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Hoop Skirts, Smoked Fish, and $45 Wine.

Hoop Skirts, Smoked Fish, and $45 Wine.

When I was 22 I had a food epiphany. Despite a love of books, I’d only a vague knowledge of who Proust was so when it happened my head didn’t immediately go there. It went to a much simpler thought. One of, “This is good. I want more of this.” Which in and of itself isn’t Proustian per se but is monumental. Because my next thought was, “Oh no. I’m ruined for anything else.” Which indicated my life was about to take a much different shape than the one I’d assumed.

At the time I was working with my friend Scotty at Mrs. Field’s Cookies in a food court. Willow Lawn in Richmond, Virginia to be exact. Our days were long and the pay was poor although at that age making $500 a week before taxes felt massive. I’d arrive by city bus at 7am, make 8 batches of 8 varieties, then do all the things required of a retail manager until my shift ended at 5pm, taking the bus back downtown to the shitty apartment I shared with two other people. Scotty was my right hand, having demoted himself from the position. Initially I wondered why. But not for long.

It was hard work. I went home smelling of cookie grease that seeped off the baking sheets. My forearms collected stove burns like tattoos. Feet and back and arms ached. The thumping rhythm of the Hobart sang in my dreams. The long hours and fatigue meant no social life. On pay day we’d take the bus to Captain George’s, gorge ourselves, then drown our sorrows over cheap beer at The Broadway Café just down the block. I scrimped and saved and hustled to make ends meet. Many times cookies “accidently” fell on the floor so I could have dinner. Blocks of butter and sealed plastic bags of pre-beaten eggs went home because I didn’t have time to shop. Leftover sacs of cookies were traded with bags of Sbarro’s next door at the end of the night, our own little food court black market. Experiences like this bonded us, and it wasn’t long at all before we became fast friends.

Eventually we left Mrs. Field’s. I went to DC then returned to go to college. Scotty became a concierge. We continued to hustle and commiserate regularly over the strange and weird happenings of our lives. Every get-together felt like therapy. We’d laugh and share and dream of the day when we were rich, where the only thing we’d have to worry about is which cocktail to order next. Or what to tip the cabana boy.

Days were long. My mother had just suffered a debilitating car accident that made her an invalid at 49. The struggle to survive and thrive seemed never-ending. When he phoned one day and suggested a road trip, I was in. I had no money whatsoever, but I was in. Somehow we’d make it work.

The plan was to visit The Biltmore in Asheville then head down to a resort in Hilton Head for a few days, ending with a long meandering drive up Route 17 to Nags Head where his mother was doing a beach week. Money would be tight, but he’d managed to get a steep employee discount for the resort because he worked at its DC outpost. I was so excited. I felt like I’d won some sort of sweepstakes. It had been years since I’d had a vacation and money or no money, I was ready to get out of dodge, and my own head, for just a little while.

The trip was everything we’d hoped. We laughed, shared, took tons of pictures. We stalked Daniel Day-Lewis on the Biltmore grounds where “Last of the Mohicans” was filming. He illegally drove our tiny rental car past the concrete barriers to capture a photo of it against the massive Biltmore house in order to gawp at its scale. We took silly selfies in rocking chairs on Thomas Wolfe’s porch. In Columbia, SC we rode a mall carousel and harassed the department store clerk trying to sell George Hamilton suntan products. At an interstate motel we sat outside sipping cheap beer out of brown bags, smoking endless cigarettes, watching the semis go by in the sweltering summer night. At the Hilton Head resort we marveled how every time we raised the flag on our lounge chair, a beautiful boy would bring us a fresh mint julep.

And at the resort buffet I had a food epiphany. That evening began with cocktail hour, where a large black woman wearing Salt-n-Pepa doorknocker earrings served us complimentary gin and tonics on a silver tray while trying to maneuver through the crowd in authentic Civil-War era hoopskirts. We were drawn to her immediately, having been subjected to such performances in the name of hospitality ourselves. We chatted and laughed and after several minutes agreed to double fist the drinks so she could empty her tray and be rid of this humiliation.

