Modern Southern Racism
It was just after midnight and it was raining. Somehow sitting there, watching the rain through those plate glass windows that surrounded the L-shaped dinning room of the Huddle House, while the rest of the Blairsville slept gave me a very peaceful feeling. The dining room seemed to have a steely glow in comparison to the inky darkness of the restaurant's perimeters. The asphalt of the empty parking lot gleamed like ravens' wings. The night air was warm and smelled of peach trees and honeysuckles.
It was just past midnight when he came in. He stood about six feet tall, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Anywhere else he would have gone unnoticed, but here in Blairsville, he was a black man, alone, in the heart of Klan country. I could tell he was nervous as he looked around the empty dining room and chose to sit at a table that was close to the door. As I started to his table from behind the counter, I could not help but to relate to him in some odd way. We were both, in a sense, strangers in that town.
Hi, I said trying to ease his nervousness as I sat down his menu on the table in front of him. My names Holly. Ill be your server tonight. Care for some coffee?
Mines Charles, and Id love some, he replies with a nervous smile.
Well Charles, Id say youre in luck, because I just made a fresh pot. Ill just give you a few minutes to look over the menu. That is unless you already know what you want?
No, I think Ill need a minute to decide, he replied as more tension eased out of his face.
No problem, I told him with a wink as I poured his coffee. I have to run to the back for just a minute, so take as long as you need.
As I started to leave I remembered that I had bought the Atlanta Journal on my way to work and thought that maybe if he had something to read he wouldnt feel quite so alone.
Hey Charles, I called to him over my shoulder as I headed to the back of the restaurant. I just bought the Atlanta paper. If you want to read it, its sitting on the end of the counter. Help yourself.
As I walked to the back, my least favorite cook, Mark, greeted me. As I entered this part of the building I was greeted by the smell of freshly made salads, mingling with the icy staleness of frozen meat. The smell of Marks cigarette permeated the air like an unwanted intruder.
Mark was in his mid forties, overweight, and the palest person I had ever seen. He always reminded me a cross between the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Night of the Living Dead. I did not think he had seen the light of day since his teens. I had honestly tried to like this man when I first met him, but to no avail. He thought he knew everything there was to know about anything. His favorite thing to do was to prove people wrong, even if he was wrong himself. But his defining mark was his blatant obnoxiousness; a characteristic that he took great pride in. He knew I did not care for him and, I, in return, knew that he did not like me either. Over time we had gotten very skilled at staying out of each others way. It was an arrangement that worked well for us both.
Oh yeah, by the way, he quipped, John called about ten minutes ago and said that he needed a ride up here. You can go get him if you want.
I stop in my tracks trying to conceal a mixture of shock and caution. Hes being nice to me -- somethings up I thought as I continued to stare at him.
"You sure, I asked.
Go ahead, its not like youre going to get lost or anything, he said with a grin.
Well. okay. Ill be right back in about ten minutes. I have one customer and hes still looking at the menu. Let me run out there and check on him. I said as I grabbed my keys.
No thats okay, I can do it.
Holy shit, I thought on my way out the door. Marks been nice to me twice in ten minutes. He must be trying to get me fired. Who knows and who the hell cares? I need a break from this place anyway, and besides I wasn't going to be gone that long. It only takes five minutes to get anywhere in Blairsville.
Within moments I traveled out of sight of the restaurant. Even undercover of nightfall and rain, Blairsville was still beautiful. The Piggly Wiggly on the corner advertised fresh fruit on sale until tomorrow. While next door the sign in front of the First Baptist Church advertised a picnic to raise money for the Eller family. A family who lost everything that they owned in a fire a few days earlier.
I never intended on staying in Blairsville, Georgia -- it just happened. It was on a whim and a prayer that I had decided to settle here. After that, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how I was going to leave. Most of the time, I felt as if I were being held prisoner. Somehow I knew that it was not the place where I meant to spend most of my life. I knew, when I cared to think about it, that the only things that held me prisoner was my inability to deal with life and my addiction to crank.
I tried to remember exactly what event had send me spiraling downward, causing me to drop off the edge of life into a drug hazed oblivion. I never could pinpoint anything ... like staying in Blairsville, it just happened. I never could quite remember. Most of the time, I tried not to think of it at all. Turning the corner to Johns, my mind drifted back to only a year before when I was still in the Navy, working on airplanes, living in Sicily. Back to different days and better times. Life was funny like that. One instant you are having the time of your life. You have purpose - you are working towards something tangible. The next you are a crank addict living in the middle of nowhere, making $2.13 an hour plus tips at the Huddle House.
John was waiting for me outside when I got to his apartment. I am grateful for the distractions from my own thoughts -- my own personal drama. As he got in, he lit a joint and handed it to me. This gesture was Johns way to say thank you and I appreciated it. Between hits, we talked to each other about his family, the weather and who got arrested when he worked third shift at the Huddle House the previous weekend. As we near our destination, I was surprised to see that in the ten minutes that it took to pick John up, every police officer in Union County had chosen the Huddle House for a midnight snack. I park behind the building, so that John and I could finish our joint.
What do you think it going on here, John asked.
Hell, whooooooknoooooows, I said as I exhaled. Mark probably promised them all a free dinner or something like that just to piss me off. You know how well they tip, cheap bastards.
In our euphoric state of mind this remark struck us both as very funny. We were still laughing as we walk in the front door. I walk in and see them, staring at Charles. It was that split second that I realized why they were there. My stomach turned with nausea at the whole scene.
