“There’s a reason for everything, but there is no excuse if the cornbread is burnt.”
The old Southern gentleman looks at me with his right eye nearly closed and his left eye so wide he might be peering through a jeweler’s eyepiece. Yup, I am under scrutiny. Did I even know what cornbread was? Am I worthy of his story?
“Well,” he patiently begins again after seeing my bemused look, “a million dollars was gone and the room full of people wanted to know why. But these folks didn’t want to hear me tell of all the reasons that money was gone. They just wanted the money back. With interest. So I told them, ‘There’s a reason for everything, but there is no excuse if the cornbread is burnt. And the cornbread is burnt.’ Do you see?”
These few sentences are spoken with a drawl so long and drawn that it is possible to eat a sandwich in-between them. But the elongated vowels also lend delightful musicality. Will the old man start tap-dancing next?
Charleston, South Carolina. I’m here for a wedding. I am caught by surprise at the graciousness of the people. When the clerk at the coffee shop tells you to have a good day, she may be just as willing to stop and talk about how you like Charleston, and, by the way, how many children do you have? And what are their ages? My goodness.
And the beauty of Charleston. Wow!
As I wander around, I end up down by the harbor on a quiet Friday morning. There I find Kasmere Sutter. She’s 18 years old and selling roses made from palm leaves.
“I’ve been doing this for like a year and a half. I get the palms from the trees nearby.”
“There is a lot of people doing them, like sweet-grass baskets on the market. They teach people how to make the roses and make sure you have a license and stuff like that.”
It must be a lot of work to make a living.
“I kinda live out on the streets. It’s not fun living on the street, but then again it’s fun. You get to do whatever you want to do. I think it’s fun because I’ve been in so many group homes and foster homes this is different. I left those places when I turned 18.”
And how is it not fun?
“This is also not fun because you have to look for food and it’s kind of embarrassing to ask people for food. You don’t want people to know the situation you’re in. I have pride.”
Do you feel safe?
“No, not really. I just keep myself safe. I have like a friend, not a boyfriend, but he’s male. He keeps me safe and I keep him safe.”
Really? Keep yourself safe?
Back when I was in my 20’s, I hitchhiked around the United States. It was the waning days of hitchhiking as a relatively normal mode of transport. Cities and states and the federal government were starting to pass restrictions on where folks could legally hitchhike because of all the danger posed by hitchhikers and the people who picked them up.
But, of course, I was invincible.
Across Iowa. Across Nebraska. Into Wyoming. Carving my way up into Canada and then circling back across the Trans-Canadian Highway and dropping into New York City.
It seemed like a romantic adventure. You know, on the road (boring). Hopping trains (not really). Cooking in tin cans around a campfire with poet hobos (never).
Yup. Delusional at best.
I spent one night in a ditch somewhere outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. About 20 yards away from my sleeping bag there was rustling in the tall grass. I was not alone on this early morning. Three teenagers. Bedded down like young deer. Skittish. Wary. Coughing softly in the morning dew. Their thin bodies and hollow looks seemed an advertisement for despair. They glanced away from me in fear that I would harm them. Quickly, they packed their few belongings, watching me over their shoulders, and moved on into town, looking for food.
They are what it means to live on the street — hunger, constant movement, and danger. This is not romantic.
But today the sun is shining in Charleston. The stately and colorful mansions line the harbor with their three-layer porches. And Spanish moss hangs from the trees as if placed there by the rowdy antics of high school kids before the Friday night game.
I turn back to Kasmere Sutter and her open-air market.
How much for a rose made from palm leaves?
“Five dollars . . . but three will do.”
I pay the 18-year-old kid and walk back to my lovely life and ruminate about all the reasons Sutter is living on the street. Meanwhile, the smell of burnt cornbread floats on the breeze.