Rivalries flare up

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Savannah Morning News column

It’s an old trick. Not the most ethical. Not something I’m proud of. Not something I do all that often. But when I am out of town (or even in town) and I see a crowd of people following a leader who is talking (and who seems to know what he or she is talking about), I tag along, if just for a few minutes. In Charleston, S.C., this past weekend, at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets, I loitered, I listened, I laughed. The group was standing in front of City Hall, a beautiful early 19th-century white building with dramatic steps and plenty of white tile. Only minutes earlier, as we circled the block looking for parking, we spotted the scene of a photo shoot for a wedding party, everyone but the bride dressed in white. The bride and some of her bridesmaids chose apricot.

“It’s my son,” a woman said, explaining the crowd gathered around a tour guide and a pay telephone. “He’s eight years old. He’s never seen anything like this before.”

It was a regular old prepay phone where you drop coins into a slot and stand and wait for a dial tone.

Guarantee: that’s what this eight-year-old will remember from his trip to Charleston – a heavy receiver tethered by cord to a funny-looking phone attached to a pole.

I will remember trying to get into a restaurant known as Husk and listening as the hostess, with no hint of attitude or impatience, said three times:“The first available table? Let’s see. That would be at 9:45.”

Shocking. Disappointing. But no matter. Charleston is the queen of restaurants. Barely 10 steps away we found a restaurant called 82 Queen. Perfectly delightful. Of course, the best restaurant is not anywhere near the historic district and it’s easy to miss. The Glass Onion, which refers to the first track on the Beatles’ White Album, is tucked between strip malls on Savannah Highway on the way into Charleston. It’s moderately priced. It’s tasty. The menu changes every day. And they host an annual Julia Child Birthday Dinner every August to honor the culinary matriarch.

The owners migrated to Charleston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The bread for the po’ boys is imported from Leidenheimer’s in New Orleans, an outfit that has been baking French breach for over 105 years.  Light, crisp and airy.

My biggest beef? They were out of black bean falafels. Rats. We had to have shrimp po’ boys. Not so bad.

As close as Charleston is, I am embarrassed how few times I’ve visited. People in Charleston – waiters, tour guides (!), grocery store clerks at Harris Teeter, guests at the wedding I went to, a woman doing the make-up for the bridal party who is majoring in women’s studies at the College of Charleston – said the same thing about Savannah. They have been meaning to go. They want to go. They think about going.

With a widened Highway 17, the trip is easier than it used to be. And there’s always the joy of staying in a rented house where the sink drains properly and the remote control is manageable.

Then there’s Folly Beach, a dressed down version of Charleston, a place where leashed dogs are occasionally allowed on the beach. And where there’s a water tower with the letters FB. Except this FB did not mean Facebook.

But then this thing happens, every time I’m in Charleston. Just when I’m enjoying the wide streets, the fine dining, the sophisticated service, the older architecture, and the size of the downtown, I feel myself comparing it to Savannah. I feel myself getting defensive. Humph, I said this time. I bet there’s not an elementary school that pairs up with a botanical garden for a day of pastoral poetry and cut out butterflies, the way Charles Ellis did this week with the Savannah Botanical Garden.

I bet there’s not a group of middle-schoolers like those at Hancock Day School that took six months to recycle and install 15,000 pieces of paper and fabric onto a 7-by-19-foot screen, a project that morphed into a permanent collage of the marsh that sits a few blocks from the school. One thousand of those pieces of paper are egrets, the rest trees, hammocks, sky and water.

I bet one of their high schools didn’t give an early evening outdoor concert like the one I stumbled across at the Savannah Arts Academy last week.

Beat that, Charleston. If you can.


Walking into the sunset

Savannah Morning News column

May 18, 2014

Coni Coleman is not one to complain about schlepping a book around. She doesn’t mind the heft. She likes the way a book feels, the way it smells, how it’s put together. She likes poundage. Coni is a book junkie. Just ask; she’ll tell you. No 12-step program for her. Today, heading to work, stopping for coffee and a chat, she’s carrying “Travels with My Donkey,” by Tim Moore. At home, where she says books are piled up on the floor almost shoulder level (well, probably something close to that), Fione Carnarvon’s “Lady Almina and the Real Donwton Abbey” heads the stack.

She buys new books, finds used books, and checks books out of the library. Right now she’s pretty sure everything she’s checked out of the library is probably overdue.

Which is kind of amazing.

Coni works at the library. She is a librarian for the Live Oak Public Libraries. These days she’s been managing the Southwest Chatham and Oglethorpe Mall branches, but for years, as regular patrons and fellow book junkies would know because she had a following a mile long, she worked the front desk at the Wilmington Island branch and had oversight for branches at Thunderbolt and Tybee Island.

Either from instinct or pride, she does not use Wikipedia. She wishes kids and patrons would develop a tactical skill for search and research. Many, she said, don’t even know about indexes at the end of a book. But that’s was librarians do: “They take people to places other than the obvious. People come in wanting to do a report on bears. I suggest a book on mammals. They say ‘Oh, I never thought of that.’”

Everyone who works in a library should work the front desk, she said. That way they can see what people read, what they want.

Libraries and books, people and books, free time and books, a monthly book club (for the past 21 years), where all 12 members read and meet and talk about what they are reading not what has been assigned, “a kind of show and tell”: that’s been Coni’s world. With the inside track, she can’t wait to get to work in the morning so she can see what new books have come in, which books she can recommend to patrons, which books she can snag for herself.

At age 61, she has no idea what else in her life she’d be good at or what else she could do. But come May 31, she’ll find out. After 33 years in the Savannah system and several more at National Geographic and the Library of Congress, both in Washington, D.C., and before that, Catholic University where she got her master’s degree in library science, she is leaving the organized and professional world of books, catalogues, indexes and manuscripts. She is leaving her job.

But first she’s taking a walk, a long walk, a long mind-freeing walk.

A few weeks after she turns in her key, deletes her work phone number and cleans out the desk of her library home, Coni and a friend will fly to northern Spain, where they plan to walk the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. This, I have learned, is a spiritual journey that people of all faiths have taken for thousands of years. With 10 other people, they will walk from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. They will cover the 100-mile-route in seven days.

“Friends think I’m in complete denial,” Coni said. “Christian (Kruse, director of the Live Oaks Public Libraries) said it was crazy and why don’t I just walk to Jacksonville.”

To prepare for this venture – and maybe to divert her mind from the pending change – Coni has been in training. She’s been taking walks near her Burnside home. She’s worked her way up to two hours at a time. So far, so good. She is not plugged in to earphones. Or a book. She does not listen to anything – no podcasts, no radio, no music. It is not boring, she said. She carries a phone – “I’m like a first responder “ – but it’s hard for her to walk and talk at the same time.

What won’t be hard will be to walk into the library as a volunteer with a children’s therapy dog team/reading program she started. She will bring Howie, as she has done for years, and sit back as kids read out loud and look to that calm. sympathetic four-legged creature for support.

And she will volunteer for the enormously successful yearly children’s book festival in the park.

“My dad, an avid reader, is convinced I won’t have access to books,” she said.

She will, like the rest of us. But first she may have to pay some fines.