Because truth often is. Our stranger-than-fiction travel moment unfolded at a Bojangles eatery just off the highway in some small Southern town or other on Sunday, June 30. Our Way Down South trip, Part the Fourth, had gotten off to a beautiful start the day before, when a certain twenty-something drove over from Knoxville and met us in Charlotte for an evening of fun. Now we’d said goodbye and ‘til soon, and the three of us—David-the-Chef, Scout-the-Labish (a.k.a. Dog of the World), and myself—were setting off for a few days in Charleston to visit my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister and her Waco-the-black-Lab.
Chef David called our stranger-than-fiction moment a Breaking Bad moment, and if you watched that celebrated television series you’ll know what he meant. (If you have not watched that series, which is the Best Television Series In The History Of Television, drop what you’re doing right this instant and go watch it. Make sure there are no children within about a mile of your watching-upon device, because it will damage them for months or even years, and you’ll be in it for thousands in psychotherapy. Consider yourself warned).
Our second travel day began uneventfully as we drove out of downtown Charlotte and pointed the car southeast. Just after high noon we needed gas and food, so we took a promising-looking (read: had lots of gas and food signs) exit. Every small Southern town begins to look and feel the same by about the third or fourth time you pull off the highway, so I am not sure what this one is called, or where it is, and that is probably just as well. But on Sundays in this particular small town, evidently people flock to the Bojangles after church. I mean everybody. Which could at least in part account for the blundering ineffectiveness of the staff there, but only in part. Those folks must own the rest of it themselves.
We stopped there because 1) hungry chef, 2) chef who will do just about anything for fried chicken (typically to assuage a shameless lust for fried chicken that often masquerades as culinary ‘research’), and 3) it was time for a break for the humans and their canine. Scout-the-Labish and I sat comfortably in our air-conditioned car whilst the Chef went inside and took care of fried chicken bidness, as Southerners say. Scoutie and I entertained ourselves with made-up stories about the scores of people coming and going, including no fewer than five or so clergymen bedecked in their collars and purple shirts, and a goodly number of parishioners in tow. A convention, or maybe a tent revival, went my fictitious narrative. And then there were the rest of the world in their grungy wife beaters and flip-flops. They leave little to the imagination. I am telling you, this particular Bojangles has it goin’ on.
An eternity later the Chef emerged carrying a box of fried chicken thighs, shaking his head and rolling his eyes and then climbing into the car to tell me true stories about people cutting in line, and listless and wan teenage order takers. So with chicken in hand we drove across the street to gas up, and then looked for a shady spot to sit and eat and let the doggie have a little lawn time. And because there was not a stitch of shade anywhere near the Bojangles (and who wants to eat at a gas station), we ventured down the road a little ways until we came across a Chick-fil-A which did indeed have both shade and grass. You may be thinking what we thought for about a nanosecond: it’s so wrong to buy Bojangles and then eat it at Chick-fil-A. But Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays. And anyway the Chef would later toss some business their way down in Charleston, so it’s all good.
I made myself a lunch from decidedly healthier ingredients in the cooler and we sat there contentedly eating our makeshift picnic. After Scout had a drink and a pee, we were on our way, but decided we first needed some Fizzy Lifting Drink (or soda, if you prefer). So we headed back over to the Bojangles, this time thinking the drive-through would be our best bet to get back on the road as quickly as possible.
This is where things got strange.
If you watched Breaking Bad, you’ll recall those eerie scenes near the beginning of the story where a plastic eyeball is floating in Walter White’s swimming pool, next to the the horrible one-eyed purple stuffed toy, leaving you to imagine all kinds of possible scenarios, mainly to do with the manufacture of methamphetamine by a prize-winning chemist. Or maybe you remember a slightly later episode that opens with the tragic character Jesse Pinkman’s shot-out car at a house in the middle of the Mexican desert, its hydraulic lifts crazily firing again and again (more imagined stories of horror), but the car door open and nobody sitting at the wheel. You’ll also recall that so much of the nefarious action in that show was tied to one Gustavo Fring, and his chain of fried chicken eateries called Los Pollos Hermanos.
In our own imagined real-life adventures series, in the season-opening episode of Way Down South Part IV, a Bojangles drive-through automatic window comes into focus, repeatedly slamming shut on a Bojangles chicken box, smooshing it a little more each time the window closes, while the Chef and I sit in our idling car laughing so hysterically we can’t breathe.
Then we’d artistically rewind that tape and give you the backstory. It goes like this.
Me: I need Fizzy Lifting Drink before we start rolling again.
Chef: Where do you want to go?
Me: How ‘bout Bojangles again—it’s right there, and the drive-through will be quicker. (Somewhere the Universe begins to bellow.)
The Chef pulls into the drive-through lane behind an ancient Ford something-or-other held together by Bondo and good wishes; we inch forward to place our drink order after waiting forever.
Bojangles garble: Welcome-to-Bschnitzles-can-I-take-your-order?
Chef: I’d like a medium Dr. Pepper and a medium Diet Coke.
Bojangles garble: That’ll be <garble> please pull forward.
After James Bondo ahead of us finally gets his chicken and goes, we pull forward, where we wait another forever. By now we’ve waited about fifteen minutes for two drinks, which is precisely fourteen too long.
Me to the Chef: Hey—since there’s no trash can outside, will you please ask them to toss this empty box? (referring to the one that recently contained the Chef’s chicken and now has only bones and random other paper trash).
Finally, Bojangles lady-at-the-window: What did you order?
Chef: We had two drinks—a Dr. Pepper and a Diet Coke. And could you please throw aw—
Bojangles lady has turned her back and the window has snapped shut. After another long wait she opens the window and asks the same question a second time.
Chef: We had a Dr. Pepper and a Diet Coke, and could you please—
She is gone again, but this time the Chef is quicker and places the box in the window while it is still open. But the window tries to close and instead is stopped by the box, and as it repeatedly attempts to open and close, ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump, the box grows more and more mangled and the paper trash we’ve stuffed inside it begins to emerge out of it through the slit in the top.
Riotous laughter ensues inside our car. Here comes Bojangles lady again.
Bojangles lady: What IS this box?
The Chef: It is our tra—
But she is gone again. And now she is back. Our eyes are watering, my mascara is running.
Bojangles lady: Here is your iced tea and Diet Coke. What IS THIS BOX?
The Chef: We-had-a-DR. PEPPER-and-a-Diet-Coke-and-not-an-iced-tea-and-that-box-is-our-trash-could-you-please-throw-it-away-for-us.
Bojangles lady turns around, but leaves the smooshed box in the window, which keeps closing on it. We are beside ourselves, about to wet our pants.
Bojangles lady finally returns with (miraculously) the correct pair of drinks. Then just before we pull away, we watch her snap up the box, turn on her heel, and pop it into a trashcan that has not been emptied in quite a while; as our car leaves the curb I can see the box sliding, sliding, sliding….
Disclaimer: we’ve got nothing against Bojangles. The chicken was good. Although the staff at that particular Bojangles do make us weep for the future, a little.
Postscript: David-the-Chef took the photo at the top of the post. It is a black widow spider, and I nearly stepped on it on the sidewalk outside of a McDonald’s. In a small Southern town somewhere. Like I said, stranger than fiction.
This is only the beginning—there are so many travel stories still to tell. Stay tuned.