It’s not often I go downtown these days. As a matter of fact I kind of dreaded going down there on Saturday, the week before Halloween, but a friend had asked me to investigate a possible lame horse being driven by one of the less reputable carriage tour companies, so after unsuccessfully shopping for well fitting khaki pants and shorts at the Factory Outlet at 204 and I-95, I decided to head downtown and walk around a bit.
I am not much of a crowd person so normally avoid heavily trafficked areas, but Savannah always seems to have a crowd and today was no exception. There were three slow ride vehicles parked outside the Cathedral and six SCAD buses unloading students in front of the old Georgia Guard Amory.
A white tent was set up in the square by the Cathedral with photographers in what looked like a wedding with no wedding couple. I was curious but did not want to stare, so kept moving.
I had parked the truck about a half mile from the waterfront at West Taylor and Whitaker. In route to the main strip on Bull Street I walked by a house that looked like it had a swimming pool in the courtyard and two grapefruit trees which turned out to be large Meyer lemons. I was intrigued. Who knew lemons grew on trees in downtown Savannah or that the old historic houses had swimming pools in the courtyards?
About half way to the river I heard loud looping noises like low flying model airplanes only deeper and realized that Hilton Head was putting on a Motoring Festival and Concours d’ Elegant at the old race track on Hutchinson Island with race cars including Ferraris and Porches among other antique and vintage cars.
I located the lame horse at Madison Square and he seemed to be fine but took a quick video to look at closer later and continued the trek to the river hoping to see some white caps from the winds of Hurricane Sandy or glimpse of race cars across the river, though it turned out it was too forested to see anything other than yellow and green trees.
Women were walking around in sundresses, jackets and boots. That seemed to be the fashion. Most were bare legged, some wore leggings. The wind was giving them quite a lot of practice posing like the Marilyn Monroe statue in city Market.
A number of women opted for fashion over sense as they wobbled along the cobblestones on River Street in three inch heels trying to remain upright and keep their dresses from flying over their undies at the same time.
I passed by an Irish couple with a light brogue who were discussing where they wanted to eat lunch. The northwest winds were blowing the smell of grilled steak and seafood from Outback restaurant making this 30 year vegetarian drool it smelled so good, but lunch was not on the agenda or the budget, so on to River Street.
A young girl came by bundled in a winter coat. It was only in the mid seventies so that seemed odd, but then I noticed several people in heavy jackets and some with scarves and hats. I was comfortable in shorts and a long sleeve shirt; not fashionable, but comfortable.
A group of older girl scouts came by. You could tell they were scouts by their matching T-shirts with unique design and a sort of herd mentality to stick with the leader and not get lost.
The trolley bell rings and a man rushes to catch it before it takes off as a group of women stare at him. A few joggers dodge around the tourists intent on getting in their miles before tapering off for the big Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon next weekend.
There are so many pedicabs on the street corners that it looks like you are in a third world country, except for all the cars passing them by. Most of them today are bright yellow and they take away from the historic aspect of the city as much as the raggedy group of street beggars who use a barely two month old puppy to lure strangers to give them money, since they aren’t allowed to solicit openly.
On River Street it is no more chilly than the main part of the city, yet still people are bundled up like it is winter. Maybe the whipping wind fools them into thinking it is colder than it is. The street vendors and “performers” are here as well. They know better than to accost me with their wares, but still manage to irritate more people than they intrigue making you wonder why they are allowed to stay there.
With so many street performers it sounds like a really bad turnout for tryouts for American Idol. Three young black men use the covered walk under the Hyatt for acoustic affect as they sing “Under the Board Walk”. They don’t sound too bad, but few people are paying attention to them, seeing them more like the Salvation Army Kettle Bell ringers at Christmas than “entertainment”, but they go on undaunted.
A new wave of race car buzzing bounces off the Hyatt and makes it sound as if the cars are actually located on River Street instead of across the Island. I think about taking the Ferry across and talking my way into the races, but really don’t want to get stuck there when I have other things to do at home and a cat that has been inside for five hours without a potty break.
I wander down the docks looking for photo opportunities and spy three older gentlemen sitting on a park bench talking and relaxing and want to take their picture but have run out of boldness after taking a picture of a lady and her dog walking with a huge stick in his mouth like it was a cherished find that must be protected, so I sneak a picture from afar and try to blow it up on the computer later, but it is not as good and I chastise myself for not being bolder about things and missing out on opportunities.
The weather is really nice, but I need a potty break myself and go to the one open bathroom on River Street which is conveniently out of order, so head up the ramp near Jefferson. On route to the ramp a rogue band of wind nearly blows me over and sends a spray of fine gravel and sand against my bare legs, stinging them and blowing in my eyes.
The wind gusts have to be at least 35 miles per hour and it is invigorating to know that a hurricane is hundreds of miles off the coast but can still be felt here and I am grateful there is no rain right now, even though we need it.
I stop to video the three singers and keep rolling even when they look at me. I am practicing being bold, but am ready to bolt if they approach me seeking monetary favors. I am such a wimp.
