Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Natchez Trace VIII: Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete

"I am not an athlete," was all I could tell Hank when he asked me a cycling question just before we unloaded my bike near mile marker 102. He must have realized then how hare brained this trip was for me. He gave me his cell phone number in case I got into trouble.

It is true—I am not an athlete. If I managed to finish the Natchez Trace, it would rank as the greatest athletic accomplishment of my life.

I have never belonged to a gym or run more than 1 ½ miles, and that was for middle school cross country. I should be able to claim having run three miles, back in the dark days of MBA intramurals, an athletic program designed as punishment for students who didn’t play varsity sports. The curriculum consisted of rounding up the debaters, drama kids, slackers, and other athletically inept for a three-mile run through the neighborhoods in the vicinity of campus. At a school with the motto “Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete,” we were the short bus kids shoved into the module with the broken AC unit farthest from the principal’s office.

None of us were in a particular hurry on those milk and honey spring afternoons. We’d trail behind whichever teacher drew the crap assignment of babysitting our run. The teacher was usually a jogger who had more interest in maintaining his pace than keeping tabs on the delinquent pack behind him. He would soon stop checking over his shoulder and start pulling away. The slackers had long dropped off, lighting their cigarettes in the first bushes suitable to hide the smoke. The debaters’ jokes would lose subtlety after the first half-mile, the teacher having grown smaller in the distance. After another half mile it was back to argument. The theater kids did, in English accents, whatever it was thespians do on an afternoon walk in the suburbs.

I would have been happy if they had given us a football or basketball and told us to play a game. Yet field space and court time was at a premium at old Montgomery Bell, and this limited the options for the non-athlete. The option was to run, away from campus.

So we schemed. Once we knew what days we’d have which teacher-jogger for our thrice-weekly runs, we could predict the routes he would be taking. Then a couple of us would coordinate in the mornings to stash a car somewhere along the route. This took some creativity in the last generation before cell phones.

Occasionally our taskmaster would catch on that not all of us were coming back from the runs and change up the course. He’d keep tabs for the first mile and a half and jog in a straight line away from campus. At this point the teacher could resume his normal pace and the rest our sorry crew would be forced to complete the three miles, by jogging, walking or smoking our way back to school.

On one of the afternoons we had guessed wrong I found myself stranded almost two miles from my car. I had stashed it along the Latin teacher’s normal running route to the west of campus; he took us south and east. Suddenly I didn’t have so many jogging buddies, and none of these fair weather delinquents offered me a ride to my car once we got back to campus.

At the halfway point the teacher blazed for home. The debaters grumbled, the slackers found a smoking bush, and the thespians traded old Monty Python lines. I didn’t feel like arguing, didn’t smoke during the school week, and didn’t find Holy Grail jokes that funny. I didn’t feel like jogging either.

I stuck out my thumb to the next car that passed. No luck. The second car I thumbed slowed then stopped about 15 feet in front of me. I caught up with the car as the driver lowered the passenger window.

“I’m probably not supposed to do this,” she said.

“Probably not.” I said.

“Get in the back.” she said.

I could hear a couple of the debaters snickering about 50 yards back. The same guys who hadn’t offered me a ride when the route changed. I opened the back door and flipped them a bird.

“I have to go the bank first. My son Charlie has a soccer game on campus.”

She knew where I was headed, the alma mater’s letters were branded across the chest and thighs of our gym clothes. I knew of her son, his dad had been my pediatrician. Like most kids, I idolized my pediatrician. I told her what a swell guy I thought her husband was.

“ EX-husband,” she snarled.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You wouldn’t believe how cheap that bastard is with his own children. A doctor who can’t find the money to pay his alimony!”

In our wait at the bank’s drive thru lane, the EX-wife was determined that I get a fuller picture of the man. I thought about getting out of car, but I was still on the other side of campus from my car, and I was afraid she might figure out who I was and report me for siding with her cheapskate husband. I just sat in the backseat stone-faced, waiting for her to change the subject. She didn’t. Who knew the guy whose jokes kept the shots from hurting and whose amoxicillin cleared up countless ear infections would have…well, Nashville people read this blog.

I kept my mouth shut.

The unforeseen dangers of hitchhiking with a soccer mom—she might smash your childhood idols.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

Natchez Trace VII: Beers with Rube and Hank

I didn’t notice Rube, Kathryn and Hank pull into the parking lot. Rube had finally traded in his iconic Volvo station wagon for a generic Japanese sedan. Kathryn had long been encouraging the upgrade.

“Now we’ve got to work on his wardrobe,” Kathryn said.

Michael Rubenstein was a long time sports broadcaster in Jackson who has founded and for the last 15 years run the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Rube’s stentorian voice and cracking wit made him a natural television personality.

Rube went to Vanderbilt with my stepfather, and was the guy I wanted to sit next to at the homecoming games. For one he broke the lawyer, doctor, businessman mold of most of the guys who showed up that weekend, and he also knew what was going on down on the field, whether the coach was any good, and what we could expect in a couple of months from the basketball team, the real Vanderbilt sporting interest. He was also the seasoned traveler and had been just about everywhere in the world I wanted to go.

I got the chance to travel with Rube when he joined Steven, David and I on a trip to China in 2002. Three weeks on the gringo trail is ample time to get to know a man, and Rube demonstrated he was one cool customer.

We were floating down the Yangtze River two months before they closed off the Three Gorges Dam and flooded its namesake valley when Rube realized he had miscounted his pills. These pills weren’t cholesterol regulators or happy candy; Rube was short the medicine that kept his body from rejecting his transplant kidney. He must have been worried, though he only mentioned the oversight in passing one morning at breakfast, casually enough so that it didn’t interrupt for too long our oggling the waitress with the largest chest in China. No, death’s shadow did not stop the man from appreciating the oddity of a humongous pair of boobs on a tiny Chinese girl.

He must have been really worried when Fed Ex screwed up the emergency shipment Kathryn sent that night from Jackson. If we had taken this same trip five or ten years before, Rube might have died in central China, or at the least found himself back on a dialysis machine, perhaps for the rest of his life. Fortunately there was a new pharmacy in Chongqing that had the proper medicine in stock.

