I was born in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania but from a very early age I dreamed of living in a place called Florida.
I remember drawing a map of Florida from memory when I was in second or third grade. Places like Tampa, Miami, Naples and Orlando loomed large in my childhood imagination. I knew that Busch Gardens in Tampa called itself “The Dark Continent” and in my mind then, I saw dense tropical foliage and a complete break from the life I knew. “Someday,” my 9-year-old self thought.
I had to have been around 25 or 26 when the opportunity to move down here presented itself. I jumped at it.
I left for Orlando in early March. When I left Pennsylvania, it was in the throes of a huge snowstorm and it was a relief to get away from it. The farther away I traveled, the less likely it was that I’d have to deal with winter.
I drove that first day until I reached Walterboro, SC. In Walterboro, I booked a room at a Day’s Inn and set about looking for a place to eat dinner.
Next to the Day’s Inn was a Shoney’s and a local barbecue joint. I was in Walterboro again last summer and unfortunately, the barbecue joint I’m writing about no longer exists.
I wasn’t about to eat in a Shoney’s, so I decided to have dinner in the barbecue joint.
I walked into the restaurant and I was the only one there. I ordered a brisket sandwich and a plate of fried green tomatoes as an appetizer.
As a side note, I’d read “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” about a month earlier and I’d never had them. Seeing them on a menu made me want to give them a chance and in doing so, give myself a chance to be something other than the Yankee I was born to be. Fried green tomatoes are fantastic by the way.
Anyhow, my dinner was served by the woman who prepared it. I wish I could remember her name but alas, I cannot. She brought out my dinner and she was all full of attitude and hips. She not only brought out my dinner, she took a seat in the booth opposite me. She was full of life and her laughter was infectious.
As I tucked into my dinner, she proceeded to grill me on why I was moving to Florida. Once satisfied with my answers, she proceeded to tell me about her grandbabies and I confided my fears about starting over in a strange land. We talked about her experiences during hurricane Hugo and at some point she smacked me on the arm (hard!) for feeling sorry for her losses.
We came from different worlds all together, but during that hour-long meal, we stopped being the white guy from PA and the black woman from South Carolina. We became people, just people, and we were telling stories and letting ourselves be known.
After I was done eating and we were done talking, I took my leave and walked back to the Walterboro Day’s Inn.
A day later I was in Orlando and I was ready to attack my new life there. However, I never forgot the interaction with the woman whose name I can’t remember in Walterboro. I learned from her that everybody in the world has a story to tell and that all of us have new experiences ahead of us, be they fried green tomatoes or cross-country moves. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, or whatever. What matters is that we’re all just people and all of us have stories to tell. Listen to those stories, for the love of God listen to them.
So long as all of us, and I mean all of us, continue to listen to those stories we’ll be OK. Sometimes, those stories will enrage you and sometimes they’ll humble you. It’s human to disagree with a lot of what you hear and that’s OK too. What’s important is to listen and not just to hear.