A left, a right, another left, a slow bounce over a pair of railroad tracks and a careful turn into a parking lot gets me to Wright’s Restaurant on 26th Avenue, a little capsule of Southern essence 1.6 miles from my apartment in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I’m a newcomer, a transplant from the West, and I have lived here for just one month, which isn’t nearly enough time to explore the South given the merciless heat. Before moving here, I certainly had a hearsay-and-media-driven idea of the American South. My idea was romantic: All buildings would either be colossal Greek revival or decrepit little shanties, lush greenery would be growing at every street corner and in every driveway, large folks dressed in white would be on their patios drinking mint juleps uttering racist comments and calling each other “y’all” while Scarlett O’Hara or maybe Foghorn Leghorn hollered from the television inside. A visit to Wright’s squashed all that. Well, almost all.
Wright’s is a strip mall diner. There are no dramatic columns or any elaborate design elements; just a brick rectangle prism with doors on the façade, facing a massive treeless parking lot. The doors expose a post office, a grocery store, and, of course, Wright’s. Across the street, a custom furniture store displays sofas wrapped in plastic under a tent outside. Judging by the exterior, this place could be found anywhere: Las Vegas, Springfield, perhaps Toronto, but once the door to Wright’s swings open, the place becomes the most Southern place I have ever known. Sometimes “place” isn’t contained within some politically-bounded solid line on a map. Sometimes it’s through a door in a strip mall.
The first meal I had at Wright’s was a Saturday morning breakfast and it holds my first memory of being in the South. It was the list: bacon, sausage, bologna, streak of lean, red hots. I had never seen bologna on a breakfast menu and I had never, ever heard “streak of lean” or “red hots.” I wanted a Southern breakfast, but wasn’t brave enough for the meat of indeterminable source. I went with the grits, the smooth, sticky whitish blob that didn’t taste like much of anything until I stirred everything on my plate together and gave the grits a purpose. The waitresses (they still call themselves “waitresses” here) strangely looked like relatives of mine: The plump and sturdy dark-haired woman with speed and authority seemed very much like my mother and the shuffling blond was definitely my aunt.
Water dripped from the ceiling and onto the floor in the walkway between the first and second booths, which alarmed me a bit (“It’s just condensation, it does that”). Pale yellow coated the walls and the only décor was the blend of people sitting at the tables and the counter. The clanging utensils and mix of conversations made such a noise that it drowned out the child two booths over banging his spoon on his highchair.
Today was my second visit to Wright’s. The parking lot had that musty smell of diesel on asphalt, which somehow ended up smelling more like dogshit on Velveeta. Nothing at all like the pine forest-after-rain smell I had always imagined. I was meeting a friend, so I waited outside. It was only 10:30; the temperature hadn’t had a chance to get up to 425˚F yet. The humidity, however, had already formed a layer of slick on my forehead and upper lip.
“For a white woman, you pretty.” A compliment thrown in my direction, I suppose, from the man sitting on the bench near the door to Wright’s. I held back a response that would have included a sarcastic review of how physically hideous my race is, but thank goodness someone with average looks like myself can attain a level of loveliness. I held back for I am not in Nevada anymore. I simply said “I guess I’ll take that as a compliment since I am white” and I sat next to him on the bench. I opted for conversation instead of confrontation: “My friend tells me this place has the best burgers in town.”
He took a slow, seeping drag off his cigarette, shifted his weight towards me—which showed off his bony knees through his grey work pants—and said, “No they don’t.” I nervously scratched the bug bites I’ve collected this month. “They don’t? Well then, who does?”
“My son” he said. “He got a place down 69 called Rachel’s. They name it after his daughter. I tell you, have a burger there one time…” He closed his eyes and sucked in his lips “…and you’ll go there all the time. “ Then he confirmed himself with the word “yes,” but drew out the‘s’ at the end like he was a hissing snake. The South is sitting on a bench outside of Wright’s.
Inside, my friend and I slid into a booth and the waitress—the version of my mom—came over to us and said, “What can I get y’all?”