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.