My Dad worked downtown and sometimes I would get to go to work with him and hang out for the day. One of the things I loved about hanging out with Dad was that we would always get to go somewhere interesting for lunch. He has a spiritual gift for finding obscure, little known, out of the way places to eat (not always restaurants). They always have great food even if the ‘ambience’ is sometimes a little dodgy. The best breakfast I ever ate was at a gas station/grill in the Middleofnowhere, Illinois. The best barbeque was at a little place in downtown Springfield called, Popeye’s. This Popeye’s had nothing to do with the Midwest chicken chain of the same name. It was run by an older black man, Popeye, and his family.
Never before and never since have I had barbeque as good as Popeye made it.
One day I decided to take one of my best friends there for lunch. Despite what Harry told Sally, we were friends, great friends but just friends. Of course, it helped that she had a very steady boyfriend so that took a lot of pressure off. The general routine in high school was to date, go steady, be deeply in love, figure out where the two of you would live after you got married, choose the names of your first three kids (which was six names in total, 3 boys, 3 girls) and then break up and then finally hate each other. Of course my general routine was ask a girl out, be told, “No.” (with optional laughing) and then moving on to my next rejection. I was spared either scenario and had a brilliant friend.
It also helped that her boyfriend was older and could easily kick my butt. He was going to be a State Trooper and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be on the bad side of someone who could shoot me as part of their job. Plus, he’d once killed a hamster by giving it a heart attack while talking to Shellie on the phone so getting him mad was not on my ‘to do’ list and any romantic feelings were kept in a tightly sealed and locked box buried deep in my sub-conscious.
That day, all I told Shellie was that I was taking her to a great place to eat. I think I told her it was barbeque but kept the rest of the details secret just to keep it special. I had no idea the stress I was about to create in her life.
We grew up and went to school in an intensely white world. The only people who weren’t white at our school were the foreign exchange students and one beautiful black girl that had been adopted by a white family. Springfield, on the other hand, was a racially diverse community and we had, in the home of Abraham Lincoln, a very large black population. Despite being the Land of Lincoln however, there was quite a gap, in some places and cases, between the white world and the black world: economically, geographically and culturally.
Popeye’s was on the other side of that gap.
The closer I got to the part of town where Popeye’s was located the greater the strain I was putting on my friendship. I had been there with my Dad and I wasn’t thinking about anything but good food. Shellie was thinking about how far we were from home. The truth is, when we parked along the curb outside Popeye’s, we were only blocks away from ‘the Projects’ and in a part of town that black faces out numbered white faces 20:1, a fair amount of crime went down in (that’s my TV cop lingo) and compared to our white bread world out in Rochester this was the ghetto, the ‘hood, it was Harlem. And I was oblivious to anything Shellie was feeling at that moment, I just smelled barbeque.
We walked inside the little place and the brightness of the outside made the inside seem very dark. Popeye greeted us from behind the counter and one of the waitresses pointed us towards a seat. The booths were in an L shape, we came in at the top of the L and we got a booth at the very bottom and end of the L. Shelley sat facing me and the wall behind me as the waitress handed us plastic covered menus. I was looking over the options and telling Shellie that everything was excellent here but I really recommended the barbequed pork sandwich, the only thing I’d ever had there, when I finally looked up at her. She wasn’t looking at her menu, she was looking at me and her eyes were big and she had a sort of panicked look.
“Brian,” she said as she leaned forward and spoke in a choked, whisper, “we’re the ONLY white people in here.” I blinked, paused and took few seconds to process the words. I leaned back and looked around. “Um, no we’re not.” I said. Her eyes narrowed and she looked at me doubtfully, I was the one, after all, who had taken her across the gap. She very inconspicuously turned and leaned out of the booth to get a good look around. As she spied out the room her whole body relaxed into her seat. When she turned back she picked up her menu and looked at it with a mixture of embarrassment and relief. I wanted to laugh but held it in.
If I hadn’t already been crazy about her, that moment would’ve sealed the deal for me. It suddenly occurred to me that she’d been scared and we had gotten so far away from her comfort zone that she’d probably never get back to it. We had a nice lunch that day, at least I did and I imagine she remembers it completely differently from me. That’s one of my favourite days from those years (I have a few) and though Popeye is long gone on that low swinging sweet chariot, and his place is gone, I won’t forget his barbeque or the day I spent with a white girl in Harlem.