston’s steamy streets ogling landmarks. Second, the distinctly mediocre hotel brunch the guidebook touted as a weekly Charleston “must,” making us expect all of haute society and not Des Moines matrons interpreting Gone With The Wind in 20th century polyester and floppy, fake-flower bonnets. Third, we attended a Spoleto Festival performance, where, in a castle of a church with horrendous acoustics, we strained to hear the words of a Nashville-based bluegrass group interpreting William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” I don’t know…it read as quirky and fun in the Spoleto program guide, which possibly was also written by Frommer.
After, we find ourselves back in the heat, at 4PM, too early to eat. We elect to walk, sort of toward the Frommer-endorsed dinner recommendation: Garibaldi’s on South Church Street.
First, Gary, the family map-reader, gets us lost. Very lost. So lost we’re finally hungry. But nowhere near South Church Street. From the very northernmost point of the old district, we perspire our way to Church Street, one of Charleston’s longest but most visually enchanting residential streets. Still, our feet are sore and we’ve long sweated through any early-morning deodorant protection.
We arrive, correctly, at number, 49, the foot of South Church Street and we know instinctively no owner of a $2 million dollar James Pusey House or a $4 million dollar Isaiah Walker house would have allowed some phony Chianti-and-candle Italian restaurant in his front yard.
We’re standing on the corner, perplexed and spinning the guidebook like a roulette wheel.
A couple of about our own era approaches, taking a sunset spin around the neighborhood. They look exactly like they’ve been inside every house in a three-mile radius, which turns out to be quite true.
“Garibaldi’s?” they ask. “Heah???” Titter-titter; echoing our own presumption exactly. “Whah Garibaldl’s is clear across town,” they say, pointing in the general direction of exactly where we started. A taxi is out of the question: taxis need to be phoned for in advance, are rarities, most especially if just the day before you no-showed them.
“Besides, you don’t want to eat at Garibaldi’s; no one does. Hell, no,” he exclaims. “You should go to Carolinas—it’s wonderful and just a lick away. Come, we’ll show you the way.”
Halfheartedly, we resist being a bother, but they insist: “Don’t you give it another thought—it’s just past the yacht club where we’re havin’ a little suppah. Come, now.”
We walk through what is surely Charleston’s most impressive residential area—the waterfront Battery area homes, which border on palatial. We four are soon thick as thieves, playing that ludicrous information-sharing game we call Jewish geography, but in this instance is more of a mixed-marriage investigation. They’ve lived in Manhattan, in Rye, in Europe, in Charlotte, in DC; they’ve sailed; they’ve entertained and been entertained; they’re fascinated with our lifestyle, as we, after two weeks in the South, are with theirs.
We pass the yacht club, but they insist on taking us to Carolinas’ door. Now, we’ve been to tony places, but nothing like a yacht club the equivalent and actual neighbor to Fort Sumter, which, if history escapes you, was where the first cannonballs of the Civil War were aimed.
Reaching the restaurant, maybe 30 minutes into the relationship, we’re all sort of loath to part.
“Come, you’ve been so kind, let us buy you a drink,” Gary says.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, couldn’t possibly.” Something about he’s wearing Bermuda shorts, which, though probably a serious breach of Charleston dress code, my husband, Mr Torn Cut-Offs easily overcomes.
Hours later, awash, one might even say aslosh, in camaraderie we sign the food and beverage check for four: he isn’t carrying a red, in fact not even a Confederate, cent. Consider: who needs money when you’re going to the club, which, presumably, your great-grandfather the Admiral founded in the first place.
They insist on driving us back to our marina. But first, they walk us up the block and invite us inside their 18th Century, Merchants’ Row home.
Merchants’ Row is a string of mostly four-story townhouses on Charleston’s historic commercial waterfront. From these buildings prosperous burghers once received, shipped, operated retail businesses and lived above the store. Like our Plastic Works store with the apartment above. Sort of.
When I write “townhouse,” don’t think Eagles Aerie or Quail Feather or Cobble Cute or some such. Think, at the very least, Knightsbridge, London townhouse. It’s got all the standard house fare plus elevator, parlor, library, garden. Think authenticity—100% authentic, down to the last épergne. Seems she once owned a Madison Avenue antique store. Only the correct vase, platter, first-edition book grace the shelves. Still, she tells me, holding up serrated fingernails, she also dusts the moldings and mops the floors. This I understand completely.
It was a charmed ending to the story of how even the suckiest guidebook can produce a marvelous touring experience.
Do not, however, expect some similar destiny should you happen on the Frommer’s Guide to New Rochelle.
The big muddy
We move on to North Carolina, stopping in Cape Fear (not at all fearful) then Beaufort (Bowfort) North Carolina, another quaint southern town. Light, piffly wind is our companion. As is the engine. We can’t help remembering this exact route was fraught, exactly five years ago, with sequential storms, tempestuous weather and all-around misery.
Entering Beaufort harbor we encounter two monster ships: Soberingly enough, warships, US and British Navy. US Navy Warship #15 is unmarked but for a smallish number "15" in monochromatic bas-relief on each side. Warship is how they identify themselves on the radio. They give new meaning to long, high, massive and gray.
