It really begins here. Georgia. Red dirt. Black faces. An old black man wiping his brow with a blue and white kerchief. Still, I began my journey south from the mountains of upstate New York three days ago through cold, pelting rain. The motel stops offered barely enough comfort and warmth from the chill and dreariness that settled into my bones. Watching the monotonous back-and-forth motion of my Honda’s windshield wipers struggling to keep up with torrents of rain, strained my eyes. Wearily, they worked overtime to maintain focus through the foggy gray and brown landscape of I-95 in March.
I am in the initial phase of a creative project that merges my photographic images with my writing … a marriage of two passions. During this fortuitous journey, I have been commissioned to photograph an island off of Florida’s southwest coast.
When I reached Georgia today, though still cold with frosty mornings, I welcomed the bright sun streaming through partially leafed-out trees. I didn’t know at first what it was about this peanut farmer’s roadside stand, but the instinct to stop was strong. So I did.
When I stepped out of my car and walked to the stand, my mind spiraled to a place and time that I would have believed to be well forgotten. Yet, the stand and the peanut farmer tending it brought the memory forward into clarity.
I was only sixteen years old yet singing and dancing as a featured performer in some rather elegant nightclubs-of-the-day during my summers off from school. I had “bookings”, though today they are called gigs, in Miami and Clearwater Beach. I had never seen Florida, neither had my mother, so we drove our old cream-colored Pontiac as we always did to every place I performed. However, this was our first time going south on the East coast.
I do not recall a super highway of any kind but I do remember the first dazzling site of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the luscious state of Virginia. The memory that was shaken loose from my past by the sight of the peanut farmer’s stand was from an experience in Georgia on a hundred-degree day in the shade. Whatever the road was that we were on, it was long and only two lanes. I saw shack after shack with barefooted black people … fifty years ago they were called Negroes … and their tired, worn faces watching the cars go by as they sat on broken steps of narrow, wooden porches. I remember the earth being red with clay. I had never seen red dirt. It fascinated me. And, the faces looking at us haunted me.
My mother and I almost ran out of gas at one point so we pulled into the only station we saw in a section of a nameless small town where black people lived. We were from the north and since one of my dance teachers was black, we did not hesitate stopping there. However, this was the mid-1950s. When we got out of our very hot car, for there was no air conditioning in cars then that I remember, we saw a small group of black men, a few dogs and cats, some chickens, and small children running about. There were no women. The men and children stopped what they were doing and stared at us. The station had one gas pump and everything sat on red dirt. Nothing was paved. An old black man with thick white hair stepped out from the group of three or four men and with his gnarled hands wiped his brow with a large, square blue and white kerchief. He looked at my mother and said, “How y’al doin’ ma’am? Would ya and the miss have some pop?” We then looked at where he was pointing and there sat a three-foot high red and white Coca-Cola chest that held glass bottles stacked randomly in hand-chopped ice. With a gentlemanly gesture of his left hand still holding the kerchief, he indicated that we should each take a bottle and we did. The bottle cap opener was the type firmly mounted to the chest so that you placed the bottle cap under it to pop it off. Previously popped bottle caps were already clustered beneath the opener so we left ours there too. The old man then motioned with his head for us to sit on a weathered bench under a massive tree throwing lots of shade while he filled our gas tank. When my mother paid him for the gas, she asked, “How much for the Coca-Colas?” He replied, “Nothin’ ma’am ’cause it’s too hot today to charge y’al for a cool drink.”
I didn’t see shacks today on I-95 or red clay earth. But earlier this morning, during a rest stop break, I walked into a funky restaurant-antique-gift shop. Sitting next to one of its counters was an old red and white Coca-Cola ice chest filled with perfectly shaped ice cubes and packed with aluminum cans of root beer, sweet-tea, but no vintage Coca-Cola bottles. The manager of this seemingly successful enterprise was a tall, beautiful African-American woman. I smiled at the fact that some progress is actually made however slow it may be.
I stood alone at the peanut farmer’s stand holding my camera in my right hand. He said nothing while I was lost in this memory. Finally, I asked, “May I take some pictures of your stand?” Not unlike the old black man, he nodded and went about his business while I took shots of the stand at varying angles. Out of an unspoken reciprocity, I purchased a small bag of fresh, fleshy pecans. And, with some trepidation even after a brief, but informative, discussion on how boiled peanuts are made (with lots of salt, sometimes spices, cooked with their shells on in a cauldron of boiling water), I also bought a cup of salty boiled peanuts. Once you’ve gently cracked the softened shell with your teeth, the nut has the consistency of a cooked bean. Actually they are quite tasty.
Yet, as I drove away munching the pecans and tentatively eating a boiled peanut or two, I could not shake the memory of the old black man’s nobility and kindness in treating my mother and me to two cold drinks on a very hot day fifty years ago in Georgia.
Tomorrow, I arrive on The Island.