Charleston Salt and Iron, edited by Wendy Nilsen Pollitzer, is a collection of 40 essays, written by local business owners, fishermen, writers, and artists, who are sincere in their dedication to Charleston. Complemented by large-format photos of the city, the book delves a little deeper into a city so many people know and love.
In "Southern Paradox," Blue Bicycle owner and director of YALLFest, Jonathan Sanchez, talks about the two Charlestons he has come to know — the one he fell in love with when he moved here in 1996, and the one that he sees evolving before him today. He writes, "I write this not as an elegy to the past, nor to complain that Charleston has become, as I heard a kid say recently 'too bougie' (with a soft g, as in bourgeois), but more to show how long it held out, and still does." He goes on to describe the people trying to "make an ordinary life in an extraordinary place," like line cooks, carriage drivers, waitresses.
"There's a true weirdness to Charleston," says Sanchez. "You have to be specific to show that weirdness." He gets specific in this evocative line, "And the Rue de Jean waitress, in the gravel parking lot by the dumpster, eating coq au vin out of a Styrofoam tray."
In Charleston Salt and Iron's forward, Mary Alice Monroe writes, "In her long history, Charleston has weathered war, hunger, disease, economic depression, hurricanes, and floods. ... Perhaps Charleston's shining moment came when she revealed to the world a lesson in forgiveness and community bonds and moving forward undivided." This is what Charleston Salt and Iron hopes to present — a series of essays that evoke both a sense of the city's everyday routines, as well as the city's incredible power to persevere.
The book best accomplishes this with pieces like Marcus Amaker's poem "Black Cloth," which City Paper ran as part of its June coverage of the Emanual AME tragedy last year. The poem ends with the powerful lines, "Because I would rather hang a black cloth on a flag pole/ than give the Confederate flag another glimpse of the sun."
Questions of race and the city's troubled past are raised gently throughout the book, with references to Charleston's history in general, the Civil War in particular, and general racial divide at times. You cannot talk about Charleston and not acknowledge that it has been, and can be, deeply flawed. Pollitzer succeeds in balancing the authors' excessive praise of Charleston with the reality of a Southern city's history, and for this reason, the book has merit as more than just a ra-ra cheerleader for the city.
Just a few decades ago, Charleston was a far cry from today's No. 1 tourist destination, and business owners and company founders came into the city, hoping to add something to the community. They share their success in essays like RiverDogs' president Mike Veeck's "Home at the 'Joe,'" where he writes, "I hope that we have left the city and indeed the region, better than we found them. I know it has profoundly impacted the Veeck family. We came as strangers."
Charleston residents who have since moved away write of the city they knew. In "My Place, My Passion, My Tribe," stylist and founder of Charleston Fashion Week, Ayoka Lucas writes, "I miss cracking blue crabs with friends on the weekends or late night rendezvous at The Recovery Room, where, like Cheers, everyone knows your name." Lucas' essay is intimate in its story of her personal experience, and transcendent in its message of hope for the future. She starts her piece with, "In a city plagued with a history of slavery," and ends by describing the progressive community who have overcome division and evoked, "so much light in me."
Veering away from street scenes to the sights and sounds of the Atlantic, sometimes City Paper contributor and author of Images of America Folly Beach Stratton Lawrence, writes, "If there's a rule of Folly Beach living, it's not to complain about the heat. ... It's the air that both tortured and nourished quarantined sailors and weary soldiers during the Civil War. Their blood is still in the sand." Charleston is history. And for Lawrence, "Folly is my Charleston."
Lawrence says that when Pollitzer asked him to write an essay for her upcoming book, he was honored to be a part of the process, but unsure where to begin. "I really wanted it be good," he laughs. And after 30 minutes on his porch one morning, he had that good essay he was looking for. "It's fun to share a piece in this way. It brings meaning to being here," he says.
Lawrence, a Navy kid, grew up without a hometown, but has called Charleston home since 2003. He writes, "... we landed on Folly, the first place in my life that ever scratched my travel bug bite enough to satiate the itch."
Lawrence's love of Folly, Veeck's pride in the city's baseball team, Lucas' appreciation for all that Charleston is, good and bad — these are not earth-shattering ideas. But they are real, and they ring true, like the church bells that echo through the Holy City each day.
"I was in Beaufort with Hunter [his wife] and posted something on Instagram. Wendy, who lives there, saw it and said, 'I want to meet you," says Lawrence. "We met up and got drinks for an hour." Charleston: the ties that bind.