Hank Klibanoff was Rube’s other houseguest for the night. Hank won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book The Race Beat. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, his book will become the definitive history of journalism in the civil rights movement. The protagonists in his tale, the small band of enlightened newspaper editors who fought for equality in the Jim Crow south, were the models I looked to when I first sought to be a liberal. No elitist dweebs, these liberals presented an easy going, disarming face to the world, men who personified the good qualities of the southern way of life even while they battled the great majority of their contemporaries to expose and defeat the glaring injustices and inequalities inherent in racial discrimination.

Not even a Pulitzer could shield Hank from the cost cutting blades of the publishing industry; he has since been laid off as managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hank’s position encapsulated the vicious cycle ravaging the American press. An editor flush with contacts and germane knowledge of the history and politics of his region is invaluable to maintaining a standard of excellence in the press. Yet the profit model for print journalism today cannot afford this excellence, and continuing decline in circulation must be in part a response to a diminished product. Worse, the stakes are far more serious than profit models eviscerated by the internet. The fourth estate has long been the pillar upholding transparency and accountability in democratic governance. No army of bloggers or TV screaming heads can replace the guild of newsroom editors steeped in the rigorous pursuit of objectivity and civic interest.

Hank is now director of the Cold Case Truth and Justice Project. His center examines civil rights related murders that were never investigated or were dropped by local police departments. Through interviews and the examination of old documents Hank hopes his team can bring conclusive evidence against alleged perpetrators who evaded the slipknots of criminal justice in the Old South. In some cases they seek out suspects from new leads. The aim is not to bring octogenarian defendants to show trials, but to document the many unsolved cases so the stories of the victims can be remembered and the guilty tried in the historical record.

Rube and Hank became friends back when Hank was a reporter for a local paper. They were introduced one night by their respective girlfriends who had planned a double date. They spent the evening talking to each other more than to their dates.

Rube took us to a restaurant on the reservoir north of town. It was a warm night and there was a band playing on the docks. The crab sandwiches were tasty and the cold beer was the perfect tonic to soothe my legs.

Hank told us about why he was passing through Jackson. If my retelling is murky, it is no fault of Hank’s, he was a raconteur in the best of Southern tradition. I was too tired to take copious notes later that evening, and my brain was awash with endorphins and in no shape to nail down details. Two days on the road and I already had the makings of an exercise junkie.

Hank was investigating an unsolved murder from the Oxford riots that erupted when James Meredith arrived in the fall of 1962 to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Before the army could step in to bring back order, the Mississippi Highway Patrol stood idle as a white mob rained rocks, bricks and gunfire upon the campus. Two men were killed in the maelstrom, one a French journalist who had come to cover the Meredith story.

“People don’t realize that a lot of these people came from Alabama,” Hank, The Alabamian, said.

“Our rednecks in Mississippi, they try,” Rube conceded, “but those Alabama rednecks, they’re the real deal.”

Hank had recently received a tip from a man living in Jackson who remembers as a boy one of those Alabama rednecks visiting his house to retrieve a rag-wrapped parcel hidden in the basement. The man believed the parcel might have been a gun. Hank had reason to believe that it could have been the murder weapon used to kill the French journalist.

There are many reasons the boy’s family would have been afraid to speak up. A KKK riddled police department was unlikely to be interested in such a report in the 1960’s, and the Klan had a reputation for brutal retaliation against snitches. Hank wasn’t sure if the story would lead to anything, but the chance was enough to pull him from Atlanta.

That night Kathryn left us with the best pound cake on either side of the Mississippi. Rube got the best of worlds, the bachelor lifestyle and a fantastic girlfriend who was always bringing homemade treats to his kitchen, and then leaving. Women have always chased after Rube, and he has always resisted encroachment. He had been with Kathryn since before the China trip, but they still maintain separate residences. Kathryn has figured out the formula for keeping in the picture, and seems happy with it.

Before bed there was time to absorb what wisdom I could from these esteemed elders. I questioned Rube about bachelor life and asked Hank for his perspective on the state of journalism. I have yet to earn my stripes in either field, but as I yet I am relatively young. There is still hope.

“Last time I heard from your mom and Stevie, you were damn well near married,” Rube said.

“I guess I dodged a bullet,” I replied.

“Good for you.”

“I might not have been so lucky, but I couldn’t pass on the French girl.”

“French girls.” Rube smiled. “It’s something about the way they talk.”

That’s exactly what it was. Even English sounds seductive in a French accent.

Rube told us about the French Canadian girl he met on the beach in Acapulco. It was probably from thirty years ago, but Rube told it fresh, uncluttered with the embellishments that tend to accumulate over time. Wise men knew which memories to preserve. It would have the perfect weekend if he hadn’t gotten food poisoning just before he could get her into bed. Still, he managed to see her a couple more times, once in Montreal, and another time on a weekend in New York City.

“Not bad for a boy from Booneville, Mississippi,” Rube said.

Not bad at all. Rube’s college housemate Steven Fayne, later my boss in San Francisco, told me a story that sized up Booneville. Steven and some Zeta brothers were on a road trip between semesters and decided to spend a night in Booneville. They pulled into a gas station in town with a payphone and dialed Rube’s house.

"Rube, we're in town!" Steven said.

“OK. I’ll come down and get you.” Rube said.

“How do you know where we are?” Steven asked.

“Because you’re at the payphone.” Rube said.

An old veteran from Booneville I’d meet later on the trip was impressed when I dropped Rube’s name. He was even more impressed that a TV personality had hailed from Booneville. He had assumed Rube was a Jackson man.

I wish I had talked less and listened more that night with these heavyweight Southerners from Booneville and Florence, Alabama, but my body was spent and my mind still swimming with those damned exercise opiates.

I had more of Kathryn’s pound cake for breakfast, and wrapped up a big chuck that would last half way to Tupelo. I wanted to visit Kathryn’s classroom, she worked as a fourth grade teacher at a public elementary school. Her career sounded like an extension of my brief experience teaching in the Delta. That she does her job well, presents a positive and fun loving face to the world, and manages a successful relationship with Rube likely qualifies her for sainthood.

There just weren’t enough hours of sunlight to see her children and get to Kosciusko before dark.

Hank didn’t have his interview until the afternoon so he offered me a ride back to the Trace. We went for lunch at a Greek restaurant where the friendly owner opened a half hour early when he saw us pull up.

