by Tim Gilmore, 9/14/2019
Over faded checkerboard floors, beside panelboard walls, with apologies 20 years old for a “New Florida Law,” the sign says, “Unfortunately,” NO SMOKING shall occur “in this restaurant.” Over a lunch of grilled liver with onions and gravy, $8.99, the man in the camouflage shirt and pants and ball cap barks into his phone, “He’s shootin’ straight. He’s gone bring it on home. He’s got his walkie talkie in his truck. I’ll call you when he leaves the house.”
It’s Everybody’s Restaurant, so bring it all in, which means everybody in Baldwin, Florida, the autonomous small town inside rural far-west Jacksonville, and a few stragglers from the city far down Beaver Street too. The restaurant’s “been here forever,” they say, Minnie Bennett-Lynn “renamed it from Sunshine” and “wasn’t messin’ around.”
I wonder to what extent Everybody means everybody. Lithuanians and Lutherans, construction workers and constitutionalists, century-old Jax Arabic families, Marists and Marxists, libertarians and Liberians, Never Trumpers and truckers and lumpers, accommodationists and anarchists, bootleggers and moonshiners and punks, loggers and farmers and twinks and bears and one gentleman, Rastafarians and RINOS, Republicans In Name Only, whistleblowers and women groped by presidents, physicists and physicians and Finns and fundamentalists, “global warmists,” one seamster and one teamstress? Is everybody in? The ceremony’s about to begin.
In this roadside diner, cane syrup squeeze bottles march across the counter. The bar stools, red leather uncracked, don’t look so old, but how many conversations did it take for boots to scuff these steel foot rails so? How many knees brushed against the wood paneling beneath the bar to burnish gold the dark brown fiberboard? And how long’s the bubblegum been stuck to the bottom of the bar?
See these old codgers holding their cigarettes, years back, no “No Smoking” sign yet, receded hairlines or ball caps, avoiding doctors like the plague, irony there, avoiding doctors ’cept when they could not cure the Thigpen Rash, talking politics, Southerners hating on Southern politicians, nobody weak as Jimmy Carter and Slick Willie Clinton, daggum Thigpen Rash stung all hereabouts, no remedy but Dr. Baldwin’s, short-sleeved flannel shirts, no camouflage indoors yet, camo not yet trendy enough for yoga pants and the apron of this waitress stopped at the table.
But nearby, “I tell you, I saw a bunch’a boars out in them woods, and you get up in that tree and all I can think of is you and your big fat ass, yes sir, I mean to say, just get the sites on ’im, got on in there,” and the other young man in all camouflage asks the old man, “You in good enough shape? Can you pull yourself up?” and they all laugh and he says, “That remains to be seen.”
But what, if the waitress can answer this, what—is the friend potato sandwich, $3.99? She loves potatoes, she says, so she don’t know and ain’t tried it, don’t wanna ruin her love for home fries. The fried okra’s better’n the fried squash: something about the mixing of colors: fry green, but why yellow?
“Nearly four centuries ago,” says the “History of Baldwin” unfolded and framed and hung on the wall, “the Spaniards” came and a crossroads was planted and Mr. Thigpen “supplied fresh horses for the stage and for its passengers he supplied food and shelter.” Stage meant “stagecoach,” damn horses not song-and-dance steeds, and the town that sprung about the stop called itself Thigpen.
Says the waitress to the camouflage table, “Y’all jest set there and look purdy. Here’s ever’body’s bread.”
The old man munches on his liver, saying, “Y’all ’member all that junk, they grind it up, make concrete all that shit back there in the swamp, take that junk outta there, sell it, buy anything you want.”
A t-shirt reframes the Marine Corps’ “Rifleman’s Creed,” says, “This is my Glock. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” Today’s special is fried chicken, tasty, drips with grease, order tea unsweet and you get sweet tea, your table sets a new pot of coffee to brew.
“After a rash of Thigpen jokes, far-sighted city fathers anticipated the old name running into trouble; so in 1860 the townfolk remedied the situation by naming the settlement in honor of Dr. A.S. Baldwin.” The 1860 census counted farmers and loggers and one gentleman, “one light shiptender, one teamster and one seamstress.” Then a war happened between states, and: “Virtually the fallen South lay prostrated at the victors [sic] feet.”
Now bleeding-heart vines grown lush green and bloom wine red beside front doors in this ranch style house made of cinder block in ’47 and painted pink. Minnie Bennett-Lynn bought the restaurant across the street in 1941, renamed it from Sunshine Café, moved it over here. Old Man Bennett died three years ago, raised horses and raced horses, ran the restaurant “ye old man’s years.” Yes ma’am. I ain’t too much a man t’eat in a pink restaurant. “Baldwin bore its share of sorrow and misfortune.” I grew up in a pink concrete block house that my father, when my mother died, painted blue, and I’m alright, I think. Probably, on that last score, I’m wrong, but probably that’s irrelevant, and now I’ve stirred my fried okra into my gravy and mashed potatoes, so that’s okay too.