The white tent with Auburn University markings was set up outside an automotive garage. There were a couple grills beneath the tent, spewing blue smoke into the air. A sign out front read: BBQ.
It was a sleepy afternoon and business was apparently slow at the garage. The mechanics were all sitting outside, relaxing on the axis of the Wheel of Life. Chain smoking.
At the grill was a young man, working the coals. He was well over six-foot eight. Maybe seven feet. He had a frame like an F-150. His hair was in cornrows, his shoulders were the width of a Steinway. He was smothering pork ribs with a paintbrush that had been dipped in what was either barbecue sauce or 10W-30.
I ordered a full rack because I have a sixth sense when it comes to barbecue. My father before me also had a great nose for barbecue.
And I am a chip off the old block.
My old man could procure the greatest smoked nourishment from side-of-the-road places that most people would overlook. He once bought barbecue in a Mexican man’s backyard, a man who was cooking a goat in a giant hole in the ground.
When the man asked my father how it tasted, my father forced himself to swallow a mouthful and answered, “It definitely tastes like goat.”
The kid at the grill was loading my to-go box when he looked at me and said something. He was unable to articulate words, it sounded more like moaning than talking. Although his tone had the ring of a question.
An older woman was supervising him. His mother maybe. She was smoking a Black & Mild, seated in a folding lawn chair, serving as his interpreter.
“You want your ribs wet or dry?” she asked me.
“Wet, please,” said I.
The young man made another moaning sound, but I could not understand his question to me. I was trying to figure out whether he was nonverbal, or whether he had hearing issues.
The woman translated: “He wanna know if you want some bread witch’ya ribs.”
“I do,” I said.
He moaned another question.
I looked to her for the explanation.
She said, “He wanna know if you want ‘tater salad or slaw.”
The kid opened a cooler and stabbed an ice cream scoop into a vat of slaw. He did the same with the potato salad.
The kid moaned another question.
“You want pickles?” the old lady translated between pulls on her prodigious cigar.
“I want as many pickles as he can give me without getting fired,” I said.
She nodded at the young giant as if to say, “You heard the man.”
When my order was ready she recited my total. I attempted to pay by debit card, but the woman looked at my card and shook her head. She tapped a sign next to her moneybox, one I hadn’t seen earlier. It read: CASH ONLY.
Sadly, I rarely carry cash anymore. Behold, the Age of Plastic. I used to swear I would never become one of those hapless men who walks around without cash, but there you are.
All I had was a five-dollar bill. It was not nearly enough to cover my tab. I was humiliated. I hung my head and gave the Styrofoam box of food back to her.
“No, keep it,” said a man in line behind me. “I gotchoo, man.”
I turned to see an older Black man dressed in a grease-stained mechanic’s shirt. His name tag said “Shawn,” of all things.
Shawn stepped forward. He dug into his wallet and removed cash. He stuffed the cash into the kid’s box and paid for my meal.
“I really appreciate this,” I said, shaking the man’s hand.
“Ain’t nothing,” Shawn said.
The next day, I revisited the garage to pay my debt. The barbecue tent was gone. I walked inside the open garage to be greeted with Earth Wind and Fire’s “Would You Mind” blaring overhead.
I asked for Shawn. In a few seconds, Shawn slid from beneath a souped-up Chevy Suburban. He wiped his hands on his shirt and asked if he could help me. I handed him some cash.
The man smiled. He tucked the money into his shirt pocket and said, “Thanks, but you didn’t have to do this.”
“Neither did you,” I said.
As I was leaving, he called out to me. “Hey, man. How was that barbecue?”
“Some of the best I ever had,” I said.
He grinned again. “My son’s a good cook, ain’t he? He’s real good with that grill.”
“He’s a chip off the old block,” I said.
Just like me.
Sandi. - March 15, 2022 8:46 am
Reading this sure makes me hungry for some BBQ ribs! How kind of Shawn to pay for you dinner, and how good of you to reimburse him, Sean.
Debbie - March 15, 2022 9:54 am
Most people are good when given the chance. Small tiny acts of kindness add up. Now I’m craving BBQ.
Keloth Anne - March 15, 2022 11:03 am
What a wonderful story and Auburn is filled with great people!! Your words are so incredible— you not only provide amazing visuals but it had true “smellavision”. I really smelled that delicious barbecue 😊. And you didn’t have rice!!!!
