Savannah! One-and-a-Half Days and Four Observations

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We needed to shake the winter off of us.

There’s winter’s physical component—the cruel frigid rain and stinging frozen slivers called “a wintery mix” by news announcers—that gets blown down the neck of your coat by fell winds. Then there’s the temperament indicated by things like nightlife choice: a Twin Peaks-couch-blanket-space-heater-Thin-Mint bender that lasts for weeks. Endless head and chest colds. The certainty when you do go out that you chose wrong; at 9:30 you are fatigued; you can feel that space heater and Laura Palmer calling to you across the miles as you stand somewhere talking to friends in nice clothes when you’d rather be holed up in sweats.

But last week, the birds started up. I heard them as I dropped another David Lynch DVD into the mailbox, and noticed too, that the air smelled fresh. But it still contained the occasional police siren, and Marshall and me, we both felt constrained to the paths we had trodden for weeks: from work to grocery store to home and back.

It was time for a trip. A spur-of-the-moment weekend jaunt to Savannah, just four hours away.

Turns out hundreds of other people had the same idea.

Observation #1: The city-sights are you.
Olde Savannah is a topsy-turvy oppositeland composed entirely of tourists and art students. This is what we discovered through pure scientific deduction. It was, after all, a sunny Saturday afternoon in the historic district. This was clearly a random sampling.

By the end of our afternoon downtown, we were wandering the crafts market on River Street happily sore of foot, commenting on how odd it was that the booths of a crafts market in a town that houses SCAD should still showcase primarily water-color paintings and brass yard ornaments shaped like dogs. As we strolled, we passed back and forth a cup of Yuengling that was perfectly legal under the city’s scandalously permissive open-container law. Still, we passed it rapidly, sure somewhere beneath our skins that at any moment a plainclothes authority would grab the wrist of the hand that held said-cup and shake it, condemning the holder to some humiliating fate.

We walked and relayed the beer among the same packs of fellow surreptitious beer-slurping tourists and sketch-pad toting hipsters with whom we’d spent the entire afternoon. In 18th-century cemeteries and city squares alike, every person down to a man carried a camera, wore a little circular sticker that signaled tour-group membership, or wore pencil-jeans and/or a beard. I swear to god, at one moment strolling the market, I looked up from all this at a mammoth cargo ship carrying train-cars down the Savannah River, and I knew that a pair of binoculars would reveal a cap’n in oversized purple plastic glasses and a sweatband.

“Why such a curmudgeon, Sweeney?”
More on that later.


Observation #2: Tour of Ghost Tours
That night we ate a really good dinner at the most crazily rambling restaurant in the world, a place called the Pirates’ House. This restaurant is so big I literally got lost in it after we ate. It’s made up of several of the town’s original 18th-century wood buildings, all sort of lashed together with more old(e)-looking wooden passageways and rooms; resulting in a colonial compound that stretches for blocks. The city’s first settlers built the original house, we were told, to accommodate the caretaker of the settlement’s first experimental garden. These settlers wanted to find out what crops would grow in this new environment. Their discoveries: mulberry trees, not so much; peaches, wow yes.

A real perk of the actual restaurant today is that, besides really good food, we got to partake in no fewer than three ghost tours coming through the Captain’s Room, where we sat and ate. Every 15 minutes a group of ten tourists crowded in, led by a petite red-haired drama major in a floor-length leather coat. In a dramatic Irish accent, she regaled them with the tale of the closed door behind the spot where I sat, where many an unfortunate young men of yesteryear had been locked up before being shanghaied off to the South Seas on pirate ships. By her second visit, I was ready for the dramatic question she would pose to me, “Did ye hear the ghost knockin’ on the door behind ye, lassie?” As the evening wore on, she grew increasingly familiar with our table and with those around us; the third visit, she actually leaned over a neighbor’s meal and asked him how he was “enjoyin’ the grub.”

