Working hard, playing hard in the South

Last night I had grits, a spinach and crawfish dip and a drink (okay, drinks) made with sweet tea vodka, called an “Arnold Palmer” in an open-air café near downtown Charlotte. The laughter of our group was loud and rowdy; spirits were high and the camaraderie warm and enveloping. I was with a team I had worked with intensely for a week while we prepared another REI store for their grand opening. Eleven plus hour work days followed my dawn runs, and evenings had been spent at any outdoor café we could find where we could slip our shoes off and give our aching feet a break as well as down a few beers celebrating the accomplishments of the day.

Store openings are the highpoint of my career. The benefits to me personally are enormous. I walk into a store filled with sales staff I’ve never met, a physical environment that is at the peak of controlled chaos with new product being hung on the drive aisle, construction workers jack-hammering in the distance and department layouts that while meticulously mapped, don’t quite add up to reality.

By far, the greatest excitement, for me, comes from traveling to places I’ve never been and meeting new people. Trying local food and experiencing unique demographic traditions cements the pleasure I have when I’m in a fresh new environment. Especially, when my co-workers are thrilled to see I like what I’m eating and am game to try out being one of them.

Southern hospitality is not like anything I’ve experienced before. I was out west this summer and thrilled to be among some of the friendliest people I’ve met; but now I have to say the south is right up there. Real people who know how to have a good time and make the out of town traveler feel at home.

What did we laugh about? Nothing and everything. We spent days sweating, moving quickly both physically and mentally. I was managing staff simultaneously in men’s and women’s clothing, basics and footwear as well as communicating the direction to my District Visual Merchandiser and the store Assistant Store Manager. I had to be three steps ahead of my support staff and be clear about the direction I expected us to be taking that particular day and be extra sure to thank them for their incredible efforts. I couldn’t get rattled or fall into negativity; if it’s true the spirits of one are mirrored by others, my focus had to be energetic and positive.

When the work was done for the day, my peers and I disintegrated into utter silliness and nonsense. After making decisions all day and being professional and quick, we stalled when it came to deciding where to eat. We left work intelligent, organized women and once out the door could barely string sentences together. One or two evenings we chose to go right to dinner without cleaning up at the hotel first. We were exhausted and starving, so we dined with our sneakers off, shirts spotted with gray from carrying fixtures close to our chests, and hair that hadn’t seen a hairbrush since early that morning. But, our disarray did not put others off; in fact our joviality seemed to invite others in.

I learned that in the south, tailgating is not a passive activity, but is elevated to high art, college football rules, and the names of school teams roll off tongues like a foreign language to someone as unschooled as myself. Every other radio station plays country music. Southerners will fry anything I’m told; pickles, Twinkies, and snickers bars.

The night I tried grits (absolutely delicious I might add) we were loud and attracted attention from passers by on the street, even a fire truck that was waiting at a red light right outside the door beeped their horn at us. We didn’t know each other that well, but the common language of laughter united us. Our waiter bantered with us as well, telling us he only responded to snapping figures or other rude gestures, and as one fellow worker after another joined us we continued to deteriorate to the point that my sides and belly muscles ached and my jaw was sore. As the evening was ending, we wandered outside to say good-bye and one by one we looked up to see a telephone pole that looked like something out of the set at Universal Studio’s “Twister”, an ancient intricate intersection of electrical wires that arched and joined countless wires. For some reason, we all decided this old-fashioned pole was a sign of the backwards south and laugh affectionately at the place we were in. I was the only non-southerner so the jesting was in love, but we took pictures and elaborated on why this was a symbol to be revered.

I am a traveler who is finding home in the most unusual of places these days; the only one not feeling like home is the one I happen to live in. Here in the South, I found a few days of a lifestyle I want to ponder further. I hugged one friend and said, ‘hey come to Boston, and I’ll take you to a Bruin’s game.’ I paused, “But you have to bring me tailgating on my next visit.”

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