Savannah. The word has a nice ring, a pleasant rhythm. And though the noun carries a second meaning (minus the “h” on the end) -- “A tropical land mass of grassland and scattered trees” -- people rarely confuse the two words.
Still, confusion happens.
My first Sunday at a house-sitting gig in Pittsburgh (another city with an “h” on the end, something people outside of Pennsylvania often fail to include) I went to a block party on Abbott street, just around the corner of East End Avenue, where I am staying in Regent Square.
As anyone who moves around a lot knows (and subsequently forgets), it takes a while to make friends in a new place. Oh, you can banter: “What kind of dog is that? A pug? Cute”; you can make small talk: “Where’d you get your Keens? I need a new pair”; you can talk about the bipolar weather.
But other than that people generally gravitate towards people they know. They talk about things on their mind, which at the block party that Sunday afternoon was the Walgreens they are fighting to keep out.
When someone approached me with a petition to sign I tried talking about a related subject -- the Family Dollar proposed for my residential neighborhood in Savannah.
I didn’t get much sympathy because guess what sits about four blocks north? A Family Dollar (the only place, by the way, a panhandler has approached me so far).
But I digress. Anyway, the petitioner was more interested in the raspberry torte I had brought, baked in advance by Matt, the man whose house I’m staying in.
When someone else tried to get me to sign the petition I said I don’t live here. Oh, he said, where do you live? Savannah, I answered.
He shook his head politely, started talking about something else, then circled back to Walgreens. “You can still sign the petition,” he said. “You’re in the neighborhood.”
Huh? Turns out there’s a Savannah Avenue about three blocks away. That’s what he heard. That’s the assumption he made. Not an impossible stretch to imagine.
For others, mention Savannah, Ga., and it’s the outstretched arm of SCAD that people think of first, long known for its wide-ranging and limitless penchant for recruiting students.
One Pittsburgh man, with friends in Savannah and a daughter who just graduated from high school, told me he made a single inquiry into SCAD. Since then he said he receives monthly letters, literature and phone calls about the school. Someone else mentioned a recruiter who showed up in her high school class one day.
Mention Savannah and No. 2 to SCAD as a response is -- you guessed it -- TV personality and famous cook, Paula Deen.
“Is she as nice as she seems?” several people ask.
I say yes, because she is. Then I tell the same story. When people stop and ask for directions to the restaurant (the thing tourists ask the most), I answer something to the effect of, “Take a left at the next street, then the first right, then look for the line,” the same answer I used to give when people were seeking out Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room on Jones Street.
Speaking of restaurants, it was the Davis Produce T-shirt from Savannah I was wearing that tipped me off to the demise of Gottlieb’s restaurant.
“Tell me it isn’t true!” said Jeff, a former Savannahian working in a Pittsburgh art gallery after he spotted my shirt. “That was one of my favorite restaurants.”
On another day someone spotted by red North Beach Grill t-shirt and said, “San Francisco?” Nope. Tybee Island. She wasn’t impressed.
On a more sour note, the next most mentioned response to Savannah is crime. It didn’t help that the first Sunday I was here Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill wrote a piece headlined,“A father’s search for his son’s killer.”
“How did you spend your Memorial Day weekend?” it began. “Greg Corwin and his daughter Jamie spent it passing out flyers in the gorgeous historic district of Savannah, Ga., looking for help in finding out who killed his son and her big brother.”
The incident, which I had sort of forgotten about because after awhile they all kind of fuse together, happened two years ago. O’Neill went on to mention a similar killing of a returning serviceman in Pittsburgh. Except this shooter, arrested and charged with criminal homicide, is in jail awaiting trial.
Savannah’s murder rate for 2004, he wrote, was about three times the national average.
I wish I could write him back and say he was misinformed, he was confused, he had the wrong Savannah. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?