In my first installation as Savannah’s self–appointed anti–society columnist four months ago, I promised to cover every fancy party I could, as long as everyone was invited.
However, as the phrases “black tie optional” and “free and open to the public” are not often coupled on engraved invitations, it’s been rather quiet in the lavish gala department.
But last week I did have the occasion to break out my sparkly shoes and make good on my egalitarian vow at the inauguration of the city’s new mayor and council.
It felt a bit like I’d wandered into an abstract urban fairy tale as I climbed the wide cement stairs of the Civic Center, brimming with citizens regally decked out in tuxedos and sequined ballgowns. Except instead of a fete bestowed by gloating monarchs upon a selection of the kingdom’s deserving commoners, this bash was paid for with our own taxes to celebrate our democratically–elected leaders. Big difference. Any complaints about city government spendage should be tempered with the knowledge that the rent was free and the entertainment volunteered, which means this was truly a party by and for the people.
There were no horsedrawn pumpkins lined up on Liberty Street, but I did run into outgoing monarch, ahem, mayor Otis Johnson in the parking garage, looking dapper in a fedora after his last day of work in the big gold dome. He told me he plans to spend his retirement teaching at Savannah State and writing the story of his life, which has a working title so provocative I’ll let you Google it yourself.
Looking like a man who had just shed the weight of the world (and the annoying questions of the media) Mr. Johnson bounded up the staircase with his longtime partner, Shevon Carr, resplendent in an ankle–length mink coat.
As it turns out, the chilly evening brought out enough fur to clothe several herds of naked animals in the lobby outside the Johnny Mercer Theater. Bucking the trend were last week’s Connect coverboy Lloyd Harold (better known as KidSyc) and his wacky knitted hat, and Twigs the Live Oak Public Library Squirrel, who covered his native fur with a pair of denim dungarees. (Library director Christian Kruse confided that he had forgotten Twigs’ tux at the drycleaners.)
It was a scene both absurd and dignified, a pair of adjectives that only Savannah can pull off at once. A giant squirrel in overalls was fine company for the hilarious Angela Beasley, who squired one of her Puppet People past AWOL’s elegantly appointed Tony and DaVena Jordan and 24E’s Ruel Joyner, who may have lost the District 1 election in November but not an ounce of grace.
Thank goodness this community has a sense of humor, or I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously at all. In adherence of the evening’s theme of ironic solemnity, I found myself in the ministerial section, sandwiched between Savannah Jewish Federation executive director Adam Solender and iconic Baptist pastor Matthew Southall Brown.
After an epically long procession of dozens of neighborhood associations (when was the last time you attended a meeting of yours?) and a most euphonious performance by the Savannah Children’s Choir (in Hebrew, yet another testament to the willingness to embrace diversity in this city, no matter how unexpected), it was time swear in our new officials.
Mayor Edna Branch Jackson accepted her oath, then seamlessly slid into her role as the city’s 65th mayor to preside over the packed hall, gavel in hand and glasses perched on nose. In her signature soothing tone and what WTOC’s Dawn Baker called her “wonderful diction,” Mayor Jackson promised to make Savannah’s citizens proud, to represent the entire community, to focus on jobs and to listen to the concerns of the youth.
Though I’m still waiting with an arched eyebrow to hear an actual strategy for these that’s more specific than “bringing everyone to the table,” even I laid aside my gnarled cynicism about local politics to feel united with my neighbors under our new leader.
There’s no denying that we have elected a person who is highly educated, who helped lead the Civil Rights movement in Savannah, who has 12 years experience in city politics and is, by all accounts, a very nice lady. As we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, we should all take a long minute to be proud of electing its first African–American female mayor.
“It shows how much progress has been accomplished, and how there’s still history to be made,” Lakesha Green, AWOL’s theater director, told me. “I’ll save this program to show to kids one day.”
(Speaking of the six–page program, a friend pointed out that it wasn’t printed on recycled stock — “a missed opportunity,” he whispered.)
Of course, this is local politics, so things had to get weird: In her inaugural speech Mayor Jackson also talked about “voters who turned out in unprecedented numbers” and how Savannah’s government is “the envy of the world,” which fell squarely into the absurd category since voter turnout was in fact abysmally low, and our city management was beaten about the head with a sack of oranges in the national media all last year over its handling of Girl Scout cookie sales, bras on Broughton and executive employee searches.
But she followed that up with the humble and dignified plea for her constituents to remember “I’m human, I’m going to make mistakes.”
So I’ll let it slide for now. Because once upon a time, for one evening, the people of Savannah dressed in their finest clothes, celebrated their chosen leaders and had a ball. And I gave my cynicism a break.
Plenty of time for it in the next four years, anyway.