As I unloaded my bike, Hank gave me a copy of his book to take with me on the road. Few books were worth hauling 300 miles in an overstuffed pannier bag. I suspected right that this was one of them. The civil rights movement was perfect subject matter for a slow crawl through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

Just after noon I started peddling north along the reservoir. Fueled with stuffed grape leaves, pound cake and great conversation, I peddled over the bumpiest stretch of the Trace and reached my next stop well after sundown in the last minutes of twilight.
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Friday, October 23, 2009

Natchez Trace VI: The Road to Jackson

There are 61 miles of nothing between Port Gibson and Jackson. That's a bit unfair, perhaps you know more about trees than I do.

At least I had the wind at my back. I decided to bypass the one stop light town of Raymond, known as the site of a skirmish that was one of the last road bumps on Grant’s inexorable drive to Vicksburg. I doubted the lunch counter on the square was worth the two mile detour, and couldn't be sure they would even serve me. It crossed my mind that the woman who told me her restaurant was closed, inexplicably, for dinner on a Saturday night did so based on my dark complexion, greaser mustache and the Spanish lettering on my El Salvador jersey. That border control agent in Laredo had questioned me Spanish, after all.

I hadn’t looked at the map carefully and didn’t think to stop and fill up my bottle at the one rest stop I’d pass. So I went without water for the last 25 miles, dripping with sweat under the afternoon sun. This last third of the ride was one of two dangerous stretches for bikers on the Trace. The parkway straddles the city limits for 20 miles where it is used as a throughway for Jackson residents. It took all my energy to keep a straight line on the shoulder as a steady line of impatient SUV’s and trucks sped past. I had been spoiled the first day when I was saw less than ten cars per hour. Those drivers were not in a hurry as they too were here for the scenery, and almost all of them noticed me in time to pass on the other side of the double yellow.

The man at Western Auto had warned me about this stretch near Jackson and another that ran through Tupelo.

“It is not what this road was meant for,” he said.

With each vehicle that approached from behind, I would look back over my shoulder until I saw them drift to the center and only then would I yield the two feet I kept between me and the white line. This last minute shift to the curb spared me the worst of a passing camper’s strategic release of its gray water. They only managed to douse my shoes.

I called Rube when I got cell phone reception near the city. My legs were rubber and I did not trust myself to navigate any more city traffic, especially when that city is the capital of a state where motorists are awarded as many points in the road kill game for smashing a bicycle as for running down communist hitchhikers. I was relieved when he offered me a ride. I walked my bike down the embankment at mile marker 101 to Millennium Mall we where we agreed to meet.

I gulped down a two-liter water bottle on a bench outside a boutique and watched the women of Jackson circle the discount racks. I saw a couple of the bikers from Oak Square on their way to the mall. I was annoyed by how spry they looked. This sentiment must have been plastered on my face because one the guys made the others pick up my bike so they could all comment on how heavy it was compared to their carbon fiber jobs. They wished me luck and said we’d be running into other the rest of the way, but I knew better. That was the last time I would catch up with any racing shirts on my ride north.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Natchez Trace V: Oak Square Bed and Breakfast

There were several bikes parked in front Oak Square Bed and Breakfast. I hoped they were just overflow from the group at the Bernheimer House. This was my last bet for a room in town. The wind was clawing through Magnolia branches as the clouds to the west darkened.

The Oak Square mansion was more traditional than Bernheimer’s eclectic mishmash. The columned antebellum stood at the center of a complex that spread across most of the block between Oak and China off Church Street. I rang the main bell a few times, and after a few minutes I heard laughter coming from the back patio. It was easy to pick out the proprietor. Her laugh was the female equivalent of the rebel yell, a rapid fire staccato that struck each note like an opera singer practicing scales. Her tittering would have sent a chill down my spine if I could have felt it after 6 hours on a saddle.

The cackling belle was Deborah. The raven-haired hostess had eyes as sharp as her laughter; try as she might to soften them with a falsetto smile.

Deborah managed Oak Square and lived with her daughter in the old bachelor’s quarters that made a wing off the backside of the main house. Deborah’s mother was the sole resident of the original structure.

Deborah wanted California prices for what she claimed was her one remaining room. I didn’t have much choice as the rain had started coming down. Still, when she motioned as if to hand me the key, I looked off to the side. I could save 120 bucks at the motel a few miles north on old 61. As tired as I was, I was feeling cheap and angry at myself for not having reserved a room at the Bernheimer House, a place with the history and family connection that would have been well worth the splurge and still cheaper than Oak Square. At this point my body would be numb to a downpour.

Then she hesitated, sensing I was about to walk. Women with a laugh like hers know how to read men less transparent than me. Her eyes flashed.

“You said you’re a writer. How about you write something about your stay with us and I won’t charge you for the room.”

At her prices a comped room was more than I could hope to get out of a travel article in this economy and m lowly perch in the pecking order. Somewhere beneath the exercise endorphins still flooding my brainpan flashed the thought that I shouldn’t accept. The backpacker crowd doesn’t spend 165 dollars a night on their honeymoons, and any bicyclist worth his racing jersey wouldn’t stomach advice from an obvious neophyte. I intended to write about my Scarlet O’Hara meets Elvira hostess, but I doubted my flattery would be just compensation for a warm bed and a hot breakfast.

My hesitation melted with the first thunderclap. Less than a minute after Deborah handed me the key, the skies opened. I scrambled to get my bike in the shed outfitted to accommodate a racing team.

I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the worst of the front to pass while soaking my spent body in a scalding bath. I walked to the grocery in a driving rain counting the lengthening gaps between lightening and thunderclaps. It felt good to walk on my heavy legs. I settled on a dinner of pimento cheese and Bunny Bread with a box of gingersnaps for dessert and a six-pack of Schlitz to wash down the Advil before a second soak in the tub. I had just burned more calories than in any other eight-hour period of my life, so the cold dinner was delicious, especially the beer. Before that dusty shelf in the back of the Piggly Wiggly, the only time I had seen Schlitz was in movies from the 70’s.

There was a footstool beside the antique four-post bed for short guests and bow legged bikers. I waddled up and over the edge of the mattress at eight thirty and enjoyed a lullaby of far off thunder and the cool air drifting through the plantation shutters. I fought the sweet anesthesia of magnolia blooms long enough to lock in the memory of perfect sleeping weather.

The cycling group was already at work on a breakfast of scrambled eggs, biscuits and grits when I walked into Dixie House, the smaller of the two guest buildings that also housed the breakfast room. With a plastered smile Deborah explained, probably for the thousandth time, the mystery of the grit to a visiting Californian. She graciously segued from grits to plantation breakfasts that the guests were served at 2 am. Sweltering afternoons were for sleeping, not exercise, and the parties did not commence until sundown.

