When I was in graduate school, a professor tried to make the point that objects don’t speak by setting before us a plain wooden chair. As she anticipated, none of us guessed the chair had been rescued from the Harlem ballroom where Malcom X was killed.
But I’m still inclined to believe chairs are pretty good connectors to the past, perhaps because it’s so easy to imagine how they were used: They’re the material opposite of the coffee grinders and cherry pitters that museum docents use to stump visitors. So I jumped at the chance this afternoon to buy one of Hominy Grill’s original chairs, which the restaurant’s now selling off for 30 bucks apiece.
The Windsor chairs, with their gracefully curved backs and thinly-padded seats, predate Hominy’s tenure at the corner of Cannon and Rutledge: When chef Robert Stehling in 1996 purchased the restaurant, the previous owner offered him the chairs at an absurdly low price. In a dining room where so many patrons often hail from elsewhere, staffers came to appreciate the steady permanence of the chairs.
But the chairs chipped and cracked, so Hominy Grill was perpetually refinishing them, until the whole enterprise became too costly to keep up. This month, the restaurant replaced its chairs. The new chairs have shorter, swoopier backs: They still don’t look exactly right to staffers.
The retired chairs are now tied up in tight rows, facing forward so buyers can assess them. Peering under the chairs’ protective blue tarp is like casing a furniture pound: It’s impossible to know in which chair R.W. Apple sat when he ate buttermilk pie, or which chair was once occupied by Lou Reed. The only recourse is to choose a chair which appears handsome and sturdy, and hope for a happy future together.
I won’t ever have as many shrimp-and-grits encounters as my new chair, which has likely spent much of its life sticky with sweet tea. It’s a chair that’s seen its share of pimento cheese, biscuits and field peas; I can’t fathom a better cubicle companion.
Stehling kindly signed the underside of my chair, since I figure it can’t hurt to bring a James Beard award winner’s writing into my workspace. When I marched it back to my office, a man sitting outside Five Loaves Café sized up the chair which was then encaging most of my top half. “Nice-looking chair,” he said. Clearly, it spoke to him.