Stealing the Magic Hour

… And the quest for self-discovery continued. I was away from home, trying my best to make sense out of my surroundings and this new life. The college I was at was in what they call \’dry county\’. The strong Southern Baptist faith shared by most people in the region did not allow the purchase or sale of any alcoholic beverages (and we are college students; somehow the \’contradiction\’ had to be resolved).

On a slow Friday night, I approached Kevin, a pleasant white American who openly admits that he met black people in person for the first time six months prior to when he came to college. Kevin was from a nearby town called Korbin, where one hundred percent of the population is Caucasian. The story goes, though unsubstantiated through media reports, that an Indian man was found hanging from a bridge in Korbin not very long ago.

Panos: Hey, Kevin, where do people get a beer around here?

Kevin: I reckon you know this is a dry county?

Panos: I do. That\’s why I am asking where I can get some beer.

Kevin: Well, there is a drive-through in Jellico, Tennessee. But you have to drive across the state line to get there.

Panos: How far is that?

Kevin: Oh, about 30 minutes.

Panos: So, I pass the state line into Tennessee, and what exit do I take?

Kevin: I do not want to be mean or anything but… (there was silence)

Panos: But what?

Kevin: Well, people around there do not welcome people of your kind? I would not advise you to go there.

Panos: People of your kind? What does that mean? We are just college students.

Kevin: Just saying that they may not be nice to you.

Panos: Just give me directions on how to get there, Kev. It\’ll be just fine.

A group of Ethiopians were packed like sardines in Solomon\’s used Chevy, and off we went to Jellico. We were there in 15 minutes or so, took the exit, followed the directions Kevin gave me – and there we were at the drive-through. As we approached the window, we noticed that there was a bar right there behind the window, tucked in the corner. Well, why buy beer through a window and drink in the car when there is an actual bar? Sol parked his Chevy, and as we walked closer to the bar,  we noticed a party going on – country music blasting and folks dancing the night away. The excitement was building up as we were in exploration mode.

As soon as six of us, eager and fearless Ethiopians, stepped into the bar, it was as though \’the music stopped and everyone and everything froze for a few minutes\’. There was complete disbelief among the patrons that we were comfortably walking in to have a good time.  Shortly, a beautiful blond waitress approached us at our table with a smile and asked, “I reckon y\’all want a pitcher?” As always, Tame (Tamerat), the flirt, had to be the first to respond, though he had no clue what a pitcher was.

Tame: Of course, my dear.

Waitress: Be back in a minute. Y\’all enjoy the evenin\’.

Tame: Of course, my dear – (big smile on his face).

We learned that a pitcher contains large amounts of beer to be poured into individual glasses and shared in a group. The beer was great, the music was fun, and I remember all of us thinking that these people know how to party. After a few glasses, the folly of youth was on full display. Tame is flirting with our blond waitress, and the rest of us are on the dance floor doing our version of square dancing that combined, for lack of a better word, confused footwork and some Eskista.

During the music break, we all sat at our table and were just talking. An older man with a peculiar mustache and a cowboy hat pulled a chair and joined us. He had a smirk on his face, like he knew something that we did not. We were happy that he joined us, and being the welcoming people that we are, we poured him a glass. \”We don\’t mind y\’all\”, said the man. \”What do you mean by that\” I asked. He finished his glass in one go, took a deep breath, and said, \”Y\’all are somebody else’s Niggers\”. With a smile on my face, \”We are?\” I asked back. I poured him another glass \”cheers, buddy\”, I said before heading to the Men\’s room.

We did more drinking and more dancing and headed back to our dorm. It was a fun evening. We became regular customers of the \’drive-through bar\’ for years to come. We also made friends with black families who lived on the other side of town in the projects of Jellico.

In photography, there is a term, \’Stealing the Magic Hour\’.