Her practiced nostalgia of the halcyon days before busing, or the 14th Amendment, gave me thoughts of slipping out unnoticed. Instead I chose more coffee to wash down my eggs and Advil, a little more caffeine would help me palate Deborah’s brand of antiquarianism. We shared a common interest in time and place but came at our regionalism from different angles. Deborah had copious knowledge of 19th century family histories and the furnishings and fabrics they imported from the Continent. I had spent my college days studying the minutiae of the Louisiana slave revolts imported from West Africa by way of Saint Domingue.

In Deborah’s South young debs batted eyelashes at dandies who came from across the region to attend the lavish parties at Oak Square. Matrons planned festivities to the last detail and ruled the social scene with iron in their white glove--some things don't change. I couldn’t fault her if her tales weren’t stained with mention of the slaves who refilled the iced tea glasses, or of their even less fortunate family members toiling the fields. That’s the stuff for Marxists, economic historians, African-American genealogists, and me, the jerk thinking politics at the breakfast table.

Besides, the cotton fields would not have been visible from the porch. Oak Square was a town house. The family wintered in Port Gibson so the parents could socialize and the kids could go to school. They lived in the country during summers and harvests.

The big city cyclists lapped up the Margaret Mitchell routine, and why not, how many times will a Los Angelino spend the night on a plantation? The hard-core among the riders had had their fill and were furtively glancing at maps unfolded beneath the table.

Deborah’s phone rang. It was her mother with instructions from the big house.

“Yes mother…yes mother.”

Each yes mother was a little more strained than the last.

“Make no mistake who is boss around here,” Deborah said as she hung up the phone.

After the other bikers enjoyed their strawberry shortcake dessert-for-breakfast, Deborah gave me a quick tour around the property.

Deborah and her daughter Martha lived in the old bachelors quarters, an-add on structure built to maintain the illusion of chastity for the young ladies asleep in the main house. Martha was home on break from design school and eager to show me that the chastity was indeed an illusion. She pulled back a tapestry on the wall revealing a trap door that opened onto a secret passage to the main house. The wily dandies would crawl through the tunnel during the sweltering afternoons or after the shortcake served with 2am breakfast.

I asked about the antique billboard that hung above the stairs announcing the F.S Wolcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

“They did blackface shows here in Port Gibson,” she said. “They had the High Brown Follies, the famous mulatto dancers.”

Deborah summed up the show in a couple lines before pointing out the impressive cupola that rose over the staircase. I made a note to find the story of the minstrels.

Turns out that Fred Wolcott was a white carnival owner who had purchased the Rabbit Foot Minstrels from the estate of Patrick Chappelle, a black promoter who had created the show in Jacksonville at the turn of the century. Chappelle’s outfit began at a time when the popularity of the minstrel shows were in severe decline as they long been losing customers to musical comedies vaudeville. Chappelle had an eye for talent, and with the gorgeous follies and the voices of William and Gertrude Rainey, among the earliest singers of the Blues, he drew crowds to a dying stage formula. His refigured model would extend the life of minstrel shows for another 50 years.

Minstrelsy had been one of the most successful entertainments of the 19th century. At first the performers had been white men performing in black face, lampooning Africans as lazy, superstitious and ignorant souls happy to dance and sing about the simple life back on the plantation. After the Civil War the performers were predominantly black, though they still wore blackface, and the variety show followed closely to the traditional three act models.

Chappelle’s touring company had started out performing in opera houses in the South and up the eastern seaboard. Racial discrimination increasingly made the economics of minstrelsy a bigger obstacle than competition from vaudeville. In 1906 the Supreme Court justified the codification of racial segregation—separate but equal—in Plessy v Ferguson. Chappelle had chosen a rough decade to start his enterprise. He needed to fill the Opera houses with mixed audiences to turn a profit, though many of these halls had been built without the thought of segregated seating. The Rabbit Foot Minstrels soon abandoned opera houses for tent shows, and Chappelle was compelled to buy custom made Pullman train cars to carry his performers since third class colored-only compartments would have been intolerable for a traveling show. Then Chappelle had to fight the southern railroad companies in court to secure passage for his cars on their lines. His Pullmans were rumored to have secret compartments in the event of trouble in an era where a misplaced look could foment a lynch mob.

The Rabbit’s Foot troupe became the most popular touring group in the south. Upon arrival in a new town, the follies would march ahead of the large brass ensemble, an improvised parade to advertise the coming performances. Under the tent, cries for encores would follow every song, and the crowds roared approval of the dancing, tight rope acts, and comedy skits that punctuated the show.

I wondered if the later incarnation of Rabbit's Foot had ever performed at the Westside Theater. I wanted to ask Deborah so many questions about the brief sketch of her family history she had given at breakfast. She had lived through much of the recent history of this state that I had only known from books I read in college. When she was a child Mississippians chose to mourn the July 4th defeat at Vicksburg rather than celebrate Independence Day. She had been in the last all white class to graduate her high school, a fact that still curled her lips. Maybe I could have pried some stories of these years while making eyes with Martha, who must be bored out of skull in a town where one needs a klan card to make dinner reservations.

But I had 61 miles between Oak Square and my friends in Jackson and I was already a half hour behind the $5,00 bikes and fancy racing shirts. I thanked Deborah for the undeserved hospitality and got back on the road.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Natchez Trace IV: Port Gibson

Back uphill and onto the Trace, I was hitting a stride when a train of bikers quickly closed on me.

“Where are you headed?”


“So are we!”

“And he’s carrying his own gear”

It was a short conversation as they flew by me. But compared to their $5,000 space-age carbon fiber frames, unencumbered by luggage or extra water, I was pumping a battleship. Five minutes later their van passed me hauling their luggage up from Natchez and lunch that would be waiting at the next rest stop. Seems like cheating somehow.

My legs felt strong until mile marker 35, a little more than 40 miles into my day. It was still early afternoon, and the only sign of the front was the steady breeze at my back. By Fred’s calculations the storm was about to cross the Mississippi.

Port Gibson was the first town of any size after Natchez along the Trace. There was a time when the third oldest town in the state was a functioning port. In the early 20th century the Army Corps of Engineers built up the levees and sealed off Bayou Pierre from the Mississippi. A victim of flood control, Port Gibson was left to wallow in its history at the crossroads of old Highway 61 and an even older Trace.

