I had watched the Ken Burns documentary just like everyone else. I was once an avid reader of historical texts and adventure fiction and literature. Yet, I had never come across a reference to Columbia, South Carolina that stuck in my mind or made any impression. I remember Sherman’s march. Burned Charlotte. Torched Richmond…. Decimated Atlanta. I don’t recall Columbia at all.
To the degree where when I was told I needed to travel to the southern most Carolina, I had to look on a map to find the state capitol.
The city as it is is about the size of Albany, New York but with a strange silent feel of a Midwestern city such as Omaha, Nebraska or Newark, Ohio (which was much smaller but had the same feel of architecture. Unlike Richmond, or the still-not-flattened-and-turned-into-a-glass-building parts of Charlotte or the empty streets of Birmingham or strange clusters of historic houses in New Orleans which all look like what we are taught the Deep South look like. Columbia does not have that same look. It would be at home were it used as a replacement of any of the old dying river cities along the Erie Canal or mill town in any rotting and degenerate part of salty New England. Limestone edifices rise up out of nowhere to be joined by their modern glass counterparts and other of the brick and mortar variety with faded advertisements for salt and chewing gum and elixirs as common in many a city.
While the state is considered one of the poorest in Our Great Nation, the evidence is not so fuck you in your face as in Texas, Detroit, or the New York City of my younger years. There are aspects, like much of The South, of a recent migration – much of it Northerners escaping the modern day slavery of school taxes, sales tax, and the quality services that come with properly administered levies and fees. This has brought with it the typical Geography of Nowhere (my apologies to JHK of course) except that the Roadside Krapola is brand spanking new and the lawns and decorative shrubs maintained by armies of men who I assume walked to Colombia perhaps from Colombia. The only Southern aspect of this version of the strip is that while other locations may have a class of people who disdain this new development, environmental degradation and cultural ennui, in the short time I was there I did not connect with these people. The people I met were proud of the development of their surrounds. Optimistic about their world and the future. Which to this blogger is as foreign as it is refreshing.
“I lost everything, really,” the bar tender told me. He had had a business selling foam packing peanuts made out of dog hair or discount whale oil or some such product we all use but no one thinks about. After cashing out as the market for that product crashed, as they all seem to in this boom and bust economy, he sunk all his money into a restaurant in Florida. As many restaurants, he had a partner and as is common to the vast majority food trade (opinion not fact) this partner was emotionally unstable, unencouragingly dishonest, sexually trifling, and not too good at finances. It took no time for the venture to suck a good percentage of the now bartender’s money and send him to the ranks of the unemployed.
“No one wants to hire an old man,” he said. He had been unemployed for almost two years and this bartending gig was his first solid work. As we chatted he wiped down the bar. Other customers came in and the conversation turned more casual. Between these few customers he would complete his story but he seemed very content to be cleaning up after spilled drinks and filling room service orders for the few customers who entered his vault. He had grand ideas for the vault. A sign outside letting people know about the bar. Jazz music and décor more reminiscent of the olde days of Al Capone, Big Band music, and Jazz players who had to use separate doors and were not allow to stay in the hotels they played in. Closer to the days of Jimmy Crow, I imagined, when this huge limestone hotel was tossed up in the center of the quiet sleepy city. The bar was an actual bank vault which at one time stored the contents of lock boxes and cash to pay the farmers for their crops of whatever they grew back then that was not peaches… or was peaches. The entry was a huge door I hoped they still had the code to in the event it was closed on us by mistake. The hotel was like a funhouse for the O21 crowd. Not only did it have this fantastic vintage bar, it had a rooftop bar too. While the vault bar was martinis and the deep bravado voice with a heavy southern lilt of a man who kept chickens and an organic garden, shot guns from his desk, and had big ideas, the rooftop bartenders were ditsy titsy little women with huge flat bottle openers suggestively stuffed in the back of this tight black spandex(tm) body coverings (they are not paints).
Unlike the “old man” (he was only 50… that’s not old… right kids?), these Little Women couldn’t carry a conversation in a bucket if you tossing in all the components for them, but they were polite and as one may expect of The South, the patrons were primarily men. It was a mixed crowd, somewhat (a patron in the bar downstairs had actually referred to a bar across town as a “black bar”after looking over his shoulder). Upstairs the sun was setting and the place filled up. Unlike the stereotype of those of the Deep South of the fat and unhappy People Of Walmart, these were attractive and stylish people and this made sense since there was a university in the city and this was reflected in the roof top crowd who appeared all in their 30s perhaps from somewhere else but long enough in town to consider themselves locals. Rooftop bars attract these types the world over, so perhaps should not be a surprise.
The center of the city has the old Seaboard Air Line Railroad. While not the actual city center, it is a distinct section of the city and has some of the best eateries this blogger has yet found…. in Columbia, SC that is… The rail depot with the long canopied former platforms produces a covered walkway. The station itself is now a restaurant of some gastronomic notoriety and the historic buildings surrounding it are more-or-less intact minus a parking lot or two. From the old SAR it is a short walk to the State House and actual City Center and along the way the streets are lined with respectable buildings for the most part with established businesses and appear clean and kempt while the traffic during the rush hours are indeed reminders that there is an expansive suburbia out there filled with dualies and SUVs and a Fast and Furious mentality.
“I want a sign outside, no one knows I’m in here,” the bartender told me. “I have some ideas to get more out of this place, I really think for the colder darker months when the rooftop closes down, this can be a real special place. A snug place to bring a girl and have a few drinks.” He looked out into the now empty bar held in what I imagine was his vision of the space as it would become under his management – a swinging little jazz club filled with riotous but polite times. I finished my drink, he had poured with a heavy hand, and wished him good luck and that I would one day return and hoped to see him. And while the Jazz Age is dead and gone, and the spirits of the Old South now but shades and shadows, I had found a place on earth I would enjoy to return to in a little city I had not remembered, in a state that is considered the poorest of The Union.