Southern Maps

By Michaela Dwyer
The Sunrise cinnamon roll and its grease map.
The Sunrise cinnamon roll and its grease map.

On Saturday mornings I am a carpetbagger, crossing borders with a loose and learned sense of direction. I know where I’m going. With a few dollars I retrieve a white paper bag from the sure-handed grip of a biscuit-shop employee. The bag seems appropriately sized for a grade-school lunch but its dimensions work according to other planetary rules. One cinnamon roll sits comfortably at the bottom. But two cinnamon rolls, two hash browns, one egg and cheese biscuit, and one bacon, egg and cheese biscuit sit just as comfortably. Not one wrapper protrudes from the top, and it is difficult, with an inept hand working its way through the bag as if through Mary Poppins’s purse, to tell which item is which.

The places and activities before—the drive from Durham, the drive from your childhood home, the dance class, the wiping of sleep-crust from eyelids—dissolve with bag in hand. The bag, AJM brand, once crisp in its whiteness and crisp in its precise folds, comfortable atop hundreds of other bags that look exactly the same, now arranges its folds around your grip. Its exterior softens as the oil inside bleeds: first onto the food wrapper, then onto the paper sack. The road ahead gives you the specific choice of right or left. But the bag offers a foreboding, if nebulous, taunt: there is only the sugary-greasy uncharted after.

***

Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen: Fun City.
Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen: Fun City.

Fun city[1]: the sense that anything purchased at Sunrise can flatten a rough morning into an afternoon’s good vibes. When I was little, hated Home Depot excursions were sweetened by my father’s promise of dessert for breakfast. These excursions stained Saturdays—my trudging incorporation into someone else’s work, because back then I didn’t have my own. I don’t know if I smelled it then, but I smell it now, in memory: syrupy cinnamon and lawnmower gasoline, all tumbled together in the hardware store atrium. I’d be riding in one of the kid-carts licking a crumb from my thumb, or else waiting for the moment when I could.

There is another way in which Sunrise is, to me, fun city. Because the restaurant has stood at the base of that sloping Franklin Street hill as long as I’ve had a memory, I assume it will never leave. Sunrise Biscuit’s ketchup-and-mustard colored-sign, with bubble letters resembling the kind I imitated for grade-school poster projects, is as much to me a Chapel Hill welcome sign as is the real one, dull and gray and a few miles east down 15-501. Sunrise announces the college town even as it diverts you away from it, sidles you into its driveway curve, feeds you its honeyed fat, and spits you back out into the suicide lanes of East Franklin. In your hands there is a biscuit, or a cinnamon roll, but mostly there is soon-to-be paper waste. It is a burdensome, inscrutable, ingestible map. Where to next?

***

Recently, my younger sister asked me to contribute to her geography class assignment. She had a script: “I would like you to make a quick map of Chapel Hill/Carrboro. Make it as if you were making a rapid description to a stranger, covering all the main features.”

I made the same error I always make when attempting “quick maps” or object studies or even blind contour drawings: I mistake the sheet of paper for a much larger expanse, and I fill in the first feature too close to the margins. In this case, I put the pen—always pen, never pencil—down firmly where I imagined the hill of Franklin Street began, and erected a sad square 2-D frame. SUN-RISE, I scrawled, forcing the script into two lines. I had again overestimated the space I’d created for myself. So, a compensatory gesture: BISCUITS!, I wrote above the frame in a bending arch—looking like an overjoyed umbrella, elegant in the gruntwork of keeping sorry soggy humans dry for just a little longer.

I couldn’t erase it; I didn’t start over. Good enough.

Michaela's "quick map" of Chapel Hill/Carrboro.
Michaela’s “quick map” of Chapel Hill/Carrboro.

***

Maps aid navigation. It is their responsibility to bestow significance on everyday place, to move landscape to landmark. That which is cartographed is instructive—that is, until it isn’t. A biscuit shop eventually becomes indistinguishable from the restaurant next door or across the street, or else subsumed into a route from Point A to Point B.

Despite their documentary power, maps betray permanence. We use them up, as we use the landscape, as we use the food we eat and the wrapping that eats it. The question, then: What remains?

