Welcome back, dear Reader. When we left off, I was fumbling through an afternoon at my job on base. A liberal corporate alum overwhelmed by southern conservatism, I fled the confines of the office to continue my Quest For A Thousand Hot Dogs.
A Hit Of Joy
I enter Ronnie’s, a popular BBQ joint, in the hopes an in-person donation request would be better received (read: impossible to ignore). An older black woman at the hostess stand greets me and introduces herself as Delilah. I shake her hand and ask how she is today.
“Oh, I am blessed,” she says, with an air of serenity. This is not an uncommon response here in the South. Though initially it caught me off guard, I’ve come to appreciate the attitude of gratitude. I explain I’m with the Air Force Base and looking for a potential food donation, is there a manager available?
“Why yes, of course! Mr. – ” Ms. Delilah is cut off by a resounding crash. I glance over her shoulder where a teenage boy has dropped an entire tray of silverware onto the floor. Ms Delilah barks orders at the boy and turns back to me, pausing a moment to regain her composure. “Bless his heart, the boy has the butter fingers. I know I gotta keep my joy and, Lord knows, it’s just a job, but sometimes I wonder… did He raise me up for this? You know?”
I nod emphatically. Oh, I knew. I’m an educated, professional woman on a hunt for hot dogs; Ms. Delilah is speakin’ my struggle! As she guides me through the restaurant and back to the manager’s office, Ms. Delilah outlines her current ailments – the most pressing of which is the need to lose weight. (This, also, is not uncommon, dear Reader. I’m not sure if it’s a Southern thing or the result of us living in an older community, but failing health and surgeries are a hot topic of conversation).
“If only I could stop eating these ribs! But they’re so good,” she confides. “I can’t resist ’em. Jesus, take the wheel!” she pleads, throwing her hands up in mock desperation.
I smile. “Right. He should probably take the ribs though!” Ms. Delilah laughs and, for a moment anyway, we both have our joy back.
I Receive Some Unsolicited Professional Advice
I am seated across from Mr. Jim, manager of Ronnie’s BBQ. The office is quiet as we take each other in. It’s the first time I’ve met professionally with someone in an oversized cowboy hat and bolo tie. I have the vague sense that I, too, appear ridiculous (though I would be hard-pressed to explain why). I begin my sales pitch by walking Mr. Jim through our sponsorship packet, until finally – amidst a flurry of pretentious phrases like target demographic and facilitate a culture of camaraderie – Mr. Jim stops me:
“Ma’am? Can I offer you some advice?”
I slouch back in my chair, feeling somewhat relieved. “Let me guess,” I venture. “I used the sledgehammer when I needed the chisel?”
“No!” Mr. Jim says, pointing a finger to the sky. “You used the wrong sledgehammer. This is how you appeal to people: Do you love America?! Do you love the military?! Our men are out there –”
“- and women!” I pipe in.
“… right!” Mr. Jim says over his shoulder. He’s on his feet and pacing now. “Our men and women are out there fightin’ fer yer freedom and you can’t help them out with a lil barbeque?!”
It was a rousing call to action. And the man was right – my approach was entirely too high falutin’.
Taking his seat once more, Mr. Jim looks at me softly. “Now, I hope I didn’t hurt yer feelins. It’s clear you got yer education and this cartoon here is… well, it’s really somethin'” he offers kindly, nodding to the open page displaying my infographic. I smile weakly.
“And that’s why I’mma give you thirty gallons of baked beans fer yer event!”
I thank Mr. Jim profusely for his generosity. And maybe that’s the moral of the story, dear Reader: sometimes in your quest for hot dogs, life hands you beans. Do your best to be grateful all the same.
I Almost Backhand A Bigot
I return to the office and promptly call my boss to share the good news – thirty gallons of baked beans! “What are we going to do with a bunch of beans?” he asks, unimpressed. You asked for sides as well, sir, I remind him.
Discouraged and pissed off, I head to the production room where I strike up a conversation with Ben who works down the hall. Ben is quiet but always helpful. He asks how I’m adjusting to Georgia and I admit I’m struggling. Much to my relief, he admits he isn’t fond of the area either. Hazaah! A kindred spirit!
“I’m from the South but I hate these parts.” Then, in a hushed tone, “Reminds me of Africa, you know?”
Brace yourself, dear Reader, because this is the stupid thing I said next: “Oh my god, where were you in Africa!? I’ve been dying to go!”
The silence is deafening as we look at each other in bewilderment. I dropped the beat, but I’m not sure where… until finally…. Oh.
“Not Africa-Africa. I’m talking about all of the <<I’ll spare you the slur>> ’round here.”
The word lands like a punch in the gut. Sadly, in my short time in Georgia, I’ve had several interactions like this. I can’t say nothing so I ask Ben why the African American population makes him uncomfortable. He only smirks. It’s early, but I head home anyway.
I Have ‘A Moment’
Lights down, curtains drawn. In the safety of my Bat Cave, I strip off my clothes right there in the living room and flop onto the couch. My hair smells like barbeque.
A flurry of comments whirl through my head:
…you don’t need to read books to be smart… can we help you find a church?… well, surely you’ll be wantin’ babies eventually… global warming is a hoax… It’s nice that your husband lets you work… We don’t go out that way – too many blacks!… you don’t seem old enough for a job like that… Atlanta is only two hours away!… Trump is the Christian choice….. the great thing about government work is you can’t get fired!…
This, dear Reader, is why I’ve been MIA. Maybe it was a military overdose, maybe it was Middle Georgia, maybe it was the summer heat frying my brain again. Or maybe the election season just got me twisted (but seriously, did anyone emerge unscathed?). In any case, I didn’t know how to talk to you. I’m loathe to reinforce stereotypes, but these have also been my hand-to-heart experiences so far. How could I voice these frustrations in a way that was thoughtful – in a way that was fair to the South, to the base, to my own experience? It’s fair to say, I’m encountering an alternate America. I can only hope, even if the South never becomes my cup of Sweet Tea, that I leave this assignment with a broader perspective of our country, its struggles, and its people.
I’ve since left my job on base and have started working remotely. Yes, I ran full speed back into the cool, transactional embrace of Corporate America! This marked the return of my sanity, my swagger, and my big-girl salary. Also, since I work from home, no one ever comments on my outfit (which, by the way, is always yoga pants). Thanks to Ali for kicking me the opportunity and a special thanks to the friends who talked me through this uncomfortable time. Your suggestions helped me navigate difficult interactions gracefully while also staying true to myself.
So! If I’ve outlined some inconvenient truths about the South, there are other truths as well. Pecan pie, front porches, hurricane parties, and friendly strangers are all truths too. With my crash landing behind me, I’m hoping to find solace in these things and share them with you. Thanks for listening to my drama!