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Magnolia Hall, a guesthouse owned and operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Forsyth Park (Photograph by Adam Kuehl)

The Living Savannah

By George Dawes Green, founder of The Moth

Whenever folks hear I’m from Savannah, they want to know if it’s still the same as it was in John Berendt’s best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. They wonder, does the city still have the book’s romance—the mad artists, the oppressive beauty, the fever dreams of blood and passion?

I tell them, Well, not if you just stay downtown.

The rotting homes of the historic districtLafayette Square and environs—were bought up, many of them by rich Yankees and Atlantans who restored, lacquered and polished them, and live in them two weeks a year. And the lawyers have turned the row houses into offices. You don’t see many children playing, or dogs. You see sprinklers, mist, and sepulchral moss. The entire place can feel like a museum.

But the spirit of Savannah lives on. You just have to push out a bit. Go south or east or west of the old historic district.

For me, the living Savannah starts at my cousin Alvin’s house in the Victorian district. The house is a grand, turreted affair that looks as still and sober from the front as an embassy—but in fact it’s teeming with life. It’s full of Alvin’s tenants.

They live in the attic and in the basement, out in the coach house and in the maid’s quarters above the kitchen. On warm Saturday evenings they gather for dinner in Alvin’s garden. No invitations are sent. Everyone just shows up at sundown and starts roasting oysters and cooking crabs on the grill, and often Alvin himself, a consummately graceful man in his 70s, will come out and join them. This congeries of drifters and rednecks and poets will stay up till all hours, drinking and telling brilliant, luminescent lies.  

Now bear with me as I recount the events of one spring evening in Alvin’s garden that illustrate what my Savannah is all about. So we were all out there, laughing loudly and carelessly, when I happened to notice that Raymond, Alvin’s handyman and majordomo, was not laughing at all but was looking daggers at our friend, Harper, who lived in one of the coach house apartments.

Raymond was inflamed because his ladylove, Belinda, appeared to be flirting with Harper. Raymond grew more and more enraged until he finally declared, “Well, I’ve had about enough of the two of you.”

Whereupon Harper squinted at him and said, “What is your problem, son? You know I’m completely gay. What do you think might be our agenda here?”

Raymond muttered, “No damn idea. But that don’t make it no better.”

He arose and staggered off to his rooms below the stairs, slamming doors. We didn’t see him again that night. Next day around noon, Alvin and Belinda and I were out in the garden, and we heard what sounded like a cry for help. We hushed up and listened, and it came again. Alvin said, “Oh, that sounds like Harper.”

We went over to the coach house, to Harper’s door. We called out, “Harper, you all right?”

Harper replied, “I’m sealed up alive in here.”

Then we saw the grand arc of nails—30 or 40 of them—embedded all the way around his door.

Alvin went to get Raymond, who came with a hammer and started prying out the nails. But he wore a hangdog look. After a while he paused in his work and shook his head. He said quietly, “Well, maybe I did do this. I have no memory of it, and no earthly idea of why I would. But I woke up this morning with a nail gun next to my pillow, and I been wondering about that, and this might be the explanation.”

Then he went back to work and freed Harper. And apologized to him, and to my cousin Alvin, and was not fired.

And then Harper and I went for a walk. We went south, away from the historic district—into the throbbing city.

We passed through Forsyth Park, where the kids from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) were playing Ultimate Frisbee. We stopped at the Sentient Bean for coffee, and some of the greatest raconteurs in Savannah happened to be there—bearded Tom Kohler, the brilliant Jane Fishman, Vaughnette Goode-Walker dressed like a Jamaican sorceress.

We wandered to the Bull Street Auction, off Victory Drive, where on alternate Sundays from 11 a.m. till about 5 p.m. (or when everything is sold), the true Savannah thrives.

Gossip, nostalgia, peals of laughter, sharp little bidding wars. Mountains of swag being moved. This is where the bargains are (you’ll notice a few of our top antique dealers scattered about, bidding like anyone else but trying to be discreet about it).

In the back, Sue Martinez cooks surprisingly great Savannah classics with a Latin touch. Try her meatloaf and chocolate raspberry cake.

We left the auction house and took the railroad tracks over to Montgomery Street. By now the African-American churches were letting out, and we kept passing families in their Sunday finery, greeting us with exuberant warmth.

Meanwhile warblers were stitching up their nests in the crepe myrtle trees. The shop signs along soulful Montgomery Street: Manna Feast Café, Bobo Seafood, Donna’s Delicious Delights.

Finally we came to Johnson Bros. Hand Car Wash, Rib & Chicken Shack and sat with the owners and consumed a great quantity of some of the best ribs in Savannah. Afterward, thoroughly overfed, we strolled back to Alvin’s house in a slow circuitous route that took us past Laurel Grove Cemetery, where we sat and stared at the gravestones and said nothing to each other.

It was late when we got to Alvin’s, and fish were on the grill and Raymond was already commencing to drink too much and to cast the evil eye. It always seems a bit overwrought, my Savannah, too much of this and too much of that. Then a spell of deep remorse. Then more of the same.

This piece, written by George Dawes Green, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler. Green is founder of the nonprofit storytelling organization The Moth.