The white tent with Auburn University markings was set up outside an automotive garage. There were a couple grills beneath the tent, spewing blue smoke into the air. A sign out front read: BBQ.
It was a sleepy afternoon and business was apparently slow at the garage. The mechanics were all sitting outside, relaxing on the axis of the Wheel of Life. Chain smoking.
At the grill was a young man, working the coals. He was well over six-foot eight. Maybe seven feet. He had a frame like an F-150. His hair was in cornrows, his shoulders were the width of a Steinway. He was smothering pork ribs with a paintbrush that had been dipped in what was either barbecue sauce or 10W-30.
I ordered a full rack because I have a sixth sense when it comes to barbecue. My father before me also had a great nose for barbecue.
And I am a chip off the old block.
My old man could procure the greatest smoked nourishment from side-of-the-road places that most people would overlook. He once bought barbecue in a Mexican man’s backyard, a man who was cooking a goat in a giant hole in the ground.
When the man asked my father how it tasted, my father forced himself to swallow a mouthful and answered, “It definitely tastes like goat.”
The kid at the grill was loading my to-go box when he looked at me and said something. He was unable to articulate words, it sounded more like moaning than talking. Although his tone had the ring of a question.
An older woman was supervising him. His mother maybe. She was smoking a Black & Mild, seated in a folding lawn chair, serving as his interpreter.
“You want your ribs wet or dry?” she asked me.
“Wet, please,” said I.
The young man made another moaning sound, but I could not understand his question to me. I was trying to figure out whether he was nonverbal, or whether he had hearing issues.
The woman translated: “He wanna know if you want some bread witch’ya ribs.”
“I do,” I said.
He moaned another question.
I looked to her for the explanation.
She said, “He wanna know if you want ‘tater salad or slaw.”
The kid opened a cooler and stabbed an ice cream scoop into a vat of slaw. He did the same with the potato salad.
The kid moaned another question.
“You want pickles?” the old lady translated between pulls on her prodigious cigar.
“I want as many pickles as he can give me without getting fired,” I said.
She nodded at the young giant as if to say, “You heard the man.”
When my order was ready she recited my total. I attempted to pay by debit card, but the woman looked at my card and shook her head. She tapped a sign next to her moneybox, one I hadn’t seen earlier. It read: CASH ONLY.
Sadly, I rarely carry cash anymore. Behold, the Age of Plastic. I used to swear I would never become one of those hapless men who walks around without cash, but there you are.
All I had was a five-dollar bill. It was not nearly enough to cover my tab. I was humiliated. I hung my head and gave the Styrofoam box of food back to her.
“No, keep it,” said a man in line behind me. “I gotchoo, man.”
I turned to see an older Black man dressed in a grease-stained mechanic’s shirt. His name tag said “Shawn,” of all things.
Shawn stepped forward. He dug into his wallet and removed cash. He stuffed the cash into the kid’s box and paid for my meal.
“I really appreciate this,” I said, shaking the man’s hand.
“Ain’t nothing,” Shawn said.
The next day, I revisited the garage to pay my debt. The barbecue tent was gone. I walked inside the open garage to be greeted with Earth Wind and Fire’s “Would You Mind” blaring overhead.
I asked for Shawn. In a few seconds, Shawn slid from beneath a souped-up Chevy Suburban. He wiped his hands on his shirt and asked if he could help me. I handed him some cash.
The man smiled. He tucked the money into his shirt pocket and said, “Thanks, but you didn’t have to do this.”
“Neither did you,” I said.
As I was leaving, he called out to me. “Hey, man. How was that barbecue?”
“Some of the best I ever had,” I said.
He grinned again. “My son’s a good cook, ain’t he? He’s real good with that grill.”
“He’s a chip off the old block,” I said.
Just like me.