By now, we had realized that this was an amazing two-for-one kind of evening: we weren’t just eating a nice dinner (and I insist, the food was delicious); we were actually on a tour of ghost-tours. We counted four more parading by outside the window. It felt like Halloween; a Halloween characterized by fake Irish accents and floor-length leather coats. The next tour guide to bring his group inside, a bearded man, also wore such a coat—as, I think, do all such guides everywhere on the planet. The bearded guide actually threatened to drug Marshall himself and shanghai him before he had the chance to finish eating his snapper. I was similarly confusingly hit on later as we attempted to leave the Pirates’ House. Passing through room after dark oak-beamed room, we walked through or past three more ghost tours. There were, we realized, more ghost-tourists here than actual diners. As we stood still and tried to regain our bearings, guide number one approached us again, and began talking to me in the same fake Irish accent she’d been using with her groups all night about the “ghastly hoards” of people here tonight. “Maybe you’ll join us tonight, lassie?” she asked. I said no, I didn’t think so, looking around for the exit. She continued to misunderstand our desire to leave as a desire to join a ghost-tour, and started talking at length about the haints of olde Savannah, brushing my shoulder lightly with her hand as she spoke. There was no way out of this but to just walk away from her toward what we hoped was the exit. It was.


Observation #3: Undignified and Old
It was only when we arrived at the bar across town that our friend G. had recommended that we finally broke free of the tourgroup stickers and round, purple eyeglasses circa 1985 that had characterized this day. Pinkie Masters reminded me of bars in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I lived for three years; Marshall said it reminded him of bars in New York. It’s a small, smoky room with a good jukebox and a u-shaped bar, filled with the most ordinary-looking citizens I’d seen all day. We got beers, found a comfy corner, and chatted with a couple of guys who’d been coming in for years. One pointed out the nearby video poker machine on the bar. “I hate that thing,” he said. “Before they brought it in, I would come in and sit right there and read. They let me bring in my own reading lamp and plug it in. Now there’s no room there for a lamp or a book.” But he kept coming in anyway.

On this trip, we’d been enjoying new sites, but it was now, here, that I finally felt myself unwind. Pinkie Masters has a long history; the walls are covered with proud newspaper clips about regulars, autographed photos of stars who’d come in—and the story goes that Jimmy Carter announced his run for presidency here.

Now, two glasses of wine and one glass of beer deep, I announced a startling realization: I hate every bar we go to in Atlanta. “What?” said Marshall. “I think that’s a bit extreme.” No, I insisted. “Our bars in are all filled with twelve-year-olds I don’t know all trying to look more important than one another. This bar just has—people,” I finished, sagely. I went on to say that my favorite bars in Wilmington had been this way, too. There was no sense of attempted adolescent coolness. It was just people you knew catching up on things, regulars that you got to know over the years.

Marshall leveled his eyes at me. “Look at you!” he said.

“What?”

“You want to live in Cheers! You are a total cranky-pants!”

It was true. I was a cranky-pants. We were on this trip in part to celebrate my birthday, and now I was drunk and bitching about the Young People: the hipster 25-year-olds we’d spent the day walking the sidewalks with and all the negative abstractions they represented.

As we went back that night, a memory came to me: When I was ten years old, I wrote a report for school about how I wanted to write children’s books. There was some sentence about how I would never forget what it was like to be ten and how I would always stand up for kids and their perspective. Then when I was in my mid-twenties, I wrote earnestly about how I would always, always keep up with new music and go to rock shows and divey hipster bars. Both points of view, of course, seem foreign now. I have no recollection at all how it feels to be ten. And Marshall jokes with me about what a homebody I’ve become. Most new indie rock sounds derivative or boring to me now; I’m increasingly wont to say that the music I like best is played by people who older than me.

And this is what starts to freak me out.

How does one accept the natural perspective-shifts of the aging process without becoming a close-minded asshole? The easy mockery of the art students and their cookie-cutter fashions, if examined closely, is just a shade away from mocking other senses and beliefs that are inherent to the young, which is just a shade away from becoming rigid to change altogether. My maternal grandmother stayed lucid, healthy, and optimistic until late in life. She ate and spent frugally and guarded herself against becoming too set in her ideas about the world. “I like the young people!” she was known to say into her mid-90s when she still spent time with her church’s youth group and at fish-fry parties thrown by 40- and 50-somethings in her neighborhood. She kept the skylight in her mind open. I want to do the same. This seems to be a challenge for the years to come, Henshaw.


