CHARLESTON—It’s my last morning in town, and I will miss this place. The sun is rising over the old American city in a way that steals your breath. The street is lined with colonial single homes. There are fresh horse apples in the street.
I hear the sound of a draft horse clopping behind me, pulling a carriage, warming up his joints for the day. I step aside to let the carriage pass. I wave like a fool because I am a hopeless tourist in a romantic city, and I feel obliged to act like one.
“Can I pet your horsey?” I ask the driver.
Horsey. This word just slips out.
The driver stops, he lets me run my hands along the animal’s silken coat. I wish, by some stroke of fate, that I had been born a horse guy. Horse guys know more about life than I do.
But alas, I am a dog guy. And dog guys know nothing about life. All we do is spend our hard earned money on chew toys shaped like tacos.
I wave goodbye to the horsey and keep walking. I pass a few construction workers at a nearby house. Charleston is full of construction work, but not the kind you’re used to.
Here, they don’t have whining power tools and loud radial saws. They have a gentle tap-tap-tap from a hammer. Or the sweeping sound of a wood plane against poplar. Old sounds. Noises that were once the soundtrack of America.
Sadly, I’m from Florida. I’ve worked on lots of construction crews, I’ve been reading measuring tapes since age 14. In Florida, our national bird is the Sapsucking Real Estate Contractor, who uses earth-shattering electric power tools, and cheap materials.
It’s not like this in Charleston. Just down the street is the American College of the Building Arts. Students can choose from six specialized traditional crafts that predate mud: timber framing, architectural carpentry, classical architecture, plaster, blacksmithing, and stone carving.
“It’s a four-year college,” says a construction worker I meet, who is mixing plaster in a bucket. “When you graduate, you pretty much have a guaranteed job here in Charleston.”
The crew is working on a single house from the 1700s. They are doing plaster work on a “dependency” building, located behind the traditional home, which features a period accurate, authentic Land Rover parked in the driveway.
“A dependency,” the man explains, “is just a fancy word for detached ‘kitchen.’”
Colonial homes weren’t big, but their detached kitchens were huge. I can only imagine how people ate back then.
In those times, servants would exit the dependency kitchens carrying huge platters of, say, fried chicken across the backyard, toward the feast in the dining room. Their biggest obstacles were the family dogs.
Try to visualize how colonial dogs would have reacted to hot food on trays that were parading through the yard. They would’ve jumped, turned circles, barked, howled, and tried to knock the servants down. When the servants fell, the platters would’ve spilled, and the dogs would have had a picnic.
A few servants—nobody remembers who—came up with an idea to prevent this. The cooks started frying little balls of cornmeal to toss at the dogs to distract them. The cooks would toss the fried treats and yell, “Hush, puppies!”
Don’t say I never taught you anything.
I walk over to the battery where a gentle Atlantic tide breaks against a seawall. I see Fort Sumter standing in the harbor, some three miles away. The fort’s lone flag still flies, reminding the world that the Civil War started right here. Reminding us that there have been harder times than these.
I’ll be honest, when the pandemic hit I had a tough time adjusting. I had no idea how difficult it would be on my mental health.
I’ve always viewed myself as a pretty upbeat guy, but when we were all suddenly unemployed, wearing face masks, and the mailmen started wearing hazmat suits, it did something to our minds.
But I feel good today. My final morning in one of America’s oldest cities couldn’t be better. I feel the weight of our national history beneath my feet. And I love our humble beginnings, found upon these streets.
My ancestors once walked these lanes. And they were stronger than me. They had more grit than I do. And I can’t figure out how they did it.
For them, fatal disease was a normal part of life. So was war, starvation, economic collapse, the horrors of racism, and death. The average life expectancy—if you were lucky—was age 45. That’s not even accounting for the 618,222 men who died in a bloody War Between the States.
Even so, these people didn’t roll over and give up. They rebuilt this city once, twice, and a hundred times over. And they’re still doing it. Despite the hurricanes, earthquakes, and utterly astronomical real estate prices. They are still building.
Downtown, you can still hear the tap-tap-tap of wood chisels. And the clip-clops from horses. The melodic bells from a church.
I turn to start walking back. A young women and her dog are out for a morning jog. The dog stops to say hello to me.
I pet the golden retriever because we dog guys are suckers for things with tails. The dog gives me a sloppy kiss and ruins my shirt. The young woman says that her dog’s name is Grace.
I have to laugh out loud to myself because it’s only fitting. The older I get, the more I find that this world is full of the stuff.
Until next time, Charleston.