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This morning, I took Wally downtown for a job fair. It was tricky to find and in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and one of the places referred to as "The 'Hood". It was the first black neighborhood in the city and the houses were all built sometime during the last few years of the 19th century. Once upon a time it was a stop over for jazz musicians, porters and waiters on the cross country trains and then the thrill seeking Beats. Our little city had it's own artsy Harlem. But then the trains stopped running as frequently... Twenty plus years ago, I stumbled into this neighborhood and the once festive store fronts and club entrances were either boarded up or in shambles. The houses had sagging porches, peeling paint and trash in the yards. The cars lining the streets were as dilapidated as the buildings and houses. I had a few co-workers who lived there and they told me I was foolish to go down there and stay there even if it was an accident because any given time you could hear people shouting at each other, gun fire and squealing tires. I’m still naive enough to think a white woman would have only garnered curious stares rather than attracting violence. A few years after that, community groups started a re-gentrification project, the gang violence was under a little better control and a sense of pride had returned to the neighborhood. My co-worker who had once been so negative about the place was now passionate about saving her home and making it something to be proud of. The old jazz clubs re-opened and the soul food restaurants started advertising. The light rail moved in and the neighbors could get work on the other side of town and the white folks from the SE could come and gawk and spend their money. Ward, me and the boys went down there one Sunday afternoon many years ago. It was a chance to ride the train--something the boys loved--and a novel way for me and Ward to see something other than our Fabulous Suburb. Besides the restaurant I wanted to try was one of the oldest restaurants in town.
The train wound its way through the deserted Sunday afternoon streets in the financial district downtown before moving past the train yards and to Five Points. We got off the train at the end of the line. We stumbled off the train a little disoriented; neither of us had been down there on foot. We walked a couple of blocks along the main street and I spied the houses down the side streets, most of them still looked a little shabby but more hopeful with old mass plantings of heavily scented purple and yellow iris, old spirea, snow ball and forsythia heavy with blooms all surrounded by patches of bright green grass. We stood on the raised platform and looked around below us. The street was empty but the businesses had an efficient rather than derelict air about them. There were a few men sitting on the sidewalks in the shades of awnings, some were asleep some sitting on their haunches and staring at us. There was a kid standing near the train stop and he was hunched over with his hands jammed into the pockets of his over ample pants. We stepped off the platform and I started walking towards the young man. Ward was about to stop me but I was too far ahead. This kid didn’t give me a chance to ask him a question before he was questioning me.
“Whatchu want?” He leaned back, took his hands out his pants and crossed them over his chest like some kind of Biggy Small wannabe. I think he was trying to intimidate me but he didn’t realize I had a long history of working with gang bangers, junkies and your average street thug so nothing shook me up too much. Especially on a Sunday afternoon, in a city with the reputation of being more Cow Town than Mean Streets.
“I’m looking for Mamma’s; it’s supposed to be around here.”
“Over der. Good food , too. “ He relaxed a little and continued to size me up, his head nodding up and down, still unsure I wasn’t a cop or a warrant officer or a social worker or a bounty hunter disguised as a white suburban housewife.
I tossed thanks over my shoulder as I walked towards the family and we approached the poorly marked restaurant with a rickety and decrepit door.
We walked into the restaurant and the contrast between the bright afternoon and the dark room temporally blinded us; my guess is we all looked stunned for a few seconds. Once my eyes adjusted I noted we were the only people in the restaurant except an elderly gentleman and an older woman in a smock apron. The room was simple and painted a industrial/institutional green. Each table had four chairs and red checkered oil cloths. Near the back, the only thing on the wall was a picture of Jesus. Predictably, it was white Jesus. The people were sitting at the table under the picture of Christ. The man addressed us after he stood up using a cane for support. He had a suspicious tremor in his voice, and probably had good reason to distrust white people. He was old enough to remember the danger of making eye contact with a white woman or not duck his head in the direction of a white man.
“You folks lost?”
“No sir, we heard about your restaurant and would like to have Sunday dinner here if you are still open.” Ward was respectful but direct and completely nonplussed by this adventure I had taken us on. His parents had been incredibly liberal and politically active in the 1950’s and 60’s. Had they not had teenagers at home, my guess is they would have been registering voters in Alabama and Georgia; marching on Washington, the whole deal.
“We open?” he turned his entire body towards the seated woman who was looking us up and down and up and down again.
“We open.” Was her quiet answer. She heaved herself up and went into the kitchen.
All I remember before we had our delicious food as the kids were thankfully and remarkably well behaved; and the buzz from the window air conditioner was so loud if you had wanted to tell secrets you didn’t dare. I do remember the man coming to our table asking why we had bothered to come all the way across town for dinner. We explained we had heard what was happening in the neighborhood and wanted to see it. His daughter (the chief) came out every few minutes and joined in the conversation, warming up to the idea of white folks coming in for lunch. He told us there were still people living in the houses they were born, some close to one hundred . He was proud of his home, a pretty place with old iris blooming in the yard and big leafy trees along red stone sidewalks. The roasted chicken was smothered in gravy; the greens were smoking hot with cayenne, the mashed potatoes buttery and the corn bread sweet. My then three year old ate a quarter of a chicken and his picky eating older brother had almost that. The food was simple and straight forward but there was enough different about it I felt like I had stepped into another part of the country when I got off the train.
I grew up in Texas but don’t remember eating southern style food as a kid. Years ago, my black co-workers thought it was because I was a racist until they figured out I had never had opportunity to try it. So they would bring crazy things for me to try just to see if I would eat them and then have a big laugh over the white girl from Texas who loved chitins but didn’t much care for the pickled pigs’ feet and gushed over mixed greens. I can still hear one of them saying: “Baby, those ain’t nothing’ but weeds that grows in the ditch!” (I remembered that line when I fixed our collards last summer) So my palate had a bit of a swagger to it that afternoon at Mamma’s.
Today, I drove down that same street and the restaurant is still there. The front has been repainted and the tiny sign has been replaced with a fancy new sign. It cheered me to see one of the oldest restaurants in town was still open. The notorious jazz clubs from the thirties and forties were there, too. I wondered if the now famous jazz names would stop in and jam after their real gigs, like they did fifty years ago. Inviting benches lined the sidewalk and invited people to sit and watch the world go by. It wasn’t terribly early in the morning nor was it cold but their weren’t kids skulking around on the corners or older guys sitting against buildings like there had been in the past. I drove the side streets and the yards were clean, the houses were painted and had many had been carefully restored. The Queen Anne style homes rivaled the one’s I had seen in San Francisco a couple of years ago. All of the yards had shrubs and plants threatening to bloom and there were even a few scraggly and ancient cherry trees already in bloom. Spring was threatening to return to Five Points. I knew I was going back one sunny spring day armed with my appetite and my camera.