Sometimes in this line of work you drink a cup of blackjo “just because.” It is not the lure of the steamy low lit den with pressed tin ceilings, or the wide open transparency of a corner shop with white walls and stripe-shirted baristi, or even the desperation of the pedestrian in the strange city looking for somewhere to take a beastly dump spawned by their morning cup at one of the aforementioned types. Sometimes you just want to go in for the sole reason of getting to make some notes about the place, to get it, as an oddity, under the belt of the project.
The cobblestone promenade along the river in Savannah is at once a rich stretch of dank and dark alleys with ridiculously steep and narrow stairs cascading down from Bay Street, with storefronts and establishments in low hovels like something out of a Dickens novel, or at least the one that I have read. It is a place that doesn’t like pirates for the same reason that hipsters like pirates. I don’t know why hipsters like pirates. But this street looks like a pirate maybe once strode it, or at least a longshoreman, his boots covered in algae and his teeth like barnacles thirsty for mead. There is swill running through the deep joints in the cobblestones. When you stand in a shadow the air is cold and wet. Though on land, you are surrounded by water, condensing on walls, pooled on the ground, siphoning into your lungs. It is a waterfront. Barely.
At some point, if you can look down at the ground long enough without bumping into someone’s enormous belly or tripping over a kid geeked up on saltwater taffy, you notice that the liquid running through the cobbles is not some kind of archaic dew, but the combination of outboard motor gas, spilled beer, and fraternity urine; this is the cocktail of the post-mardi-gras sewer, the post-coital sweat of a city overrun by bros and fatties.
The streetscape of River Street, if you can look up long enough not to trip over someone’s dog, is equally deceptive. The substreet hovels with solid doors and no awnings give way to the backs of classy looking antique stores above, accessed on metal bridges that span the alley below Bay street, and an enormous hotel spans River Street itself, touching down in between the promenade and the water with a depressing and vapid glass meeting room, the kind that isn’t supposed to have windows, yet because it does, probably has to draw its curtains to keep revelers from Molly O’Mulligan’s from pressing their ass cheeks against the glass during a social for Korean War vets.
So you dive into Vic’s, what the hell? and leave the fiasco behind. The only occupant of a table downstairs is a filthy white microwave. You step down into the aura of a different kind of waterfront. The expectancy and tiredness of the interior transport you to an offseason European seaside town, perhaps by the beach in Marseilles, in January. The beachlets are fenced off and closed and the hunks from London and Basel are in the Dolomites warming their heels with a snifter of cognac in front of a fire, a flannel riding blanket covering their slippered feet, propped on a chest filled with more blankets. Only the locals and the cheap tourists sat, in silence, collecting dust and looking abstractly as the sun hit the sidewalk coolly.
I personally revel in this sort of ennui of place. I grew up by the ocean and it summons in me the afternoons in the houses of friends with divorced parents where the terrazzo floors were blue and shimmering with the late afternoon skies, or it makes me want to take a nap, no matter how wide awake I am, or gives me the feeling that I could nap on my feet, while climbing a seaside cliff to get a better view of where the sun is disappearing to, but still with the disinterestedness I possessed walking down into Vic’s to get some auto-drip in a styrofoam cup that I force myself to drink on a bench outside the candy store before going in to watch the taffy slide down the little system of catwalks into a large rotary system of buckets out of which stores typically sell nails in bulk.
All small town memories and practices, even the landlocked post industrial wastelands of east Kansas, even the moments of the isolated individual encased in the largest of cities, can be captured in the smell of churning bodies of water and the brief glimmer of the falling but still lofty sun on a wavelet, even if you cannot see it from the basement through whose dusty transom the light communicates, stirred either by a single breeze or by a wading seabird, left alone by his peers to break off some peace and space in the offseason.
Vic’s Coffee House15 East River Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401