From the southern approach along the Blues Highway, it was not evident why Grant declared Port Gibson too beautiful to burn. Then I noticed the strange site that had been welcoming travelers long before Grant and his men descended on the town. A golden fist squatted atop the town’s highest church steeple with an index finger pointed skywards. This celestial warning would have been a fitting welcome for the generations of gamblers and whoremongers on the southwest frontier. Maybe it gave pause to the old Butcher himself.

The old town was only a few square blocks long, and most of the remaining antebellum homes off Church Street had been converted into bed and breakfasts. The aging daughter of the Confederacy who greeted me at the welcome center just outside of town could not remember for sure which of these houses still took guests. She said it as if she couldn’t remember which innkeepers were still living.

She gave me a couple leads. I had arrived ahead of the storm and was hoping I might yet save a few bucks over the two pricey joints with listings on the internet. Both her suggestions took me on gravel roads that wound up hills on the east side of town. I should have listened to my thighs barking to me that nothing was worth another climb today. My thighs were right. Neither turned out to be inns, nor did they look recently inhabited. I didn’t even bother knocking. These were the kind of creepy old homes that made horror film producers on tight budgets salivate. On the way back through town I checked out Port Gibson’s restaurant. A 45 year-old blonde who looked like she had fallen asleep in her tanning bed came out onto the porch as I crunched across the gravel drive.

“We’re closed,” she said.

“Ok, are you open tonight?”

“No, we’re closed.”

The woman at the visitor center had told me this restaurant was only open on Saturdays. It was Saturday.

“What is open tonight?”

“Nothing in Port Gibson,” she said. “Closest place you’ll find is up towards Vicksburg.”

I looked down at my handlebars and then back up to the porch. Vicksburg was almost 30 miles away, out of reach for a guy with a suitcase on his back tire. I waited for a second, as if she might change her mind, tell me it was ok as long I didn’t bring my Yankee friends. Nothing. She walked back into the restaurant with her UV scorched smirk.

A couple of guys were setting up a smoker outside the Westside Theater, an old Vaudeville place that looked like it would have been shuttered long ago. The guy with a single gold chain and cross and with a gut that suggested expertise in the BBQ arts noticed my interest and invited me to come in and take a look.

I took out my moleskin to make a note of the theater.

“That’s theater with an –ER,” Big D said.

With the help of some other local musicians, Big D had turned Westside into a community center and entertainment venue. He showed me some flyers for upcoming shows announcing rappers from as far off as Memphis. The lobby was decorated in gangster kitsch, with low hanging chandeliers and velvet paintings of characters from Scarface and the Godfather. A plaque with a .38 handgun mounted below a headshot of Tony Montana shared a wall with a life-size poster of the “Dogg Father” Snoop. Hanging in between the chandeliers was an airbrushed portrait of the patron sporting a Big D hat, black shades, and his signature chain.

Party tables were set up on the dance floor of the main hall. Big D explained that they were hosting a wedding party later that night. While they set up he had the NBA playoffs projected onto the big screen.

Big D wanted to show me the VIP lounge. We climbed the stairs and entered a room of faux wood paneling and thick shag carpet. The lounge was empty except for a red velvet love seat and a plush recliner. A balcony looked out onto the basketball game and the dance floor. Big D posed in his recliner, the coolest spot in “PG”. He invited me to come back for the BBQ that would be ready in a couple of hours. I thanked him and said I might.

The past half-hour summed up my two years in the Delta—awkward exchanges with scowling, suspicious white people who hid behind closed signs and locker doors, and chance encounters with black people who invited me for food I was ashamed I couldn’t eat.

I peddled over to the Bernheimer House, named after my stepfather’s ancestors who had built the place back in a time when southern towns of any size had a synagogue. Grant made his temporary headquarters at the house in the spring of 1863. They did not have a room for me. The bike tour that blew past me in the afternoon had made its temporary headquarters here this evening, so after a quick peek into the parlor and the exterior’s whimsical mishmash of old English and colonial styles, I pushed on to the last inn on my list. As I turned towards Church Street I caught another glimpse of fist whose warning now was more earthly than celestial. The finger was pointing to the retreating gaps of blue sky in the east.
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Natchez Trace III: Emerald Mounds

Stumble over serpentine roots and bat away the stinging vines inked in 4 a.m. darkness, claw your way up the slippery stones of an ancient temple straight up through jungle canopy. The momentary exultation of reaching the summit will be fleeting. Soon you discern the outline of the twenty Israeli teenagers who got there ahead of you. Just try to keep their hyena laughter from spoiling what you imagined for months would be the most sacred moment of your trip into the jungles of the Mayan homeland.

If you want to be only guy basking in the mystery of some ancient monument, you’ve got your work cut out for on this planet. There are no sacred moments to be shared amidst the swarms of tourists on day trips to Angkor Wat or the Pyramids at Giza.

Want to find some "undiscovered" destination? Well, adventure travel is for braggarts and morons. Before the ink dries on the next peace accord in a hellhole African province you’ve never heard of, some lunatic Aussie or Frenchmen will have opened a guesthouse near whatever passes for an attraction. If the soon to follow gap-year adventurers don’t get violated by the lingering rebel soldiers whose standard kit includes pouches of palm oil for the occasional anal rape, Lonely Planet will dispatch a writer for a chapter in their next guidebook to the Eastern Congo.

Which is to all to say that I did not take for granted my moment of solitude atop an earthen pyramid in Southern Mississippi. I hadn’t expected to find Israeli teenagers on the top of the Emerald Mounds, but I imagined someone would have been here taking pictures. I couldn’t see anyone for miles in any direction. I wanted to sit here as long as it took for another visitor to break my little meditation on the first wonder I had encountered free of flash bulbs and gift shops. I had to stay ahead of the rain. As I took a rest, I left my mind to wander.

Through a combination of instruction, story time and field trips to Fort Nashborough, my elementary school classmates and I were encouraged to develop a certain mental picture of the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi in tune with the legends of the old frontier. The shores of the Mississippi, the Tennessee and the Cumberland gave way to empty forests settled by sparse bands of Indians. By middle school we learned to call Native Americans.