Leigh Amiot - March 15, 2022 11:07 am
Why are my eyes wet? The patient, respectful interpreter to start with, a young man given great dignity in what he did well, an embarrassing encounter at the cash box turned lovely.
This column illustrates all the best in people, including you, Sean. Your work is almost always a gentle tutorial in seeing the best in people and situations in everyday life…if we just take a moment and live them.
Debbie - March 15, 2022 11:26 am
Bet from now on you keep a little “tuck-back cash” for when the boy’s cooking again!
Cathy M - March 15, 2022 11:30 am
Great story and it was uplifting in many ways. The young man has a purpose in life and we all need that every day. His parents are involved in helping him with his purpose and that is heartwarming. In this crazy world we live in a story like this is good medicine for the soul. In fact, that’s exactly what you are to all of us who follow you. Good medicine for the soul. Don’t stop , Sean.
Sonya Tuttle - March 15, 2022 11:46 am
Excellent column. So many heartwarming tidbits! Your words are salivating in my mouth.
Nancy - March 15, 2022 11:47 am
I get so tired of reading about all the evil in this world. Which is why I always start my day with you. Then your blog gets sent to two of my friends to start off their day with a smile. I suppose they could sign up themselves, but then I would miss out on spreading the cheer myself. Thank you Sean for making my mornings.
Suellen - March 15, 2022 11:57 am
Reading this early in the morning with chills and tears in my eyes. I have a 47 year old son that almost no one can understand (sometimes even me). Over the years he just quit talking for the most part. Most people write him off but he has skills. Like the Rain Man skills. He can tell you every Nascar race that ever ran and who placed where. He beats all of us in any type of memory game. He’s been coming over on weekends and we work on jigsaw puzzles and he’s better than all of us. He jumps right in and starts seeing patterns and putting them together. He had vocational training in high school and they sent him to his first job at Walmart. He got a raise the first day. The manager said he was astounded at the job he did. And is still doing almost 30 years later. He takes care of maintenance for the whole store. It just grieves me that he lives his life mostly friendless and silent.
Rebecca - March 15, 2022 4:44 pm
Suellen – It is clear from your story that your son is gifted. And while he may not have the companionship of friends, I am sure he has the respect of many. He has an enviable work ethic; he is loyal and has integrity and a great mind. And he has a loving mother and family that care deeply for him and recognize how great he is.
Susan W Fitch - March 15, 2022 9:44 pm
Paul McCutchen - March 15, 2022 12:10 pm
I agree with Sandi. I got to find me some ribs today or maybe I will cook a few slabs.
Cindy - March 15, 2022 12:34 pm
This reminds me of the Maya Angelou quote that ends with “people never forget how you make them feel.”❤️ We need a lot more simple acts of kindness.
Rhonda - March 15, 2022 12:35 pm
There used to be a place outside of Montezuma Georgia called Creels. BBQ is a whole different thing no matter where you go. I know folks will have a heart attack bu t Mr. Creel did not smoke his meat. It was sloooowww cooked for several days and had a sauce like I have never tasted anywhere else. Mr Creel passed and they shut the doors and he took his recipe with him. I am hoping to get in line as soon as I get to heaven.
Diana - March 15, 2022 12:44 pm
BBQ … gotta find me some cash now in case I run across that too! God bless all in this story!
oldandblessed - March 15, 2022 12:46 pm
Wonderful story! It reminds me that food is a common denominator between folks of different ethnicities. Of course, Southern folks (real Southern folks), regardless color love BBQ.
Shelton A. - March 15, 2022 12:49 pm
Thank you for your example. Your meal was paid for without expectation of repayment…what God asks of us to do. You repaid the favor, not because you had to, but because you wanted to. That’s love in action in my book, Sean. God bless the family who made you great BBQ and God bless you and Jamie.
Pat Deas - March 15, 2022 12:54 pm
How sweet it is !!!
AL - March 15, 2022 2:07 pm
Sean your story was terrific. Suellen, your comment resonated and touched me. I volunteer at a special needs ministry. Have done so for about 10 years. Hard to explain to those who don’t know just how rich, joyful and satisfying my life is by interacting with my friends at this ministry. They range in age from 22 to 65. Many are in wheelchairs. Most are non-verbal but do a terrific job communicating in their own way. We take about 25 of them bowling each week. Most cannot bowl so we use ramps, place the ball and they touch it….down go the pins and their expressions of joy are varied but very real.to them. We had a Down Syndrome man who ran a box crusher at Walmart. He loved bowling and was a great friend. If your son was in our area and part of this ministry, he would have lots of friends and could participate with all of us at bowling each week..It takes some effort on the part of all of us to get to know them and they know us and trust us. After that, the joy we receive from them is continuous. They make my week. This ministry is a daily care facility. They are dropped off in am and picked up in pm. Lots of activities occur including bowling.
