The Tomato Place And The Perfect Man List

TheTomatoPlace

This is the coldest night of our trip.  After complaining about the heat and humidity of Florida, we’re shivering in the chilly air a few miles south of Vicksburg…still alongside Highway 61.  My trusty thermometer tells me it’s 37 degrees just fifteen inches behind me and through the thin wall of the R-pod.  I push my new CD into the player.  I go straight to Track 6.  It’s Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s version of St. James Infirmary.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her

Wherever she may be

She can look this wide world over

But she’ll never find a sweet man like me…

I tear open the bag of boiled peanuts I just bought.  I finger out a half-dozen and break open the cold shells.  They’re better when they’re hot.

I put a thin fleece blanket over my shoulders and listen to the music.  I settle back in my fleece and think about the place where I just bought the boiled peanuts, the CD of Mississippi Blues, and a Blackberry Oatmeal cookie.    I also think about the felt fedora I nearly paid $35.00 (+ tax) for.

The store and small eating area is called The Tomato Place.  The outside looks like any vegetable stand.  The interior…well, it’s funky and folky and full of items to please the eye.

But, mostly I’m thinking of the young woman who stood behind the counter.  She was the daughter of the owner.  The owner is Luke.  His daughter, the woman behind the counter is Mallary and she told us she recently got married.  I couldn’t turn away from her eyes.  They were chocolate-brown and wondrously expressive.  She touched my arm.

Mallary

[Mallary is the daughter of the owner.  She had the “perfect man list”]

“You know what?  I put away my ‘perfect man list’ and I’ve never been happier,” she said.

“Good for you,” I said.

“I’d love to travel, like y’all, but you know what?  I get to stand here behind the counter and meet people like you and it’s almost like going on a trip,” she told us.

“Certainly saves on plane fares,” I said.

It was getting dark…we had seen the red globe of the sun sink into the flatlands of Louisiana, across the Big River.  It was time to go home.  Time to listen to some blues and eat some peanuts.

It was time to stop looking at the fedoras and the large (!) sacks of peanuts.  And, it was time to let Mallary help the next customer.

But, we had our dinner plans for Tuesday night.  Mallary makes a mean Tomato Pie.

I went back to The Tomato Place on Tuesday morning.  Mallory wasn’t in yet, so I spent a delightful hour chatting with Angela.  Meeting people like Angela and Mallary are a reminder of why I love to travel…and get off the Interstates…and discover little gems like this place.

Angela

[Angela serves a great mug of coffee and has an interesting life]

Where else would I get to see a 50 pound sack of peanuts?

50lbsPeanuts

Where else would I find an object d’art like this record bowl:

RecordBowl

[It’s The J. Geils Band “Bloodshot”]

Or a nutcracker that doesn’t look like a tin soldier?

NutCracker

I sat and read a book for a while in the back room of the dining area.  It was space that had an eclectic assortment of tables and chairs.  The walls were filled with jars of preserves, jams, packages of coffee and syrups.  Soft music played from small speakers.  I could actually think in this little space.  I could concentrate.  I could comprehend what I was reading. Sipping my coffee, I used the quiet to plan this posting and to think of more questions about the lives of these two young women that I met, purely by serendipity, in this little structure that looked as though it was a simple vegetable stand.

Some real treasures, real discoveries and some real people, with a gentle politeness and engaging smiles who willing share brief parts of their lives, are behind the doors that are the most unpretentious.

Out On Highway 61

Highway61:Me

You leave todays newspaper unread on the table next to your front door.  A dozen flies buzz around the hole in your window screen next to the formica table in your kitchen.  They get in despite the wad of toilet paper you use to plug the hole.

You walk home from a bar.  You weren’t the last to leave, but the guy behind you locked the door.  The drizzle doesn’t bother you.  Who needs an umbrella anyway?  The pavement is uneven.  Pools of rainwater reflect the image that’s been buzzing in your brain all day.

Face it, she left you.

