Border Crossings and Invisible Lines

Monday morning, it was necessary to accommodate a rare time constraint on my schedule  - I needed to be in Charlotte, North Carolina just a few days later and had a good bit of ground to cover in the interim. I focused the entire day on scooting through the densely populated corridor of New York City/Philadelphia/Baltimore/Washington D.C.  I knew it would be an arduous drive, but what I was really dreading was the irritation I'd be experiencing as I shelled out tolls in every single state I passed through.  The most egregious offender turned out to be innocuous seeming Delaware where after spending no more than 10 minutes on the interstate I had paid two $4 tolls - one to get in and one to get out.  By the end of the day, I'd handed over a grand total of $22.00 in two and three dollar increments.

On the bright side, I did manage to cover enough territory to set a new personal record for the most states passed through in a single day: five, plus the District of Columbia! The magnetized representation of the East Coast on the rear panel of my car became a confused jumble as I shoe-horned in a new mid-Atlantic state every couple of hours. Especially challenging to incorporate were toll-loving Delaware and not-really-a-state Washington DC, both of which are outrageously ill proportioned. I soon discovered that trying to get all of them to fit into a representative whole was a job for a far more abstract thinker than me.

My day's drive first took me down the splendidly scenic Taconic Parkway, over the Hudson river on the impressive Tappan Zee bridge (connecting New York and New Jersey), along the tedium drenched New Jersey Turnpike, skirting Philadelphia altogether, directly through downtown Baltimore and then smack dab into the middle of rush hour traffic on the beltway outside downtown D.C. where I trickled along for the better part of an hour in a stream of humans heading some place other than where they'd been toiling all day.  When I at last reached Quantico, Virginia, I decided I'd had enough driving for the day and pulled into the first reasonable looking hotel I could find.
I approached the front desk tired, frustrated and completely over dealing with other people and the clerk behind the counter could not have been nicer or more friendly.  As we chatted genially it hit me like a slow motion pressure wave of charm."Wait a minute!" I remarked to myself, "Someone I don't know is conversing with me and being pleasant!"  In that moment I grasped that I'd finally crossed the invisible line between the North and the South, that imaginary yet palpable border between polar opposites.  I basked in the familiar comfort of the contrived intimacy that seems to be second nature to Southerners.  It was like a good back rub after a long day of working at the computer - I could feel my social fibers unfurling.

I passed an unremarkable night in the strange military flavored town of Quantico (small but also home to one of the largest Marine bases in the world) and spent the next morning catching up on a few chores like having the oil in the car changed since I'd accrued so damn many miles I needed new oil.  After lunch I headed off to Durham, North Carolina to stay overnight with my friends Dave and Fen.  Dave and Fen fall into that cherished category of friends that I unfortunately see only rarely, but even so, have no trouble picking things right back up where we left off the last time. I got to hang out with the two of them and their two young daughters Thea and Ottoline who I hadn't yet had the pleasure of meeting.  We managed to pack a lot of pleasant visiting into my short 1/2 day stopover and it was grand to meet two fresh new humans.

Wednesday morning, I took a series of North Carolina back roads from Durham to Charlotte.  I passed through a number of small towns, all of which seemed to have at least a couple of stores with  Guns! Ammunition! or Gold! offered for sale.  When I stopped at a convenience store for some gas along the way, I bought a package of pork rinds that were emblazoned with the phrase "Like your mama used to pan fry" and included a lengthy bible verse printed on the back of the bag.  They were so damn hard they nearly chipped my tooth and were immediately relegated to the on board trash collection system.  I'll tell you what, my mama would have been embarrassed to pan fry something as inedible as that!

I was looking forward to spending a couple of days in Charlotte where I'd be attending a concert one evening and then picking Mark up at the airport the next day so he could finish out the last part of the trip with me. I'd planned on arriving in Charlotte just in time for lunch since I'd scouted out a local fried chicken joint that sounded right up my alley.  Charlotte is a wonderful city to be hungry in, seeing as how North Carolina is the easternmost state in a long broad swath of the south that is burgeoning with delicious food.  I meant to celebrate my return to the South with a heap of golden fried chicken wings, and Price's Chicken Coop was just the place to do it.

Price's Chicken Coop is ensconced along a fringey street on the borders of an old downtown Charlotte neighborhood and is surrounded by a patchwork of weedy overgrown lots, urban rail crossings, high rise condos and artsy boutiques. The modest brick building that houses Price's bustles with a steady stream of customers arriving to take their turn placing an order at the well worn white laminate counter.  Price's opened in 1962 as a takeout counter (situated as it was, in a chicken packing plant) catering primarily to the huge number of factory workers that needed a quick meal at lunchtime. But word of the delicious fried chicken soon spread and over the years, it has earned an extremely devoted following.

After ordering my chicken wing dinner, I pulled out the camera to take a few photos of the folks that were working their tails off to serve me.  They looked up with obvious joy and gave me the most wonderful, glowing smiles. I'm always very impressed with a business when I see such easy merriment in the people that work there.

Because Price's has never felt the need to maintain a dining room as a feature of their booming business, you must instead seize the grease speckled cardboard box handed to you across the counter, walk quickly to your car and shut yourself safely inside at which tie you can proceed to voraciously inhale your prize. You'll soon notice that he streets surrounding Price's are dotted with cars, each occupied by a human hyena cowering in isolation, protecting and devouring their golden fried share of the kill.

My wings were so delicious that every single other thing in the box paled in comparison.  I ate every morsel of the chicken, but barely tasted any of the rest - it was one of those days when stomach math becomes so damn important. I felt strangely justified by my culinary equations later that evening when I stopped at another local place called the Chicken Box on my way to see the band Pinback in concert, Unbelievably, the wings at the Chicken Box were every bit as good if not better than Price's.  I was so DAMN glad to be back in the South.

The Pinback performance was thoroughly enjoyable.  I've been following them for well over 20 years now and they're one of the few bands I never get tired of hearing live.  I was very glad I'd been able to catch up with them in Charlotte.

The club where they appeared reminded me of Austin's now-defunct but much adored iconic rock bar Liberty Lunch.  In fact Charlotte's bohemian flavor reminds me quite a bit of Austin before it became quite so big and glamorous.

Thursday morning, I enjoyed a leisurely brunch featuring a cavalcade of orange foods while preparing for Mark's arrival later that evening. After whisking Mark from the airport, we shared a delicious gourmet dinner and then put some miles under us heading south on the darkened interstate. We had a couple more important stops to make on the last push toward home.

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