The Year of Living Differently: Georgia on My Mind Day 4 (A Birthday in Savannah)

So today I’m 48.  Thank you for all the happy birthday wishes via Facebook, email, text, and the like.  It is definitely appreciated.  Either read (or skip) to the end for the punchline about my special birthday concerto.

I started the day later than I planned, again, because as mentioned, vacation.  But the point of getting up early in the morning was so I could go stand in line for lunch.  I’ll get to that in second.

First a stroll along Broughton Street, which is sort of like Old Town Pasadena, with blocks and blocks of charmingly restored old buildings, the ground floors of which have been converted into stores, boutiques, shops, restaurants, and markets.  It’s got a touch of American mall commercialism creeping in with a J Crew and Urban Outfitters making appearances but there are a still lots of smaller, independent stores along the way so it balances out in the end.

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About a mile from my hotel was my destination – Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room.  This is a Savannah tradition since 1943 when Sema Wilkes started helping out in the kitchen of the boarding house where her husband was staying.  They bought the place in 1965 and she ran it until her death at age 95 in 2002.  Her family still keeps the tradition alive.

The place is only open from 11am until 2pm during the week and is famous worldwide so it draws quite a few people to its door.  The line could start forming as early as 9am and often by the time they open it could be hundreds of people long.

I got there at about 10:30 and I estimate there were probably 100 people in line, give or take.  I was a bit concerned about having to stand in line that long but then they opened and after the first rush of people had been seated the host came out and asked if there were any singles.  I raised my hand and ran, getting the last seat at the first serving of the day.

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Once again traveling by myself has its merits, much like it did in Chicago when I got into the impossible-to-get-into Purple Pig not once but twice because I was a pathetic loner.

It’s a small place in the basement of a row house style building with only a handful of tables that seat nine people each.  The folks at my table were mostly a convivial lot although they viewed me with suspicion for most of the meal.  First, as mentioned, pathetic loner.  Second, the kind of severe looking woman on my right held her hands out and asked everyone to pray and everyone else at the table joined hands and prayed while I sat there, trying to be respectful with my head bowed slightly.  I didn’t hold it against them that they wanted to pray before the meal but they seemed to hold it against me that I didn’t.  Oh well, I didn’t go there to make conversation or friends.  I went there for the food.

Did I forget to mention that covering table is food… plates and plates and platters and bowls and more plates of it?  I counted 25 different dishes including things like fried chicken, meat loaf, pulled BBQ pork, Brunswick stew, black eyed peas, succotash, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with cheese, corn bread, several different types of beans, red beans and rice, and so much more that I couldn’t keep track of it all.   You get a seat and you start eating and you stop when you are full.  Or maybe you cram in a little bit more because it is just that good.  Everything was delicious – I swear I could eat that fried chicken every day for the rest of my life.  Of course if I did that it would probably be a short life, but it would be a fat and happy one.

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After lunch I walked back over to Troup Square and got more pictures of the Armillary – the sculpture that is an important part of my novel – and of other stuff as well – Spanish moss draped trees, a lovely square with a gazebo, the dog fountain in Troup Square (they have a blessing of the animals every year), a fountain, and random, pretty streets of which there are roughly a million.  Seriously, this is one pretty town.

The story continues after the photos.

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On my way back to the hotel I spotted this place for sale.  I want it.  It’s 5 bedrooms, 5 baths, on Columbia Square in the heart of the historic district and it’s only $1.9 million.  I think that’s a bargain, quite frankly.

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I also stopped and got a tiny little bit of famed Leopold’s ice cream, even though dairy does bad things to me.  It’s another Savannah tradition that was in business from 1919 to 1969 and then reopened again in 2004.  I remember having a scoop when Mary and I were here in 2008 and loving it and it was roughly a billion and three degrees today so it seemed like it was worth the risk.  A kid’s portion of chocolate raspberry was delicious!

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I was supposed to go on a trolley tour this afternoon but the company I was booked with cancelled it at the last minute because they hadn’t sold enough tickets to make it worth their while.  I rescheduled for tomorrow morning, so I rearranged my itinerary to make up for it.

