The Southern heart is too impulsive; Southern hospitality is too lavish with the stranger. — Mark Twain, The Spirit of Tennessee Journalism
During my university years, I decided to spend a Spring Break visiting friends in Georgia. After the final class of the term, I packed up my Ford Escort and headed down I95 for my first trip ever into the “Deep South”.
My friends were working when I arrived, so they left a note in their mailbox. They said the house key was under the welcome mat and to see the neighbor if I needed anything.
Wow! People leave keys under the mat in real life? Yeah, welcome thieves, I thought. The hair stood up on the back of my New York neck.
Sure enough, there was a shiny key under the mat.
Just as I was turning that key in the lock, I heard a “Hey there!”
Ugh, I thought, the neighborhood watch program is going to think I am breaking and entering, what with my Yankee license plates and all.
But instead, I was handed a basket of warm muffins from Dolly, who thought I might get a little hungry before my friends got home.
After a refreshing shower (and more than a few delicious muffins), I decided I would make dinner. Upon perusing the cupboards, it became obvious that I needed a shopping trip first. So I headed out in search of a grocery store.
A short distance down the road, I saw a large building that looked promising. But my hopes were dashed when I saw the name — Piggly Wiggly. I chuckled. Must be some sort of farm feed store, I thought to myself as I drove on.
Finally, I decided to stop at a gas station and ask for directions.
When I walked into the 7-Eleven the young man behind the counter called out, “Afternoon Ma’am!”
Startled, I looked behind me to see who he was talking to, but there was no one there. I couldn’t believe he was talking to me. No one had ever called me Ma’am. Ever. I was all of 20 years old, after all.
I assumed he would be annoyed if I didn’t buy anything, so I grabbed some Tic-Tacs and hoped he wouldn’t send me in the wrong direction out of spite.
“That be all for you this fine Georgia day?” he drawled.
Was he mocking me? He seemed sincere, but . . .
“Well,” I stammered, “I’m not from around here” as if this were not already painfully obvious “and I need to find a grocery store.”
“Why you just passed the biggest one in the county, back down the road a stretch. You can’t miss it — the big building on your left. Oh, and tell Molly that Bud said ‘Hey.’ ”
Molly? He must think I am someone else. I must have a Doppelgänger in Georgia. I couldn’t believe I had driven right past the store. I must have been trying to find a decent radio station.
As I headed out the door I asked for the name of the store.
When he said “Piggly Wiggly”, I just smiled and thanked him.
“Sure,” he said, “and you come back again soon!”
Sure enough, when I pulled into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot, there were people coming out of the store with groceries. They were accompanied by young men who put the bags into their car and took the carts back inside. Turns out, they weren’t their teenage sons, but store employees.
Hmmmmm . . . .
Thus began the most bizarre and arguably the most pleasant trip to the grocery store I have ever experienced, before or since.
I walked in digging for my list through the cavernous entity that is a woman’s purse.
“Here you go Ma’am” a young man said pushing an empty cart in my direction. I quickly looked around me to move out of way of whomever he was talking to. And there it was again — Ma’am. Was I getting wrinkles already from too much sun on my face?
Aisle 1 — I was looking for fresh garlic when I heard a “Hi there!” I looked up to see big hair and a bigger smile. Was I being mistaken from someone from around here? “Hello,” I mumbled back and put my head down, avoiding further conversation like any respectable New Yorker.
Aisle 2 — I was in pursuit of noodles when an older man in overalls tipped his hat and said, “Howdy, there.” Howdy? I don’t think I ever heard that word spoken out loud except on an episode of Gunsmoke. I smiled despite myself and said, “Hi.”
Aisle 3 — I was in search of sauce when I saw, or more accurately, felt, her coming. Sensing the inevitable, I smiled and said, “Hey!” We never say “hey” in New York, but by now I was of the mindset, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.”
The rest of my shopping trip proceeded with similar greetings and pleasantries in every aisle. By the time I got to the Ricotta cheese, I was actually enjoying myself.
When I finally reached the checkout, the young woman smiled and said brightly, “Y’all right, then?”
Suddenly I was paranoid. What was wrong with me? Did I have something on my face? Did I look sick? Was my make-up smeared? In New York, even upstate, no one asks you if you are all right unless there are obvious signs that you are not. But she was pleasantly grinning, so I just mumbled “Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”
That’s when I noticed her name tag read Molly. “Um . . . Bud from the gas station says hi.”
“Oh!” she broke out in a bigger grin. “He’s just sooooooooo sweet!”
One of the young men I remembered from the parking lot stood ready to bag my groceries. When I told him I could manage it myself, he beamed and said, “Oh no, Ma’am. Here at Piggly Wiggly we bag and carry for you.” Really? Ma’am? AGAIN?
Molly then proceeded to chat with me about each item.
“Looks like you’re making Italian (pronounced eye-talin)! We love Italian at my house!”
By time she was done ringing everything up she had sent the bagger back for a different type of noodle, far superior to the brand I had chosen. She jotted down her Maw-Maw’s secret sauce recipe, which included just a pinch of Tabasco that she also sent the bagger to fetch.
As she handed me my change, Molly instructed me that Benny at the liquor store next door could suggest the perfect wine. “But don’t go through the drive-thru because Benny never works the drive-thru and Sammy is nice, but doesn’t know a lot about wine. He’s partial to moonshine.”
A drive-thru at a liquor store? Moonshine? Where was I?
In the end, what would have taken me 20 minutes in New York took 2 hours in Georgia. Anyone up north would be annoyed at such a waste of time. I was exhausted, but somehow also exhilarated. I felt warm and bright inside.
These southerners just might be on to something with this hospitality thing. And I grinned all the way back to the house.