Sean of the South: Ribs | The Trussville Tribune - March 15, 2022 2:28 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Ruth Mitchell - March 15, 2022 2:33 pm
I’m so glad I read your stories before I tune into the news of the world. That way, I can slip my mind back with the characters you introduce me to each day. Thank you for my daily refreshment!
Girlsinger - March 15, 2022 2:40 pm
Dear Sean…love your Billy Strayhorn “Lush Life” reference…”where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life, to get the feel of life, from jazz and cocktails”…just like I love reading your poignant stories every morning. Barbecue and slaw may not be jazz and cocktails, but it sure is one way to get the feel of life. Thank you and Bless you for sharing your thoughts and experiences on the axis of your wheel of life.
DAVID A WILSON - March 15, 2022 2:53 pm
Pattymack - March 15, 2022 4:22 pm
thank you for sharing this! I keep telling people that we are abundantly blessed everyday by all that we see, hear or encounter. Your BBQ blessing is another wonderful verification that not all people are jerks!! Keep counting your blessings!!
Karen - March 15, 2022 4:40 pm
What a great day with sunshine, ribs and really good people.
Larry Wall - March 15, 2022 5:44 pm
Great pork barbeque is the caviar of the South. It is cooked by many different methods but must be smoked to have the true taste of a good master of the trade. Your reference to the ‘blue smoke bellowing from beneath’ was an indication that the young man was being true to the roots of quality barbeque. Sure made me crave that taste.
Chasity Davis Ritter - March 15, 2022 4:45 pm
And here I sit at work crying yet again. You always get me. For a minute there I thought Shawn mighta been one of you angels and God was having a bit of fun having him wear a Shawn name tag… heck maybe he still was but I bet you come back for some more BBQ. I can smell the sauce and just about taste it all.
Susie, as well - March 15, 2022 6:13 pm
LOVED THIS STORY! Tears in my eyes, again.
Linda Moon - March 15, 2022 6:24 pm
I’m glad you’re a chip off your old man’s block. There’s a fabulous BBQ cook in my family who cooks for us on most weekends while we gather ’round “The Pit”. My Guy and I are not good cooks, so where our son got his flair for cooking I don’t know. But I know where I got some flairs. I’m a chip off my daddy’s block of easy smiles and laughter, and I love it! So I’m passing both of them on to you right now along with some love, too!
Slimpicker - March 15, 2022 7:05 pm
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Joe - March 15, 2022 7:26 pm
Love ribs and slaw and tater salad
Slimpicker - March 15, 2022 9:11 pm
Hebrews 13:2 – Do not neglect hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Susan W Fitch - March 15, 2022 9:48 pm
Got to know, what kind of bbq are we talking about? In VA, it’s mostly pork with vinegar sauce like NC bbq, I like them all! Beef with tomato type sauce and vinegar style! YUM!
shirley c hill - March 16, 2022 12:29 am
I’m drooling just thinking about dem ribs – there is a place near by me in Summerville GA where you can get some of the best if you get there early enough before it’s all gone. Oh what I’d give for a slab of ribs.
Kate - March 16, 2022 12:58 pm
Thank you Sean for giving us something positive to read. I moved from Georgia where I had lived for the last 40 years to Fort Pierce, Florida to help some elderly relatives remain independent. While it is a lovely place, I really do miss the BBQ places that we had near our home, or for that matter, almost anywhere we went in Georgia. Love the kindness of the people you meet. I think that is often a reflection of your own heart.
Kate - March 16, 2022 1:02 pm
Sean, I often think your stories should be on the front page of every newspaper and media outlet in this country. How wonderful if our country and world could be reshaped by your stories of kindness and good humor. Unfortunately the national and local media narratives always seem to be those of conflict, while in reality most people are kind, caring, and thoughtful. Thank you for always reminding us.
Vince - March 18, 2022 4:57 pm
Some of the best eats come from unexpected places. Best Mexican joint I ever ate at was in Fayetteville WV. Go figure. And ribs. Weather is getting warm here in the North and in the far distance the grill, woodchips, and ribs are calling. A bit louder after reading another of your very well written missives.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 27, 2022 10:57 pm