I had walked for blocks through a dense fog under trees shrouded in Spanish moss, like some shady character in a film noir murder mystery. Past rows of elegant brick homes and imposing wrought iron gates, down cobblestone streets that glistened under streetlamps. Across the plaza, a massive horse pulled a rocking carriage, his head bobbing with effort, his hooves clopping.
A local had insisted that if I wanted to see real Savannah, or at least a small piece of it, I needed to visit Pinky Master's Lounge, an institution where the up-and-coming meet the down-and-out over the simple common denominator of a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy.
I could see the winking Pabst sign from half a block away, and as promised, a crowd of people on the sidewalk, drinking and smoking cigarettes, as if auditioning for a gangster movie. I pardoned my way through the group and stepped inside.
Pinky's was a dump. Dirty and dilapidated, it smelled of stale beer and smoke. There were old pictures of boxers on the walls. Two people danced to a 1980s soul tune on the jukebox, and the bartender was scolding a patron for walking out on his last bar tab.
My kind of place.
I was obviously not a regular, so for 10 minutes the bartenders ignored me until I struck up a conversation with a couple of locals and was finally granted the right to a tall boy.
I asked one of the guys, whose real name was Roger but who preferred that I call him "Pearson Dulaney," to tell me about Savannah.
"It's the city of secrets that everybody knows," he said. "There's a certain aesthetic, an incredible ju-ju, here. Idiosyncrasies are not just accepted, but encouraged.
"Savannah is extremely tolerant but not comfortable with 'in your face' type behavior," he said. The difference between Savannah and Charleston is that "Savannah is sassy, irreverent, beautiful and virile. Charleston tells you that it is beautiful and historic."
Oh, and one more thing, said Pearson: "Savannahians know how to make an entrance."
As people warmed to me, I got lots of great advice on restaurants, what one called "Savannah life beyond [Food TV star] Paula Deen." I started the night out as an outsider, but by the time I left Pinky's, someone had suggested we grab a couple of stiff cocktails to go and climb the fence into a nearby cemetery.
At that point, I showed them that Minnesotans know how to make an exit.
I only had a day and a half in Savannah, so the next morning, I took the Old Town Trolley to get my bearings. There are tons of tours, many with themes. Savannah bills itself as the country's "most haunted city," whatever that means, so there are plenty of ghost-related jaunts, including one in an open-top hearse. Some tours are serious about history, others seem like an excuse to bar-hop, which I discovered when I ran into one group wearing hats shaped like beer mugs.
The trolley offered some basic history and mapped the place in my mind. It took us past the usual highlights, including many of the city's 21 squares that give Savannah such an intimate feel and human scale.
"The plazas are our front porch," one native told me.
Two books or movies have shaped the way many tourists think of Savannah, for better or worse. One that still has surprising staying power is "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the Southern Gothic nonfiction book about the murder trials of antiques dealer Jim Williams, who was acquitted of killing a male prostitute. The killing happened inside the Mercer House, which once belonged to songwriter Johnny Mercer. "Midnight" did succeed in identifying Savannah as a place filled with characters, something that had been reinforced at Pinky's.
I didn't like the book or the movie, so I skipped the popular tour of the Mercer home, something I later regretted when I found out it was beautiful and interesting without the backdrop of murder.
The other movie that causes tourists to gawk is "Forrest Gump." In the movie, the character played by Tom Hanks sits on a bench in Chippewa Square, tells his story and utters silly maxims such as, "Life is like a box of chocolates." People flock to the square to see the famous bench, only to find a one-way-street sign. The bench has been moved to a museum.
"People come from all over the world and buy a box of chocolates and come to this spot and wait for the bus," cracked our trolley driver. "But there is no bench and there is no bus. Kind of sad, really."
As we continued, some tourists passed. They had taken gobs of Spanish moss and put it under their hats to make it look like long ponytails. The tour guide smiled.
"See that?" he said. "Don't do that. The moss is full of chiggers."
For its size, Savannah is loaded with history and art museums. With limited time, I focused on the biggies, the Telfair Museums, which includes the Telfair Academy, a stoic stone building surrounded by hulking statuary, and its sparkling modern sister, the Jepson Center.
Savannah is also the home to the booming Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Its growth has been a boon to the city, as it has refurbished scores of once rundown buildings and reinvigorated the town. In fact, if anything now distinguishes Savannah, it's not "Midnight" or "Gump," it's the blooming artistic vibe set in motion by all the patchouli-scented art students filling the coffee shops and bars.
"Savannah has become a cultural hub, masked as a sleepy Southern town," said Jake Hodesh, executive director of the Creative Coast, a local organization trying to lure the creative class to the area.
"We're seeing the old guard in the process of embracing the new guard, so it's a weird nexus of the Southern universe right now."
I stumbled upon a SCAD shop, where they sell funky artwork, jewelry, furniture and gifts created by some very talented young artists (inside Poetter Hall, corner of Bull and Charlton). If I'd had any space left on my walls, I would have come home with a painting or two.
The museums were nice, but they paled in comparison with the city's real artwork -- blocks and blocks of gorgeous homes and gardens, all free for the viewing with a good pair of walking shoes. I found myself wandering for hours one Sunday, passing through several old cemeteries, through neighborhoods where dual curved staircases on homes welcomed visitors like open arms. Tunnels of oak trees kept the springtime heat at bay.
There was a band playing and people dancing at the City Market, a stretch of shops and sidewalk cafes. Not far away, women in big sun hats filed into the region's first black church, which soon echoed with gospel music.
I spent the rest of that day wandering lovely Forsyth Park, filled with students grilling lunch and tossing Frisbees, and large families gathered for weekly picnics. A group of elderly gentlemen in matching red suits had their picture taken by the fountain while a few yards away, students in bikinis studied.
Old guard, meet new guard.
My plane didn't leave until late afternoon, so I was lucky enough to try an old Savannah institution: lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room. Mrs. Wilkes only does lunch, but she does it big. You don't choose your meal, you get everything.
After waiting in a long line, I was seated with a dozen strangers at a big table in the bottom of an old house. Within seconds, the food started coming. And coming.
Platters of fried chicken, baked beans, sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, beef stew, stuffing, Spanish rice, black-eyed peas, lingonberries. I stopped counting at 22 distinct dishes. Everyone was chatting and having fun. Many of my lunch companions were locals, engaged in their occasional ritual lunch that is Mrs. Wilkes.
A couple of hours later, I rolled out of the place, realizing that life was indeed a box of chocolates, and I had just eaten the entire box.
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