I go to City Market to use the bathroom upstairs that is almost always open these days since one can never find a vendor with a key when one needs it. When I walk in I smell the sickening smell of Indian incense; sort of perfumed and spicy and it almost burns my nostrils and feels hot in my lungs, even though I can’t see where it is coming from.
As I go up the steps I see a sign that says, “No Smoking” and wonder if that should include burning incense, but cover my mouth and nose with my sleeve and go up stairs. I guess some people think some smells are enjoyed by all, but we southerners are taught not to be invasive of other people’s privacy and that includes keeping scents to about a one foot swath around ones own personage.
There are four women waiting to use the two toilets and it smells like someone has done something other than urinate. I am already sick from the incense and consider turning around and leaving, but better to endure bad smells than wet ones pants in public, so I stick it out as a mother and daughter discuss dinner plans and the mother tells her daughter that if she wants to eat and bolt rather than talk to their guests, she can.
The daughter says she wants to stay and talk, just not all night long and then they stand silently and don’t speak another word, each facing a bathroom stall door as if willing the people inside to hurry up and finish.
There are two country western singers playing on the other end of City Market and a crowd draws around them.
On my end, where the carriage horses are, there are just a few people and the horses appear unkempt with wild manes and tails which do not look like they have been brushed for a while, though the winds might play a part in that. I feel sorry for the horses again, but it is nice to see them there as well, so am torn on how I should feel.
It is nearly three and I stop by CVS off Broughton to get a snack, but the line is so long to pay that I turn around and go back outside again. I can wait until I get home. The church bells chime three exactly, so I decide to get a few more pictures and head home to check on the cat.
The smell of horse urine is so strong along Bull Street that it makes me sick and seems to follow me wherever I go. I can’t imagine eating on the sidewalk cafes with that smell in the air, but no one seems to mind. It is strongest at the intersections and I wonder why the carriage companies don’t disinfect it like we used to, causing tourists to ask, “what is that wonderful fragrance?”
The chemicals used to neutralize the odors had a sort of gardenia smell to them and were very effective, but apparently no one is forcing the carriages to clean up their own messes and someone must be skimping on cleaning the stench and just pouring water on the streets as it is really nauseating, especially with strong winds carrying it further down the road.
As I enter Chippewa Square, two guys behind me remark about the strange looking dogs approaching us. One (of the dogs) looks like the movie dog Benji only a foot and a half taller with a less attractive face. The other dog looks like a cross between a collie and an afghan hound crossed with a golden retriever. They are definitely odd looking.
The guy behind me tries to get the woman’s attention walking the oddest dog to see what breed it is. He starts out in a normal tone, “Excuse me m’am…”
She keeps walking so he tries again a little louder, but she still stares straight ahead as he calls out again, “Excuse me, you in the blue shirt!!!”
She hears him that time, but ignores him and keeps on walking, a little faster now, without turning her head. Only the dart of her eye in his direction and a slight hunch in her shoulders as she speeds up indicate that she heard him at all.
He acts embarrassed and tells his friend he didn’t mean to be rude, but didn’t know how else to get her attention, but in the south, when someone yells, “hey you” in your direction, you tend to do the polite thing and ignore them.
I guess that is what we all do really, when confronted with something unpleasant or awkward, we just ignore it and hope it goes away after a while so we can go back to feeling comfortable and safe.
I am tired of being around so many people and need some alone time, so head down a side street and start photographing pumpkins and Halloween decorations. Some are really pretty.
As I near Gaston Street near Forsyth Park I spy a woman on a balcony wearing a bright red and black tartan dress. It is cinched in at the waist and has a high collar. She is barefoot, sort of, wearing dark stockings.
Her porch is decorated gaily in fall colors and I decide to be bold and take a photo from afar, again thinking I will blow it up on the computer when I get home, but she spots me and calls me out.
At first I am embarrassed, but instead of being upset she asks me where I am from.
I tell her I am from Savannah. She asks if I am with a magazine or newspaper and I confess I am with the Examiner and taking photos of Halloween decorations for an article.
She tells me that there are even better decorations in the garden and invites me up on the porch. I cannot help but think of my mother warning me never to talk to strangers or go in the house of someone I do not know, but I am a grown up not a child and the woman looks so much like my Aunt Betty when she was younger, that I am intrigued and cautiously walk up the stairs to her level.
She tells me her name is Diana Bell and that she has just hosted a Halloween party and her house is decorated and would I like to come inside.
I would, but think this is not wise, but throw caution to the whipping winds and go inside cautiously, ready to bolt if it turns weird. In my mind I am thinking maybe she is a witch and needs a sacrifice. I think weird thoughts sometimes, but rarely admit them for fear people will think I have issues, but when I do admit them, it seems everyone else has the same or similar thoughts and fears to say them out loud as well, so maybe I am doing everyone a service by admitting this is really quite normal and not weird at all.
