This COVID January, with government mandates limiting restaurant service and capacity and Connecticut weathermen scaring the bejesus out of residents over a few white flakes, Larry and I found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands, probing our life purpose, questioning our New England existence, and contemplating our stagnancy. The time was ripe to dip into our bucket list, and without much planning, we packed our bags, jumped into the Rover and pointed the compass south, navigating the open road along the Eastern Coast. Our tour guide, as it turns out, was a skylark.
Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring?
Where my heart can go a journeying
Over the shadows and the rain
To a blossom covered lane.
One cannot deny the allure of the gracious hostess who welcomes callers with sprawling bark-covered arms that extend far above the garrets and as wide as the expanse of a city square, a greeter who envelopes visitors in an ambiguous yet appealing sensation of romance, a seductress who tempts visitors with her whispering winds that dance through the dangling mosses, catching the eye like jewels dripping off the wrists of a southern debutante. Savannah is a classic beauty, unspoiled by the hard lines, glass and steel of modern cities, she is adorned with curling wrought-iron railings that swirl off double staircases to the streets below, and visitor’s eyes are drawn to her many facades, some delicate and ornamented with painted banisters and Victorian peaks, and others statuesque and grand, with slender Corinthian columns and brick faces Unlike other cities, she is not hurried or hasty, and her easy vibe is distinctly audible in the gentle tempo of the clicking hooves of horse-drawn carriages that roll along her streets at a leisurely pace.
Ironically, my visit to Savannah did not start as soothingly as I expected, as we arrived within her boundaries after dark. White-knuckled, Larry maneuvered the Rover down US-17 and over Little Back River Bridge as oncoming LED lights reflecting off surrounding waters confused our brains, and it was difficult to identify the line between hard road and reflection road, but was we learned, distinguishing that fine line between fact and fiction is characteristic of Savannah. The short two and a half hour drive from Charleston, South Carolina to Savannah felt like an eternity, and we were relieved to finally pass over the towering Talmadge Memorial Bridge that led us downtown. Larry exhaustedly put the car in park, and we are immediately greeted by a gregarious valet named Cleveland, casually dressed in baseball cap and jeans. Plopped behind a gas mart and convenience store, the Residence Inn Marriott in the South Historic District is certainly not the most scenic hotel, but our eyes were tired, and we were starving, so it would have to do. Little did we know that our decision to stay in this part of town was luckier than waking up on Christmas morning, as Cleveland exclaimed, after we asked him for suggestions for a local restaurant.
Cleveland pointed across the street and explained that just a block or so away is the best restaurant in all of Savannah, Crystal Beer Parlor, a classic since 1933. The name was intriguing, but it was Cleveland’s enthusiasm that sold us. In this blended section of town bordering the highway, a discreet sign rises above the sidewalk, illuminated by a single overhanging light. The front door entrance was locked, but a sign directed diners to the rear parking lot, where a large tent with tables, chairs and heaters was assembled to provide social distance dining during this pandemic. Curious to see the inside, the hostess brought us to a mahogany vinyl-covered booth in the bar, which was very accommodating and not overcrowded, so we felt comfortable and safe. The bar spanned the length of the wall, with antique bottles and liquors crowding every available space, and décor included old boxing pictures, historic photos and framed vintage newspaper articles. Service was prompt, and our waiter was content to share his menu recommendations. We shared the Pimento Pig, an incredible sandwich of smoked pulled pork, pimento cheese, tomato and chopped pickles on buttered and grilled sourdough bread, with a side of homemade onion rings and Savannah red rice, deliciously flavored with tomato, celery, onion, green pepper and bacon drippings. For the sweet course, stakes were high, as we debated between the Savannah mud pie, Gawgia peach cobbler and fried poundcake. We deferred the dessert decision to our waiter, and he brought back the fried poundcake, which did not disappoint. Starting with a homemade, buttery hunk of golden poundcake, the dessert is dipped in pancake batter and fried until crispy, golden brown. Then, it is ladled with homemade caramel syrup and served with a monster-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with swirls of whipped cream. After we licked the plate, I could not help fantasizing about everything else on the menu. To this very moment, I still regret not trying the Gawgia Cracka nachos, baked southern deviled crab, and the Gawgia peach cobbler, which apparently is the best in state. I can only pray that Crystal Beer Parlor is around for another 88 years, so I can make it back to that fine establishment and savor my way through everything on their menu.
