The plans to meet us in Charlotte unfolded exactly the way all the twenty-something’s plans do, fraught with angst, vacillating wildly between Yes-I’m-Coming and No-I-Can’t, and with no small measure of hand wringing and car polishing, I am guessing. Because when your mom-who-lives-a-thousand-miles-away comes within spitting distance of where you are right now, it’s obviously important to shine your new car’s rims and condition its pretty leather seats, and then to stock up on enough Chick-fil-A for Christ’s second coming. Since the two of us share no DNA, I believe I’ve done this to him: it is I who polishes all the silver in the house when there are important deadlines looming.
Also true to his style, the twenty-something left his part of the world to meet us in Charlotte several hours prematurely. We were in touch on the ride down at neatly paced intervals of about a half hour or so.
Where are you guys now?
Just outside Harrisburg, PA.
I’ll be there WAY before you!
Yes, I know, which is why I urged you to wait a little before launching.
His dad later texted me that the boy had planned to go look at some cars with his empty time, so I felt satisfied he had something engaging to do (because, MOM, he will say any time I chide him about how much cash he claims to need for this or that car-thing, I am a car ENTHUSIAST).
Charlotte, North Carolina is a curiosity to me. This was the first time I’d been there in spite of living the better part of three decades in Knoxville, Tennessee, not really so far away. The curiosity is why, when I was a young graduate student studying historic preservation under the umbrella of the master’s in city planning program at the University of Tennessee, Charlotte always popped up as a comparable in any assignment where we needed to look at similar demographics.
Charlotte, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee? Huh. Charlotte is the pineapple to Knoxville’s strawberry in the fruit basket. Or the Bullmastiff to the Chihuahua, the Hummer to the Beetle, the triple decker cone to the teeny scoop in a dish. You get my drift. Nope, while Knoxville has a fascinating history, many admirable qualities, and lots of promise, I could not find Knoxville in Charlotte.
What I found instead was a bustling Southern city with a large and densely populated downtown, which was our destination thanks to one dog-friendly urban hotel whose staff were also kind enough to allow an extra guest in our room at a moment’s notice, and at no extra charge. Getting there, though, with me behind the wheel…let us just say I have little patience for navigating a congested urban landscape in an unfamiliar city, even with the car’s nav turned on. I did finally get us there without mowing down anybody in a crosswalk, although David-the-Chef may have seen a side of me heretofore unfamiliar to him.
This moment in time is consequential for the twenty-something: he has the enviable opportunity, just now, of opening a new business purveying a product that interests him, but without assuming the financial risks typically part and parcel of such an undertaking. He’s getting priceless real-life business experience, and someone else who is not interested in the legwork—an impresario of sorts—is writing all the checks. In short, my kid’s demeanor and deportment are looking suddenly all grown up. This is a reassuring thing for any parent, the notion that a seed may finally bear fruit after a long drought. It is most satisfying in our particular case and has been a long time coming.
After we settled into our groovy urban digs we set off on foot in downtown Charlotte looking for any minimally appealing eatery where Scout-the-Labish could go with us, as we three were tired and hungry. It was about 700 degrees and humid, and we were teetering on low blood sugar-induced tantrums, saying no to this place because the menu was too pedestrian (remember, the Chef), or to that place because the patio was too loud or smoky.
And then finally we stumbled across this place at a particular Charlotte intersection with some of the best civic art I’ve seen, and asked the nice host whether we could bring Scoutie inside if we sat on the patio. Sure thing, he said. Our dinner turned out to exceed all our expectations, a good thing for the Chef and myself, because unbeknownst to us the next day we’d endure the Bojangles Incident on our way down to Charleston.
But for now, we indulged in what we later agreed was the best tapas any of us had eaten, ever. At the suggestion of our waiter we ordered five menu items and that turned out to be more than enough for three grownups, even with scraps passed under the table to Scout. We licked our fingers and wiped our chins between silliness and stories of what’s happened in the intervening months since the boy paid us a long visit last fall.
The next morning the twenty-something and I decided we’d combine Scout’s morning walk and a breakfast outing at the nearby Panera, while the Chef struck out on a city walk to give us time to talk alone. During our mostly peaceful breakfast we observed that Charlotte struggles with notable homelessness and vagrancy—you will not have your patio breakfast uninterrupted by panhandling, a truth that almost certainly concerns Panera and other places of its ilk.
But something wonderful happened during our breakfast, a thing that underscored not only how grown up this kid has become, but also the quality of his character. A man hollered at us from the sidewalk. We turned and said we could not hear him. He muttered something else, and then we motioned him to step closer to our table. He said, I know y’all work hard for your money (here goes, I was thinking), but I just got out of prison yesterday and spent last night on the street. I’m hungry.
Could be fiction, but there was something more plausible about this man: he was wearing a top that looked like a prisoner’s scrubs, a pair of cargo shorts, and some flip-flops. In his hands he clutched a small, nylon bag.
I said to him, Would you like some breakfast?
Yes, he said, he would really like something to eat. There was nothing about this man to suggest substance abuse. He was relatively clean, groomed, well spoken, a tad apologetic, but earnest sounding.
My boy turned to me and shrugged.
What would you like? I asked the man.
Some of the visible tension drained from his face as he considered what he wanted.
I reminded him that since we were at Panera, he would need to choose from their menu, but also told him they had good breakfast options.
He nodded and at that moment the boy stood and gestured for the man to follow him inside, and simultaneously held up his other hand to me. I got this, he said. I’ll be back in a few.
Scout and I waited for what felt like an eternity before my kiddo returned and sat down. He’d ordered a big breakfast for the man and listened to his story about an incident that unfolded at a gas station and earned him six months behind bars for assaulting another man at the gas pump. The guy pumping gas had called him a name, and then sprayed gasoline on him. Our homeless man then beat the tar out of the other guy and was arrested and charged with assault.
Not gonna lie, said my kid. If somebody did that to me, I’d beat them senseless, too.
He went on to tell me that he asked the guy whether he had a plan for the rest of the day and told him where there was a nearby homeless shelter for men. Yes, the man knew where it was, and said the temp agency around the corner from it was opening in a little while. I’m going there next, he explained, because I have nothing.
The entire thing could have been an elaborate fabrication, but something about it rang true. The best thing though, the boy’s dad and I later agreed, was proof positive of the loving sensibilities emerging in this young man, even if he does occasionally whine about too many First World problems.
We finished our time in Charlotte at a park just outside downtown, not before I agreed to a ride in the new car, which happens to be lightning fast. I knew he’d become an adolescent again and make me holler and my knuckles would turn white gripping the door handle—some things never change—but I owed him this thing, which was terribly important to him. At the park the boy unfortunately discovered hit-and-run body damage on the car, no doubt gotten in the hotel’s parking garage the night before, and that is too bad indeed. He handled the incident with maturity and aplomb, and at our urging got the ball rolling right away on all the things one must do when life hands you lemons.
That is some pretty hard-earned lemonade, but it is indeed sweet. ‘Til next time, in Charleston.