For millennia these tribes had been uninterrupted stewards of the forests primeval, right up to the time Daniel Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap in his deerskin getup. These noble hunter-gatherers, as we learned to describe them, could not fathom land ownership. They had no need considering the bounty at their fingertips. By the time they wised up to the avaricious ways of the Europeans, naïve chiefs had exchanged vast stretches for worthless beads and even more worthless contracts for lands not yet taken by the new settlers. The disparate tribes were susceptible to the Europeans strategy of divide and conquer. The ceaseless flow of white men with their rifles pushed the indigenous people--as we learned to call them in high school--farther west to the barren reservations waiting at the end of the frontier and at the end of that really long movie directed by Kevin Costner we had to watch in history class.

That schoolhouse rubric doesn’t explain the 35-foot high mound I was sitting on. Tribal bands, whether hunter-gatherers or farmers, could not have devoted the manpower and resources required to refashion thousands of tons of earth into this New World pyramid. Of course no one is claiming the Daniel Boone types built them. It would have taken a civilization with a degree of economic complexity not found in our history books to leave a mark this permanent upon the earth. At least that’s how these same books explain the pyramid builders in every other corner of the world. Civilizations based upon thousands of farmers and artisans directed by consecutively smaller castes of soldiers, priests, and chieftains. The kings who comprised the capstones of these pyramid shaped societies built pyramids to remember themselves by.

The plateau below me was still an active religious complex as late as the 1600’s. Abandoned mounds even larger than the one here were found up and down the Mississippi when LaSalle and his men charted the river in 1682. Other mound networks have since been discovered throughout the Midwest. They are the last remaining monuments to an ancient civilization decimated long before the Natchez battled the encroaching French. A collection of trails, of which the paths that preceded the Trace were a part, linked the mound civilizations of the lower Mississippi to the Cumberland valley and further to the other mound civilizations of the Cahokia, the Adena, and the Hopewell. The economies that supported these monuments were based on the intensive cultivation of corn, beans and squash, and extensive trading networks that sustained a population as much as fifty to one hundred times as large as the native population at the time of first European settlement in this region.

What happened to the mound builders?

The mound I was sitting on would have looked about the same to the English, French, and Scotch-Irish settlers who arrived in the 1700’s to fight and to trade with and sometimes to marry into the scattered tribes of the Natchez, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw. Yet the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi, the gold obsessed Spaniards under Hernando De Soto, saw something much different. The centuries that followed DeSoto and La Salle brought a host of competing theories for the mystery of the lost mound builders. One of these served as the mental springboard to a major new religion.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the historians of the day recognized the unlikelihood that the mounds were built by the natives as they existed at the time. Some speculated they were evidence of the lost tribes of Israel in the New World. Joseph Smith claimed to find his golden plates in a mound just south of his family farm in Palmyra, New York. The Book of Mormon didn’t just come out of a mound, it was an expansive narrative that explained the history of these ancient monuments in a manner which corroborated the scholarship in Smith’s day.

The non-Mormon world now recognizes these mounds were not the last defensive positions of fratricidal Israelis. The going theory is centered around the Columbian exchange, in which Europeans got corn, squash, tomatoes, cacao, tobacco and maybe syphilis, and the Americas got small pox, yellow fever, malaria, measles, the plague, typhoid, cholera, influenza, horses, and maybe syphilis. Everyone blames the other side for syphilis.

Historians now posit that Cortez and Pizarro conquered with germs that in some cases preceded them. From there the consensus fractures. One of the most intensive disputes among professional historians is just how many Native Americans were wiped out by first contact with these diseases to which their bodies had zero immunity. Those that use models with mortality rates of 95% are suggesting there were more people in the Americas than in Europe circa 1500. This would require radical revisions to the school books over the dead bodies of many a historian who believe the numbers are now being inflated.

Maybe we can call the chapter the First Pig Flu. We know that when Hernando De Soto landed near Tampa Bay to explore what is now the Southeastern United States, he brought 300 pigs as livestock. These pigs had no natural enemies in the New World, and they were free to spread even faster than the De Soto’s men could explore. The pigs carried all the Old World germs familiar to their Spanish owners but alien to the Americans. The Columbian Exchange had a porcine vanguard in North America.

Within months of landfall, the pigs made contact with the natives, and by the time De Soto’s men chanced upon the civilizations of the Lower Mississippi, some accounts at the close of the expedition suggest the possibility that diseases including tuberculosis, whooping cough, trichinosis, anthrax, measles and small pox were beginning to ravage towns along their path. It would not have been a subtle event. Imagine a half dozen Black Deaths leashed upon a population at once. Entire cities would have been destroyed, collective graves, if there was time for them, haphazardly dug to inter the victims of what must have seemed like the end of the world.

The same riverbanks De Soto’s men described as, “thickly set with great towns,” bristling with fortifications were empty stretches 140 years later. La Salle’s French expedition encountered large swaths of emptiness. Where the large population centers once stood, herds of buffalo ran wild over the landscape. Imagine if Joseph had known of the Columbian Exchange and had weaved his narrative out of the tragedy. It probably would have resonated in the burnt over district—only a wrathful Old Testament God could have wreaked such devastation.

My daydream went uninterrupted for nearly a half hour, with this moment all to myself. I got up and shook out out my thighs. Thirty more miles to Port Gibson.
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Natchez Trace II

 At two minutes past eight I was the first customer in the Western Auto. A bike shop had a corner in the auto parts store. 

The bike guy was out riding, another man informed me.  As he sized up my bike I could tell he knew more about it than I did.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a look at the tire.  I was afraid it was rubbing against the brakes, but turned out it just needed some grease.

I asked him what I could expect for terrain the first few days. He told me the big hills were past Tupelo but I could expect rolling terrain all the way home.

“I hope you Nashville folks realize you live at the end of the Trace, Natchez is the beginning of the road.”

I don’t know who could argue otherwise. Natchez has always been the start of the road that bears its name. Mile marker 0 was just a few pedal strokes from Western Auto, not far from where Cumberland Valley folk and the Kaintucks gathered for their walk back north after floating their goods down river for sale here or in the larger port of New Orleans. 

Their trails followed high ground, along ridge tops where possible, thereby avoiding the worst of the mire and malaria in swamplands below.  The natives before them didn’t have to worry about malaria, though their footpaths provided superior defensive positions, and they did avoid the mud.  Even before humans traveled the ridges, the migratory animals that first marked the land also choose high ground as they munched their way up and back from the salt licks on the Cumberland.

