I’m holding my hands above my head in the x-ray machine at the Nashville airport when I hear a phrase much more interesting than the traditional, “Look straight ahead and hold still.”
“They make the chips fresh in-house!”
The voice is coming from my right, and as soon as I’m allowed to move I look over to see who’s made this ebullient pronouncement.
It’s a male TSA agent with a bright, round face speaking to his coworker, a woman with perfectly coiffed blonde hair. She looks at me and says, “Come on, honey,” motioning me out of the machine. Then she turns back to her coworker. “So they make ‘em in-house, huh?”
“Yes!” the man says emphatically. “And don’t even get me started on the queso.”
The x-ray monitor lights up to indicate my necklace — I always forget to take off my necklace — and the blonde TSA agent starts patting me down while her coworker breathlessly describes a queso sauce that “tastes like liquid gold.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I finally interrupt. “What restaurant are we talking about here?”
The man lights up. “Moe’s Southwest Grill!”
“Really?” I say, “I never would have thought they make the chips in-house.”
“They do,” the man says, “and they’re the best chips you’ll ever have.” He leans in conspiratorially, and the other TSA agent and me huddle closer to him. “Now here’s what you do,” he whispers. “You tell them to to put the chips IN the burrito. It gives it a crunch.”
The three of us stand there, blocking the growing line for the x-ray machine, talking about crunchy chip burritos, until someone behind me clears his throat loudly. The TSA agents frown at the prospect of cutting our conversation short.
“You have a good day,” I tell them, gathering up my laptop and shoes from the conveyor belt.
“You too, darlin’!” the woman says.
“And try the chips!” the man shouts as I walk away, both of them waving me off as dramatically as if I were boarding an ocean liner bound for the new world.
I dump my stuff on a bench down the hall from the security lines, and my boyfriend Nick, who was in another line, joins me. “Guess who makes their chips fresh in house?” I ask, and tell him about my chatty interaction with the TSA.
He laughs. “That was such a Nashville moment,” he says. And he’s right.
When we moved to Nashville from Portland, one of the things I was most excited about was the warm, talkative culture. It was evident from the first moments of our first visit. Everyone from grocery store cashiers to people in line at coffee shops to diner waitresses (especially the diner waitresses) seemed poised and ready to greet us with a sweet “Hi y’all!” and then chat our ears off. I loved it. It felt open and fun and social in a way that I wasn’t used to.
Portland is known as a friendly city, and it is, no doubt. Walk down the street and catch a stranger’s eye and you’ll probably get a warm smile. Maybe a nod of the head. But in Portland, spontaneous interactions tend to end there. There’s a formalized friendliness but people also place a premium on privacy — yours and theirs — and will clip conversations short to ensure that privacy is maintained. “Hi,” “How are you,” and “Good” are usually as far as things go. Until you really know someone, there’s a certain level of guardedness on both sides.
As a naturally perky, social person, this often frustrated me when I lived in Oregon. But what I didn’t realize is how much that culture had shaped me. When I moved to Nashville, the effects of my Pacific Northwestern upbringing became abundantly clear: I didn’t know how to chat.
I noticed it first in interactions with neighbors. In the South, neighbors are kind of a big deal. You get to know them, they become friends, you share gossip and garden vegetables, you invite each other over for dinner, you yell conversations across the street, from porch to porch. I immediately loved this cornerstone of Southern culture, but I also didn’t quite get it. I happily said hi to my neighbors when we crossed paths near the mailbox, but then they’d follow up with “How’s your day going?” and “What are you up to this weekend?” and “Did you see any lightning bugs yet?” and I’d clam up, feeling trapped and panicky. Even if the conversation was interesting and flowing well, there were times I found myself backing away mid-sentence. I was so used to brief interactions, so unsure of where these new social boundaries were and how to navigate them.
As the months and years passed, I started to feel more comfortable with this Southern brand of small talk. I got really good at it, in fact. People wanted to talk to me, and I wanted to talk to them, but more importantly, I wanted to listen. I’d regale Nick with stories gathered from strangers at the post office and the hardware store. “So when he was 16 he qualified for the national gymnastics team but then he cut his hand on a broken bottle and he knew, instantly, that even if it healed, he’d never backflip onto a parallel bar again.”
“Who is this you’re talking about?”
“Some guy getting gas at the pump next to mine.”
As a writer, these interactions are goldmines. Stories are everywhere — on the tip of every stranger’s tongue, waiting in the wings of every passing “hello.” The truth is, we all walk in and out of each other’s life stories, but in the South, those stories are being composed verbally, every day, out in the open. The chattiness of neighbors and bartenders and church ladies here isn’t just charming, and it’s certainly not superficial; it’s what makes life feel rich and vivid. It makes you realize that we’re all part of the same tapestry, our overlapping anecdotes and experiences coming together to form the biggest, weirdest, most beautiful story of all.
It adds a layer of surprise to everyday life, too: you never know who you’ll meet, and you never know what they’ll say.
I’m back at the airport, Dallas/Fort Worth this time, wandering around between flights on my way back to Nashville. Nick went back a few days before me for work so I’m alone, lugging a backpack full of Christmas gifts, trying to decide where to eat. I’ve passed the same Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk and exorbitantly priced “cantina” multiple times and am about to opt for a Hudson News trail mix dinner when I see it: a streamlined airport version of Moe’s Southwest Grill.
I giggle to myself while standing in line, and I order a burrito with chips inside. The burrito isn’t great, but the chips are good.
I sit alone in the food court, watching the business travelers rush past my table. I wish someone would slow down for a moment, so I could catch their eye, say hello, and tell them about these chips.