The next morning, we rose early anticipating several hours of sightseeing, and we booked a morning trolley tour to be followed by an afternoon walking tour focusing on the history of the Civil War in Savannah. With worries about COVID, we almost booked a private tour, but there was no need for the extra expense . . . we were the only two people on trolley tour and the walking tour, an ironic bonus of this horrible pandemic. Both tours were informative, but the walking tour (2+ hours) was an excellent opportunity to explore the 22 city squares that make up downtown Savannah and its cobblestone riverfront, while enhancing knowledge of the civil war and the city’s history, as well as getting the tea on some famous residents. We learned that many scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed in downtown Savannah, particularly in Chippewa Square, and Savannah is the proud birthplace of lyricist Johnny Mercer, Co-Founder of Capitol Records, who wrote a few tunes you might know, including Come Rain or Come Shine, Day In-Day Out, Autumn Leaves, One for My Baby, Something’s Gotta Give, Jeepers Creepers, Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses, I Wanna Be Around, and a song from our very first dance, a juke box favorite that we played at Pete’s Pub, a little bar we frequented after our work shift at the Salty Dog Restaurant in Fanueil Hall when we met in 1992, the Summer Wind.
As our tour guide led us through Johnson Square, the first and largest of the city squares, he was rambling on about the Union Army’s conquest in the south, but I became distracted by nature and the camellia bushes which were early to bloom in 50 degree January, and I ventured off with my camera to capture the vibrant colors, when I found myself standing before granite bench. Engraved was the name of the poetic genius, Johnny Mercer, and I paused for a moment, to pay my respects. Somehow, the voice of our tour guide describing General Sherman’s march to the sea, the chatty conversations of people passing by and the humming of car engines became silent, and I could hear music, at first distant and faint, and I could not tell if it was outside or inside my head. As I stood there, I found myself humming as these lyrics came to my lips. Skylark, have you anything to say to me?
Won't you tell me where my love can be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone's waiting to be kissed?
Johnny Mercer’s grandfather’s house, the Mercer Williams home, a gorgeous brick mansion that is now a museum, has a notorious history. It was the scene of the 1981 shooting death of Danny Hansford by the home's owner, Jim Williams, a story that is retold in the 1994 John Berendt book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a New York Times best seller which was made into a film starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. The bird girl statute, which was made famous by the book, has been relocated to relocated to Telfair Academy, a museum in Savannah’s Telfair Square. Savannah has a legendary place in Civil War history as well, and the Green–Meldrim House in Madison Square served as General Sherman’s headquarters from 1864-1865, when civil war ended. The home, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976 is a stunning example of Gothic Revival architecture, and it is currently owned by the adjacent St. John's Episcopal Church.
What is most impressive about Savannah is its organization, and that was no mistake. James Oglethorpe persuaded King George II to issue a charter for this new colony in America, which was appropriately named Georgia after his royal highness, and in 1773, with the help of militia and enslaved African Americans from South Carolina, Oglethorpe laid out a plan for the new town of Savannah with a distinctive pattern of streets and public squares, with each square to be surrounded by rows of houses, each row ten lots long, with the corners of each square serving as churches or courthouses. Today, most of Oglethorpe’s original plan is still in tact, with 22 of the city’s original 24 blocks remaining. Each square is unique and features a gorgeous park with a central monument or fountain, and walkways lined with fragrant camellias and azaleas and shaded by graceful mossy-covered boughs, surrounded by architecturally diverse buildings, ranging from Victorian to Greek Revival to Gothic. The good news is you cannot get lost in a planned city. The bad news is you cannot get lost in a planned city. Either way, it is the perfect excuse to use when I never return back to Connecticut.
