Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Steinbergs in the Southland: Working people

     The sign said, "Peaches—1/2 mile" or words to that effect. Fair warning, which struck me as a smart business practice. So much is sprung on you nowadays, and you don't have time to consider it until the opportunity has passed. "Do you want peaches?" I asked my wife, and she admitted that she did.
      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
   "I can't sell you half a peach," said Emily, adding that otherwise we were free to buy as many individual peaches as we liked. Just in case we were on the fence, she went into the back room and emerged with a plate covered in a paper towel, and chunks of freshly cut peach. That sealed the deal. We sampled them, and my wife started to fill a bag with half a dozen.

      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. 
       I seemed to meet a lot of people on this trip. Even in Virginia Beach, which is basically a tourist trap, on the last night, Edie wanted pancakes for dinner—tired of oysters and fish and such. We explored and found the Honey Bee, the one place that offered them, and fell into the hands of Dimitiri, a 22-year-old Bulgarian who served us while, in essence, putting on a one-man show. He showered us with indulgences--if we wanted, he confided in us, we could sneak over to the salad bar and have some fruit before the pancakes came. He had bought this job, in essence, from a broker in Bulgaria, and shared the whole complicated story. I might have thought he was angling for tips, but he wasn't—he was just being personable and answering our questions. The covert salad bar invitation impressed me—make your customers feel like they're getting something special, even if its the fruit that has sat out all day and will go into the dumpster in a couple hours. Anyway, if he becomes a titan of industry someday, I predicted it first.
     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.


  1. Our southern school swing also included a trip to Monticello. And an information session at Mr Jeffesrson's university in a church. Which struck us as ironic especially when they insisted that the building contained no religious imagery and was an interfaith chapel. The cross on the top....hmmm ya they seemed surprised we'd mention that as not being very interfaith.


  2. When you said you didn't get far, I thought you might have had the same experience I once had when buying fresh fruit along the highway. We stopped and bought some hybrid fruit, half apricot, half peach. It was delicious...and quite a potent laxative as well. You can imagine us, speeding down the 2-lane highway, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mile after mile of open fields, desperately seeking a gas station, or maybe just a copse of trees.

  3. What a nice surprise seeing the CHristopher Wren building at William & Mary. Did you know Matthew is there? We've been to campus twice and have been so charmed by the people in Virginia. Just so darned...nice! Enjoyed reading about your experience there. Oh, and I bought peaches at a farmstand on the drive home, somewhere in Virginia. Sweet as candy.


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