P!LOT HEADS SOUTH

Sushi Tots 

Tonight, I had my first encounter with sushi tots, which to be clear, is a dish consisting of, as the name suggests, sushi and tater tots. The former stacked upon the latter topped with a drizzle of ponzu sauce. Upon seeing this menu item, my first thought was, “Tater tots. Sushi. These two foods have no business meeting together. Why do this?” My answer came as soon as I popped the morsel into my mouth. It was delicious. The smooth Sriracha aoli effortlessly married the two elements. My friend and I had no problem polishing off the plate. 

It was the good-humored barman who had encouraged us to try this dish in the first place, insisting we wouldn’t be sorry. When we acquiesced, he punched in two orders, one for us and one for himself. I guess talking it up had worked up his appetite too. This scene was taking place beneath the high slanted ceilings of a church, or rather a converted space, which in its former life had been a church, but now operated as a posh restaurant and cocktail bar called 5 Church in the French District of Charleston. I glanced upwards, admiring the stained glass windows and drifted my gaze down towards our now empty plate. Perhaps sushi tots hadn’t been the first holy union to take place in this structure. 

“Do you know why Charleston has so many bars?” a man asked me at a local networking event at Bay Street Biergarten. “Why?” I asked, picking up my end of the joke. “We have to balance out all the churches somehow,” he quipped. We both laughed, clinging onto our beers, but he wasn’t kidding. They don’t call it the Holy City for nothing. There is a church on most every other city block, and sometimes two right side-by-side. 

 

 

As an outsider, it’s natural that the things that stand out most are the things that are different from what I’m used to in the Northeast. On the road, people honk less, for one thing, and they’ll sometimes let you park your vehicle fully before they pass. The first time I experienced this courtesy, it put me under duress. “Just pass me, just pass me,” I uttered under my breath, glancing at my rearview and hurrying to park. 

A week into my trip, I learned, via Google, that right turn on red is permitted in Charleston. This meant that I had spent seven days, stopped still at red lights, like a jerk, with my little turn signal puttering away. To their credit, the cars behind me, also turning right, took their time waiting, never once sounding the horn. They probably noticed my NJ plates and shaking their heads, sighed, “Bless her heart.” A turn of phrase, which literally made my New York heart jump for joy, the first time a hotel proprietor in Raleigh used it with me. 

There are some puzzling things too, such as the mysterious center aisle on the roads designated by yellow lines. These terrified me at first, because at any moment a car could swerve into the center gap from across the road and hover there momentarily, before navigating its way back into traffic. Imagine a parked car to your left in the center of the road, as you are driving down a busy street. It’s unnerving. There are also small, squarish road reflectors, ensconced into the street that my car has to tiptoe around anytime I change lanes. 

The lack of streetlights and the night that settles in so dark and deep, shrouding the city in its velvet presence, leave me completely disoriented. The dark is darker here; the stars more luminescent. At 7PM, I yawn swearing it were 10PM, yet, somehow I still have trouble falling asleep until well past midnight. Tucked away in bed in the late hours of the night, that’s when my heart decides to pummel itself with abandon inside my chest, carrying the wooshing sound of blood being pumped, rushing into my ears – a reminder, in case I’d forgotten, that I’m far from a place that feels familiar. 

 

PHOTO CREDIT: BOB AILSTOCK

Scenes from the Road 

Driving along Highway 95, the first indication of the South is a tall Cracker Barrel sign protruding from the typical Mc Donald's and Wendy's signs. Beyond that, the setting is familiar -- four-lane highway, open roads, wispy, white clouds sketched across a pale blue sky. 

In Richmond, VA -- a proud mural proclaims an African-American neighborhood. Certainly, in New York City too, there are neighborhoods designated by race or ethnicity, but to a different degree. In New York, most everyone rides the subway -- the MTA being a great equalizer of the city -- people jostling together in the underground trains on their way to work, going out on a Friday night. Each car, a myriad of skin tones. 

The shrill song of a mockingbird startles me. We have these in New Jersey too -- but this bird sounds wilder, like it’s been living in the jungle.  

Two kids – brothers, cousins – trail behind me. One of them is talking smack about having more money than the other one. Their words bounce around the quiet streets, their language popping with expletives. 

They come into Perly’s, the Jewish diner and because I’m closest to the door ask if they can tell me about their project. Sensing their project is tantamount to asking for money, I say “Oh, sorry. I don’t live around here,” which I suppose was akin to my saying, “I don’t care about you” or at the very least, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to give you money.” They made their pitch to another table, passing around a laminated sheet to the diners until a sturdy, tattooed waitress approached and quietly ushered them out.  

Witnessing the scene, I felt a little sad but also thought “That kid’s gonna be richer than me one day,” He couldn’t have been more than ten, eleven years old and there he was, hustling on a Sunday. I noticed a black family enjoying their lunch, seated on the opposite side of the entrance. The youngsters hadn’t approached their table with their project. Had they avoided the table out of respect and recognition of their own kind or just by happenstance? 

A server with fire engine red hair, a pink, sequined skirt and a nose ring stood behind the counter taking my order. I watched as she skillfully navigated conversation with the neighboring customers seated at the countertop. No order here is simple. Every diner’s request is paired with a never-ending list of clarifying question. Small or large? White, whole wheat or rye? Hash or home fries? Wearing a fresh smile throughout the whole process, she never betrays a trace of impatience as her customer waffles between Corned Beef Hash and the Benny Goodman. Though I’m sure she’s asked these little questions a thousand times, that she recites them in her sleep backwards, still she leaves the impression that wide-eyed, she is listening to your order with whole-heart. 

Impressed by this performance, I ask her, “Are you a performer?” She says that no, not besides some recitals she did as a child, she hasn’t been on stage much, and then because she’s still taking care of the customer, turns it around “Are you?” she asks. I mention how skillful she is at her job. “Thank you for saying that,” she beams, wiping the countertop, “I’m actually pretty tired today.” Then winking a cunning smile, she adds “It is a lot like acting,”. 

Back on the road, the four-lane roads funnel into two, slicing through tall, thin forests on either side. The traffic flows, but I feel claustrophobic. In an emergency situation, I’d have little wiggle room. I race past trucks, and position my little Volkswagen in the safe spaces between cars.