Saint Patrick's Day, Wright Square - Anyone who has ever been to Savannah mentions the architecture. The historic district of Savannah is an architectural dream that sends a certain type of traveler -- middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American -- into a white-sneakered frenzy. All that Colonial nostalgia turns their heads and quickens their mortgage-heavy hearts. It reassures them that America is what it is supposed to be; refined, dignified and, most importantly, enduring.
My tastes are not often congruent with those of Middle America. I went to Savannah for different things. For instance, it is not widely known that Savannah has one of the best drag bars in the nation. For the first half of my stay, I'd only seen Savannah at night. I might never have appreciated the architectural side of the city if it weren't for the unmitigated religious zeal of a fellow visitor. In fact, my eyes were only opened to Savannah's beautiful built environment because I was forced to wander its streets in order to avoid an unwanted religious conversion.
An over-zealous street evangelist visiting from West Virginia, whom I shall call John of the River Reed Cross, had decided that I was a prime candidate for salvation. In order to avoid the aforementioned salvation I had to take lengthy detours around the evangelist's outpost in the historic district. But this was easier said than done. John changed his location from day to day. Infuriatingly, no matter which square or street corner he chose to occupy, his position cut me off from my favorite lunch venue, the Soda Pop Shoppe on Bull Street.
Now, the Soda Pop Shoppe is no Russian Tea Room. It isn't swanky, famous or frequented by celebrities; but it is friendly, homey, unassuming and affordable. They make a "manwich" --what Roseanne Barr would call a loose-meat sandwich -- to die for. Their hot dogs are out of the ordinary too; both in that they don't inflict the consumer with gastric convulsions, like many other hot dogs would, but also because they're pretty tasty.
So, each afternoon when I emerged from my lair and went out to get my manwich, I had to make like one of those white sneakered architecture buffs and hit the pavement. Much to my pleasure, I learnt that all the hype about the architecture was true.
There are more than a thousand restored Regency and Federation style buildings in the historic district alone. There are elegant homes in garden settings of rambling wisteria vines and azalea flowers where mockingbirds really do sing. From the simple beauty of Savannah's oldest building -- the Pirate's House built in 1734 -- to the charming nineteenth century townhouses of Gaston Street. From the many mansions overlooking manicured squares to the grand public buildings overlooking the river, Savannah truly is a treasure trove of exemplary architecture.
There are ornate churches with spires so white they might as well have been dusted with sugar frosting: Saint John the Baptist, First Congregational and the Independent Presbyterian being the most eminent among them. There are synagogues that are among the nation's oldest as well as the First African Baptist Church which is literally the first church built by a black Baptist congregation in North America.
The streets are tree-lined and shady. Around every second corner there is another pleasant square with a bubbling fountain or a monument to a long dead military hero or captain of industry. To put it simply, Savannah has what's called "Old South ambience;" a kind of genteel serenity that is rooted as much in artifice as it is in that colonial nostalgia.
Like New Orleans, the other jewel in the South's architecture crown, Savannah's flagship event is a religious one - the Saint Patrick's Day celebration and parade. Saint Pat's Day in Savannah is to white and conservative Southerners what New Orleans' Mardi Gras is to the South's black and liberal communities; an opportunity to get together in numbers, to celebrate shared traditions, ancestry and values and to drink far more liquor than is natural or wise.
Though Saint Patrick's Day and Mardi Gras are both catholic celebrations, they differ tremendously. Where Mardi Gras is about music, sexual liberty and cultural hybrids, Saint Pat's Day is about civil war nostalgia, family values and, strangely, military processions. The former is wild, euphoric and a little dangerous, the latter is safe, conventional and a little restrained and churchy. Nevertheless, I'd still been startled when, whilst out on a Saint Pat's Day stroll, I was asked by a complete stranger:
"Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?" I looked at the questioner blankly, surprised. I wasn't used to being asked questions like that, especially not by people I didn't know. I'm Australian. We just don't talk about religion like that, certainly not on the street.
