261 Norfolk, VA: Vanilla

The woman from the bookstore had asked for my number and called me that night in my hotel room, as if she had something to tell me that she didn't want to say in public. She said that she lived in a somewhat successfully integrated neighborhood, but that the African American people behind her had trouble with the thought of her moving into her house. She said, "We live on one of the 'darker' streets in our neighborhood," and she said certain neighborhoods in Norfolk stay white or black because people will not put a "for sale" sign out, they'll just tell their friends, 'I'm thinking of selling my house.'"

Charlie's restaurant was recommended to me as one of the few successfully integrated restaurants. It was in the first floor of an old house and looked like it might once have been a grocery store (maybe Eugene's father's). The 20-foot-tall room looked like it was built to be ringed with shelves of goods. An old rusting grill behind the counter had a stack of skillets on a shelf underneath it and a cook in front of it who wore a floppy white tennis hat. He fluffed my omelet artfully in an old skillet, making circles over the high flame. As he cooked, he talked to me over the broad beefy back of his gray T-shirt. "There's not a lot of segregation in this restaurant," he redirected my question about segregation in Norfolk. When he turned around, I saw delicate eyelashes like a giraffe's and nearly pitch black eyes on his big cherubic face. "Ten years ago it was a lot more, when I started as a cook here. Part of that was because it was just a couple of older white people who owned it, and they had erratic hours and nobody could count on anything. I showed up on my first day with the old owners at 7:00, and nobody was there, and nobody came for a long time, so I went home. Then I got a call at 11:00 from them saying, 'we're here.' Once the new woman bought it, everything improved. Now it's got regular hours, and both blacks and whites come in. All kinds of people come into this restaurant. Black doctors and lawyers will also come in and sit down and have a meal."

My experience when I was in there though was that most people came in, sat down, and stared straight ahead. One couple at a table did talk--to each other.

One place in Norfolk where both blacks and whites went was Doumar's, a drive-in restaurant worthy of being in a Hopper painting. Doumar's claims to have invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition and to have made the first ice cream cone machine, which was still in use at Doumar's the day that I visited. It was an old, iron-grated, gas-fired system that made round thin waffles that were then wrapped around a cone-shaped dowel until they could hold a scoop of ice cream.

The young man working the machine, Randy, was red-cheeked, with pale skin, pale blue eyes, and a burr haircut. He wore a baseball cap, clear glasses with no rims, and the restaurant's uniform. He considered my question for a second, then stammered, "Yes. I would say yes; people feel isolated here in Norfolk. Part of the reason Norfolk is more isolated is you get people from the Navy here. It's so transient, you get people literally coming and going from all parts of the world. You have to be outgoing to be in the restaurant business and, the thing is, I am. But I like to have my own space when I'm at home. I'm more isolated when I'm with my family. I don't want my kids to get the idea you can just go up to anyone and say hello." He concurred when I said that the bay's many cities all bled together, yet each had an individual feel. "Out of all the cities in this Hampton Roads section of the United States, Norfolk is probably the place where you're most likely to find isolated people."

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