Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In the Land of Liquor Barns and Waffle Houses - Part 1

Quote of the Blog:

Upon landing in Kentucky Brook posts on FB: "And so the Southern adventure begins! Ps. Louisville smells like popcorn."

Will’s comment: "That’s not popcorn, that’s hydrogenated fats."


October 23-November 14, 2012
23 Days, 7 States, 24 Schools, 1600 miles+

Louisville (5 days) and Lexington (1 day), KY to
Nashville (3 days) and Knoxville (1 day), TN to
Athens (1 day), GA to
Lexington (2 days), SC to
Atlanta (4 days), GA to
Auburn (5 hours), AL to
New Orleans (5 days), LA

I recently returned from a three-week work trip where I drove over 1600 miles through seven states visiting schools to talk about our company’s summer programs. With so much drive time I used voice-to-text to send texts while driving. But despite my best efforts to speak clearly and annunciate, the texts weren’t always transcribed correctly. It was more difficult than navigating the road or even the Southern accent. While I stayed in New Orleans I wanted to text Jason about a moment we shared on a trip there two years ago. We had eaten brunch at a restaurant named Little Dizzy’s which was memorable not only for the food but also because we (almost guiltily) cheered on exhausted Iron Man athletes as we ate an array of delicious southern foods from plates piled high.

I found the memory amusing and figured Jason would too. Since I was driving I used Siri– the iPhone voice-activated digital assistant– and dictated the text: 'Hi Jason, I just passed Little Dizzy's in New Orleans and remembered when we had that decadent brunch.'

When I asked Siri to read back the text before sending she said in her matter-of-fact voice, “Hi Jason, I just passed am a little bit busy.” I tried again, “Hi Jason, I Justin passed a little bit dizzy.' Eek. The third time Siri read it back correctly. Phew! But when I actually looked at what was sent I started laughing, 'Jason, I just passed Little Disease...'

I wondered if Michael from the 80’s TV show Knight Rider ever had that problem with an early prototype of KITT, his artificially intelligent car. I can imagine it now: Usually, Michael would say, “I need ya buddy!” And KITT would respond: “Right Away Michael.” But maybe in KITT version 1.0 the exchange would have looked like this:

Michael: I need ya buddy!
KITT: You need anybody?


Michael: Keep your scanners peeled
KITT:  Teachers candor spilled?

This thought made me chuckle and I sent a follow up text to Jason. “Sorry, using voice-to-text. I wonder if Knight Rider ever had these problems with KITT.” Siri read it back, “… I wonder if night writer ever had these problems...” I sighed.

The Southern ethos is so different from New York’s. First of all, people are NICE. Genuinely nice- like in your face with a big smile nice. Another big difference is that everything is slower. The speech, the movements, the walk – I made an effort to slow things down and keep my quick New York “phrases of three” to a minimum – “Yeah, yeah, yeah” and “Right, right, right.”

But even if they were slower to ring up a customer, answer a question, or check me in at the hotel, they were quick to kindness. And there was customer service! Oh, customer service how I have missed you! When I landed in Louisville, KY and picked up my rental car I was greeted by a man that was as wide as a yardstick wearing a tie as short as a ruler. As he looked at my driver’s license he exclaimed in the light southern lilt of Kentucky, “New York! Well, I don’t know if I could go to New York seeing as I’m such a quiet man!” He let out a belly laugh and gave me a knowing wink. He even waved goodbye as I walked to the parking lot.

As I stepped outside, I stopped. Kentucky smelled like popcorn. I soon discovered a South where the smell of cooking hangs in the air and wafts with the wind in wonderful ways.

My second night in Louisville I debated between going to a traditional southern restaurant or going to a South American restaurant called The Mayan, which had thousands of outstanding reviews on Yelp.  And the food really was mouth-watering delicious.  While there I told the waitress I was glad I had chosen to come to the Mayan instead of getting a traditional “Kentucky” meal. She cocked her head to the side and smiled and said, “What? Like a beer and a cigarette?”

N.B. Speaking of cigarettes, my friend Khay works in a hospital in Kentucky and told me that Kentucky has the highest concentration of smokers per capita in the U.S. He also told me that patients often refer to diabetes as “sugar” as in “She’s got the sugar.” How sweet.

