TRANSIT THROUGH CHARLOTTE NC
2001 April: Saturday
One of the satisfactions of the tour so far had been that, with hospitality guaranteed as part of the ESU deal, the finances were relatively healthy. I was almost making money. This unusually happy state of affairs now developed a puncture. I was not due to meet the next promoter until Monday lunchtime – two days away. In the meantime I would have to stay at – and pay for – a hotel and my upkeep. A message had arrived in Richmond yesterday that accommodation had been booked for me at the Hilton on Third in Charlotte, NC. This sounded annoyingly opulent.
The plane touched down at 3pm with the pilot wishing us ‘Happy Easter’ over the intercom. Hmm, I’d forgotten it was Easter.
I disembarked and found a transfer bus quite quickly. Although Charlotte-Douglas International was a big place (the sixth busiest airport in the world), I was getting to know my way around it. After all, this was my fourth visit in five weeks.
After the subdued decay of Richmond, downtown Charlotte had a brash and futuristic feel to it. Corporate tower blocks sprouted out of the skyline like a clump of gigantic rhubarb. The streets seemed so freshly minted that they were unsure in which direction they were going. The building site phase might have been over but the brick dust had yet to settle. The Hilton on Third was definitely part of the new order – another soaring slab of glass and concrete.
As I crossed about an acre of deep-pile carpet to reach the reception desk, I realised that the hotel was five-star. Even with the 50% weekend reduction, the price still left a deep wound in my wallet. The room was on the 20th floor – I got acrophobia just glancing out of the window. But the problems intensified when I went to the hotel restaurant. One look at the tariff ensured that I would not be eating here. On the other hand, where could I eat?
As I left to search for food at 7pm, the lobby, aside from a supercilious receptionist, was deserted. The streets outside were even emptier. Just as four years earlier I had arrived in Boston on Thanksgiving Day, now I had arrived in Charlotte on Easter Saturday. The one restaurant that I did find was even more expensive than the bloody Hilton. Defeated, I returned to base.
I settled down to a meal of two chocolate eggs from the mini-bar and turned on the TV. One channel was showing Kevin Costner’s ‘The Untouchables’, a good film that I was happy to watch again. However, after the first twenty five minutes (presumably to hook you in), they then started inserting advert breaks every eleven minutes. As these breaks lasted at least four and a half minutes, they were just long enough to make you disengage with the film itself and ruin any sense of continuity.
Channel-surfing was even more depressing. In addition to these interminable ads and station checks, it was the whole happy-clappy ethos that grated – the comfort blanket of banality, the ‘family-friendly’ insults to adult intelligence, and the smooth censorship of anything that might prove remotely indigestible to consumerism. American network television has been reduced to a sort of glittering porridge. Slept at 1 30am.
2001 April: Sunday
As the new day dawned, an abyss of boredom stretched ahead. I couldn’t afford to avail myself of the five-star hotel facilities and, on inquiring at reception, I was told that everywhere was in lock down for Easter Sunday. A walk around the surrounding streets confirmed this information. Nowhere in these corporate canyons could I find anywhere that sold food. Charlotte had shut.
On one street I found a small statue dedicated to Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. It turned out that the first settlers had named the city after her in an effort to curry favour and hopefully cash out of her husband. This plan had been scuppered by the outbreak of the American Revolution. After 200 years of obscurity and an embarrassingly royal name, Charlotte had suddenly mushroomed as the headquarters of US banking, second only to New York and, with the population doubling between 1970 and 2000, second only to Atlanta as the largest city in the South.
Today, however, the only evidence of life, let alone activity, were the occasional hotel staff exiled to smoke beside the kitchen rubbish bins, and a couple of street people patrolling the pavements in silence. I kept a weather eye out for muggers – this was not the place for white strangers armed only with ignorance and a plastic shopping bag. To increase the alienation, it started to rain. I returned to the Hilton to wait out the day.
By lunchtime, I surrendered and spent 18 dollars on a hamburger, then sat and watched the rain. Tiring of that diversion, I once more turned on the TV and discovered that the advert breaks were long enough to write a complete postcard before the programme restarted. I finished 33 of them. I also started to compile a list of ‘Things You Will Never See on American TV’:
1) Faced with a death-defying feat, a hero who decides that discretion is the better part of valour and funks it.
2) A car chase during which an innocent pedestrian is accidentally hit and/or killed.
3) A cop film in which the rich female suspect weighs over 200 lbs.
4) An ‘Oprah’, etc, guest who would not benefit from ‘counselling’.
5) A film in which the American is the evil genius and the Englishman is the regular guy.
To any Brits who have ever complained about the BBC, I can only suggest that they be forced to watch a fortnight of the alternative.
2001 April: Monday
By 10am, I had packed and sat in the lobby waiting for my next connection. The weather had changed again – warm sun, a cool breeze, and no humidity. I sipped a cup of water – this at least was free – and checked my cash.
One thing struck me – the face of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill bears a remarkable similarity to the late actor Peter O’Toole.
