December 20, 2015
In December 2015, I was one of several local writers asked to give a short reading on what Savannah means to me. Thanks to Emergent Savannah for the invitation!
Tonight, I’m going to talk about my dead best friend. He fell off a cliff. There is, of course, more to that story, but that’s all I’m going to tell for now. We were friends long before he fell. It would have been hard to become friends after.
I’ve never written about Mullins before. That’s his name: Jeremy Mullins. He drew comics and taught at SCAD. He wore a three-piece suit whenever he taught. He wasn’t my first friend in Savannah, but he was my first Savannah friend.
In 2003, I was both a native of Savannah and a transplant. It had been more than a decade since I last lived here full-time, and while my extended family was still around, I had no connections to any of my former peers. If the word “peers” can be used to describe eleven-year-olds. So while I had been baptized here and played tee-ball here and had my first crush on a girl name Kristen in the sixth grade at St. James Catholic School, I was a local by blood only. Savannah was my heritage, not my present.
After college, after a failed search for work in my adopted hometown of Atlanta, after it became clear that a degree in jazz studies prepared you for exactly no forms of employment, I started a part-time, minimum wage job at WTOC-TV. I started going to Gallery Espresso to read and write every evening on the break between newscasts. This was the old Gallery location on Liberty Street, now The Book Lady Bookstore. I’m writing this right now in the new Gallery, where I’ve written almost every morning for years. Still, I miss the old space. I miss the feeling of descent, of taking the two steps down into a space somehow alternative to the street-level just outside. I’d vie there every evening with the other regulars for the one well-lit table in the back left corner.
Mullins was one of the other regulars. I don’t remember how we met. I don’t know who spoke to who first, though I’m pretty sure at that point in my life it wasn’t me. Loneliness is a thing that can starve you, weakening you too much to make a friend even when the opportunity presents itself.
Gallery Espresso moved to its current location. Mullins and I spent so much time there together that I’m sure not a few people thought we were a couple. We’d sit at the counter overlooking the rest of the coffee shop. We’d talk about ideas we had for creative projects, what I was writing and what he was drawing. He introduced me to comic books. “Funny books,” he called them. We would check out every woman who came in. When one met the very particular prerequisites of Mullins’ fancy, he’d make a noise like “ooohhhhnnnnnhhh.” We were knuckleheads, for sure. That was Mullins’ word. I like to think I’m not so much of a knucklehead now, but I think I’m better off for having been one.
I can see that old counter across the room right now. It was actually part of the counter at the previous Gallery location. I still sit there sometimes in the evenings. I still think of the stool on the left as “Mullins’ seat.”
I wouldn’t still be in Savannah if Mullins hadn’t reached out to me a decade ago. I tried for years to move away. Fortunately, those were the years when I was basically unemployable. I realize now that Mullins, a south Florida transplant, was more of a Savannahian than me, a native. We call ourselves the hostess city, but that’s just for tourists. For the locals, Savannah is one big public space. It’s this right here. It’s gathering at coffee shops or bars or art galleries or book readings. It’s a good party. And a good party is more than just fun. A good part means something.
I wonder what Mullins thought when he first saw me, a kid hogging the table with the good light in the corner. Now that I’m on the other side of the table, so to speak, I remember what Mullins did for me. How typical of Savannah it was. To say a simple hello. To make a new friend. I wonder what Mullins would think if he saw me on this stage right now.
What I learned from Mullins, though, is that while it’s simple, it also needs to be deliberate. Effort needs be made. When you see someone worth knowing, goddamn it get to know them. This isn’t some suburb. This is Savannah. And we’re all friends here.