After our jaunt, we needed some refreshment, and we ducked into a darling wee joint, Molly MacPherson’s Scottish Pub, and were quite entertained by the authentic décor as well as the menu which offers Scottish meat pies, sausage rolls and even scotch eggs! Earlier in the afternoon, we enjoyed lunch at Belford’s Seafood and Steak, a gorgeous brick-walled restaurant with arched windows located in the landmark historic district. I had a shrimp po-boy and Larry had a cheeseburger with shoestring fries. One thing to note about shrimp in the south . . . whether it is fried and served in a sandwich with tangy remoulade, or nestled into creamy grits, it is tender, buttery and sweet, so unlike the shrimp I’m accustomed to eating in New England, which frankly is tougher and not sweet at all. For an apertivo before dinner, the crooning of a handsome cowboy lured us from our stroll along East Liberty street into Proof and Provision, a bourbon bar and restaurant that features an outdoor heated patio and live entertainment street side on Madison Square, located in the DeSoto Hotel. The DeSoto Hotel is a legendary hotel that has existed since 1890, but she is no old-fashioned dame. She is a stunning and a sophisticated blend of historic treasures infused with contemporary design and the artwork of the students of SCAD, which is the Savannah College of Art and Design. If I am blessed with the opportunity to return to Savannah, this hotel, with its prime location, meaningful history and aesthetic accommodations, would be my preferred choice.
SCAD has a commanding presence in the city of Savannah, and in fact, in the last 40 years, SCAD has acquired in excess of 68 tired and dilapidated buildings across Savannah and students have transformed them into usable and relevant structures, which now serve as SCAD residence halls, learning centers and studios. They are visually appealing and remarkable enhancements to the charm of the city. SCAD has proven to be the architectural savior for the Savannah. For those seeking a career in creative art or design in a historic location where the city is your drawing board, this school offers incredible hands-on experience.
That night, we had dinner at the Pirates House, an old inn which opened in 1753 that became famous from the pirates and sailors from the Seven Seas who frequented it. I truly enjoyed the corn bread and the she-crab soup, a not-to-be missed delight with crabmeat, sherry and cream, and Larry loved their award-winning honey pecan fried chicken.
I regret that I was not able to eat at the Olde Pink House sitting front and center in Reynolds Square, a historic building from 1771 that is notable not only for its Jamaican pink color caused from the red bricks bleeding through the plaster, but their authentic menu and beautiful dining areas. The delicious aromas wafting onto the sidewalk from the meals served on their outdoor patio were as beguiling as stories of the mysterious ghosts that allegedly stroll its hallways.
As we walked towards our hotel that night, it was particularly quiet. The back streets were quite dim, many only illuminated by the glow from a porch bulb or window lamp, until we reached Reynolds Square. Maybe it was the wine from dinner, but there, the southern seductress worked her haunting magic, her arms raised high above our heads, draping the mossy vines over the lampposts fracturing the light, like a lady of the night who mutes the austerity of her boudoir lamp with her shoulder scarf. The rhythmic clicking of the horses trotting on the pavement lulled us into a state of serenity, and once again, it was hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy, a recurring circumstance in this alluring city. That moment became my whole existence, and I understood that there is no greater sanctuary than Savannah for me.
I tuck my arm into the crook of Larry’s as we pass again by Johnson Square, where earlier in the day I took photographs of the red and white camellias by Johnny Mercer’s memorial bench. Larry is pleasantly talking about the next southern destination on our journey as we are departing in the morning, so I know he didn’t hear it. But there it was again, a faint melody, lingering in the misty air, as distinct as the shadowy figures in the haunting night.
Faint as a will o' the wisp
Crazy as a loon
Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon
As I contemplate leaving this beautiful place, Johnny Mercer’s lyrics become suddenly poignant, and I understand the plight of the gypsy in the song. A quiet fluttering in the trees followed by a winged shadow made my heart skip. Was that the skylark?
“Did you see that?” I ask with my eyes open wide. Larry looks over at me, and I cannot tell if he is just giddy from the wine or the adrenaline of our spontaneous adventure. He squeezes my arm and places a peck on my cheek.
“I see a pretty girl,” Larry responds.
I knowingly smile. The skylark did find my love . . . and she led me there.
Have you anything to say to me?
Won't you tell me where my love can be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone's waiting to be kissed?
I don't know if you can find these things
But my heart is riding on your wings
So if you see them anywhere
Won't you lead me there
Johnny Mercer, Skylark, 1941
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