We were driving across Virginia, heading to Virginia Beach to put our toes in the ocean. But it was lunchtime, and since no particular restaurant had presented itself, we were nibbling our way across the state.
I pulled off the road for Whitby's Orchard & Produce, 34 Piney Pond Road, in Brodnax, Virginia.
My wife went over to admire the big oblong baskets of peaches.
"Do you divide these up?" she asked Emily Blair, granddaughter of the store's founder.
|Emily Blair and her sister Randy at Whitby's|
Were we interested, Emily wanted to know, in homemade jelly? They make it right here. Or smoked bacon? They smoke it themselves. No need to refrigerate. Four dollars a pound. She went into the back and returned with strips of smoked bacon. We added a pack. Along with a bag of fried peanuts, $1.79 for what felt like a pound. And some Squirrel Nut Zipper candies.
We left but we didn't get far. The fried peanuts were good, but my wife wanted to try boiled peanuts—did you know they grow peanuts in Virginia? They do. We stopped at place. A man in green rubber boots that identified him as a peanut farmer stood chatting with the clerk, but they allowed us to buy some boiled peanuts, and burlap sacks of regular roasted peanuts to give to friends. Boiled peanuts are cold and mushy and intensely salty, and though they did not grow on us, now we know what they're like.
When you're growing the peaches or the peanuts, smoking the bacon or making the jelly, you sell it differently. You aren't an indifferent clerk slumped at a 7/Eleven, but trying to move the product. I was intrigued at the kind of service we bumped into. Heading into Winston-Salem I drove the van over a piece of truck tread in the middle of the road and the plastic guard beneath the bumper sagged down. So I detoured the next morning to the dealer there — Flow Honda of Winston-Salem. They tossed the van on the lifts while I went for a walk, chatting with folk sitting on their porches. When I got back, the mechanic told me they had pushed the frontwork back into place. Cost: zero.
At Monticello, I paused to watch a workman putting a brick floor into a log cabin on the grounds. I took a photo of him talking about the construction and told him I was with the Sun-Times in Chicago and asked his name.
"I'm not supposed to talk to the media," he said, "and I'm not supposed to tell them that I'm not supposed to talk to them."
That's the old Jeffersonian spirit! Though I didn't blame him, or Jefferson, so much as the foundation that runs Monticello. How many organizations trust their employees so little they muzzle them, even though it undermines the good relations they're supposedly trying to foster? Though his last part gave away the game, revealing what he thought of being silenced by the organization. It put in relief for me why I was enjoying the Southland, because I was meeting individuals generally freed from the idiocies of institutions. They were independent characters, growing, canning, selling, pouring concrete as best they could. I don't want to pull out a banjo and go all weepy. Part of this is they're poor and struggling to make ends meet. But living in a well-off Northern city, you can become detached from the make-do independence of those scraping by. Poor people in Chicago have pride that is often unfounded. Here they both have pride and something to be proud about.