I am now officially done with looking down on the South, which I did for years as a good Northerner but I’ve now spent three days in the town of Carrollton, Georgia (pop. 26,738), enjoying the cheesy grits and pulled pork, collard greens and cornbread, and the waiters who when I say, “Thank you,” say, “My pleasure.” And when I pay the bill, they say, “Preciate y’all.” You don’t hear that up north.
I holed up here to avoid getting stuck in the Atlanta airport during the blizzard in New York and Carrollton turns out to be a hotbed of amiability, where if you make eye contact people say, “Good morning” and maybe “How you all doing?” though there’s only one of me but all of me is doing just fine, thank you very much, and this easily leads into small talk.
I got up from breakfast at the hotel and passed a table with two couples eating breakfast and one man said, “How you all doing?” and I said, “Never better,” and I commented on the fact I’d seen a number of extremely tall young men coming into the hotel and he told me there was a college basketball tournament over at the University of Western Georgia a few blocks away.
We discussed what it must be like to be six-eight or six-ten and on the court you need to be aggressive and rangy, but walking around indoors you feel constrained and you keep bumping your head and the bed is too short. One of the women said, “You see one of those giants trying to fold himself up and get into a car, it makes me grateful to be short and fat.” Up north, I all wouldn’t have been asked that question, and this small friendly exchange wouldn’t happen.
Carrollton is a comfortable place with a handsome old downtown around a square and stately churches and an arts center and the cooking at the Brown Dog café reminded me of my mother’s, but it was the ease of striking up conversation that touched my heart. I come from Minnesota, the land of stoical Scandinavians, men of few words, and if you go to a Lutheran church, the hand-shaking is highly selective and a visitor may leave unshaken and unspoken to.
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Sunday I walked into the Brown Dog and passed a table and a man reached out and took my arm and stood up and said, “I got to tell you that your pants are unzipped.” I fixed the problem and thanked him and he noted my accent and one thing led to another and his wife invited me to join them for lunch so I did. He was my age, she was younger, she grew up in Chicago, and he grew up in Georgia.
I ordered ham and grits and collard greens. “Ham is a good choice,” he said. “They can’t hurt ham, no matter what they do.” She was an English teacher and he was retired, formerly in the construction business. He was the son of a sharecropper: “Worst way to earn a living that there ever was.” He picked cotton as a child. “I had to be someplace so they figured I might as well be in the field.” They sent him to the house to see what time it was and he couldn’t read a clock but he told them where the hands were pointing.
The family ate squirrel and rabbit with grits and gravy. His best friend was a boy so black they called him Blue. “We’d go to a café for a Coke and he had to go in the back door if they’d let him in at all. I knew it wasn’t right.” He was ten when his family moved to California, his dad got a regular job, and they got a house with indoor plumbing.
I’d known him for all of forty-five minutes and I got a whole story, which goes to show that in the right town, which Carrollton is, it may be worthwhile to let your pants be unzipped. “You can’t erase history,” he said, “but we are all brothers under the skin,” and I certainly felt brotherly toward him and the others I had met, even the seven-footers.
And I am done looking down on the South. We have our history up north too and it’s not all shiny. And I do believe in the beauty of small talk. Thanks for reading this, I do appreciate you, all of you.
Garrison Keillor Prairie Home Productions