It Can Howl
This guy once joked to me, sort of half seriously, that his choices for an upcoming move had been narrowed to the American South vs. Rotterdam, and somehow this foreign city in a foreign country seemed more familiar to him than a whole massive region in his own backyard. Or, front driveway or basement, depending on which way your house is facing. On first getting down here he lived in my car. There was an apartment too, but each weekend needed to be spent somewhere else. Just driving old roads. The 4-door Hyundai Elantra never stood a chance. There was Alabama Black Belt. The Mississippi coast. There was Howard Finster's Paradise Garden, in Summerville, Oyotunji, and Joe Minter's African Village in America, Birmingham. He slept in the dunes in Edisto Beach, in the parking lot of the Mountain Moonshine Festival, and a small couch in a big room on a Louisiana sugar plantation. Sometimes there was no address and he threw MapQuest for a loop. Outside of a shitty bar in Savannah, he took a swing at a SCAD student. And came out on top.
His stories sizzled. He went to Oxford looking for the past, present, future. Because of Faulkner, Larry Brown, and Barry Hannah the drive in felt like a hazy, half memory. A sense of déjà vu for a place that only existed in books. Approaching the town square was the slowest crawl of his life. He knew every bar and pizza place, every shadow spilling off the parking meters. He trusted his memory of someone else’s memory. The night was a magical train wreck of drinking upstairs at City Grocery. He shared bourbons and beers with larger-than-life characters: aspiring drunks, assholes, a golf reporter for ESPN, failed novelists, William Eggleston’s granddaughter, and a woman who said at the end of his life Barry Hannah would sit right behind where he was and sip on soda and remind her that she was a sight to behold. She would blush, and momentarily forget that Uncle Barry was a solid 42 years her senior. These were the damaged drinking partners he always dreamt of.
The next morning he wakes up in a stranger’s guest room. He was late for the road. A few hours in, he is just south of Jackson and the booze is fading, hunger replacing it. He’s barreling down I-55 anxiously looking about for signs of life. Good day, this worthless stretch is empty. An upcoming exit between Crystal Springs and Gallman promises Southern staples: Zaxbys and Hardees and while the $4 Real Deal was not ideal, the grease would do him well. He pulls off into nothingness, the commercial strip is empty, the roof of Hardees has all but collapsed on itself. This is deep poverty, his memory was vivid. He cruised right past the short line of empty restaurants and in a daze kept going until he was driving past battered trailers and mobile homes between the breaks in the gloomy trees. This was no place to be sober.
He noticed the sign for a steak and catfish joint and in a hot second, spun the car into the dirt and gravel parking lot causing a dust storm that settled nicely at face height. Unfazed, a man leaned against his dust colored El Dorado. He was sweating profusely in the thirsty sun. Despite being the only people for miles, they didn’t speak, just a slight nod. As he tells the story the door was locked and only then did the guy in faded-denim overalls inform him they’d be open at 4:30. He said, it was good, worth the wait even – it was 3pm. He explained that he needed to be to New Orleans by dinner, to which the guy replied with examples of how this area received no attention after Katrina. He apologized and began his goodbye, but the man cut him off to say, “I like the way you talk. Where are you from?” He said he was new to the south and had grown up in Dearborn, Michigan. His voice rose with excitement. He hadn’t heard anyone speak like that in years, not since his old job would take him up to Toronto. What started as a hobby, writing code for his own video games turned into a legit business and frequently brought him north, north. The city agreed with him: clean, polite, and he loved the food – he sold the video game business to open this catfish place. Then this simple man with a long face and dirty red hair shocked him and mentioned that he would return to Canada each year on his wedding anniversary to bring his wife to Lapellah on Queen Street West in Parkdale. He would visit on each business trip and got to know James the owner. Our storyteller played pee-wee hockey with James and had also been to the restaurant many times. He was profoundly happy to have made this connection out there, but the other man was nonplused. He asked if he could get a simple sandwich and the man replied, “is it 4:30”?
- Daniel Fuller, Curator