The British boat requests we detour north, volunteering
that they’re engaged in minesweeping. We see a black helicopter take off and
sortie around the area, pulling what we assume is a long dragnet behind. Whether
they’re actually minesweeping or carrying out some more sinister mission is mere
Tom Clancy conjecture.
Overnight a norther—a storm, usually packing big north winds—passes through. It’s possible to get stuck for days, or even weeks, after a norther, hoping for a wind shift. No small craft willingly heads north in the ocean bucking north winds.
In the morning we’re surprised the wind has obliged us, clocking southeast overnight, predicted to move further south and calm back down. Then it will be anemic and directly behind us, yet another no-sail situation, but we’re happy to be granted a calmer ride around Hatteras.
The shifting wind has also, we soon discover, tugged, twisted and drug our 150 feet of anchor chain along the muddy sea floor. Almost every link is woven with grass and encrusted with thick, ebony-colored mud, the blackest, thickest mud ever. Each and every clot of mud clings tenaciously to its particular link, trying to sneak onto our recently blonde, Caribbean-kissed teak decks.
Clearing it is like working the meat out of a skinny crab leg; it’s a back-twisting contortionist maneuver leaning far out over the bow pulpit, finding a place to rest both head and neck while at the same time stretching one leg farther back than it thinks reasonable to reach the hydraulic lift button with one big toe. Thus placed, I aim the ineffectual wash-down hose at the muck—until it’s not possible to hold this position another second and I need a realignment, or better yet, a chiropractor.
It’s almost an hour before all the chain is up. During this time I try to shoo my foul mood by humming "I Like to Beat My Feet on the Mississippi Mud,” which is a reasonable enough approximation of what’s happening. But this tune keeps getting replaced by "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," which feels more accurate.
Next comes the hardest part: a 350-mile trip, including our first and only overnight of this journey: rounding Cape Hatteras. The cape is said to be the most treacherous body of water in the continental US. Winds frequently careen banshee-style around Hatteras point, while the shore is more vulnerable than any other land mass to being whacked by the north-rushing Gulf Stream. As a result, more old ocean ships per square mile found themselves foundering and sinking in the area than in any other US waters. Still buried there but now stripped of its fabulous bounty is the legendary SS Central America.
[Anyone unfamiliar with this disaster, whether landlubber, nonfiction-aesthete or even poetry fanatic, must read Gary Kinder’s “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea,” surely one of the most matchless and electrifying true stories ever.]
Hatteras turns out to be calm as a bottle of Evian. During the night we renew our acquaintance with US Navy Warship #15, which seems like it’s been on our tail for the past week. We seem to be everywhere in their way. Or they think we’re Al Queda operatives.
About 2 AM, on my watch, the VHF crackles and I hear. "This is US Navy Warship Fifteen calling vessel located at Latitude 35 degrees 52 minutes North and Longitude 75 degrees 48 minutes West, on a course of 001.”
I almost want to say, “Hey, fellas, what’d you have for
After further radio elucidation, the crew-cut Navy recruit grudgingly instructs us to reverse course for 20 minutes; and thereafter maintain said distance of 4,000 yards, which Gary informs me is 2 ½ miles. Not that I can find my 2 ½-mile tape measure either.
Backtracking is hardly what we want to do at mile 950 in this 1,200-mile schlep, but we comply. I guess it's not exactly a bad thing to be out of their very military way.
Cruiser friends soon inform us there was an even bigger navy presence in and around Savannah
The week before. That was during, and surely related to, the G8 summit that started just after we left. Heightened security is probably also the reason for some GPS and satellite interruptions announced over the next 10 days.
It is reassuring to know first-hand that someone's out there trying to protect the country. Contrast that with the security precautions in Key West. When making landfall there, from any number of foreign countries, no less, all you have to do is call the Coast Guard and say, "Hey, honey, I'm home."
Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…
that our mainsail’s not there…
At 0600, just after first light Gary awakens, looks up through the salon window and notes that our mainsail has been flayed to paper-shredder consistency during the night. Certainly not the work of fierce winds.
Our mainsail is usually hauled out of the mast whether we're sailing or not, to stabilize the boat and help minimize side-to-side roll in low wind conditions.
Some time during the night the main tore beyond repair, probably due to some 18 hours of rigorous snapping and flapping during the previous day alone. This flapping is caused by the south wind backing and forthing (jibing) on both sides of the boom. Jibes can be a problem but we have the boom sheeted in tight, so that the movement is very slight and whatever jibe is completely controlled. Though the boom may not move, the sail flaps from one side to the other, like a wet towel being snapped by an adolescent giant torturing his younger brother.
The linguini mainsail comes as an annoying, but not a huge, surprise: since
Honduras this sail’s been held together mostly with salt water, tape and iron-on
patches. We’ve got this new mainsail glitch, plus we’ve lately got leaks around
the salon windows and starboard cabin ceiling that are like a Le Carré mystery:
we can't find the source. Worse, suddenly the coffee’s too weak.