It was not a cold morning in Memphis, fifty-five degrees with a little breeze, so when I followed the couple I had seen leaving the hotel into the bus depot, the hot smoky air was almost overwhelming. It was in the late 1950s and everyone smoked back then: cigarettes, pipes, cigars. I learned in my teen years when I traveled a lot by bus that bus stations were always full of smoke and too warm or too cold. This one in the heart of Memphis was at that time the largest bus depot in Tennessee, even larger than the busy one full of cowboys and guitar cases in Nashville. It smelled of restroom deodorant, pine disinfectant, stale tobacco and frying bacon. I had decided that the couple I followed must have been related, perhaps father and daughter, as they sat side-by-side on stools at the breakfast counter. A blonde waitress with the wrong makeup and a big wad of gum placed glasses of water in front of them and yodeled, “The menu’s up there on the wall. I’ll be back to take y’all’s order in a minute.”
When gum-popper returned, the attractive young woman ordered dry wheat toast and black coffee and the old fellow, perhaps 80, ordered a bowl of grits and a glass of orange juice. Just as the “daughter” was initiating conversation, a middle-aged fellow with a Midwestern accent interrupted to ask the man, “Hey old-timer, what’s good in this joint?”
“Sir, I’m not trying to make any point,” the old man replied innocently and with great dignity, as he adjusted his jumbo hearing aids.
“I didn’t say nothing about no point. I said what’s good to eat here.”
The old man replied, “This is the first time in my life I have ever been called an old-timer. Old timers are in the western movies, like Gabby Hayes and Fuzzy St. John.”
The Northerner was slick bald and he had on a silk shirt open down the front with chest hair like steel wool leaking out and he wore several gold chain necklaces. His right arm had a devil tattooed on it over the caption, “Born to Raise Hell.” Probably something he had done as a kid in the Navy, I surmised, resolving right then and there never to get a tattoo. “Well, sir,” The old man said meditatively after a pause, “I have never eaten here before but I ordered grits. It’s hard for any cook to ruin grits. I generally put a little butter and honey in them and they make a fine breakfast.”
“Grits?” the bald head queried with contempt, “What’s grits?”
“Hog tallow,” the old guy drawled instantly and with a straight face.
The young woman turned her face away and spewed a sip of coffee into a napkin with an explosion of mirth. She tried, somewhat credibly, to make it seem as if it had been a sneeze.
When their food came, the bald one turned away but kept glancing curiously over his shoulder as the old man made a show of deep pleasure in the delicacy. I didn’t laugh until I was on the bus to Shreveport and when I did, people looked at me funny.