By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 29, 2008 at 5:07 AM

JACKSON, MISS. -- It's not really newsworthy to write about hanging out with two of my coworkers and two of my former coworkers over the weekend. That happens all the time.

But usually, we're not hanging out in Jackson, Miss.

We made the trip to "OMC South" for the wedding of Craig McKinney and Grace Briscoe. Craig was our art director for several years, and Grace was an account executive. They didn't meet at work, though my wife and I did set them up five years ago. (Velia, five months pregnant, didn't make the trip down with us -- and considering this rowdy crowd, that was probably a wise decision.)

Anyway, our group consisted of programmer Zach Karpinski and his fiancée, Kristin; sales manager Erin Ulicki and her husband, Val; and myself. Zach and Kris beat us down there by a day, while Val, Erin and I showed up Friday afternoon.

Yes, we all did our best impressions of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash's "Jackson." Yes, all tried to speak with a Southern accent (some pushed it more than others). And yes, Zach and I bought a jar of moonshine that we couldn't bring ourselves to drink, but spent most of the time trying to persuade others to taste.

I don't think I've ever been to Mississippi, and unless Brett Favre invites me over for dinner, I don't think I'll be back. Which isn't to say I didn't have a great time, because I did ... but Jackson is an interesting place and a little hard to describe.

My first impressions were pleasant. Jackson has a tiny airport, which is great since it's as hassle-free as they come. The area is lush and green, and it's a straight shot to downtown. Along the way, I saw the omnipresent Waffle Houses and Confederate logos, disturbingly still present on the Mississippi state flag.

Jackson is the state's largest city, but it sure doesn't feel very big. It is a city of about 175,000 people, with a population of more than a half million in the metropolitan area. So, Jackson is significantly smaller than Milwaukee, but it's hardly a tiny city.

We stayed at the charming Old Capitol Inn, 226 N. State St., which is right downtown. But downtown is also a ghost town. It reminded me of a scene from "Easy Rider," and it resembled what I imagined a southern city to look like in the '60s.

My closest Wisconsin comparison for downtown Jackson is Green Bay, but honestly, Jackson makes Titletown look like Las Vegas. There's some interesting history and architecture, but sadly, Jackson is considered the 23rd most dangerous city in America. From what locals told us, many people have given up and moved to the suburbs. We could scarcely find a restaurant for lunch or for dinner, and we literally didn't see a soul walking the downtown's streets at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.

So, after a fruitless search for food, we hopped in the car and drove a mile north. For lunch, we ate at a Greek / Southern place called Kiefer's, 120 N. Congress St. While one might not naturally pair those two cuisines, it was actually quite good.

Dinner proved to be a bit more roundabout. Initially, we planned on visiting one of Jackson's oldest family restaurants, the Mayflower Restaurant, 123 W. Capitol St. But when we pulled up, we realized that we'd be the youngest patrons in the place by at least 35 years. Normally, I'd wholeheartedly endorse such a restaurant, but none of us were up for it, and we aimed for plan "B."

We jumped on the highway and headed north on I-55. In addition to dinner, we had one other stop to make. Since Northwest Airlines lost Val and Erin's luggage, we needed to make a run to Target.

First, though, we ate dinner at a great place called Julep, 1305 E. Northside Dr., which coincidentally catered the wedding on Saturday. I'd call it Southern fusion, and all our dishes tasted excellent. After dinner, we spent entirely too much time at Target (just like at home) and made it back to the hotel in time for the 10 p.m. rooftop party. I was a little surprised how many friends and family of Grace and Craig I knew there, it was at least a dozen if not more.

Hanging out with a bunch of people you know, 800 miles from home, is a surreal experience -- and I don't just say that because we tried the utterly undrinkable moonshine.

We had a great time, sharing stories about old times, making fun of the groom behind his back; you know, the typical stuff one does before old friends get hitched.

But the next morning, after a Southern breakfast of eggs, grits and biscuits, we set out to discover what Jackson really had to offer. Again, the Priceline rental car came in handy, because we drove to the "artsy" district of Fondren. Their convention and visitor's bureau Web site refers to the area as Jackson's "hippest, coolest, most avant-garde, most diverse and progressive neighborhood." While that may be true, it's also overselling the area a bit, except for a handful of cool shops and restaurants, Fondren is not exactly the Historic Third Ward.

The Fondren Beverage Emporium, Tangle and Brent's Drugs & Soda Fountain are three major exceptions.

The Fondren Beverage Emporium, 3030 N. State St., is a dream come true for kitsch lovers (read: me). From gummy bacon strips to candy cigarettes to sodas from all over the world, this delightfully retro shop is the kind of place one could go nuts in. I literally felt like a kid in a candy store. It's also the only place we saw a little touch of Milwaukee in a bottle of Sprecher root beer.

After buying way too much candy, we did a little shopping at a clothing store / salon / housewares shop called Tangle, 607 Duling Ave. The group persuaded me to buy an orange shirt, that 12 hours later Erin told me looked pretty gay (thanks a lot, Erin). Zach bought an apparently less gay-looking shirt, and Erin picked up a purse. We spoke to the owner, Mark, who gave us more insight into the area, and sent us on our way to lunch.

But before we ate, we took a step back in time at Brent's Drugs & Soda Fountain, 655 Duling Ave. To call this place "old fashioned" or "retro" wouldn't do it justice. It's a small pharmacy with a genuine, and packed, lunch counter. The closest thing I can compare it to in Milwaukee was Woolworth's at Northridge Mall when I was a kid, but this place was the real deal. We didn't linger long in the store, since as gawking tourists, we felt a little disrespectful watching people experience a lifestyle utterly unknown to us Yankees.

For lunch, we coincidentally met up with some other wedding guests at Que Sera Sera, 2801 N. State St. As Mark back at Tangle had told us, Jackson doesn't have a very distinctive dining reputation, so we felt good trying some Cajun food. The portions were huge; Kristin and I both had the red beans and rice and didn't make it more than halfway through.

Suffering the effects of a food coma, we retired back to the hotel to rest up for the actual wedding.

Grace and Craig got married at her Uncle Jimmy's house, and quite simply, Jimmy owns one of the most spectacular homes I've ever visited. Located in the outskirts of Jackson, the neighborhood reminded me of Fox Point or Elm Grove, but much more lush. His and his wife Carolyn's home is reminiscent of a modern Southern-style, beautiful but not ostentatious architecture. With Craig and Grace's touches of elegance, it proved to be the perfect setting for a wedding.

Having worked with the couple, I know their sense of style and attention to detail, and they excelled in both. It was really one of the nicest weddings I've ever attended.

Around midnight, the group retired back to the roof of the hotel. After an entirely too late evening (or early morning), we hit the hay for what felt more like a nap than a solid night's sleep.

We wished the couple congratulations one more time and hit the road. Eight hours later, I was home in Milwaukee, still wearing shorts and sandals and shivering at the temperature change.

Again, none of us see ourselves returning to Jackson, though if I could make one observation, I'd say that its residents seemed incredibly friendly, generally happy and sincerely inviting. Of course, in two and a half days, we didn't see everything there was to see, but we got a flavor for the city. Uncle Jimmy's home aside, Jackson is clearly going through some rough times and awaiting its revival, but the people we met seemed ready to weather the storm.

And for me, Grace and Craig could've chosen anywhere to get married since spending this hilarious weekend with my goofy current and former colleagues was all the entertainment I needed. Sometimes, it's the random, silly weekend getaways that are the most memorable. Moonshine aside, we'll all remember this trip for a long time.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.