As soon as I left the offices of GPB I got back on I-75 and didn’t get off until Tifton, three and a half hours later. I have always wanted to visit Plains, but I didn’t have the time to linger as I would have liked, so my goal for the night was Thomasville, the City of Roses. “A lot of wealth there,” someone had told me at my Atlanta reading. “People go there for the weekend to shoot quail.” I just wanted a nice dinner.
I pulled into town a little before five. The downtown was charming, with a lively main street dotted with what looked like interesting restaurants. Prowling the side streets searching for a lodging, I passed the famous 300-year-old live oak, some of its thick branches nearly touching the ground.
The only motel, I was told, was about a mile outside town. I had passed it coming in and it didn’t look too inviting; close up it looked even less so. (The inherent vulnerability of a motel room seems even greater in the age of random violence.) From the woman in the office I learned that I was only about 30 miles from Tallahassee, so I got back in the car and drove the loveliest road of the trip, an undulating strip lined with Spanish moss.
I assumed that, on entering Tallahassee, I’d see the tall buildings (or building) of downtown and be able to orient myself. But not only did no skyscrapers appear, hardly any structures did. The city seemed to consist solely of trees and parkways – a lovely aspect for residents, an annoying one for visitors like me who don’t use GPS. I drove and drove, and grew increasingly frustrated by the absence of landmarks and people to ask for directions. It occurred to me that I probably should start using GPS.
I crossed into Georgia around noon, had a quick lunch in Valdosta, and then got off I-75 in Perry. The New Perry Hotel, where I had stayed on my last drive up the Interstate, was closed, so I drove back to the exit and picked one of the chains.
I was on my way to Atlanta for a reading and an interview for Georgia Public Broadcasting. The show’s description made it sound Georgia-centric, so I prepared for questions about my travels in the state. Atlanta, it occurred to me, was the first place I ever traveled to on assignment. It was in the mid-80s; I was working for the Observer of the American College of Physicians in Philadelphia, and my editor sent me down to cover a conference on preventive medicine at the CDC. A few years later I returned to write about a professor at Emory University School of Medicine who had his students read literary classics; I joined them at Manuel’s Tavern for their discussion of Madame Bovary. In 1996, when I was a travel editor, I wrote about the city as it prepared for the Summer Olympics, throwing in a visit to Milledgeville, home of Flannery O’Connor and then soon-to-be host of the badminton teams. (Peacocks and shuttlecocks.)
A wave of storms was sweeping across the South but I arrived in Atlanta before the rain and checked into the Highland Inn, just one block down from Manuel’s Tavern. By the time I headed out to A Cappella Books for my evening reading the skies had cleared. It was a small, well-appointed store at the end of a damp residential street. Frank Reiss told me that he had started it 27 years ago, when he was 27. Soon, my dear friend Susan arrived with her husband, her mother, and two former colleagues in tow, proving herself to be the perfect friend.
But enough nonpartisan people eventually arrived to fill the side room. Signing books, I learned that one of them – a soft-spoken young woman – was a member of the American College of Physicians. Afterwards, Susan and her entourage took me to dinner at Bread & Butterfly, which makes the best Croque Monsieur I have ever tasted. (And it would be even if they didn’t put a fried egg on top of it.)
The next morning I drove to Georgia Public Broadcasting, where Bill Nigut quoted lines not just from my new book but from old essays I’d written. But he didn’t ask about my adventures in Georgia.
My waitress at Kool Beanz had a tattoo of a parrot on the side of her neck. I asked if the fried green tomato BLT could be served on something other than a brioche bun and she suggested flatbread.
The middle-aged man at the table next to mine stood up as his young dining companion returned from the ladies room and nonchalantly pulled her chair out for her – a move I have not seen in 27 years of eating out in South Florida.
My lunch arrived and, after a few seconds, it became clear that a fried green tomato BLT should never be served on anything other than flatbread.
In the evening I made my way to Midtown Reader. Sally Bradshaw, a model of charm and efficiency, introduced me to her similarly gifted staff, one of whom declined my offer to help move a book-filled table with the words, “You’re the talent.” Then they and Sally dutifully set up folding chairs, wiping the seats down with towels and disinfectant. I wondered aloud if there might be too many.
“About 30 people have RSVPed,” Sally told me.
I had never heard of RSVPing for a book reading – a Southern thing? – but it worked. After Sally’s lovely introduction, I stood in front of a tightly packed crowd and went through the seven fundamental pleasures of travel.