Half drunk, maybe more so, we headed off to dinner. I was completely intimidated as my experiences with buffets had been limited to the aforementioned Captain George’s as well as Bonanza steaks and Texas toast when my parents made a lot of cash during their annual September yard sale. I took a breath and acted like I’d been there before. It helped we threw caution to the wind and ordered a $45 bottle of red. A merlot? A cab? I don’t remember. All I recall is cringing at the price tag because it was more than my monthly food allowance. Then saying what the hell. You only live once.

That first sip was the moment. The moment that ruined me for anything and everything else. Here was a nectar that did not burn as it slid down your throat. Here was a drink that was warm, and round, and soft and felt like slipping in between flannel sheets on a cold night. At first taste the wine changed form and became one with your tongue and tonsils straightaway. Good lord. How would I ever drink jugs of Gallo sangria ever again? Good lord. We might need to order another bottle.

The moment only amplified itself when I took my first bite of smoked fish, which I’d selected because I’d never seen it before. It looked funny. Scotty turned up his nose but I was curious. I flaked a tiny portion onto my fork and jumped. And instantly felt my palate saying an audible, “FINALLY! Thank you.” Flaky and delicate. Familiar yet strange. Light smoke on the back end like you’d just inhaled a whiff of your favorite uncle’s cigar as you passed through a room. It tasted like I had inhaled an ocean breeze and been left with little crystals of salt on my tongue. I could eat a great deal of this. Daily. One bite and I knew I wanted more. I knew the rest of my life would never be the same.

The remainder of that evening? Kind of a blur. As with all nights involving large quantities of red wine there was a disagreement which devolved into a shouting match. I wondered if the Road Trip Curse would take its toll. But the next morning all was forgotten. In fact, we were closer than ever.

Looking back, what remains is the friendship that solidified itself from fair weather to life long as well as the pivotal moment that set me on my life’s path. I have him to thank for that. And as is the case with many rose-colored memories I found out later all was not as it seemed. He’d gotten a discount, but also “borrowed” a credit card from his partner to make the trip happen. There was a lot of fast dancing behind the scenes to make sure the trip was seamless for me. A momentary visit to paradise so I could forget life for a bit.

I’m only now realizing he probably suggested this trip because of my mother’s accident. He never said so but the dates match up. Scotty saw what I needed, what we both needed, and made it happen. As good friends do. Sometimes you just have to get away no matter what it takes. You make it work. I’ve learned from that trip, as with so many other things in life, when you take the time to set your intention, to make the effort despite the odds, the rewards you get back are tenfold. And if you have a friend who knows this? Who does this for you? Then you have a very rich life indeed.

Scotty is currently battling Stage 3B colorectal cancer. Please consider a donation. Thank you.

 

 

 

8 comments

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  • Rcahel

    Reply

    Excellent.

    • Jenée Libby

      Reply

      OMG. Rachel, thank you. Coming from a fellow writer who I admire so, this mean a lot <3

  • Lisa

    Reply

    You seem to “arrive/show up” just when the time I need to chillout is hovering. I’m a big fan of your podcast – but your newsletters are especially well received in my inbox and I think you are a fantastic writer.

    Thank you for this beautiful piece.

    • Jenée Libby

      Reply

      Wow. Okay this made me cry. Thank you so much. I was so worried at the moment I hit “publish” that the piece was too much navel gazing, not enough of a theme so folks could connect to it. I’m THRILLED you enjoyed it. And expect many more where that came from in the coming weeks. Because we’ve had quite a few adventures…..most around food! 🙂 Cheers.

  • Victoria

    Reply

    Just wonderful, and brought back many happy memories of alcohol-fueled madcap road trips from my own distant past.

    • Jenée Libby

      Reply

      Victoria, thank you so much! Was so worried folks wouldn’t be able to connect. So glad you did. It felt good to hit “publish” on this story 🙂

  • Outstanding. The best people in life just show up. They don’t ever say, “Let me know if there is anything you need.” They know what you need and make sure you have it, no questions asked.

    I’ll be keeping Scotty in my prayers. And next time I have smoked fish and a remarkable bottle of wine, I am sure I will recall this post.

    • Jenée Libby

      Reply

      Thank you so much Katie for the kind words! Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Yes, he is one in a million. So grateful to have him in my life 🙂

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