The next stage of the tour began at 2pm with the arrival of a pleasant middle-aged couple called Karen and Leonard. They drove me down Interstate 77 back into South Carolina to the state capitol of Columbia. At 4pm we drew up outside the home of the next promoter, a gentleman called Delmar who lived in a large house about twelve miles north of the city. It was set in a pine forest with a large lake at the far edge of the back lawn.
Everything about Delmar and his home turned out to be an eccentrically camp delight. He must have been aged about 70, yet seemed as spry and bouncy as a teenager. But his crowning glory in every sense was his toupee. The rear rim began some three inches above the nape of his neck and then swept forward luxuriously to culminate in an arrowed fringe on his forehead – the rays of the afternoon sun gave it a purple tinge. His remaining monk’s tonsure of genuine, if dyed, hair was the colour of a ginger biscuit. He looked like a Roman Emperor who’d joined a punk band.
Every spare inch of the house was stuffed with an army of small treasures. The walls were lined with everything from medieval Syrian shields to Red Indian tomahawks, and even a 16th century halberk from the Spanish explorer De Sota’s expedition to Florida. Platoons of teddy bears stood ranged along the corridors. Every floor and many of the walls were covered with rare and beautiful Turkish carpets. Delmar said that he owned 350 of them in all.
Turkey proved to be the main topic of his conversation – he declared that it was his favourite country, that he visited it every year, and that in his will he had left his (probably considerable) wealth to endow scholarships for Turkish youths to be educated in South Carolina. I liked Delmar – a Southern gentleman and a strikingly original one.
After I had crashed out for a siesta, we drove into the city for the evening show. This was to be held at the Ebenezer Chapel, attached to the Lutheran Church. Like most of Columbia, the Chapel had been rebuilt after being burnt to the ground by Sherman’s troops during the Civil War.
The Southern Bible Belt consisted mostly of Protestant sects, dominated by the Baptists, the Methodists, and the Lutherans. Delmar told me that, during Sherman’s occupation, a body of Union troops had approached the nearby Baptist Church under the correct impression that it had been the building where the Act of Secession had been signed. However, the warden lied and told them that it had been signed at the Methodist Church down the road. They then proceeded to torch the Methodist Church instead. The Methodist reaction to this act of quick-thinking was not recorded.
Several of the ESU support team had arrived already at the Ebenezer Chapel and were preparing the seating and après show buffet in the kitchens. As I sat in a makeshift dressing room to do the Wilde make up, I could overhear some of their conversation. Delmar had informed me earlier that this branch had somehow got hold of the idea that I was an English lord. As I dabbed on the mascara, I heard one voice inquire:
“Has the Lord arrived yet?”
Which, quite apart from any other connotations, was an odd thing to hear in a Lutheran Church on an Easter Monday.
The show itself worked well, a couple of memory fluffs aside. After the grim reception in Virginia, this was a real relief – South Carolina was turning out to be friendly territory.
2001 April: Tuesday
The day was sunny and fresh as we drove into Columbia for a tour of the city. I immediately liked the place; the skyscrapers were not too oppressive and the streets were surprisingly wide. Delmar said that this unusual width was due to the early settlers’ belief that mosquitoes, the bane of the Low Country, could not travel more than sixty feet without dying of starvation. So they made each street at least 100 feet wide. The local mosquitoes quickly evolved a longer travel tolerance, but Columbia inherited a leisurely expansive town plan.
While strolling round the University of South Carolina campus, Delmar pointed out an obelisk surmounted by a stone orb.
“Every time a virgin walks past, the orb is meant to revolve.”
I recalled a similar tale from Nottingham in the UK: the stone lions in the main city square are reputed to roar every time a virgin passes. Some jokes simply revolve the world.
The most impressive city building was undoubtedly the State Capitol, still bearing the scars of the Civil Way bombardment. Bronze stars marked the shell holes just in case anyone might miss them.
However, the area contained much more immediate evidence of the Federal Government versus State’s Rights impasse. It turned out that, until recently, the state flag had flown from the top of the Capitol building. This flag consists of a palmetto tree adjoined by the unmistakable red and blue cross insignia of the Confederacy.
Following a campaign of complaints by the local black community, this flag, in the teeth of white opposition, had been taken down and the familiar Stars and Stripes Union flag substituted. In defiance, a further flagpole had been erected in front of the Capitol and the quasi-Confederate flag hoisted aloft again. In reluctance obedience to the court ruling, this flag was perforce at a lower height than the Union one.
A nearby kiosk was selling stickers that read: ‘For Every Flag That Comes Down, 50, 000 Goes Up’ – ungrammatical but effective.
At the rear of the Capitol there was a statue of Strom Thurmond, the immensely aged (96 but then still functioning) Senator for South Carolina. He was famous as a ferociously far right-wing defender of white supremacy and all things Dixie. (His reputation was to suffer after his death the following year, when it was revealed that he had fathered a child by his parents’ 16-year-old black maid back in 1925.)
After lunch, we set off back up the interstate to North Carolina. As we crossed the state line, Delmar pointed out the Smoky Mountains on our left. He said that the name derived from the fact that, in certain lights, it looked as if there was smoke rising over the hills.
“Another theory is that the smoke is rising from all the illegal whisky stills.”
He added as we drove on:
“The South is a good place to see what America used to be like.”