When Virgil first enters the scene in the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno, he just sort of appears in the dark wood. Almost out of nowhere, he just transpires. The Italian word Dante uses to describe his appearance is offerto: so more literally, Virgil “offered himself.” It’s the first sign that–even in the harsh landscape of Inferno–nothing is going to turn out like you expect.
Heading east out of Augusta on Central Avenue, we are not a block into the trip before I need to stop. I know it could be a while before we see another decent cup of coffee, so the early pit-stop at the Buona Caffé in Augusta seems well-advised.
I leave the car running, because it’s already hot as it’s supposed to be in Georgia in July, and pop inside to place my order with the barista.
Now, I have a background in theology and an amateur interest in southern history, and John is a professional historian who’s written on race and religion in the south. While he’s brewing the previous customer’s beverage, the barista asks what brings me to town. I try—for the first time over the next two weeks—to explain this strange journey we are on. It comes out like a very poorly-rehearsed elevator pitch, all ragged-edged and semi-coherent, but he manages to get the gist.
I’m a seminary student, he tells me, doing a thesis on race and religion. It’s on Howard Thurman, King, and Thomas Merton, he says.
No way, I say. Hang on a sec, I tell him. There’s someone you need to meet.
I drag John out of the minivan, which already sounds like it’s overheating. Back inside the Buona, John tells the barista he lives around the corner. We really should chat, he says, and they make plans to do that when he is back in town.
I give the barista my card, and scrawl onto it the name of the hastily-made instagram account we made for the trip because that’s who we are now. We say thanks for the coffee, and promise to be in touch.
Not much later, on US 1, John interrupts his dramatic reading of the WPA Guide to Georgia to respond to an alert on his iPhone (also who we are now).
“Hey, he followed us,” John says.
“Who?” I ask.
“Dante,” John says. “The guy from the coffee shop.”
“His name is Dante?”
“And we are just getting ready to go on a quest deep into the Southern inferno?”
“His name is Dante.”
“That does not seem like an accident.”
Two white dudes in a minivan meeting an African-American man with shared interests in a coffee shop does not seem like an accident either. It is a instance of unlikely gratuity, an in-breaking of common humanity that makes the world not seem so small or random or cruel or inhospitable. We come to call them “Dante moments,” which, over the next two weeks, seem to offer themselves with alarming frequency.