At number 3 – a break from routine – I mentioned how, years ago, it was common for writers to intersperse their novels with travel books: Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene all saw travel writing as part of the job description. For some reason I left out my favorite, Evelyn Waugh, a writer whose collection When the Going Was Good convinced me to become a travel writer.
“Evelyn Waugh!” a man shouted from the audience when I had finished the roll call. If I hadn’t known he was a book reviewer – we had spoken earlier – I would have thought he was stalking my readings.
I spoke some more, read a short passage, answered some questions, and then signed books. Roy Blount Jr. recently wrote a piece complaining about people who come to his readings, laugh themselves silly, and then leave empty-handed. He needs to visit Midtown Reader. People approached with copies of my books to be signed, sometimes for family and friends as well as for themselves. And not just the lawyers and other professionals in the room. One young woman, a student at FSU, handed over her copy saying, “I’m going to use it on my parents in hopes they’ll let me spend a semester abroad.”
I couldn’t think of a better use for my book.
“I’m looking for a good place to have breakfast,” I told the young man in the FSU jacket who had pulled up next to me at the stop sign.
“Olean’s,” he said, and then, after giving me directions, commanded: “Follow me.”
We drove for about a minute and then pulled into a slanted parking lot. “I eat here all the time,” he said, before driving off.
Inside, two soldiers sat head-to-toe in camouflage, two older gentlemen (one in a bow tie) were eating eggs and grits, and a young couple, probably students (across the street sat the campus of Florida A&M), were tucking into stacks of pancakes. I was the only person who was alone. I was also the only person who was white.
When I volleyed her “How are you?” back to the woman behind the counter she said “Thank you for asking” with a sincerity that startled me. The woman at the cash register was another fount of sweetness. When the first woman brought my breakfast to my table I opened the Styrofoam container and noticed that the two rashers of bacon I had ordered had grown to five.
One of the joys of travel is eating breakfast out, especially when you find a local institution, and never in such a place had I been made to feel so welcome.
Fortified, I got back in the car and drove to the campus of FSU, winding, on Chieftan Way, through moneyed sports facilities. I found a parking lot and walked to the bookstore, where I made my way to the section of Faculty Authors. While I was leafing through David Kirby’s The House on Boulevard St. an employee – a tall, middle-aged woman – came down the aisle and asked me “How are you doing today?” But she didn’t keep walking, she stopped - waiting to hear.
I took a stroll through campus, a gracious spread of stately red brick buildings set off by that tantalizing mix of live oaks and palm trees. (The Deep South with a whiff of the tropics.) Who needs ivy when you have Spanish moss? And topography. Students passed me on the hills, many of them wearing their school colors.
At what looked like the main entrance, I came upon a statue of a man sitting on a bench. Reading the plaque, I learned that this was Francis W. Eppes, grandson of Thomas Jefferson and founder of Florida State University.
I worked for 19 years as the travel editor of a Florida newspaper and no freelancer ever told me that our third president’s grandson founded FSU. No freelancer ever sent me a story about Tallahassee. They were too busy writing about St. Augustine, Key West, and Disney World.
I’ve watched a good number of FSU football games over the years, and no announcer has ever dropped the name Eppes during a broadcast. There is a lot of down time in football; I once read that, in a three-hour game, there are about 19 minutes of actual playing time. Couldn’t Verne Lundquist, during a timeout some Saturday afternoon, inform viewers that, by the way, this football powerhouse was once a seminary founded by the grandson of Thomas Jefferson? Wouldn’t that be an interesting aside?
But people don’t tell you things. This is why you have to travel.
(To be continued.)
I started this blog on January 2, 2009 by writing about a visit to Versailles on New Year's Day - the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. (Some old men drinking coffee tried to lecture us on the evils of Communism and Hania told them not to bother - "I'm Polish," she said.) Saturday I stayed away from the famous Little Havana restaurant - it seemed to be a uniquely Cuban celebration and, even though welcomed, I would have felt like a party-crasher. Watching it on TV I realized that Cuba is now in the unusual position of possibly becoming one country in the world that actually moves forward.
(I'm off again, this time on a little road trip to promote my book. Will be back here on Dec. 5th.)
While in New York I did a reading, not at a bookstore but at a tiki bar: Otto's Shrunken Head. A tiki bar seemed an appropriate place for a travel book reading, and the name of it was perfect, I thought, for any writer suffering from an oversized ego.