The Grey Area
By Mary Edwards
Photo by Kellyjeanne9 via Wikimedia Commons
Press play to listen to the accompanying soundscape by Mary Edwards
Savannah, Georgia 2017
We wait in the Diner Bar of The Grey restaurant, nestled in the soft leather banquette closest to its iconic facade and front window, with its bended pane uniting reflections of the past and the present.
“Mama Jewel, does any of this look familiar to you?” I move my finger in a circumnavigational motion around the room. It is a time machine fueled on exclusion and refurbished in restitution.
I know, from historic images, that The Grey was kept to as much of its earlier incarnation as a depot rest area, from the lighting fixtures right down to the antique rack containing back issues of LIFE magazines filled with high glamour and civil rights photographs as seen through the eye of Gordon Parks and signifying its version of social media for The Greatest Generation.
I expect Mama Jewel to regale me with stories of how she enjoyed a tea from a Corning Centura Pyroceram cup, or perhaps an Orange Crush soda pop in one of those beveled glass bottles that are now collector's items. Instead, I learn that before this evening, my mother never saw the interior of the Jim Crow-era Greyhound bus station until it was converted into a dining establishment seventy years later.
“We were not allowed inside,” Mama Jewel states with pragmatic grace on her recollection of the injustice. “There was the white section and the Colored section. You just followed the Colored sign. So… this table,” she taps the surface in front of us, “I can’t say I have sat here before. I was never in this section.”
In the dawn of her nineties, Jewel’s memory is still intact. She’s been through this conduit enough times to recall it in striking detail; however, her recounts are only of the racially sanctioned periphery. She has witnessed monumental social changes in cultivated gestures such as the contralto Marian Anderson singing to thousands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison launching into space on a NASA expedition, and now, in a once segregated institution transformed to serve to all, Mashama Bailey, a young, gifted and Black executive chef curating the sumptuous, yet studied offerings at The Grey. Bailey is a deft storyteller of regional cuisine, and has reconciled with her own relationship to the South, creating a menu not monolithic, but nuanced, like the people whose hands reap epoch harvests that grace the tables nightly.
New York to Georgia, 1951
The train moved swiftly through the evening down the eastern corridor. The trees and the telegram poles appeared as though they were moving along with the train. Open fields and dense forest on each side of the road seemed to envelop and welcome her back. Jewel gazed out of the window towards the silhouetted scenery until she fell asleep. When she awoke, it was nearly daylight, the new moon all but faded away. The arched tip of the early morning sun peeked through the tall southern pines.
The announcement that they were almost in Savannah came simultaneously by way of the conductor and the kind lady who sat next to her on the first leg of her trip. When Jewel arrived at the Greyhound bus station near the bustling Broughton Street to purchase a ticket to her childhood home in Register, she was informed that the next bus would not leave until noon—four hours later. She picked up her suitcase and made her way through a cluster of travelers who appeared weary from the long hours on the road or rails. She walked to the furthest end of a narrow bench in the Colored section of the waiting room, a glorified vestibule where its designated passengers were subjected to inclement weather and often unsanitary conditions.
While other patrons enjoyed freshly prepared sandwiches in a humanely temperate setting, Jewel—and those of her kind—purchased candy bars for a nickel through a small window that led out to the depot. Where a white woman might denote, with a shake of the shoulders and sing-songy petulance, her privilege at the counter, a Black man of her exact age could be on the exterior side of that same concession wall, demeaningly being called “boy” when inquiring where he could relieve himself after a day-long journey. The cleanliness of the Colored restroom was often neglected, as the janitor spent more time fraternizing with customers for tips, or attempting to enchant any woman who appeared to be traveling alone.
Coming back home from an autumnal New York where the gold and shades of brown reminded her of toasted bread crust, she remembered that both her parents were naturists who loved digging into the earth and planting seed and watching them grow to harvest. Her father Freddie with his corn, watermelon, squash, and collards and time alone, out in the open air where he could talk and walk with God; her mother Devorah, perennially devoted to planting her garden—cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans and cabbage, white potatoes, and field peas. All these fresh foods would comprise a welcome meal in contrast to the chocolate that was belligerently shoved through a slit with the conviction of a system who deemed someone of Jewel’s color unworthy of a more nutritiously substantial provision.
The Greyhound coach charged noisily along Route 46, sounding as though the engine was in need of replacement. Through the window, Jewel felt the burning heat of the late September sun on the side of her face. Her mind raced to recall the landscape of what she once knew. The fields seemed empty. There were no men, no mules, no plows, no modern-day John Deere tractors in sight. The church her family attended—where her parents met, and eventually married at the turn of the twentieth century—was now devoid of the stained-glass windows that projected a variegated prism of the Promised Land upon the faithful congregation.
She reflected on the years when her parents and siblings all lived in a four-room, faded gray house made of rough pine boards and a tin top roof with holes in the middle. When it stormed, the rainwater fell into a bucket and sounded like tapping on the floor. Her family greeted the rain; it was necessary for their livelihood. Together, they propagated the pliant terroir with a pride that supplanted the orders of the overseer. Those were the intrepid years when the young Jewel took the daily two-mile walk alone at 4 am to catch the Greyhound to school in Statesboro, while Devorah and Freddie challenged the landowner who demanded the couple’s eleven children, including an educationally motivated Jewel, to forgo their learning for a life of tenant farming.
Savannah, Georgia 2017
In the expanse of the main Dining room, we sit at the semi-circular counter, a fixture that makes its own grand statement in front of what was once the portico to the numbered departure gates. Mama Jewel and I are balanced on high stools that, when we are not engaged with each other or our meal, offers us a perspective that transcends the physical landscape.
On the large wall facing west hangs a painting that depicts a Greyhound bus, with Black passengers seated in the front, white passengers in the back. I was told it stirred both the curiosities and the ire of diners who have either engaged in useful dialogues or walked out of The Grey in angry protest in an attempt to block the thresholds of history.
While certain things fall out of memory over time, the olfactory sense can redirect what has nearly gone adrift. As it is intended, the sophisticated retribution of an elevated pork and beans dish calls and responds to heritage, dignity, and the space between where the sustenance becomes Holy. Over this spiritual communion, Mama Jewel tells me that my Grandma Devorah looked forward to commemorating the day her family would not have to call themselves sharecroppers, anymore. She hoped they could wholeheartedly indulge in the bounty of their own land, as she eventually did, and the freedom of the passage in the future to come.
In memory of Jewel M. Edwards