When her dog, Duchess, I believe, greets me in a four inch wide rhinestone collar I am put at ease. Anyone who owns a yellow lab that greets me with a kiss upon entering, having never seen me before cannot be a bad person, right?
I am more fascinated with Duchess than the house at the moment and have to tear my OCD self away from the dog to notice the trappings of the room.
The foyer is huge with dark woodwork, sky blue walls and a table laid out with ornamental objects with what appears to be a fake bird on a gilded cage. It is very impressive and stately and well put together. There are no crepe paper pumpkins and black bats hanging from sticky tape on the ceiling here.
We walk out on the balcony and look into the garden/courtyard which is walled off from outside view and has a long and narrow pool that is six feet deep and confirms my glimpse through the slatted garden walls on the way over that there really are pools in the courtyards here. Bell says she and the dog swim there everyday. I am still awestruck as she shows me the decorated balcony and the patio below.
It seems otherworldly and it is rare that I get to the inside of the homes I walk past so often on my trips downtown. Historic homes are so different from modern ones and make you feel as if you have been transported back in time. They are decorated like museum homes and a far cry from the linoleum floors and cheap vinyl chairs in my own home.
She offers me a drink but I tell her I am fine and need to head back and she tells me that her house will be on the next tour of homes and gardens. I am tempted to return and take in more of the place and can imagine the smell of warm cider and just baked cookies wafting about in winter.
In a daze I descend the steps and marvel that a chance encounter with a stranger led to an invite to her home. Only in Savannah would this happen and to be honest I feel kind of privileged to have been so honored.
I marvel at how, no matter how many times I come downtown, I almost always seem to find something new or run into someone I knew years ago and haven’t seen in ages!
On the way home I get behind a Model T and a Henry J coming home from the Concours and think how blessed I was to encounter the people and sights and sounds and smells. I still wonder what was going on outside the Cathedral and the story behind the three slow riders parked outside the church.
I think about the guy walking the tall thin Doberman pincer without holding on to the leash, even though they were in heavy traffic and the man on the bicycle who was riding on the sidewalk and nearly mowed down an elderly couple.
I had wanted to tell him that riding bikes on the sidewalk was illegal as well as unsafe, but I wasn’t brave enough.
As I near home I pass by the walking lady; our term for a woman who lives at Skidaway Island but dresses in the same clothes and never takes a bath and walks nearly 30 miles a day from her home to the shops near Oglethorpe Mall.
I have given her a ride home before but it was awkward. She rarely speaks and always seems to have a glazed far away look on her face. I feel like I should offer her money or clothes or food or a bath, but mostly I just pass her by because I don’t know what to say or do or if she even wants a ride or prefers to walk.
Sometimes I wish I was more eccentric and could say what I meant to say and do what I felt I should do without second guessing myself or worrying about how inappropriate it might be.
Maybe we should all go sing on a street corner as if we were doing people a favor rather than making them feel uncomfortable.
Maybe we should walk around a big city with a pillow case full of our belongings like the homeless downtown and see if anyone would make eye contact with us or offer us a place to rest our heads or just ignore us.
Maybe we should chase down the lady in the blue shirt who ignored us so we could find out what breed(s) her dogs were because if we didn’t, we would think about it for days.
Maybe we should offer the walking lady a ride when she gets that far off look in her eye like she expects a long lost friend to notice her and actually stop and offer to help.
Savannah is filled with unique characters and stories if only you are bold enough to approach and ask questions without fear of embarrassing yourself or others. There are certain rules of etiquette you are expected to follow, but most people like to talk about themselves and their own history.
It is fun to walk downtown and guess who people are and where they are going, like the couple with the two boys who are dressed as pirates. They are not out trick or treating early, but have come from the Pirate’s House restaurant, a place where I have not eaten since the 1980s and tell myself I need to visit sometime again in the near future.
I still want to take a tour on the slow ride bikes with my friends and peak inside some of the new hotels and inns and visit more of the old historic homes when they are open for tours.
If you have not been to downtown Savannah lately, tie on your walking shoes and grab a friend, park the car in a remote location and walk down streets like Gaston and Jones and take the Barnard and Habersham routes over Bull and Abercorn.
It is not too late to catch the Halloween and fall displays and soon they will decorate for Christmas with tons of things to do and see and interesting people to meet and greet and watch safely from a distance.
My dread of going downtown was quickly turned into a joy filled awakening of how blessed I am to live in such an historic city that attracts millions of tourists each year and there were so many free concerts, outside the less than pleasant ones on River Street that you could sit for hours and enjoy the music if you weren’t up for a walk.
Fall is a good time of year to visit the historic district and the beach and parks. Make a day of it and find yourself an adventure.
Challenge the kids to a scavenger hunt by asking how many lions they can find a photograph. There are a lot of them on planters, monuments, fountains and front steps.
It is a good way to get out in the somewhat fresh air and enjoy a city that many people travel for hundreds of miles to visit and leave wishing they had more time to explore, so why not explore it for yourself?