Charlotte, NC is
an interesting town. I relocated here just over six weeks ago
with my job, and to my undying joy now have an entire year at
my disposal to explore this city and state. I'll be popping off
from time to time with well-considered and soul-improving ruminations
on the state of the state, and perchance now and again offering
comparisons between Dixie and Texas. Kick back and grab a cold
one if you like, and let's talk of things that may or may not
be interesting, but certainly keep me from dying of homesickness.
North Carolina itself is pure Southern culture. The folks
are friendly, the countryside beautiful and the tobacco fields
simply boundless. Interstates don't seem to exist here, just
two-lane highways through rolling hills and cornfields dotted
with Confederate monuments and innumerable historical markers.
A Ken Burns wet dream, I suppose, and a wealth of opportunities
for a history and Civil War buff like myself to walk the land
that Stonewall Jackson died for. The people here are proud of
their land and their heritage, and while they've moved into the
21st century they've retained links to their old ways that a
Yankee just can't fully understand. Farmers markets are plentiful
here, and the fresh vegetables and fruit ---especially the okra!!!-are
not to be trifled with. If I have to be outside of Texas for
a year, I can sure think of worse states to be in.
Charlotte, on the other hand, is none of the above. An old
Southern city with a proud tradition, Charlotte is now a mecca
for out-of-state imports drawn here by the banking industry.
Yuppies from New York, New Jersey (who'da thought THAT??), Chicago
and Portland are everywhere. Everyone seems proud of Charlotte,
and the local rag, The Observer, daily finds ways to tout her
municipal status as a world-class city. But none of these people
bursting with civic pride are FROM Charlotte. They're Yankees.
At the main intersection Uptown (no, they don't call it downtown-that's
how you know they must be Yankees), on the corner of Trade and
Tryon streets, is a granite monument noting that Jefferson Davis
and the Confederate Legislature held their last meetings in the
building behind the marker's reader. Only no one stops to read
it. When I did so, on a casual Friday in my normal boots, jeans
and Stetson, I drew dark glances and muffled comments from the
Hilfigered passersby. They all seemed to think I must be the
Grand Dragon hisownself stopped in to pay homage to murderers
from dark ages past. Of course, I draw those same looks anywhere
I go in this town in said apparel. Back home, no one thinks twice
about a man in comfortable clothes. Here, everyone thinks twice,
for starters, then grabs the women and children and ducks for
the other side of the street.
But that's just cultural, I guess. We all like our comfort
zones, and apparently Justin ropers don't fit that definition
for folks around here. Let's talk of things that truly matter,
things like jalapenos and spices and food with flavor. They don't
have those things in Charlotte. What they do have is something
called a "wrap." I think I saw one once at a Jack in
the Box in Irving, but that's about it for my exposure to this
alleged foodstuff. They are the rage here. They consist of a
tortilla wrapped around meat or beans or veggies, colorfully
garnished with cilantro and sold for roughly eight bucks apiece.
I'd call that a burrito, usually, and pay a hell of a lot less
for it, but what do I know? Of course, a burrito has a flour
or corn tortilla, usually contains beef or chicken, and has flavor.
These wrap doohickeys are usually in a tomato basil tortilla
(don't ask the waitress what a tomato basil tortilla is. She'll
tell you "It's red." No lie) or a spinach tortilla
or some other godawful violation of natural laws, and they usually
contain pork or spam or something similar. What they do not contain
is flavor. Or spice. There's no such thing as heat in this town
where culinary concerns are involved. Even Hooters, which I felt
could be counted on as an authentic American tradition where
wings are concerned, has wimped out here. Hot wings? Uh uh. Oh,
sure, you can order 'em, and they'll make 'em, and you can eat
'em. Just don't go expectin' 'em to be hot. My 3 year old son
could eat these things.
Having only been here six weeks, I won't say conclusively
that Charlotte has no edible food for sale. There is one place,
sadly only open for lunch Monday through Friday, called Johnny
Burrito which makes a hellacious California-style burrito that
seriously takes two hands to hold and eat. It's like a football.
And they do have fresh chopped jalapenos there. Still seven bucks
with a drink, but in this town definitely worth it. There's also
a significant Mexican population in Charlotte (no, I don't know
why), and as a result there is some outstanding south of the
border comida to be had. I've found the Carta Blancas colder
and the enchiladas fresher when the staff at these establishments
realizes I am competent, if far from fluent, en espanol. Apparently
they're not used to gringos speaking the language around here,
so if you do they take you in like family. It's a great thing
when you're hungry, but it strikes me funny that I moved from
Texas to North Carolina only to find that friendliness and familiarity
are directly linked to my ability to speak a foreign language.
I think what I miss
most about Texas, aside from friends and real music and prairie
sunsets, is the sense of place and pride in identity. I read
once where Bum Phillips wrote that if you ask a man from Connecticut
what he is, he'll say maybe a lawyer or an accountant or a broker.
If you ask a man from Texas what he is, he'll say he's a Texan.
Then he might mention that he's a lawyer or accountant or broker,
but he's gonna make damn sure the first thing you know is he's
a Texan. When you're living in Fort Worth and driving all over
Texas at every opportunity, you know that's the case and you
appreciate it. When you leave and come to a town like Charlotte,
you miss it worse than a broke down air conditioner in mid-July.
There's a certain value and honesty in the pride of place and
self that Texans have, and it leaves a big black hole when it's
nowhere to be found. It's a shame, really, because folks from
North Carolina do have a lot to be proud of. In my few ventures
to the countryside so far I've found many that know that and
really do love their home state. But these Charlotteans, as they
call themselves for reasons I'll never even try to understand,
only seem to take pride or find identity in their cars, wardrobe
and bankrolls. I reckon that works for them, and I wish 'em all
the luck in the world, but it sure doesn't do a thing for me.
I like my friends real, my history proud, my music true and my
food spicy. Most of all, I like knowing that the people I interact
with on a daily basis share a lot of common ideas and values
and traditions and pride, and that a "howdy" on the
street will get one in return. I like knowing that my state inspires
legends and awe in the hearts of people everywhere. I like knowing
that while the Confederate marker in downtown Charlotte is ignored
by passersby, Matt Western down in Australia is watching over
the Alamo 24-7 on a live webcam. My home is a special place,
and blessed to be filled with folks who know it. I've declared
my cube an official embassy of the Republic of Texas, and a 6
x 8 foot Texas flag hangs on the wall. The shelves are plastered
with Kinky Friedman books and Dallas Cowboys footballs, and the
CD player constantly blares Chris Wall and Brian Burns and Guy
Clark and Jerry Jeff. It's not home, but for the eight to twelve
hours a day I spend sequestered there it can begin to feel like
it a little bit. If you're reading this in Texas, do me a favor
tonight when you get home. Go find yourself a back porch or a
highway, pop a top and watch that big ol' Texas sun set the biggest
sky in the world on fire. I'm watching the same sunset in my
imagination, and countin' the days 'til I get home and have a
cold one with you.
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