All four deputies has positioned themselves just a few tables up from Charles. But to add a little bit more coercion to the situation they had parked their cars so that anywhere-anytime-Charles looked he would be reminded off their presence. I wanted to scream at each and every one of them to leave that Charles alone. Law enforcement my ass! Apparently in Union County, deputy is another way of saying: YOUNIGGER!!
The longer I watched the harder it was to control my rage, as well as, my mouth. I had to go back to the back to the restaurant, seething with fury. I had to get out of that dining room; I had to clear my mind, to pull myself together. John lead the way, making sure that I was behind him, knowing I was on the verge of getting myself in trouble somehow or another. We went through the swinging doors that led to the back of the building. Mark greeted us with a Cheshire grin on his withered face. He never admitted to it, but somehow we knew he was behind the situation we just had the displeasure to witness.
What the hell is going on out there, I asked him.
Like hell what, I said between gritted teeth, in a voice of held back rage. The ENTIRE NIGHT SHIFT of Union County Sherrif Department never shows up here all at the same time. I have to wonder if perhaps that black guy out there doesnt have a lot to do with this coincidence. SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY MY ASS!! Look out there! That poor man is scared to death! Its bad enough to be the only black person within a hundred miles. But to be intimidated while trying to have a peaceful dinner from men who are supposed to be unbiased and uphold the law! This is bullshit Mark, and you know it.
I have no idea what you talking about, he answers nonchalantly.
I have to go back to work, I said to John as I tied my apron back on. If you need a ride home in the morning Im leaving straight up at six.
Whoa there girlie, John said, almost pleading, as he stepped in front of the door, stalling my exit. You dont know what youre dealing with here. Please try keep that mouth of your under control.
I know exactly what Im dealing with. A bunch of redneck assholes who dont realize that Jim Crow ended in the sixties! Son-of-a-bitches, gods help them should they ever leave these mountains!
Before John could utter another protest, I was in the dining room. My first concern was to check on Charles.
Hey, how is everything? Seems as youve acquired some company while I was gone, I said as I poured him more coffee.
Seems I have, he said as he glanced at the deputies. Everythings fine. Thanks
Say, its been a long time since I talked to anyone new around here. Would you mind if I came and sat with you in a few minutes?
You dont want to sit with me, he said glancing in Marks direction. Mark had stood starring at us from behind the counter since I had left the back.
Why not? We both knew why but I didnt care.
Youll probably lose your job.
To who? Sugah please, I said in my best southern accent. Nobody wanted this job. How do you think I got it in the first place?
ORDER UP, barked Mark from the grill. He had just finished the deputies orders.
Dont worry, I whispered to him as I reached across the table for an empty salt shaker. "Nobodys going to bother you, I promise. Ill be right back.
In the shadow of Marks oozing hate I pick up the order and proceed to the officers table.
Evening boys, I said as I sat the plates in front of them.
Evening Holly, each one of them replied.
Its not often that I get the pleasure of seeing all yall at one time, especially at this hour of the morning. I must be special.
Must be, cracked one of them.
As I sat down with Charles all eyes were on us.
Youre not from here are you? he asked as I sat down across the table from him.
Oh hell no. I moved here about a year ago.
Los Angles! Get out of town! Youre a long way from home arent you?
Not really. I was on my way to Oklahoma when I stopped by to see some friends of mine. My last night in town I got arrested, from there I decided to stay.
Arrested, can I ask why?
Yeah, at first I thought it was my purple hair. But apparently no license, no
insurance and out of date tags will get ya thrown in jail in the state of Georgia. Go figure, I said as I shrugged my shoulders.
As he laughed I could tell that he was starting to forget the deputies.
It was Mark.
Hold on, Ill be right back. He probably cant get the mayonnaise open or something like that. You need anything while Im up?
I crossed behind the counter knowing that I was about to catch hell. I took a deep breath, put on a big smile and braced myself for the battle.
What are you doing out there? said Mark through gritted teeth. Apparently he couldnt tell when two people were having a conversation. Dont you have work to do?
Hell Mark, Ive been here since second shift. All my side work has been done since before midnight and you know it. Whats your problem?
You dont need to be out there talking.
You self-righteous prejudiced prick. Any other night you wouldnt give two shits about what Im doing.
I went back in the dining room with Mark hot on my heels. There we were, two
sides of divided-Southern prejudice and racial diversity. Tension hung in the air like an on coming storm.
Before returning to Charles table I made a point to stop by and check on the deputies. The silence that filled the air was unnatural. I played the jukebox.
You know, I said as I sat back down, I dont see how anyone here can claim to be any better than anyone else. Some of the people here beat all I have ever seen.
I sat there that night and told him bizarre stories of life in Blairsville. He told me stories of his life in Chicago. I told him stories of how people hated to get behind Cecil Dyer, who was still as sharp as a tack for being ninety, and drove fifteen miles-twenty if he was in a hurry- miles per hour no matter where he was going. I told him about Earnest. Earnest was not a drunk in the ordinary sense of the word. No, Earnest drank Aqua Velva.
Once, I said. The man actually got a DUI from drinking to much aftershave. To make matters worse, he was on his bicycle.
We howled with laughter. He told me of honest homeless people in Chicago. I call them homeless because they put on their signs Homeless. Need beer.' Why lie," he said.
Do you give them money?
Honesty is everything
Amen to that.
As I sat in that booth that night I made a new friend. Charles and I talk until sunrise. Despite the dirty looks, rude comments, and hostile glares I got from the other customers, I really enjoyed myself.
Three days later I was unemployed.