As I have mentioned several times I have written this novel that I am very proud of that takes place here in Savannah.  I have been to the city a couple of times briefly but I did most of the “location scouting” using the Internet – Google Earth, street view, and the like, obsessively pouring over photos and satellite shots to try to map out action pieces and more.  Today, I spent the afternoon going around to a bunch of the places I put in the first book and/or places I intend to put into future books.

It was almost stupid thrilling, I have to admit, even at places like the shot below, which is just a road but an important road on the way to Old Fort Jackson.  In my book, something very bad happens on this road.  It looks like the kind of road where something bad could happen, doesn’t it?

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Then it was on to Old Fort Jackson, where a big action scene takes place in the novel.  It was built for the war of 1812 but was mostly used in the Civil War, guarding the city along the banks of the Savannah River against enemies approaching from the Ocean.  The fort has been restored and there are lots of displays, some cool cannons (which they fire off periodically), and a particularly enthusiastic park guide who knows absolutely everything about the fort, the Civil War, and, perhaps, everything else you might want to ask her about.  Seriously, she is one of those people who does Civil War re-enactments.   Enough said.

The fort itself isn’t that thrilling of a destination – I wanted to see the cannon fired but had to sit through 40 minutes of lecture about cannon shells and maps and how to position a cannon and, I don’t know, I may have dozed off.  But still, for most of the time I was geeking out over seeing this place that I had seen so clearly in my head when I was writing the book.

I am going to have to change a couple of minor details but for the most part it was just the way I thought it would be.

More of today’s story after the pictures – note the one below is of a container ship passing by so close that it seems you could reach out and touch it.

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Afterwards I drove to the Oglethorpe Mall.  Why?  The main character in my book is a 14 year old girl.  And something really bad happens at that mall.  Yes, lots of really bad stuff happens in this book.  But good stuff, too.  Anyway, this was another situation where I’ll have to tweak a few things based on the reality of what it looks like in person versus what it is like on street view but it was still a geeky pleasure to see it.  More after the pictures.

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The next stop was the Colonial Park Cemetery, one of the oldest in the city. This isn’t in my first book but will be in the sequel.  It’s a pretty place, with lots of old monuments and headstones, some lovely Spanish moss draped trees, and the appropriate amount of creepy for what I want to write.  More story after the pics.

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Lastly I went down to River Street along, appropriately enough, the river.  Several blocks of what were once cotton warehouses have been converted into stores, restaurants, hotels, and pubs all built into the bluffs overlooking the water.  It’s charming in a touristy kind of way, with old brick and cobblestone streets, iron walkways rising up the hill, and a great example of how you can preserve a city’s history instead of blowing it up and starting over (I’m looking at you Las Vegas).

More after the pics, including the one of a sign at a pub that I thought was a good thing to live by…

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Finally, for my birthday dinner, I went to the Old Pink House, another Savannah favorite located in an 18th century mansion right next to the hotel in which I am staying. In business for several decades, it’s the kind of place where locals go for their “occasion” meals (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) and since me turning 48 is an occasion, I figured it was a good place to go.

The home is beautiful, the staff is lovely, they have a woman in an antebellum gown wandering around saying hello to people, and they serve low-country southern cooking – fried green tomatoes with bacon and sweet corn; a fried pork chop with ham hock gravy, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens; and bacon mashed potatoes, plus a light raspberry sorbet for desert because by that point I had eaten more in the day than I eat in most weeks back home.

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I can barely move, so I sit her typing this on the balcony in the warm Savannah night overlooking the square where, I swear to God, a lone violinist is playing classical music for tips.  If I was writing this into my novel I couldn’t have done it any better so I went downstairs and said to him “I’m sitting on my balcony of the hotel over there, it’s my birthday, and you have made this night absolutely perfect for me, thank you” as I dropped $20 into his violin case.

So he played “Happy Birthday” for me.

I really like this city.

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