Some men started back for home on horseback with pockets full of the Spanish gold, the prevailing currency on the Southwest frontier.  These men had to be wary of the murderers, pickpockets, and various con artists, many who dressed as preachers and carried a Bible to conceal their daggers.  At either end of the trail, merchants who doubled as fencers tipped off bandits to the more lavishly equipped traveling parties.  Sometimes they would buy back their own merchandize at pennies on the dollar and resell the goods to the next gentleman brave or foolish enough to travel along the Devil's Backbone.

Most men didn’t have money for a horse and faced a month and half walk back to the rich hunting grounds and fertile valley that would in time become the city of Nashville.  The gamblers and roughnecks, many life-long flatboatmen, lived to spend their bottom dollar on the seedy wharves at Natchez-under-the-Hill. These men took to river life for the fire of Monongahela Whiskey in their bellies and a few fleeting hours inside the floating brothels and behind velvet curtains with an octoroon whore.  Time offshore was for drinking, fighting and fornicating.  The inevitable hangover announced the grueling slog upriver for their next river assignment.  Pity the unfortunate families that depended on these men as husbands and fathers. They did not return to put bread on the table. Their only gifts manifested long after homecoming, these the days before penicillin. 

I turned onto the Trace a little past 8:30, and peddled northeast.  The undulating hills were subtle enough to be unnoticeable in car. I was not in a car. I labored over the slightest inclines and tucked my head into the handlebars on every descent. I didn’t choose this bike for efficiency.  I wanted a comfortable seat and my head positioned high to enjoy the scenery. 

 Mid-April, Southern Mississippi was already deep into spring. Trees and undergrowth blushed deep green, with foliage already as thick as it would be mid-summer in Connecticut.  I convinced myself that I had made the right choice in bikes. My upright position was comfortable as the high handlebars allowed me to keep a straight back and afforded a nice view of this lush bottomland forest.

 A strong southeast wind was blowing ahead of the storm front. The gusts made a sail of my whole body, a great aid to each peddle-stroke.  I was lucky to have the wind as an ally—up to half the energy spent on a bike is spent fighting wind resistance. I couldn’t imagine biking 40 miles into a strong head wind on my first day. 

I grabbed a map at first exhibit shelter at mile marker eight. The strip map was folded into panels that stretched out all the way to Nashville. I was traveling one panel today, and was already a quarter of the way.  The map noted the mile markers of every historical site and rest stop, I would belatedly learn to make special note of the stops with water. I was still dedicated on this first day to seeing every last historical site on the route. 

The first site was a ways off the Trace, but I decided with all the free wind power I could make another half mile and turned left at a crossroad that led me downhill in the direction of the river. It was not yet ten, and sun was breaking through the clouds and the canopy with its rich tapestry of ash, maple, cypress, catalpa, poplar, water locust, bay and magnolia as well as a few solitary pines atop the sandy ridges.  The side road bottomed out into a bend with a few trailers to one side and on the other a long bank of earth that made a steep eight-foot rise to a grassy meadow.  Two squat hills rose at either end of this plateau.   My quads already tight, I waddled up the stairs to the top of the nearer of the two peaks, 40 feet above the trailers across the way.  

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Natchez Trace I

Dexter banged on my door and flipped on the lights at 5 am.  “We’ll be at Natchez in one hour.”


 Cold steady rain was still falling on the deck when I went down to the galley for breakfast.  Tiny, the enormous engineer was at the table, his plate stacked high with hash browns, scrambled eggs and flapjacks fenced in by strips of bacon. Terry had made a feast for my last breakfast on the Marty Baskerville. Tiny assured me the crew ate that well every morning.


I learned the ship would pick up a new deckhand at Natchez.  I kidded that it would be fun for them having a greenhorn around to mess with. Tiny just shook his head. 


“We cant call them greenhorns no more, not politically correct,” He said. “We have to call them trainees now.” As if to support his point, he mentioned by name the term they can no longer use for the black wrenches found on a tow’s bow. 


I went up to the pilothouse to say thank you and goodbye to Fred, who showed me on the radar the few patches of rain lurking on the river.  I was nervous as I hauled the heavy bike and bulging pannier bag down to the main deck.  The bike alone was more than twice the weight of a touring bike.



 I was not dressed like a biker.  I had jeans on over my bike shorts and decided my El Salvador jersey would make a much cheaper alternative to one of those fancy bike shirts I always thought looked ridiculous on weekend warriors. The polyester would be quick enough to dry and could hold in warmth even if soaked with rain, and as I’d learn later, was bright enough to be seen by cars blazing around the looping curves on the Trace.


 Everything else for the next ten days I had stuffed into either side of the pannier: two changes of clothes, a jar of peanut butter, a small Moleskine notebook and pen, two spare tubes, a bike pump, camera, and a paperback copy of the Devil’s Backbone, said to be the best book ever written about the 444 miles between Natchez and Nashville.


The rain was only spitting at 5:45 as the harbor tug pulled up beside the Baskerville.  Dexter handed my bike across to the tug’s deckhand, and I traded places with the trainee about to start his first day on the river.  He was a big kid, even younger than Dexter, his round face slightly furrowed betraying his nervousness.  I wished them both good luck.


Michael, the captain of the harbor pilot stuck his head out from the window of the small wheelhouse one deck above the bow. I imagined he looked something like Blackbeard.


“In 21 years I have never seen anyone get off a boat on a bike before!” the captain yelled down to me.


I explained that I had been a guest on the Baskerville. This confused him for a second, he had assumed I was an employee, maybe a spooked greenhorn getting the hell off the river.


He asked where I was coming from, and I told him Colombia, the country, by way of New Orleans.  No, I hadn’t biked from Colombia, but I was peddling my way to Tennessee. With these bits of information he took another look at me. 


“Well,” he said,  “I bet you’ve lived an interesting life.”


It was still dark when Michael wished me luck as I hopped ashore on the Louisiana side of the river.  The start of the Trace was six miles away, across the river on the other side of Natchez, so I imagined mile marker minus six planted in the gravel drive. I was now exactly 450 miles to home.


 I was happy to add another state to my bike trip, though starting from Vidalia would add about six miles to the 40 mile trip to Port Gibson from the start of the Trace on the east side of town.  Forty six miles was three times as long as any bike ride I had taken in my life, I figured I rode 16 miles on my test run along the levee in New Orleans last Wednesday.  And tomorrow I had a 61-mile ride to Jackson.  I didn’t know if I was in shape for 100 miles in two days, but I didn’t have a choice.  There was nothing in between Natchez and Port Gibson and nothing again to Jackson.


