Southern Hospitality

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“Excuse me, where are the bagels?” I asked the hair-netted, middle-aged woman.

“I’m sorry sweetie, we don’t have any bagels for all y’all.”

Hungry, I was equally confused by the absence of bagels as I was about her twist on the English language. “All y’all?” I was in Atlanta, Georgia circa 1996 — my husband and I had just moved there after our twenties in Manhattan. I settled for raisin toast and tea, after eying my alternate option — pastry-covered mystery meat under a thick gravy cascade. Tray in hand, I paid then slid into a hard backed seat alone in the cafeteria, clad in black.

Lively chatter abounded and women sporting sherbet-colored blouses, tucked beneath business suits, sipped coffee, leaving bright lipsticked half moons lingering on styrofoam cups. New York was worlds away. It was day one at my new job and I was killing time, if not my appetite before orientation. I also had to visit Human Resources to explain why I couldn’t provide proper identification. I’d moved to Atlanta with only a passport for I.D. as I had been pick-pocketed – in Victoria’s Secret on 57th Street, no less — a few days prior. Without a wallet or license, I arrived equipped with an American Express Card and my Northeastern ways. After seven years in New York City, my husband, Mark, and I yearned for change — new jobs and if

Providence would have it, a larger apartment. After trudging in calf-deep grey slush left by that year’s 16th snow storm, my wear-to-work Reeboks were soaked. I wanted out. Mark, stuck in the subway for an hour, arrived home soggy, at the same conclusion.

We chose three cities on an imaginary map — Boston, San Francisco and Atlanta — and vowed to moved wherever one of us became gainfully employed. With a Where’s Waldo attitude, we mentally set out for our mysterious locale, unbeknownst to our family and friends. I won the job race and left for Georgia two weeks before Mark. Excited but melancholy, I left Manhattan in a shiny town car headed for the airport, awash in memories of my young adulthood. What were we doing? Would we regret it? I questioned our decision, but maintained a New York composure.

Atlanta was welcoming with its friendly faces and warm weather. Some women didn’t even wear stockings to the office; I arrived in mid-March sporting thick black tights. Hired to market now obsolete videos for Turner Broadcasting, I thrived in the creative environment. Television and movie folk were my colleagues — most younger, but like me, new to town. In a whirl of lunches and drink-specialed nights out, I was known as “Aline, the married girl.”

Though my transition was seamless, people seemed just a little too friendly; strangers talked to me in the elevator and at the dry cleaners. I drew the line at the ATM. Southerners were missing that protective, social shield, the armor we New Yorkers donned daily. It was invisible but powerful — a teflon-like barrier between you and rantings of construction crews and deranged subway travelers. A necessary shell that kept you tough.

In hopeful contrast, Atlantans were a happy bunch. The Olympics arrived my first summer there and the streets were abuzz with excitement and tourists. The city beamed.

Comped tickets were perks of the job, as was a view of hunky athletes housed at Georgia Tech’s dorms next door.

I immersed myself in all things Atlanta — joining the Junior League, in its birthplace, and embracing Coca-Cola. I even befriended a Civil War Reenactor or two and rolled with our realtor’s comment, “Don’t you ever burn my city down again,” a thinly veiled threat in reference to General Sherman’s 1864 attack. All was well is the land of y’alls, until I had a baby. Childbirth not only brought on exhaustion, but a homesickness unlike before. I wanted to be near family and my roots. Much like a blind date you don’t find attractive, Atlanta had a great personality, but wasn’t home. I rallied and hired a nanny in her late 50s, a makeshift grandmother for my tiny son, Grant. She was a seamstress who came bearing a quilt she’d sewn as a gift for our newborn. To me, it reflected our patched-together experiences of North and South and the blending of my newfound mixed emotions.

Our stint in Atlanta was only three years strong, but the time was filled with indelible firsts. First house, first baby, first side of cheese grits. Moving in, we were met with proverbial pecan pies and smiles from perky neighbors. It was Fantasy Island with Mint Julips, cornbread and the occasional Confederate-flagged license plate. Nostalgic for those days, I’m still a sucker for a southern accent.

Though hesitant to admit it, I left Atlanta a gentler version of myself. I started talking to strangers at the grocery store and the gym. I even lost my stockings in Georgia’s humidity. A metamorphosis had taken hold, and I let it. I was softened by motherhood in my southern home, a charming Tudor with wood from actual ship’s door at its entrance. Our front door seemed a symbol, perhaps, of my choppy journey in the sea that was my brief stay in the South. I returned to the Northeast, but not unchanged; I even allowed a “y’all” or two to slip. I hadn’t become a full-on Southern Belle, but my outlook was forever sunnier.

Photo by Chad Miller