He was seated on a bench in Wright Square, just a block or two from the central shopping district of Savannah. He was in his late fifties. His hair had only just begun its fade to silver. He was easily six and a half feet tall; maybe well on the way to seven. He was African-American, with skin so beautifully dark that it had a hint of peacock blue. He was selling wicker work crosses made from river reeds to the more devout of the Saint Pat's Day crowd. A sign sellotaped to the bench read "All funds to the Church of the Ecstatic Angel Tongues."
I instantly got images of people writhing on the ground babbling in gibberish.
"Do you believe in God?" he persisted. A few thoughts flashed through my mind in swift succession:
1. As a Buddhist I neither believe nor disbelieve in anything at all, but how to explain that to someone I've just met?
2. His faith clearly means a lot to him and so I don't want to offend him by saying that I'm an agnostic.
3. He's huge and, due to his one milky white eye and front teeth that resemble the palings of a collapsed fence, a bit scary too. What if he decides to punish my heathenism by clobbering me with those huge fists of his?
4. Am I over-thinking this?
I decided to lie, to save his feelings and avoid any possible confrontation. Admittedly, my motivation was more to do with the latter than the former.
"Yes," I finally answered in what I considered an appropriately pious tone. But perhaps I just sounded feeble-minded. He looked at me with his one good eye and smiled. As the crow's feet at the corner of his eyes deepened with the smile, his fence-paling teeth shone yellow in the spring sun.
"Good, that's good," he said solemnly. "The Lord aint never goin' to let you down.... Not so long as you're true to Him."
"You got to have true religion. You got to belong to the right church."
"Like the Church of the Angel Tongues?" I asked.
"That's right. Now, I could baptize you right here and you would be saved. You'd be in rapture an' speakin' the angel tongues before sundown. Do you want to be saved?"
"Ummm...." All I could think was that I'd rather eat my own underpants than be saved if being saved meant that I had to roll around on the ground speaking in tongues. That wasn't my idea of salvation; that was my idea of hell.
"Surely you're not goin' to say you don't want to be saved?" He pressed, his one good eye narrowing suspiciously.
"I can see that I got to make your salvation my business. Come and sit here and buy one of my crosses. They made from river reeds, like Moses' baby basket."
"Ummm, I've got to go actually, I've got an appointment," I stuttered, not mentioning that my appointment was with a delicious, savory meat sandwich.
"How long you here for?" he asked.
"Another month," I answered truthfully, taking another furtive step away.
"Good, good, that's more than long enough for me to save your soul." He smiled again, exposing his huge front teeth. I smiled back, feeling decidedly panicked, and walked away; heading as swiftly as I could towards the soothing pleasure of that delicious loose-meat sandwich.
Thus began my dance with John of the River Reed Cross. Day after day, he blocked my passage to the Soda Pop Shoppe. Day after day I was forced to take long detours, wending my way to Bull Street through Savannah's narrow and confusing streets. The arc I had to take to reach the beloved purveyors of those loose-meat manwhiches became wider and wider as John moved his missionary activities from square to square. This went on for weeks.
Then, on the one day that I manned-up enough to banish my fear of John and take the direct route through Wright square, I was confronted with a bizarre scene. In the center of the square, right in front of the monument to William Washington Gordon, Georgia's railroad magnate, a strange baptism was taking place. John was pouring a can of Mountain Dew all over a tiny, thin homeless man. As he poured the soda all over the man's head, John was making repeated signs of the cross and speaking in tongues. A crowd of onlookers stood by with faces alight with either horror at the waste of that fine beverage or religious frenzy, I couldn't tell which.
Once the last drops of Mountain Dew were shaken down onto the vagrant's head, John announced to his transient congregation, "This man is baptized and saved!" The onlookers applauded rapturously then descended on the damp man to enthusiastically pat him on the back.
I turned right around and took the longest detour to Bull Street yet. I would just have to accept that John of the Reed Cross had won this battle. For the time being the historic district belonged to him. But he had ceded something, an experience of Savannah and its architecture that I might not have had otherwise. Out of nowhere I was feeling glad for John the street evangelist's zeal. If I hadn't been avoiding him, I might never have heard those mockingbirds sing.
Even so, John had not won the battle over my soul. The Church of the Ecstatic Angel Tongues would have to get on without me. I had no intention of being baptized with Mountain Dew, or any other soda for that matter. Though cherry cola might have been nice.