I tried to blend in the South and didn’t think that I stood out that much (besides my different accent) but when I visited the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, KY I was greeted by a grizzly older man, who gave me a once-over and said, "Something tells me you're not here with the FFA Convention group." I had to laugh. “No, no I’m not.” I went on the museum tour and saw how bats are made and was able to hold and swing Mickey Mantle’s bat (only with glov-ed hands). It was a slam dunk, er, grand-slam of a time. And at the end of the tour they give you your very own billy club! Well, they call it a “mini-souvenir bat", but I think airport security would call it a mini-souvenir bat(on). 

That's Mickey Mantle's bat in my hands and
the mini bat(on) under my arm. Our guide
warned our group against carrying
them on the plane.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if I would like life on the road but I actually found it largely enjoyable. And there are certainly perks to staying in a hotel room. I admit that I had a moment, after returning to New York when I came home and thought, “What? No one made my bed or scrubbed the shower while I was away?”

I did have one embarrassing moment in a Nashville hotel though. I had been in the hotel four nights and had NEVER seen a soul on my floor; no matter what time I came or went. One evening I wanted ice but was already ready for bed. And I was sporting a pair of my most comfortable PJ’s – the acquisition of which is a story for another time. They are purple fleece pajamas with little white French kittens all over them. I debated. The ice machine was just two doors down from my room. I decided to risk the 45- second trip. I saw no less than FOUR separate people in the hall during that dash. I received, in payment for my embarrassment, two suppressed smiles and two outright chuckles.  An upside to the occurrence is that when I told my sister the story I got some street-cred with my six-year-old niece who is currently all about kittens.

One of my few regrets from the trip is that I didn’t start counting Waffle Houses when I landed in Kentucky. They are everywhere in the south. EVERYWHERE.  I passed two or three on my drive from the Louisville airport to my hotel. As I pulled into the hotel parking lot I passed a Liquor Barn and thought, “I am in the land of Liquor Barns and Waffle Houses.”

I didn’t start counting until the last week on my drive from Lexington, SC and I counted 19 separate Waffle Houses in two days.  A few days later, on my 7-hour drive from Atlanta to New Orleans I counted another 22 for a grand total of 41 Waffle Houses in a week! There was a Waffle House at almost every exit! They are the Starbucks of the South!

My first taste of the Waffle House was in SC with my friend Liesel who had moved to Lexington, SC with her husband a little over a year ago.  When we walked in I was surprised at 1. How busy it was and 2. How clean it was (compared to my expectations). The inside reminded me of a blend between a diner and a McDonalds. There were men at the counter in barstools and we sat in plastic booths with padded seats and backing. Our waitress was, naturally, very friendly and smiley and was quick to refill our cups, although it was from another drinking glass which Liesel and I both found amusing.

 I don’t think it was coincidence that as the waitress delivered our pumkin pecan waffles that Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” started playing over the speakers. But man, those pecan waffles were taste-ee!

After breakfast I got a text from my friend Will asking “how the South and trans-fats were.” I assured him that all the trans-fatties I had met were very nice!

Fall in the South was stunning. I took this picture on
my drive through the Smoky Mountains

The accents got deeper the further South I drove and New Orleans was by far the strongest. I was called, “sugar, hun, honey, baby, baby-girl, and sweetie” more times than there were Waffle Houses. I caught myself using them in texts to friends. And I noticed my inflections were taking on a Southern lilt. I think that was an indicator it was time to go back to New York. I sponge up accents and part of me was worried I might not be able to shake this new acquisition. I had also visited the Margaret Mitchell home in Atlanta and that certainly didn’t help. Suddenly I found myself with the desire to start sentences with “Why, I do declare…” and had a “hankering for a cool glass of lemonade” and just wanted to sit on the “verandah.” All I needed to complete the scene was a parasol, some male suitors, and an antebellum mansion. “Why Ashley!” Hmmm, but perhaps a male with a different name.

Somehow things sound a bit sweeter with a Southern accent. And there is a charm about some Southern ways. Like when the students in Georgia called me Ma’am and the boys opened the doors for me. Or even when a counselor walked me to my car with an umbrella when it started raining and said gallantly, “Southern gentlemen are still a thing.” I wasn’t going to complain. And while it only took me a day in New York to get back to walking and speaking quickly and my collection of “phrases of three” inevitably continues to expand, I hope I brought a bit of that sweetness back with me, sugar (and I don’t mean diabetes)…