Savannah is a story about people. The heart of travel is in the people whose paths you cross and the stories they tell. Savannah is full of stories. If you want to read about my favorite things or see the costs of this trip check out My Favorite Things in Savannah, Georgia.
My plane had landed at 5:15. I had planned to take the free bus from the airport to my Airbnb, but I had failed to read the fine print — the express bus stopped at 5 p.m. So I called an Uber, and 10 minutes later, John arrived. John rolled up in a gold Buick LaCrosse with a plush brown leather interior. I’m a big fan of Buicks, owning one myself, but not one as beautiful as John’s. My first comment was, “I love your car,” and now John and I were friends for the next 13 minutes. John looked like he was about my age, maybe a little older. He could also be 70; I have a hard time telling other people’s ages. He was born and raised in Sylvania, Georgia, a small town about 45 minutes north of Savannah. He described Sylvania as a place where “everyone knows your business.” John wasn’t particularly sold on the idea of living in Savannah, but he got a job there. For a few years, he commuted back and forth, making that hour-and-a-half round trip, and finally committed to living in Savannah full time. He’s lived here for 18 years and likes the changes that have come to pass. The last thing he said when I was getting out of the car was, “My momma always said a stray bullet doesn’t know if you’re good or bad, so do your best to stay outta the types of places people shoot at each other.” Wise words, John.
My first meal in Savannah was at Bull Street Taco, the first food place I walked by after settling into my Airbnb. I ordered inside, got my beer from the counter, and took a seat at a little two-top table on the sidewalk. I try to avoid taking up larger tables when I am eating solo. There had been a tall man in line behind me, carrying a backpack-style bag very similar to the one I carry, only it had more of an Aztec print and mine is plain black. I automatically assumed he was holding his wife’s bag — how very sexist of me — and didn’t think much of it. He settled himself at the other two-top next to mine. I didn’t notice much about him other than no wife ever showed. I was pretty focused on my food — I was hungry! At some point, we both finished and wandered off. Ten minutes later and a few blocks away, Mark comes walking toward me. I recognized his bag, slung over his shoulder, before I recognized him. I immediately laughed as we were both clearly wandering the neighborhood. His first words were, “I am not stalking you; I’m trying to find a coffee place that’s open,” which made me laugh harder. Mark is from San Francisco and this was his last night in Savannah. He was staying in the same neighborhood at another Airbnb and had been to every coffee shop in the neighborhood, but most had closed down in the early evening. As a sober man, he was looking for one last hit of caffeine for the night before heading back to pack for an early morning flight. I have no idea how he drinks coffee that late and gets up in the morning; Mark wasn’t a young guy, around my age. I think. His favorite spot was The Blue Door. He liked that they had a big pride flag and that there were so many pride flags in the neighborhood. “I’m not the queerest looking guy, but I feel safe here. I hope you’ll feel the same.” I didn’t know if he meant as a woman or if he assumed I was LGBT or Q; regardless, I appreciated his sentiments. At the end of the conversation, he introduced himself. “I’m Mark!” I introduced myself. “I’m Heather!” And we shook hands and wished each other safe travels.
I was headed to SCAD — Savannah College of Art and Design — and decided to walk the perimeter of Forsyth Park instead of walking through it as I had the previous day. New vantage point. As I’m walking I hear what sounds like a jogger behind me, so I scoot over to the right a bit for them to pass. As they get closer, they sound like they are still on my right so I peek behind me and, sure enough, there is a man running in the grass on my right. No matter how I try, I can’t leave my insanely friendly Midwestern-ness at home, so I ask, “Am I in your way?” Gus immediately stops with a big smile cutting across his face and says, “No ma’am, I run in the grass, and I’m gonna tell you why.” And so for the next 20 minutes, as Google tries to tell me which way to go — and I ignore it — I walk the rest of the perimeter of Forsyth Park and Gus tells me. He’s had two torn Achilles tendons and a knee replacement. The state of Georgia hired an international consultant to come to Savannah and ask the people what they wanted to see in Forsyth Park, and the people said, “We want a running path.” Gus really wants a running path, as it’s currently just grass or sidewalks. Gus is from Nigeria and went to Michigan University in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He lived in Ann Arbor for quite a few years, had a good job as a toxicology scientist (I’m sure I have that weirdly wrong), and had a good salary working for Pfizer, but he wasn’t so keen on the snow. He said he knew that his 401k was interdependent on the market, which worried him, and that if he was going to stay a scientist, he needed to get his Ph.D. and write grants. He figured he needed to make some decisions since he was getting close to 40. He decided to apply for some state jobs and ended up working for the State of Georgia’s Blue Cross Blue Shield, leaving science behind. He took a pay cut, but the cost of living was better, the quality of living was better, and he and his wife are enjoying looking forward to retirement. He also runs a small business with three employees down here. Back in his days at Pfizer, he said his colleagues would say, “Gus, why are so many Nigerians so smart?” and Gus would say, “We know how hard things can be and the opportunity being in America provides.” He’s never stopped appreciating the opportunity to attend school and live in America and is a proud immigrant.
