Once watering some tomato transplants two men–one young, one old–paused while driving by and said that an injured puppy was in the street three blocks east. After assuring him the puppy would be taken care of, they thanked me and zoomed off leaving me stunned and puzzled; after all, why hadn’t they picked up the animal? I never looked real hard for the puppy, but took care of my tomatoes and hoped for the best, as I always do. My tomatoes failed (I never have been good with them), but I heard the puppy found a home. I took that as a lesson in priorities and sallied forth with my life; I really had no other option.
The garden I tend—I can’t call it my garden, since it doesn’t grow on my property—is on the corner of a busy intersection in an old neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. The traffic is comprised of people in automobiles, on bikes and on foot, though on the rare occasion a couple of kids on skateboards will rattle by. Though nobody on foot, running or walking has ever asked me for directions (nothing would astound me more) many people drive by seeking directions, the intended destination usually a nearby restaurant, a street in the neighborhood or (most often) “How in the hell do I get on I-55?”, in which case I point them down to Greymont and spare them most of the hilly East Fortification roller-coaster.
I often see the same people pass by in the garden, and we most usually greet, more because it’s more awkward not to say something than for any other reason, but I don’t know them; they don’t stop and say, “Hi, I’m So-and-so who lives on Such-and-Such”, and all they know about me is that I grow flowers. Some few greet me by name, which puts me at a great disadvantage which I mask with brave cordiality. “Hello!” I’ll say. “How are you?” The most common response is a vague wave, though I might get an over-the-shoulder “Great!” It boils down to is a question of identity, of barriers. Who are we to one another, and why?
I tend a garden on a city corner, and the world passes by, leaving me deep in marigolds and hoping the streetlights don’t fail.
Side by Side: A Review
T.J. Ray’s story of the hanging of Mathis and Lester is one of those books you read and come away thinking, “Wow, that would make a damn good movie.” And it would. Death as the circumscription of all human activity is also the Great Equalizer, uniting men of all stripes, but the hanging of Will and Orlando brought fate and justice together in a jagged gray crescendo. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Dr. Ray’s meticulous research, his informative narration that moves us through the court speeches with appropriate dispatch, his accounts of media coverage that enhance the drama now as it did then and his descriptions of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphan stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.
At the turn of the last century, north Mississippi was still for the most part a wilderness, little more than a network of villages and towns strung together along dirt and gravel roads, traveled by or with a horse, united only in proximity. The scars of the Civil War ran deep, and the adjusted system of laws in the newly-Reconstructed state were little more than the legal ramifications of military defeat. Yet the state was growing, law had to be enforced and the cases of Will Mathis and Orlando Lester, grisly in detail, profound in ramifications, proved in to be a public circus ending in a lethal trapeze. Side by Side is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.
The Original, Definitive, and Incontestable Stage Planks Recipe
This recipe for “Gingerbread Without Butter or Eggs” was first published in The Picayune Creole Cookbook, c. 1901.
Please note that I did not write this recipe. It was written by Lafcadio Hearn sometime in the 1890s. Racist epithets are, sadly, enmeshed in the American vocabulary, as they are in most others, but as a journalist, I’m obligated to accurately reproduce citations. My apologies to anyone who takes offense.
“1 cup molasses, 1 cup sour milk, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 8 tablespoons shortening, 3 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda.
Melt the molasses, shortening and ginger together and blend well. When thoroughly melted and warmed, beat for 10 minutes. (While the original recipe as printed omits the use of the sour milk, let’s assume it’s added before the flour.) Dissolve the soda in 1 tablespoon boiling water and add to the molasses mix. Then add just enough of the sifted flour to make a stiff batter, beating thoroughly and vigorously. Pour into several greased shallow pans and bake for ten minutes in a quick oven.
This bread makes the famous “Stage Planks”, or ginger cakes, sold by the old darkies around New Orleans in old Creole days, to those of their own race and to little white children. The ancient Creoles, fond of giving nick-names, gave to this stiff ginger cake the name of “Estomac Mulâtre”, or “The Mulatto’s Stomach”, meaning that it was only fit for the stomach of a mulatto to digest.”
The cookbook does not include an icing recipe, but I’d suggest a royal icing. Pink, of course.