Last week around 7:30-ish in the morning I was awakened by a phone call. The voice on the other end said, “Mr. Gray, this is Officer So-and-so with the City of Columbia Police Department.” I didn’t get his name, as the call caught me off guard. Without hesitation I asked, “Is there something wrong at the restaurant?”
“No,” he said, “I was just checking in to see if everything is all right with you.” Turns out he was one of the community relations officers.
I’m not used to connecting police with a morning howdy-do except on reruns of The Andy Griffith Show—the black-and-white episodes. Most of my life I’ve spent in political struggles, which have involved burning the Confederate flag on statehouse grounds, organizing electoral defeats of racist sheriffs, defending free speech, and resisting violence, be it at the hands of police or presidents or individuals who themselves are often familiar with systems of economic or physical meanness. Some of the history of those struggles—and, really, a sampling of black political and social history of South Carolina over the past 60 years—is represented on the walls of this barbecue restaurant, which seemed like a simple idea when my friend Keyur Naik and I came up with it six years ago. Keyur was the businessman. We were going to run it together, as I knew nothing about the restaurant business. Then he moved to Dallas to work with his brother.
Barbecue is comfort food. History isn’t exactly comfort but, traditionally, gathering over food is. Of course, where you eat, what you eat, and whether you even can eat are weighty with historical and political meaning. It should tell you a lot that a barbecue restaurant is the closest thing to a museum of civil rights history in South Carolina’s state capital.
We opened Railroad BBQ officially in February, and the virus shut us down in March. Generally speaking, the experience of the past few months has made me hopeful about people. Especially when they work cooperatively versus competing on even the smallest things. Or when return customers say, “We’re here for you” and “we’re going to spread the word.” The other side is the higher cost of everything. I call it the “Covid surtax.” And because we profess to try to do the right thing in our business practices, we’re often held to a standard that folk don’t hold themselves to. That depresses me.
Since “reopening” with take-out, delivery, and patio seating only, we’ve built a base of regular customers, probably a 50-50 racial mix. First, the firemen started coming, then the police, then EMTs. We give a first-responders discount. It’s a matter of pride that county health department workers are regulars, but many other employees from the county administration building across the street, our anticipated lunchtime base, have been working from home because of Covid. We were set to cater the police department’s Thanksgiving affair; they wanted brisket, 300 meals. Canceled because of Covid. We had a catering contract with the Census Bureau. Canceled because of Covid. People come in to take pictures; many have wanted to do events—anniversary dinners, even a wedding reception. Impossible because of Covid.
Still, we’re trying to keep people working, and when you’re smoking meat that means every day. Our Houston-born pit master, Marco Brito, often works through the night, as it takes 12 hours to smoke brisket and seven hours for ribs. We use peach and hickory wood. I believe we have some of the best “que” in the state thanks to Marco and our sous-chef, Keshaun Boulware. Those fellows love to cook. We have seven workers. Linous, and our lead hostess, Sharon, were hired as wait staff; they’re cashiers now. Yet folk leave tips. Linous was supposed to return to college at St. John’s in New York this fall, but he missed the New York State quarantine requirement, so he does school work between shifts.
About two-thirds of US restaurant workers were unemployed in April, and 8 million more were fired or forced to quit. Now it’s estimated that half the restaurants in some cities will go under. Almost 25 percent in this state don’t expect to be around in six months without government help. As good as our food, workers, and community support are, we know we survive by chance. Having renovated an old gas station, we’re not burdened by an extortionate landlord. We have a partner, Francie Close, who’s been our financial backbone from the start. Without her support, we’d be closed down. We didn’t apply for a PPP loan; Francie said, “There are other people who really need it.”
Covid is a test of everybody’s solidarity, but this is South Carolina, and that means something too. I won’t lie, it is not fun to wear masks and gloves all day long. We do it because we know that if one person gets sick, we have to shut it all down. Beyond our doors, not everyone has got the memo. My running joke has been that Republicans and poor black folk got the memo and ripped it up. Trump Republicans see Covid as a Democratic plot, and poor blacks are skeptical of a government that didn’t care about them before, so why should they believe it now?
Signs upfront require masks, and one says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to mean people.” We’ve had more than a few white men come in, then balk when told to wear a mask. One guy came in with his family; gave a speech about wanting to patronize us but he wasn’t going to wear a mask while ordering. I wasn’t at work the day a white couple with Florida tags stopped by. The man kept calling Linous “boy” This isn’t the first, second, or third time that we’ve had to deal with such slights. One morning as I was getting out of my truck a delivery man addressed me as “Bo.” When I was growing up if someone called you “bo” (short for “boy”) or “buddy,” the common response was, “Bo and Buddy are a white man’s hunting dogs.”
I write off the bo, boy, mask thing to the Trump effect, whereby overtly racist people feel even freer to be overtly racist. But you can’t run a business on the black side of town without constant reminders of subtler racism. Our monthly hospitality tax payments go primarily to the “hospitality districts,” which are overwhelming white. There, “yellow shirts” ride around in golf carts or on Segways keeping the areas clean. We have to pick up trash on the streets and sidewalks ourselves. We’ve had to clean up by the county building to keep trash from traveling our way. We’re located by the railroad tracks; when it rains, the ditch beside the track along the potholed gravel lane fills with water. Both our city and county councils are majority black, but drive around the city and you see where the money and effort go.
We’re not yet at break even, but Railroad BBQ will survive, we think. Our other partners, my older sister Doris and her husband, Elliott, have saved my sanity, although I’m sure many would argue that point. They do all the admin work, taxes, payroll, keeping up with sales, and such.
I’m looking forward to the time when our place runs itself. Back at the start, we faced a stream of mostly white male vendors or government petty tyrants who suspected us of being drug dealers trying to wash money. We faced workers who were so used to being exploited that they seemed to be waiting for us to mistreat them. Then there were those who saw Covid testing as another form of discrimination. Our next challenge is to convince people that a vaccination is important to our survival; it may be a job requirement if we want “butts in seats,” which is the goal. So there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but then you never know. I hope it’s not the kind in Jesse Jackson’s old line, “We always thought that it was light at the end of the tunnel, but nobody told us it was a train coming at us.”
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.