After I parted from Gus in Forsyth Park, I made it to SCAD. I was very excited to check out their art museum but hadn’t looked ahead to see what artists were on display. I was in for a surprise and was more than delighted. The first exhibit as I entered SCAD was Sanford Biggers. I had recently been in NYC and had stood in awe in front of The Oracle on display at Rockefeller Center. So I was shocked to walk into a Sanford Biggers show four weeks later in Savannah! His work is powerful. The next area I walked into was the HAAS Brothers exhibit. This is where I met Kim. The HAAS Brothers exhibit was just…fun. It’s like Muppets meet porn. Lots of penises. So when Kim walked in, my first thought was “I wonder if her parents know she’s in here.” Kim is a petite woman. I’m all of 5’2, so when someone is significantly shorter than I am, I take notice. As we passed each other, marveling at the whimsy and also a shocking amount of gold penises on display, we caught each other’s eyes and laughed. I don’t recall the first moments of the conversation, mostly about the work, but then I asked if she was from Savannah. She was not; she had just flown down from New York City. She was in school at NYU and had decided to take a solo trip to Savannah. She was staying on the very same street I was! For a second we were like, are we staying in the same house? But we weren’t — just a few blocks apart. I shared some of my favorite spots in the neighborhood. It was great to meet another solo female traveler. Sharing with her that I was traveling solo and having a great time in Savannah made her feel even happier to have made the trip.
John and Zach
I decided to treat myself to dinner at HUSK. For the foodies, this is a well-known place in Savannah, and I got lucky walking in with no reservation at 5 p.m. As a solo traveler, I find getting a seat at the bar early in the evening is usually a good bet. It allows for being spontaneous even at places that generally require a reservation. John was like a character out of a novel. I knew he was a local right away, and this was a favorite spot by how he spoke to the bartenders. He wore a well-fitting oxford with crisp but worn khakis. Several gold rings, but not a wedding band. He was a white man in his 50s. I ordered a drink and waited to see what he was drinking. Sparkling water.
John has cirrhosis. John has lived in Savannah his whole life but is well-traveled. He’s been all over the world and in his words — in a homegrown Southern drawl — “one has not experienced Savannah until one has sucked every bit of juice from the peach — and that I did. And now I have cirrhosis.” In other words, John lived a wild life. Women and drugs and booze. Now he enjoys a small home, sparkling water and a good meal. He gave off a vibe that made me uncomfortable, but he never said or did anything to back it up.
And then Zach sat down. I was relieved to have company on my other side. Zach looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s. He looked tired. He ordered a whiskey neat, took it like a shot, and asked for another. John immediately struck up a conversation, talking over me, the person in the middle. Zach had just arrived in Savannah and had a meeting with a pastor in 30 minutes. He was burying his brother, who had committed suicide. He was meeting his family and the pastor to make the final arrangements, then bury his brother and fly back out. His brother had been in the military, stationed in Savannah. Having lost a stepson to suicide in 2013, I immediately teared up. I knew what the day, the week, the month, and the years ahead held for young Zach. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I was sorry for his loss. John shut up and went back to his meal. We sat in silence. Zach left. I left. John stayed.
Brit, Brit and “Cousin”
I did a little haunts and hangouts tour, and the highlight was Bubbly Bar and meeting Brit, Brit and “Cousin.” It was a brief interaction as I was exiting Bubbly Bar. Britney, Brit, and “Cousin” sat together on a bench hamming it up and taking selfies together. I walked over and asked if they wanted me to take their picture. Taking photos for people is one of my favorite things to do on vacation, and I offer it frequently. For some reason, it fills me with such happiness. The girls were wildly enthusiastic. They had spent some time in Bar Bubbly as well! They were cousins from Savannah, out on the town for the night. Their infectious laughter and happiness was a joy to witness and caught my eye. It was just so heartening to see these happy young women out in their town. I expressly asked permission to take their photo for my “eventual” website, and they agreed. I hope they see it one day!
This is what I love about travel. The people you meet provide a richer context to the architecture, parks, and sights to see.
Sarah and Josh
My Airbnb hosts. They are both from Los Angeles, California, and decided to move across the country to Georgia. They sold their things in LA, bought a huge Victorian house on the outside edge of downtown Savannah and have been rehabbing it since. Sarah is a realtor and art dealer; Josh is an artist and woodworker. They also own property outside of town where they have an artist collective. I rented a room in their home with a bedroom and a small living room, and I had my own bathroom across the hall from their master suite. It was a fine stay, though they were both a little…something. One of the nights as I was leaving, they and their friends were moving a giant gun safe into the house. It looked like a scene from Sons of Anarchy. Beautiful tattooed people on motorcycles with guns. It was a surreal experience and made me edgy for the rest of the trip. Besides real estate, art and woodworking, I wondered what else they were into. I didn’t ask.
There were a few other characters on this trip:
The owner of the Blue Door. A coffee joint just up the street from my Airbnb that Mark told me about on day one. I never got his name, but he hailed from Italy and is a huge American movie fan. The entire inside of the coffee shop is full of memorabilia from Star Wars, Star Trek and other 80s productions. Star Wars was playing on several TVs every time I stopped in. There are different rooms dedicated to various movies and genres. Their primary food is mini waffles, either in breakfast or lunch form, and really, really good coffee. I loved sitting outside and watching life go by while I had my morning coffee.
The young bartender at the Vault, another great restaurant. He was cranking out cocktails like a madman on a busy night, and the restaurant was very understaffed. He still provided excellent service with a smile. I tipped him heavily, and I never got his name…
My time in Savannah was short, but the stories I walked away with will stay.