#947: Fillet of Soul

June 29th, 2018

I was alone amid the plastic palm trees, the stack of South Shopper coupon magazines and a display of Gospel Tract and Bible Society leaflets expounding fundamentalist Christianity.

Behind the door behind the counter behind the bulletproof Plexi, a woman worked to make my sandwich. I was left to poke around the empty pickup area of Dan’s Soul Food and Bakery on 79th in Ashburn. 

The soul food joint was split in two. The lefthand side as you looked south from the St. Rita’s High School lot was the dining area, where black families sat in for a Sunday morning meal. The righthand side was the area to grab food to go, where I sat alone one April morning amid plastic plants and signs advertising Sprite, coffee and Bob Marley’s 1984 compilation album “Legend.”

Every square micron of the counters’ sides had been covered in pictures and prices of soul food fare, but the Plexiglas windows were where smaller fliers lived. A few signs asked people to consider whether their words were nice, kind, true before speaking them. Another sampling throughout the store advertised “Very soft and competitively priced” toilet paper “manufactured by BLACK college students in Indiana.”

“Circulating our dollars among ourselves will reduce violence dramatically,” the sign read, making me wonder if I could pull off buying a roll without looking like I was committing charity.

No talking on the phone while ordering, a hand-scribbled piece of paper demanded. Corinthians 15:33 a few times. A few printouts of the Illinois General Assembly’s resolution honoring Moorish American Week 2012.

I puttered among these things, leafed through the Bible tracts and waited. But mostly I thought about the woman making my sandwich, and the look in eyes when she saw me. It was suspicion. Not like there was any particular malfeasance she suspected me of, but trying to figure out what game I was playing by being a white man in a black space. “Trying to explore different communities for a news essay blog” was not her first guess.

But the moment passed and human concerns took over. Cash. Change. Having to make a pickup catfish sandwich at 10:30 in the morning when they were mostly still doing breakfast in the dine-in section next door.

I was alone by the Eugene Sawyer Water Purification Plant at Rainbow Park Beach, watching cold April waves crash along the shore. The fish sandwich was, quite simply, the best I had ever had. Despite the length of the drive to the lakefront, the sandwich still steamed when I opened it by the water.

It occurred to me that this otherness I felt at the soul food restaurant was momentary and by choice. I felt alien and eyed, but got a warm smile and hot sandwich for my troubles. I felt for a quiet 10 minutes how people of color are made to feel every minute of every day, and I did not care for it.

I thought of a friend of mine, a PhD who gets followed by jewelry store security because of the color of her skin. The color of mine gives me unearned respect and trust. We both get eyed with suspicion and curiosity when we’re in a place we’re not deemed to belong, but our ratios are off. She gets the suspicion. I get the curiosity. Even in discomfort I come out on top.

As I sat along a cement wall with the taste of fish on my lips watching the waves crash and the view of downtown to the north, I wondered if I had ever learned a damn thing in my life.

More thoughts on boundaries

Scenes from the Back of the Yards swap

The wise men of the diner counter

What's this?

You are currently reading #947: Fillet of Soul by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.