At least I’d be doing most of my first day dry. Fred had told me I could expect a ten hours reprieve until the next front passed through.  I made my way to the bridge per Michael’s directions and climbed the first in a succession of rolling hills between the Mississippi and Nashville, this one the man-made incline that put me high above the river.  I caught a glimpse of the retreating Baskerville before it disappeared around the next bend.  Day was breaking and the bluffs of Natchez were kicking off a patchy blanket of fog down towards the river.  I stopped near the top of the artificial hill at the sign welcoming me to Mississippi where the passing tractor-trailers shook the concrete as I took some pictures to celebrate my second state in as many miles. Three hundred fifteen miles before Alabama would welcome me, hopefully in little under a week.


The shuttered storefronts in the old town are museum pieces for a city that once boasted more millionaires per capita than any other town in the United States, men who made their money from cotton and the slaves who grew the cotton.  Old Town Natchez is among the best-preserved historic sites in Mississippi, though the history preserved represents a narrow slice of the whole.  A park with a partially restored mound is all that remains of the Native imprint on this desirable location above the river’s flood plain, there is even less a trace of succeeding French and Spanish rule.   The history that remains is from 19th century, fortunately the town only saw minor shelling by Union gunboats during the war. In this state it is not necessary to clarify which war, as my view to the top of the courthouse reminded me. The Confederate battle flag, framed with a red, white, and blue stripe, still flies over Mississippi.  


I might as well strike up friendly small talk about late term abortions before criticizing the state flag.  It is a strident symbol, and I know I am not the only Southerner who has a hard time watching the southern cross fly in an official capacity.  Yeah, symbols are what we believe them to be, and I knew people who brought their flags with them to put up in their college dorm rooms North of the Mason-Dixon line.  They'd tell you they put it up on their walls because it symbolized their Southern heritage.  I might have told you that when my classmates and I bought rebel flags on our elementary school's eighth grade trip to Charleston and Savannah.  It took six months before I really looked at thing and saw how ridiculous it was for a kid from the suburbs to have a rebel flag flying in his bedroom.  In a penance that was more reaction than realization, I ripped it off my wall and burned it in the back yard.  

I know now that the flag was a symbol of resistance to the power of the federal government, a government that within my father’s lifetime had to insist, over the authority of state of Mississippi, that black men and women had the same right to vote as white men and women, that they could use the same stores, eat at the same lunch counters, and ride the same buses, that their children could go to the same schools.  Of course these battles were fought all over the South, but arguably nowhere was more recalcitrant than Mississippi--even South Carolina stopped flying the flag over their statehouse almost ten years ago. 

Mississippi eventually succumbed to the feds.  Now everyone shops at Wal-Mart.  And if schools are still segregated it is because of white flight and the desire to abandon cross-town busing for neighborhood schools, not racist legislation.  Mississippi still lurks at the bottom of state education tables, but their schools are uniformly second-rate.   The disparities among public schools in Jackson and its suburbs do not compete with the disparities that exist between the north and south side of Chicago. Inequity in education is an American institution. 

 A shiver ran down my spine. I imagined myself alone on a backwoods section of the Trace with I hate the rebel flag emblazoned on my El Salvador jersey.  A truck load of rednecks tailgates my back tire.  One of them shouts I'm the special ed teacher who couldn't get his brother into the reserves.   Paranoid, maybe so, but I could replay the dozens of looks of dirty looks I got from the locals in Helena and Marianna their eyes wary of us carpet-bagging, liberal race traitors. 

I did not have time to linger and watch Main Street churn to life on this Saturday morning and remind me this town was full of good people and bad people and smart people and morons like any other town in America, a town more beautiful than most. I still had no idea how long it took to peddle 45 miles, and according to Fred’s calculations I was only nine hours ahead of a heavy storm.


My front tire was squeaking as I peddled between the columned buildings and brick facades on Franklin St.  I had no idea how serious a squeak was, but it started on mile two of a 450-mile ride, and it was already annoying.  I bought a bike new for this trip so there would be nothing to fix. I come from a long line of mechanically incompetent men and the last thing I needed was to be 20 miles from the nearest town with a broken bike and rednecks howling in the distance.


I laid my bike on the sidewalk and made a pathetic attempt to identify the source of the squeak.  Beyond it coming from the front tire, I had no idea. There was another hour before the bike shop at the beginning of the Trace would be open, but it was worth the peace of mind and the extra supplies I might find before I raced the storm front to Port Gibson.  I pulled up to an old gas station at the corner of Franklin and Martin Luther King and locked my bike next to a pump the whose rusted meter was stuck at $8.57, the price of a tank of gas in the 70’s. Inside, the station had been converted into a simple diner. The stenciling in the window read Marsaw’s Cafe. 


I took a seat at the counter in front of a woman in her late-thirties to early forties, she had the same weary-knowing look of grandmothers her age I had taught alongside at Lee High School.  She spoke a clear standard English distinct from her customers’ deep Delta drawls.  I guessed she was a teacher, and if not a grandmother, that she was responsible for some nieces and nephews in addition to any children she might have. It was that look, that it really does take a village to raise a child in this world.



 She took my breakfast order, the option on the board is whether I wanted the breakfast with or without OJ. The postings to either side of breakfast and lunch warned clients that no one not on shift was allowed behind the counter. To my left an old man named Chicken manned the heavy iron skillets pooled with some combination of oil, butter and pork fat. I tried not to think about the latter as my grits and eggs struggled to stay afloat in the bubbling grease.  I declined the patty or link option, which made Chicken pause, his spatula frozen over the skillets, before he reached for an extra biscuit.


A young man slinked in and slumped down on a stool a few seats away from me.  He said he did not have the whole 5 dollars for the breakfast.


“Ok if I bring the 50 cents to you later?” he asked.


“That’s fine.  Orange Juice is a dollar fifty extra, you still want it?”


“Yes ma’am.”


Chicken walked over and put down 2 dollars on the boy’s side of the counter.


“Can’t work if you’re hungry,” Chicken said. “I should know.”


Other customers, mostly older, all of them black, slowly filled up the counter except for the two seats on either side of the obvious stranger. I could have stayed all morning listening the rapid-fire jokes and easy rhythms of conversation in Marsaw’s. The bike shop was nearly open by the time I finished my last biscuit.  I left a dollar in the BAMA Jelly tip jar and shoved off from the counter.

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