Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Bereft at loss of community meeting place

Like many of you I have felt bereft since the closure of the City Café on the square. While it ran, the new, improved “City Café McA Style” was quite the place to be in Holly Springs. I had many a delicious meal there. It is not that there are not other restaurants — good ones, too — it’s just that this eatery’s strategic location put it at the very crossroads of everything that happens in this county.

This is where the judges, lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants all ate when court was in session, and if you could not get the news at the City Café, then you just had to wait for the distilled version to appear (if it did at all) in The South Reporter.

People accuse me of not appreciating things until they are gone or just about gone. It’s true that we nostalgic Southerners come close to this sad state of affairs. I know people who do not bother becoming acquainted with the facts of someone’s life until after the individual has died. Obituary reading and funeral attendance are great pastimes among us here.

My favorite recreation is rambling about the countryside looking at where things used to be. This is an especially rich field of interest in the Delta where I grew up. Artists and photographers come from all over the world to engage in this enterprise. There are books such as “Lost Mansions of Mississippi” that record the most stellar locations. I have been to all those sites and more.

My favorite interests are the great houses now derelict and tumbling in, as well as the railroads — most interestingly falling down depots in the small towns and spotting the roadbeds where tracks used to run, and, of course, old Presbyterian churches. I have an ongoing project to photograph all of the latter — including and especially ones that no longer house active congregations — many of which have been converted to other interesting uses.

Given the disconnect between Mississippi and the propensities of the national Presbyterian Church, the greatest number of such congregations have long ago seceded from the national church of which our Holly Springs church is a part, and so there is no point in sending the prints I have made to our denominational archive Montreat, N.C.

A friend therefore says that I can make an entire vacation out of riding around Mississippi looking at things that have been “pulled up, pulled down, or pulled out.” I can make journeys of several days looking and photographing, and to yours or anybody else’s eyes not see a thing! Come and see my scrapbook. It is a kind of Southern archaeology, I suppose.

So I mourn for the City Café. Brenda and Diane, and Sandy Buford behind the counter, along with their wonderful waitresses Linda and Crystal, who knew me so well that on Friday nights they would ask “if I wanted my usual,” which I always did (shrimp and grits).

Every Saturday, Bruce McMillan and I commiserated over the relentless return of the Sabbath there, and went home fortified, to finish our sermons for the next day. My preaching has now taken a wandering character, lacking the sustenance of the “City’s” delicious chili or vegetable soup. Bruce has no place to work his crosswords which he always did before I showed up at noon — God help the person who interrupted him while he was working his puzzle, so I learned never to appear on Saturday before straight-up noon.

There were also the wonderful cooks in the kitchen. Never forget the cooks!

The City Café has wonderful historical associations. It was under Maj. William Strickland’s law office, and soldiers were quartered there during the Civil War.

When Confederate General Van Dorn (for whom the street in front is named) made his famous raid on December 20, 1861, the Yankee men were awakened by the gunfire and came running out in their “union suits.” By Olga Pruitt’s account one went streaking down to the cemetery, jumped the fence, and was never heard from again.

My first visit to Holly Springs included a meal at the City Café (then under other management). I could not have been more than six or eight, but I remember the occasion well. We had come for the interment of one of my mother’s dear friends in Hill Crest. That woman’s great-grandfather owned a store (Mitchell’s) whose sign can clearly be seen in the old print of the town square dating from the Civil War. It was next door to the City Café.

When I first arrived here as a minister, I lived in the little apartment across from the café above Tyson’s Homecare. Garrie Colhoun was keen for me to come and eat breakfast with the men who gathered at the City Café. Not possessed of a particularly big appetite first thing in the morning,

I was a little reluctant, and then when I appeared I observed nothing but a group of sullen males reading the sports pages and munching their breakfasts at a long table in the back of the room.

Later I learned they had all “clammed up” because a preacher was present, and so I formed the custom (which I still follow) of getting the news elsewhere later in the day from one of their number.

I never did see why they had to get there so early. By some accounts the café used to open at 4:30 a.m. Some said that it was to get a copy of the Commercial Appeal when the truck first arrived in town. Others went hunting or were farmers, of course.

One man approached the real truth when he responded to my query with a curse and then said, “Young man, you obviously don’t know anything about prostate trouble!”

All of the problems of the Presbyterian (and all the other churches) were discussed and (to their minds) resolved by the men at that table. Their counsels reminded me for all the world of the biblical gatherings of the elders by the city gate.

I do not know if a philosopher would find either the ideals of knowledge or truth at the City Café, but he would find a certain picture of the heavenly kingdom as humans high and low met there on equal terms. It did not matter if you were rich or poor — there was a place for you at the table.

I hope it comes back soon. Meanwhile, Brenda, Diane and crew, thanks for the memory. We cannot do without it for very long.

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