4th and Final Observation: Time Flies.

A cannon takes aim at an actual tourist at Fort Pulaski
A cannon takes aim at an actual tourist at Fort Pulaski

The next day, we drove out to Tybee Island and after a kick-ass breakfast and a walk on the beach, we went to nearby Fort Pulaski. Fort Pulaski was built by the federal government in the early 1800s, but was taken over by the Confederacy during the Civil War. Marshall is kind of a buff of all wars fought ever—we spent one early date on a hike in which he refreshed me on the details of the causes of WWI and the fall of the Roman empire. This is one small thing I love about him; just like good historic sites, Marshall makes history into fascinating stories.

Likewise, I appreciated the simplicity of the story of Fort Pulaski, printed in the state parks brochure we were given when we drove in, described in the small interpretive signs ringing the fort, and explained in detail in the small museum (which we walked through) and apparently also, a 20-minute film (which we skipped). The story is this: The Confederacy occupied the fort and thought, “Hah, hah. We totally rule. Those Federal troops over on Tybee Island over there can’t friggin’ touch us.” And then the Union began bombing them with these new cannons that shot cannonballs extra far, extra fast, and began totally decimating the fort. After 36 hours of this and one fatality on each side, the Confederates surrendered the fort. After that, it became a POW camp for the Union.

For Marshall, among the most fascinating parts of our visit to Fort Pulaski was the story of the evolving tactics of warfare signaled by this battle. It changed how forts were built forever (i.e., no longer out of bricks, which these new cannonballs could shoot to pieces). He lingered over the displays of weaponry and when we looked at the old cannons themselves inside the fort, he explained to me their technical operations.

This was plenty cool, but I was more captivated by the question of how much we were seeing and walking through was the original fort. Some of it had been rebuilt at various points in history—after the Union capture and again after a fire a few years later, etcetera—but I wanted to know which of these cannons we looked at and touched had actually been there during the battle. Which bricks were the bricks that dirty, exhausted soldiers had leaned against in the moments between fighting? I lingered at the displays of the rum bottles they had actually drunk from, the dice they had actually played with in their spare hours. The stories of strategy and the larger picture of warfare was fine, but to me, that story was a container for these real things that had been there. I stared and stared. We stood in a chamber where the Southern troops had stored gunpowder. The Union later used this room as solitary confinement for their prisoners. It had tall ceilings. It was dank and chilly. I shivered. Then I asked Marshall if he thought this was the original wood floor that the prisoners had actually stood on.

As we drove away, we talked about what it must have been like back in the 1800s to travel from Savannah (now 20 minutes away by car) all the way out here, through these marshy, buggy lands. In the Union captain’s quarters, his wife had added what interpretive signs called “a woman’s touch,” nice furniture stolen from houses in neighboring towns. There’s also a photo of a few union soldiers and a woman—possibly this furniture-nabbing model of femininity—at the fort. The place looks muddy and miserable; the woman stands there in a wide hoopskirt and layers and layers of stiff clothing. I wouldn’t ever want to travel back to that time or any other to live. Let’s face it; post-1980 is pretty much the only era to be anything but a white male in this world. But the tactile facts of the past do engage my imagination. I want to press my face against the glass of this history. We know the world through our five senses, and if photos and old brick buildings I can stroll through are all I have to know the past, I’ll walk till my legs ache and if I can help it, I won’t blink.

One thought on “Savannah! One-and-a-Half Days and Four Observations”

  1. Awesome descriptions!

    If you want another taste of the town, there’s a wonderful Carlos Fuentes novella set there, in his collection “Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins.” The title’s a little hard to get past (especially if you’re reading it as an awkward and late blooming teenaged girl) but it totally shaped how I saw the city on my one visit.

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