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Road Trip Part 2: Panama City Beach to Oxford, Mississippi with Lunch in Montgomery

Charlotte and I got up early, I ate a granola bar washed down with hotel coffee and we headed out. Our final stop in Florida – the Panama City Dog Beach for a little walk, photos and shell gathering. It was time to head North and escape the peopled pleasure palace of the Gulf of Mexico Coast – and it was an 8 hour drive to Oxford, Mississippi. A long haul day but worth it to stay on schedule and see what there was to see in Alabama and a little scrap of Mississippi.

My rush? Getting to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by the 4th of July to attend the local parade and fireworks (sadly, I didn’t know at the time that the local parade was no longer on the 4th because of a decision to move it to Sunday by the manager of the parade venue). But I digress, and in hindsight I probably would have still tried to make it for the 4th – a traditional time of gathering for family and friends in the place we all call home now.

Alabama looks a lot like the Panhandle of Florida. Twisting roads with pockets of poverty, farms and small towns with empty buildings that used to hold thriving businesses before Walmart and/or Amazon. So now you pass Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, Dollar General in every small town in America. Driving through the South you find trees, trailers, truck stops and the ghosts of communities. Everything reminds me of Wisconsin with more churches, less bars and signs for cheese curds & Friday fish fries.

I had a client meeting and wanted to stop for lunch to see a little bit of Montgomery or Birmingham – both infamous in my American History oriented brain thanks to their place on the negative side of the Civil Rights movement. As I was driving I delegated research to my good friend Jeremy and set the GPS to a little Venezualan place, much loved on Google in the heart of downtown Montgomery called D’Road Cafe.

When I got there I was immediately worried that it was closed. There was not a soul to be seen on this Friday afternoon at 1:30pm. But a lovely woman greeted me with a smile and said “Are you hungry?” To which I replied enthusiastically “Yes!” To which she said “I have one thing. Do you eat chicken, beans and rice?” I nodded enthusiastically and she motioned me to sit down. I put Charlotte’s dog purse on the floor dropped my keys and phone and was given one of the best meals of my life.

Janett Malparlida cooks with love and it is shows in her food. Janett explained to me how her recipes are always done with care, real ingredients, no sugar, no skimping or substitutions – and ALWAYS what she wanted to cook that day. And with a 4.9 google rating and emanating the warmth of the sun I could tell why this woman’s food was amazing. A chef who cares about people getting real healthy and yummy food provides true nourishment. And here was the Venezualan grandmother I never had cooking in the heart of Alabama. It was much loved because the proprietess is feeding your soul.

I crossed the street after lunch (after driving around the block to realize the coffee shop I needed was right there) to Prevail Co-op. Where I ordered an iced oat latte, sat down near the mural featuring the co-op logo on brick inside a modern/not modern renovated historic building, opened my laptop, put on headphones and started a zoom meeting with my client. I could have been in Seattle, or Jacksonville Beach, or any trendy hipster reclaimed neighborhood of the midwest.

While I was talking with my client I watched a manbunned gentlemen in frumpy clothing knit as he sipped a beer at the bar. His well dressed short haired girlfriend came to check on him at one point then left. He just kept knitting yard the color of juut.

I hoped he was making a man satchel. It seemed appropriate to his style and the surroundings. In the building below me was an ax throwing studio, above me an architectural museum all holding together this historic yet renovated building of great beauty and preserved modern industrial chic. It was almost a church to a certain ethos – where one can sit all afternoon with no job and knit, sipping a beer or “work” (like me) on your laptop. But I was just a voyeur – judging Mr. Man Bun and his knitting needles, wondering as I interloped through this scene if all the South had such fascinating juxtapositions or if I was just lucky to see this today.

I wished I had more time. So I could photograph some of the amazing buildings, the governor’s mansion and the strip mall with its destroyed blacktop that housed both Jewish and Muslim religious institutions on the outskirts of town. This is where I saw a man carrying a watermelon with his t-shirt wrapped around his head as the weather channel beeped extreme heat warnings from my phone. The man walked and I kept driving, I did not stop to photograph him because that would have been weird.

From Montgomery to Oxford it was another 4 hours and I pushed through arriving at the picturesque college town and RIDICULOUSLY CUTE Graduate Hotel on Ole’ Miss Campus around 8pm. A super dog friendly establishment, there was no Pet Fee, just a welcoming smile and some type of waiver. Everyone was so courteuos and nice, and everything was picture perfect and thematic to the last detail. The exact opposite experience of my prior night. It was also like being captured inside a snow globe or a scrapbook champions prized clippings (a little too perfect). And here I was in Mississippi for the first time – and this hotel made me want to settle in with a book and never leave my amazingly comfortable room that came complete with cans of water and artisan instant coffee with powdered oat milk creamer.

Just look at these room keys!

I had dinner then I sat on the patio listening to people’s conversations for the next two hours. I would have stayed later staring at the clock tower on the courthouse except that the restaurant closed early (to the great disappointment of the party of people coming in as I was leaving). But the seats were already up on the bar, it was Friday night and the staff was done.

Ole’ Miss or the University of Mississippi is in a town called Oxford because in a way Oxford was created in order to attract an educational institution. Chicken or the Egg? It was named after Oxford, England – and succeeded in its goal. As the only thing there really is in Oxford is the university and everything associated with a big southern state school with a Greek system.

Now when I think of Ole’ Miss I think of racism and James Madison and the Civil Rights movement. I see black and white pictures of people with scrunched up faces of hatred that the school was being integrated. Now, as I stood on its campus, and the thematic welcoming boutique Graduate Hotel – it appears as welcoming as ever to ALL PERSONS regardless of all the things. So said the sign on the doors and the book displays in the campus book shops.

Here today in Oxford, MS I saw more white people in golf shirts, khakis and maxi dresses and other Southern gentile wear. It literally smelled of beautiful people & privilege. Not a bad thing, just an observation. Nothing in Oxford would ever be ugly or out of place or unattractive – it is clearly not allowed. And today all of this would happen with welcome rainbows of acceptance of The Other, at least publicly, whoever that Other was if they chose to come and be perfect with them in this little perfect town. They did let little ole’ me in with my spastic chihuahua digging holes in their pretty flower pots as we walked circles around the city clock tower building in the morning hopped up on instant coffee and leftover key lime pie from my Florida adventure.

As I stared into the bookshop window studying the beautiful array of American History books that sang “we are better than our past, look how hard we are trying!” I couldn’t help but think of when I heard James Madison speak on MLK day in Minneapolis when I was college. He lectured us all that day, our white liberal faces waiting for some sort of accolade or story of how it was to integrate Ole’ Miss. Instead he reminded us that Minnesota Public Schools were not integrated until the 1980s, 20 years behind Mississippi. Racism in the South just is and was more overt than Racism is in the North. If the events of 2020 can’t remind us that there is opportunity everywhere in this country to find space in our hearts to open up to our fellow human being no matter what they look like, are like, or identify as. Our job is to learn to love ourselves and each other – and we all have a lot of work to do in that arena.

I enjoyed being in Mississippi, even briefly, but maybe I just truly enjoyed that boutique hotel experience. The Graduate was really nice. I was so comfortable. It gave me gratitude for the shit show the night before because it was so much nicer by comparison and made it all the more nice and comfortable and cut and clean and polished and smelling of books and sunshine instead of bleach and bad choices.

And I had to celebrate my 48th state! All that is left for me now is Alaska & Nebraska two state that end in “ska” and are not on the way to anywhere.

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