We arrived in Savannah in the dead of night.
It was a fitting time for reaching the milieu made famous and increasingly popular in recent years by the bewitching novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The City of Savannah takes its name from the river upon which it sits which also doubles as the border between Georgia and South Carolina. The stretch of highway that connects the South Carolina Lowcountry to the oldest city in the Peach State meanders through several miles of marsh and tidal flats, over the river, and across the state boundary.
After the sun has passed below the horizon, the only guiding light from the exit off I-95 and along US 17 is emitted from the city itself, a distant orb that grows as one approaches.
The aforementioned description paints two distinct pictures of the Savannah area — one dark and gritty amplified perhaps by the assumption of ramshackle huts scattered throughout sparsely-populated and under resourced communities that live and die by the fishing industry; the other an isolated, gleaming, and welcoming destination from which it earned the nickname “The Hostess City of the South.”
Both notions of Savannah hold some truth.
Both are bound together by a common thread.
Indeed there’s an overwhelming benevolence to these seemingly polarized worlds, and, really, dividing Savannah this way is a socioeconomic injustice. If anything, these notions are merely two facets on a single spectrum connected by the region’s fabled Southern charm.
Thea is a small dog based solely on size but her surprising strength certainly mirrors that of a much larger breed. Her musculature is courtesy of her part pit bull heritage and nearly always overwhelms her modest frame.
Muzzled abusively as a pup, Thea’s snout bears the scars of that torment, having had her mouth repeatedly roped tightly shut from her youth to canine adolescence.
She aches to love and be loved, a personality trait that manifests as exorbitant energy. Perhaps it’s an overcompensation for a legacy of torture. In any case, it’s endlessly endearing, though difficult to command.
As Thea bounded down Bull Street, in fact walking us, we could feel the temperature rising and the humidity thickening. It was the height of a nearly record breaking heatwave, day 50 of consecutive days above 90-degrees (the record being 56), and we sought one of the innumerable water bowls placed strategically around Savannah’s sidewalks for roaming pooches for Thea to cool down and rehydrate.
“Y’all can cool down right over yonder.”
Sitting outside a haggard cafe that, by virtue of its appearance and name (Soda Pop Shoppe) could only have conceived in the 1950s, were two locals parked in patio furniture.
The character sitting to the left was a short, round, apparently neckless man with crossed eyes set behind thickly-framed bifocals and a ring of red hair encircling an otherwise bald scalp. He was jovial in nature and must’ve managed the cafe as he would follow customers inside, tend to their orders, and return to the torridity.
To the right was an older fellow with sandy hair parted neatly to the side, evenly-keeled glasses, and a thin frame that, when hidden behind the man’s checkered shirt, creased slacks, and loafers, could’ve easily been that of a skeleton’s.
It was he that offered up the nearby oasis for Thea. His Southern accent had a bit of a drawl but was more polished than rural.
Thea dove face first into the bowl. I could almost hear the water sizzle as it splashed over the sides and onto the scorching pavement.
“Where y’all from?”
“Boston. We’re passing through on vacation.”
“Well y’all came to the right place. This here’s a damn fine town but it’s hot as Hell right now. I don’t know if Boston gets heat like this. Ain’t never been there but I reckon it’s a fine town too. Maybe if I had stayed in school… I done dropped out in the third grade. Never educated. Just a poor southern hick… I’m jokin’ with y’all.”
Initially thinking the conversation was headed in an awkward direction, we let out laughs of both relief and enjoyment coming to realize that the combination of his deadpan humor, appearance, and dialect were characteristics of his own Southern charm.
He must’ve sensed our curiosity because, unprompted, he kept on going.
“Mus’ be my wet brain. Been an alcoholic for 20 somethin’ years now.”
“Ya’ain’t s’posed ta tell people that,” said his rotund accomplice with a peculiar look of amusement and bewilderment on his face. “They gon think we’re crazy.”
Between tugging Thea back to take a breath from her refreshment, and scouting the street to deter her from encountering fellow dogs (her energy can quickly give way to anxiety), I overheard the thin man mention that he owns a men’s clothing store on Broughton Street, the culmination of generations of familial clothiers.
We had passed by J. Parker Ltd. before while meandering about the city center. The door to the establishment is set back from the sidewalk allowing for the forefront window showcases to dominate the view of passersby.
A legion of mannequins occupied the display, each one donning a flamboyant suit not unlike those often seen at the Kentucky Derby; primary color blazers, argyle pants, paisley bow ties, and vibrant Windsor knots were the style of choice at Parker’s. On the showroom floor, it looked as though a seersucker bomb had exploded.
The thin man, assumably J. Parker, wasn’t as loud as the offerings in his shop but his sense of humor was certainly large. He continued cracking small jokes, unsuspecting quips but would also insert bits of knowledge without breaking stride.
His stout friend enjoyed this quasi comedy show as much as we did though would interject on occasion to moderate Parker when he’d teeter on the brink of obscene, corking Parker when his monologues would begin to flow with a certain libatious tone.
Parker had a gift for using some of the most archetypal Southern phrases I’ve ever heard, made even more impressive by his ability to employ them seamlessly in conversation so that a naive Yankee like myself would have to stop and think about what he said as his jaw went on chattering nonstop.
“Wait…. what did you just say?”
“I said the waiters off yonder at the Pink House there, they couldn’t pour piss outta boot if the instructions were pasted on the heel. By golly they about as useful as a steering wheel on a mule.”
“Oh right, that’s what I thought…”
“But that chef… MMMmmm… that chef…. what’s her name again?”
The round man returned a blank stare and a lazy shrug.
“Well whoever she be, she broils up a beef tenderloin so good, I’ll tell ya, it be like taking a bite of steak flavored butter. Man I’d eat the north end of a southbound chihuahua if she was the one done cookin’ it.”
“She sounds extremely talented.”
“MMmm Mmm MMmm. First go and have yourself a drink at 17Hundred96. Crowd’s a bit slouchy but that there barman’ll pour ya’a drink so stiff you’ll chip a tooth on it.”