But you don’t really care.  You don’t care because you have the blues.  You haven’t been dealt with a royal flush in the Poker Game of Life. You only get jokers and they aren’t even the wild cards.

You got the blues.  And, where do you go when you got the blues?  You head to the birthplace of music in America.  You catch the Shortline out of Port Authority for that slice of real estate that runs from Memphis to Natchez.

You head for the Delta Blues Country of Mississippi.  Gospel, R & B, Rock & Roll and the Blues were born here and that is where you belong.

Cause you got the blues, man…

This is Elvis country.  This is Hank Williams country.  Somewhere in this mystic triangle, two roads intersected.  A poor black kid who couldn’t play the guitar went off one night and met someone at the Crossroads, probably around midnight.  There he traded his holy and immortal soul for the gift to play the guitar…not just any guitar…but the best Delta Blues guitar in the country.

Robert Johnson, legend has it, came back from the Crossroads and could out play any man or woman who cared to challenge him.  He paid his dues, though.  After sneaking out the back door of his house, he promptly went into the back door of another girls house.  His wife found out about his midnight rambling and put poison in his liquor.  He died after crawling across the floor, barking like a dog and foaming at the mouth.

That’s the way the Legend goes.  Maybe it happened.  Maybe it didn’t.  But, that’s what I heard and that’s what I chose to believe.

This is the Blues Highway.  On a map, it’s labelled Route 61.  But, magic happened here.  For some unexplained reason, the poverty and despair of the poor blacks gave rise to a form of music listened to all over the world.  It rose up from the wasted cotton fields and dried-out soy bean fields of Mississippi and Louisiana, filled with hate, prejudice, injustice, hopelessness and violence.  It rose up and became the songs of the chain-gangs, the cotton pickers, the old men on the rocking chairs of back porches who sang and hummed as they swatted at the flies and gnats and sipped cheap gin.

Sorrowful music that somehow gave hope to those who were tied to the soil.  The white rock and roll singers co-opted this music and made it safe for white teenage girls to listen to.

The Great Migration of poor blacks and jobless whites from the rural North, took generations of the folks north, north to the industrial midwest…usually Chicago.

Bob Dylan anointed this road by naming his album Highway 61 Revisited.

I’m on the Blues Highway.  I’m driving Route 61 North.  It’s a 4-lane divided highway for a few dozen miles.  They must have torn down all the juke joints and gin mills to widen the road.  A ghost sign of a long gone motel is here.  An abandoned car wash is there.  I’ll only be driving the section that is noted in my Rand McNally as the Natchez Trace Parkway, but the Trace seems to follow a zig-zag pattern, crossing Highway 61, at different points.  The town welcome sign for Port Gibson is unique.  It has a quote from the great enemy of the Confederacy: “Too beautiful to burn”–U.S.Grant.  Vicksburg is our next stop.  The clay bluffs rise on the eastern shore of the Mississippi just a they do in Natchez.  I had been to this town several times when I attended college in Monroe, Louisiana in the mid-1960’s.  I wonder how much it has changed.  I read somewhere that people of Vicksburg say that the parks, lawns and sidewalks are really graveyards.  The Confederate dead are said to lay in the dirt…the ones that weren’t collected after the Union siege ended on July 4, 1863, when the city surrendered and the dead of both sides were buried in mass graves in the National Cemetery.

Highway 61 has had a dismal past.  But, from all the blood, death, slavery, poverty and cotton…came the music of the saddest kind.

So sad, it can’t help but lift your spirits.  If you got the blues, you got to listen to the blues.  It’s the only cure.

We’re leaving Vidalia, Louisiana just a week or so before an expected flood.  They can’t say exactly how high the crest will be, but the cement pad that our little RV sits on will almost surely be under water.

I just walked over to the levee.  It was dry.  I didn’t see the good old boys drinking whiskey and rye…and this will not be the day that I die.

NatchezSunset

[The Mississippi River Bridge from Natchez looking toward Louisiana]