I stared at list of restaurants my sister sent me to research for our night out for a good while, before writing “I don’t want to eat at a place with this name” next to The Peg Leg Porker. Molly wrote back, “Snort. You know you’re coming to the South, right?”
I did and I didn’t. How does a coastal queer prepare for the culture shock that is Tennessee and Kentucky? I had no time for research, as I was running around after my daughter and responding to the complicated reactions to a piece on race I’d published that week. Since I’d been thinking about the repercussions of slavery quite a bit, it seemed like the perfect time to visit the South. Or the worst – I’d find out.
Part of my history lesson was learning that Kentucky was one of the four Southern states that did not secede in the Civil War, and Tennessee was one of the last to join the Confederacy, making them a “border state.” I have a strong learning curve for life in the South, and I was looking forward to jumping in alongside my sister, who moved there three years ago, and was acting as a “cultural attaché.”
Our night out in Nashville was stalled twice, as first my sister couldn’t quite recognize her new car in the airport parking lot, and then, as there were valets running at us as we pulled up, she left her phone in the car when we got to the hotel. This set the entire hotel staff (valets, front desk hosts, concierge, and bellhops) on an hour and a half wild goose chase for it, all politely apologizing while becoming more and more confused as to its whereabouts. I couldn’t figure out if it was slow and complicated because it was the South, or because we were unaccustomed the on-goings of a swanky hotel like the Omni.
An hour into the phone debacle, we took the concierge (who we affectionately deemed “Pink Shirt Guy”) up on his belated offer to get us a drink while we waited to hear what mini bar Molly’s phone had been incorrectly placed in. He sent over the bartender, and at first we groaned because we really did not want to describe the phone to one more person (“It’s a black Samsung phone. Nope, not a white iPhone. How many phones got lost in this hotel tonight?”). But then he took our drink order and came back with the prosecco we wanted, chatting us up as he poured into the flutes.
“Where y’all from?”
“San Francisco.” I said.
“Connecticut.” Molly replied.
“What? You live in Kentucky!” I corrected her.
“No. I live there, but I’m from Connecticut. Do I sound like I’m from Kentucky?” She scoffed at me.
The bartender piped in, “Do I sound like I’m from Kentucky? ‘Cuz I am.”
Molly and I looked at each other, besmirched. We had possibly offended the one person who was actually helping us at this hotel! We decided to leave after we finished our drink, even if the phone was not back by then. At that point, all I’d had to eat for hours had been the hard boiled egg I’d taken on the plane, and even The Peg Leg Porker was looking pretty good.
Out of the list of choices, I’d opted for a Tapas restaurant, and had called several times that evening to make sure they still had space for us, while the phone fiasco played out in excruciatingly slow detail. But I guess Tapas is not all that popular in Nashville, because when we finally arrived, the place was barely half full. Nashvillians are missing out – the food was delicious, and the ambiance of exposed hardware lighting was just right for a sisterly heart-to-heart. We talked about our parents’ marriage, and our own marriages, what we are doing differently, what seems the same.
“We’re really lucky to still be in love with our spouses, after all these years.” I said.
“Oh, in Kentucky, we say, ‘I am truly blessed’, and if we’re talking about the things our husband’s still don’t get quite right, we say, ‘bless his heart.’” she corrected, widening her vowel sounds believably.
We bonded over the memory of Future Problem Solvers, the program for gifted kids at our Connecticut middle school, in which every person had a role and you learned critical thinking. We talked about who from FPS was hot now, who grew up to be the genius that fixed the Obamacare website, who was still as stuck-up as ever. “I vaguely remember being kicked out of FPS for graffiting the desks.” I said.
After dinner we walked through the honky tonk section of Broadway St., enjoying the free live music pouring out of every neon-lit joint. Squeezing ourselves into one such establishment, we ordered weak drinks and sang-yelled along with the cover band, who was playing some 90’s jams, “PLEASE TELL ME WHYYYYYYY MY CAR IS IN THE FRONT YARD AND I’M SLEEPING WITH MY CLOTHES ON…” Songs I didn’t like in the 90’s but feel nostalgic towards now poured out of me from that part of my brain that all radio hits lurk.
Though we were standing on the outskirts, one by one, drunk good ol’ boys came up to us and tried to engage us in incoherent conversation and/or a stumbling dance. I was unaccustomed to such unsolicited, straightforward pick ups, since in SF there is usually some witticism that precedes a come on. When we demurred, some moved on to the next girl, but one became belligerent, “Oh, you’re just gonna shit all over me? Just crush my confidence?”
“You’re confident, buddy. You’re confident.” I replied, pointing my finger right at him.
We took off soon after that, and I became obsessed with the number of bachelorette parties on the streets. Bunches of girls looking nearly identical, with sky-high hair and heels, with one in a veil and a sash, sometimes even a white dress. I wanted to take Avedon-style portraits of all of them, but I settled for Instagram pics of them dancing with street performers, their “Bridal Bitch” badges bouncing up and down on their chests.
Finally we ended up, as we have on every vacation we’ve ever been on together, in Ye Olde Candy Shoppe. My thoughtful sister was planning an early St. Patricks Day party for me the following day in Kentucky, so she was eyeing the glass bins of green candy with a decorator’s lens. She stepped up to the counter, addressing the worker whose pasty skin made her look about 15 though she must have been in college, saying, “We’ll take all the green rock candy you have.”
“Are you serious right now?” The girl replied dubiously, squinting and looking sideways at us.
“Um, yeah. All the sticks in that jar, at least, maybe not all in the entire store?” Molly said.
The girl walked off, laughing and relaying to her co-worker that we were actually buying every stick of green apple rock candy. I stunned her further by not wanting a bag for my lone milk chocolate s’more, telling her, “Where I live I’d have to pay you ten cents for a bag, so I’ve gotten used to not taking them.”
“That don’t make any sense! They just use paper bags then? Waste of trees!” she said.
“No, we all bring our own bags. And can you recycle that receipt for me? Thanks.” I said, as she shrugged and crumpled the little paper.
“Where you say you were from?” she asked.
“Oh, and how you like it here?”
“It’s beautiful. It’s big!” We both smiled.
On the walk back to the hotel, I stopped to have my sister take a picture of me pretending to hold up the glowing Country Music Hall of Fame sign.
Once again, drunk men approached us, one of them shouting incomprehensible questions at us, but one politely saying, “Want me to take one of the two of you, M’aam?” The more in touch with my queer identity I have gotten, the less patience I have had for making random men feel useful. “Nope!” I shouted, while my sister, who knows how hard it is for two moms to get a picture together replied, “Yes, thanks!” and threw her arm around me. The man fumbled with the camera for several seconds, while I glared at his friend, who was now shouting at a building, “BASON! BASON!”
“Dude, his name’s Jason. And he’s not in that building.” his friend told him.
We retrieved her camera and headed up to our hotel beds, which were blissfully free of small children and husbands, ours for the stretching and sleeping. The next morning we were waking up early to drive out to the country, to meet up with the rest of the family, but this night exploring an unfamiliar and wildly interesting city together had been just for us.