Sometimes I’m concerned that I over-romanticize coffee shops, cafés, and diners. Their life is more than checkered tile floors and sun-gleaming silver stools. They have a dark side, too. A very dark side that I met as a young child:
Red neck ways and home fried days told the story of Louie Jordan. Southern boy in a Georgia pine cluster, dining on dumpster dinner one humid summer evening.
The next morning, dawn awakened persimmon, spilling upon the dangling rope displaying strange fruit.
A 1956 powder-blue Desoto cranked its way down Highway 301, its air filter choking on a swampy necklace of mist rising. Not one of the three passengers saw the cypress tree bearing vengeful fruit, and no one heard the splash as the rope broke free and Louie’s withering corpse slid into the brackish water of the Snake River swamp – a summer Crock Pot of slow simmering gumbo.
The perfect crime before dinnertime. Before soft buttermilk biscuits and crunchy fried chicken. Before sweetened collard greens and pork-flavored black-eyed peas. Before warm pecan pie and oozing vanilla ice cream were set on the white linen tablecloth shrouding a mahogany table, Louie’s flesh would be shredded, thickening in the roux of the boiling okra-green broth.
Several years later, the blue Desoto would have been traded for a creamy Ford Suburban station wagon, with artificial wooden paneling. A safe and sanitized version of the surfer’s classic “woody,” it became a family car perfectly accommodating the four-square family we had become.
A little brother joined me in the back seat, gently cruising through the Georgian back roads, rolling to a stop at the Esso station and café of cinder block painted white, with dripping stains of Georgia red clay along its edges.
As gasoline was pumped by the man in the starched blue uniform, my family marched into the café. I wandered off to the restroom, toasted brown pine needles crackling beneath sneakered feet on a hot summer’s afternoon, as I made my way to the back of the building.
There, huddled in the shade of the dense pine thicket, was a cluster of men. A water fountain was attached to the back wall and as I bent forward, sipping the lukewarm sulfur water, the rich strains of a baritone flooded across my back.
“Little girl, this ain’t your kind of water. You better git back to your kinfolk little white child.”
I looked up and saw a sign above that read: “For Colored People Only.”
With black-brown hair and tawny skin and green eyes, wasn’t I colored enough to drink from this fount, I wondered?
Looking up into the man’s face, I didn’t understand, but, knew instinctively that I didn’t belong in this sequestered shade on Southern soil. The sign secretly told me that our colors didn’t match.
His kind eyes silently exhorted me: Don’t watch this backdoor meeting little white girl, your world turns inside. Your feet unstained by red Georgia clay; your hair unstroked by the witch’s fingers of Spanish moss that stoop to comb tangles of nappy hair.
Go eat your meal, his gaze beckoned, on white porcelain plates with stainless steel forks and spoons. Sip your water in glasses of figure-eight grace with ice cubes floating to the surface to kiss your lips.
Forbidden lips/forbidden fruit. Strange fruit dangles from the trees of Southern forests. Blood is shed by moonlight as little white girls dream of sugar plum fairies. It’s a world darker than you little white girl.
Nights with secret ceremonies are the plowshare’s rite of harvest. Let us blend with the shadows as you fold into your bedsheets, stitching lace dreams along their French seams.
Embroidering colored flowers along pillowcase edges. Hold on tightly to your white linen hope. Run little white girl. Run back home to safety. Run before you see too much . . . .
As I turned to leave, my family was climbing back into the old faithful Ford wagon. What had I missed? A cheeseburger lunch platter with French fries and ground beef smothered in ketchup blood? Freshly-squeezed lemonade to quench my bitter thirst?
But how could they know I had no regrets, for I’d drunk from the colored fount.