The world looked big as I stood by the Buick in the Waffle House parking lot. The day was bright and warm. Wednesday I traveled a lot of miles and made up lots of time. It was Thursday. As I stood there I knew many of the people in America were working. My trip would end tomorrow in Tampa, which was not far away, and as a result I had time to dawdle. There’s nothing better than dawdling. I’ve been dawdling since I was a kid and few things give me more joy.
I leaned over the Buick‘s hood and perused my road atlas looking for a good two lane road to take South. I’d had it with the interstate. I wanted slow traffic, small towns, funky gas stations, little diners. I think I fit better into that America. Route 321 looked like a winner. I could head over by Chester and get on. It would take me towards Savannah, Georgia. I had no idea I was so close. Hell, I thought, I could have dinner in Savannah at some fancy place on the water. I’d been to Charleston, but never Savannah. Nice towns both of them. Big, but nice. It sounded like a plan. Breakfast at Waffle House, dinner in Savannah, rural South Carolina in between. What could be better?
SC 321 was a lot like Illinois Route 9 that ran through our farm west of Danvers. Hard road, lines painted down the middle and on the sides, but since the Interstate was built not very crowded. South of Chester I went a long ways without encountering a town. There were empty fields, little farms and trailers, double wides, nothing fancy. It gave me a chance to relax. I rolled down the windows of the Buick and listened to the wind for a while. Although I’d brought CD’s of bands, I wasn’t in the mood for lyrics. I was thinking of how I would write up the record of my trip. Thinking about writing is just as hard as actually writing. I was reminded of that when Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides, The Great Santini) died this week, and a quote of his showed up in social media. Pat was not among my favorite writers, but he could tell a story. He said this about writing:
Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent.
I admit I had not up till now I have not had “profoundly difficult thoughts” or wanted to say “something life changing or ineffable in a single sentence.” Describing a bite of chili dog or the sequence in which a Waffle House breakfast is put together hardly qualifies, but I did want to explain why I wanted to be out here in the first place. It wasn’t jelling into words easily. It required some hard thinking.
Down past Winnsboro I realized that 321 would take me into Columbia, South Carolina’s Capital and biggest town. Population 134,000 and yet their biggest town. That shows you just how rural South Carolina really is. Despite its relatively moderate size I was in no mood to drive through Columbia. I decided it was too big for this day of thinking. Savannah would be plenty. I zigged east.
In the parlance of the zig zag you zig first. You can zag later. I found a little blacktop road with no number, no line down the middle, and not much on it that promised to take me to Ridgeway. It did. It turned to gravel for a few miles, but then back to blacktop before it delivered me to Lugoff, where I picked up 601 South to Stateburg and St. Mathews.
I like freelancing my way through America. It seemed like it was just me, the Buick, and a bunch of semi’s hauling logs out there. I ended up in Orangeburg where I began my zag, going west to Denmark where I rejoined 321 South. Zig zag complete, Columbia avoided. Nice part of the country down there. I passed between Congaree National Park and Poinsett State Park. Big Piney forest country. I’d love to go back. Will I?
Past Olar I started looking for a place to stop and stretch my legs. For no apparent reason I chose Sycamore. Sycamore was unremarkable. There are very few businesses in the little towns along SC 231. What you tend to find are small independent gas station/food mart/take-out food/general store places. Some of them looked to be the only businesses in their small towns. Very limited one stop shopping is the positive spin on these places. Food desert is the negative spin. I wish I’d taken pictures, but there was something about my Waffle House waitress experience that made me hesitate. People rarely stop on Caton Road to take pictures of me or my house. Why should I press myself on them?
The little establishment in Sycamore was typical of the rest. Old gas pumps on a concrete island that sat on a gravel drive. Well, a little gravel. Mostly dirt. Flat roof concrete block cube of a building next to it. I went in to see if there was something I might snack on for a light lunch. It is remarkable how homogenous the candy bars are in America, in every state, right down to where they’re placed on the rack. Heath bars and Mounds on the bottom, Snickers in the middle, Kit Kats on top. The only departure from the trans America norm, that classic Southern confection the Moon Pie, caught my eye. Flavored marshmallow crème with other yet to be determined forms of sugar between two cakey brown discs equally mysterious in content and nutrition. They’d expanded their flavors. I took the Salted Caramel Moon Pie. They’re not that good, I thought. Why do I do this?
A young black man in a hoodie was buying an energy drink from the lone employee, an tall Asian man who appeared to also be the owner. Framing his spot by the cash register were signs hand written with Sharpie on cardboard: “All Sales Final! NO returns!” “No tobacco products to minors! No exceptions!” “NO shirt, NO sale, NO service!” “NO read magazines without purchase!” “Restroom OUT OF ORDER!” He was overseeing the black man’s counting of a large number of coins, not many of them quarters, trying to reach the total needed for the big bottle of blue stuff. At the end of the count he looked up hopefully at the proprietor.
“You’re a nickel short.”
They both looked at each other without flinching. It grew quiet.
“You need another nickel.”
The black man picked up the blue stuff and turned to walk back to the cooler. I tossed a nickel on the counter. He heard it hit and turned back. The proprietor looked up at me with surprise.
“Thank you,” the black man said without looking at me. He went immediately out the door. The proprietor continued to look at me, his brown face made darker by a white scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. Everybody was cold but me. I had taken off my sweater and was warm in a white t shirt.
“Nice weather you’re having,” I said. Weather is always a good ice breaker. I put the moon pie on the counter. He scanned it with his little reader thing. He apparently didn’t want to talk about the weather.
“One dollah eighty seven cent.” His English sounded like the English spoken around him. I guess it was natural. I put two bucks on the counter and he quickly counted out a dime and thee pennies. He looked at me coldly.
I put the dime in my pocket and left the pennies on the counter. “Do you keep a penny jar for your customers?”
“It might help.”
He said nothing. I raked the pennies in my hand too.
“Is that bathroom really out of order?” I thought I’d give it a try. It worked for me this winter in Chicago at a particularly besieged looking BP on the corner of Cermak and Damen, the proprieter huddled behind bulletproof glass. It was freezing cold, I needed a bathroom badly before getting back on I 55, and I thought I’d take a chance. The outside rest rooms had been "Out of Order" for months it seemed. I was both surprised and pleased that night when he handed me the key.
Back in South Carolina the man looked around at his empty store and smiled.
“Can I use it?”
“I suppose.” He fished around under the counter and pulled out a key wired to a piece of broomstick.
‘This guy,’ I thought to myself as I went about my business in a perfectly clean working bathroom, ‘is not going to win the annual customer service award from the Chamber of Commerce.’
As I passed by the counter on my way out the store, handing the key back to the man behind the counter, I stopped a moment.
“Can I ask why you keep your bathroom locked when there is nothing wrong with it?”
“Of course you can. I keep it locked because I’m tired of cleaning up their shit. With all respect sir, you don’t know what it’s like living here.”
“Yeah I suppose but I am learning. Enjoy the rest of your day.”