***

Leotard and pink tights, the latter bulging above the ankle bone, chafing leg hair soon to be deemed unruly, date unknown. A long torso (trying to be longer) bent over a long cheese pizza slice, patting the grease, joyous in the oil’s transfer from food to white napkin. It is a broken balletic pose—adolescent girl dancer, good technique but bad posture, stuck in the upland South eating the foods she imagines her older counterparts, dancing successfully in big cities, have learned to avoid. The life of an artist, she tells herself at age twelve, must be ascetic at the core, but here, between pats and bites, she wants to believe she can have the cake and eat it, too. (The really good artists, she thinks, know how to be both.)

She consumes her Sunrise cinnamon roll less deliberately.

***

Close study of the Sunrise cinnamon roll.
Close study of the Sunrise cinnamon roll.

The roll, a fat spiraled gradient of brown, is heavy and decadent. The to-go bag makes it so even before the object’s reveal. The top of the bag is rolled down in a gesture of hasty safekeeping. The bag presents itself through the accordion drive-thru window via a disembodied torso on the other side of the glass. There is a do-si-do of exchanges, a dance notated by intrusions of body parts into the outside air: hand for payment, hand for change, hand for bag.

The postmodern Sunrise cinnamon roll is lighter and multivalent; it has lost weight, cut carbs. Regardless, the grease remains—that insistent oil bloom, pooled at the bottom of the paper bag and visible no matter which way you turn it, whether you’re six or twelve or twenty-four. The stain feels embarrassing and essential.

Sugar and grease are old bedfellows. One crumbles, the other blemishes. Both stain. The unexpected stain becomes the cinnamon roll’s defining feature. As I eat the roll, so too must I eat the greasemark. When we get home—whether at six or twelve or twenty-four—my sister and I splay our sugar sacks on plastic plates adorned with our own colored-marker designs. The plate colors and the to-go bag and the semi-transparent plastic wrapper and the roll itself, a monument of starch and schmaltz, are altogether too much. It is garish excess. We know it. We do not use napkins to pat anything away. We eat, at times slowly and rapidly, until all that remains is a pile of paper and plastic and amateur marker drawings of farm animals, all speckled with congealed spheres of sugar. We wait around to digest, throw the paper mess away, and get on with our lives.

***

Pretending I don’t already know, I search online: “washing off grease.” My inquiry yields two questions: “How do I get grease out of clothing? How do you get grease off your hands?” The answer to the latter question[2], recommends, incidentally, washing hands with a teaspoon of sugar. This advice is directed toward serious grease: grease that smells like lawnmower gasoline, not a warm syrup.

Dashboard diptych.
Dashboard diptych.

My grease, the cinnamon roll’s grease, is the second kind, so benign I hardly bother to scrub my hands after indulging. It works its way into my fingerprint, the curved lines mimicking Sunrise’s precarious drive-thru circuit. The grease is a pesky throughline, a lifeline, an unostentatious documentarian, an incorrigible cartographer. It lives with me, as does this town. It says: You are here. In this way, the grease has never not been working its way into that print, into my movements, into this essay.

***

The Sunrise cinnamon roll wrapper tells me Chapel Hill is mine: it is a way to keep arriving in the place that grew me. Its stain maps a South that is both defined and fluid. And yet the reliability of the purchase, and how consistently I rely upon its sameness—the bag, the stain, the roll—forge a landmark I’m not sure I want. I try to dispose of it each time I throw away the wrapper, but the disposal is not so easy. So I let it linger on my skin for a little longer.

I arrange the to-go bag on my dashboard. I position it prostrate to better showcase the stain. I make a series of photographs. I incorporate them into this essay. I arrive at Sunrise without a map and yet I leave with one. I go home and eat the cinnamon roll, wrapper unfurled atop the paper bag, the same way I did five years ago, and ten years ago, and several more before then.

Michaela's Chapel Hill-Carrboro map; the Sunrise grease map.
The grease map.

***

Cinnamon Roll Frosting: A Dwyer Family Recipe

3/4 teacup powdered sugar

2 spoonfuls milk

Stir

***

[1] Gingher, Marianne. 2015. Pie Love You, Cake Do Without You. Southern Cultures 21:110-18.

[2] Klosowski, Thorin. 2012. “Use Sugar to Clean Greasy Hands.” Lifehacker. http://lifehacker.com/5887959/use-sugar-to-clean-greasy-hands (accessed October 18, 2015).