What we can learn from tomatoes - Joel Hall

Before I moved to Clayton County two-and-a-half years ago, I had a long discussion with my brother about the pros and cons of working here.

I had my doubts, as does anybody getting ready to make a life-changing career move.

I was very familiar with the fast-paced life of Midtown, the earthy, bohemian cafes at Little Five Points, late night pancakes and people watching at the Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon, and the chic trendiness of Virginia Highlands.

However, I had my doubts about what I would find here in a place that - for many people within the belt line - is Atlanta's southern hinterland.

I've always leaned toward trendy urban centers, doing my best to get to know the lay of the land, the people, and the culture. My brother, in wise, older-brother fashion, pointed out that I could apply the same passion and drive I have for dissecting large cities to learning the ins and outs of a smaller community.

That conversation changed my entire perspective on things. I found an apartment here and set out every week to find something interesting and beautiful - and find I did. In two-and-a-half years, I've seen more of Clayton County than most people will ever see. However, as a quiet observer of the media, I am usually on the outside looking in.

It is a privilege to observe, but every once in a while, you need to experience things for your own benefit.

Until this past Saturday, I had written a lot about tomato sandwiches, but had never tasted one for myself. Tomato sandwiches hold a special place in the hearts of many Clayton County residents, as they are the foundation of the annual Tomato Sandwich Party, an important fund-raiser for the Good Shepherd Clinic in Morrow.

The clinic is, to my knowledge, the only facility in the county that provides primary health care to people without insurance. Coming from a family with a lot of medical issues, it is something I am very passionate about.

On Saturday, I left my camera and notepad at home and attended this year's Tomato Sandwich Party for my own benefit.

It was disarming at first. In a room full of people I usually spend the day tracking down, I felt somewhat naked without a media badge and a list full of questions. My awkwardness subsided, however, after a table full of strangers invited me sit down with them and proceeded to bend my ear about every topic under the sun.

Standing in line for my own tomato sandwich, I learned a lot about Clayton County, as well as its appeal. I saw a diverse, cross section of young and old - a little more old than young - but a cross section, nonetheless.

The doctors, the guest performers, and the people sitting in the audience at the First Baptist Church of Morrow Fellowship Hall, came from just about every culture imaginable. All of them may have not been Christian, but all them were gathered for a cause that was very Christian.

I saw people helping people, opening doors for each other, pulling out chairs for each other, and sitting for long periods of time, not worried about where the next trendy party was or where their next venti latte was coming from.

For a few hours, time stood still, but in a good way.

To me, this was the Clayton County that people living in Clayton County get to see.

For, as much of Clayton County as I have gotten to witness as an observer, I am glad I had a chance to see, for my own benefit, what many people are too busy to notice.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.