Fairmont, N.C. – We’re back at McDonald’s on Walnut Street, monopolizing its one outlet. Got three computers and a small DVD player plugged into our power strip. We’re a bona fide 21st century traveling circus of a family.
I interviewed Fairmont Mayor Charles Kemp this morning. He’s in love with this struggling little town. He’s P.T. Barnum with a civic obsession for all things Fairmont, which plunged into the abyss when King Tobacco fell from his throne. Now 66, Mayor Kemp said he knew at age 12 he would be mayor of Fairmont. More on his love affair with Fairmont later.
Now we turn back the clock to Nov. 14, 2003, the last time I took a run at Joseph Mitchell’s ghost. My memory of that trip is slight. I find that disturbing to say the least.
I don’t remember much about Fairmont save for our serendipitous visit with 87-year-old Willie Broox Webster.
We had only just stumbled upon the courtly gentleman and before we knew it we were piling into his Buick Skylark for a guided tour of Fairmont’s pertinent Joseph Mitchell sites.
What sweet luck we had to stumble upon such a generous ambassador.
Thankfully, there was email in 2003. This morning I searched my Yahoo mail for evidence of our prior visit, and I came up with fragments included in hastily composed epistles to my favorite road interlocutor, Lauri Lebo.
The following bits are taken directly from those emails and placed down with just a bit of editing
Nov. 14, 2003 – Remember Joseph Mitchell, the great New Yorker writer who died in 1996 after reporting to work daily for the last 30 years of his career and yet publishing not a single story in that time?
Well, he’s from right here in Fairmont. His father, Averette Nance Mitchell, farmed tobaccer rightchere in Robeson County.
The legendary southern hospitality held out right up until Mr. Mitchell’s sister-in-law, wife of brother William “Harry” mitchell, answered the door at their stately ranch house at 407 Church Street.
She barely opened the door a crack, then said Harry wasn’t home and that if he were, he probably wouldn’t have time to talk about brother Joe.
“We’re very busy,” she said.
But I’ll tell you, they had a couple of the most spectacular rhododendrons I’ve ever seen guarding their stone walkway. Biggest, rangiest rhodies I ever laid my ignorant eyes upon.
Beautiful, if I dare to engage in off-the-hip botanical criticism..
I must take some blame; I hardly handled the situation with the aplomb of a sow on her
belly in a bog (that’s a Joseph Mitchell line, I believe). I didn’t even say I was a writer (because, technically, I’m not). Just said I was from out of town and wanted to talk about Fairmont and Mr. (Harry) Mitchell’s famous brother.
Might as well said I just got out of the state penitentiary in Lumberton and that I hadn’t eaten for a couple days and could she show me where she keeps the fine jewelry and sharp knives.
Earlier, we had a pleasant chat with Mrs. Lib Haywood at the Border Belt Farm Museum. She gave us Harry’s address and sent us on our way. On display at the museum were all sorts of clips from 1992, when Joseph Mitchell’s works were reprinted in the marvelous collection “Up in the Old Hotel” by Pantheon.
Anyway, guess we’re headed to city hall on recommendation of the librarian. She asked if I’m the guy who called from New York and said I was writing a book on the life of Joseph Mitchell.
Alas I ‘m just the asshole (Fairmont’s original name was Ashpole, by the way) lost on the road and unwilling to face reality. …
Nov. 17, 2003 – I need to update you quickly on Joe Mitchell. After I emailed, we got up to leave and some old fellow ambles in with help of a cane. He smiled at me, then smiled again.
Turns out he is Willie Broox (“my parents didn’t know how to spell”) Webster, a former four-term mayor of Fairmont, He’s 87.
In a minute or two, Becky and I were piling in to Willie B.’s Buick Skylark for a welcoming tour of Fairmont. Willie took us to Joseph Mitchell’s grave. We visited a small hillside which holds gravestones of reputed KKK members, whom Mitchell lampooned in his short story “The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County.” We also drove out to an old farm and pond owned by Mitchell’s father.
There Becky and I clambered over a field of dried soybeans and through brambles and cockle burrs to the pond’s edge. It was a marvelous adventure.
After slaking our Mitchell thirst, Willie took us back to his house, where we met his
In the interest of balance, I’ll leave you with my favorite image of Fairmont and Robeson County. We were driving out of town, after Lillian had taken us back to our car in her Cadillac, and saw the following: a black woman being pulled over
by a bland-faced, short-necked (white) state trooper at the corner of Chicken and Turkey Branch.
Editor’s note: The Willie Broox Webster story was sent from Bessemer, Ala. The full email includes anecdotes about my interview with a high-tech homeless man named Jimmy Berry in an Atlanta McDonald’s and the afternoon I got saved in Indian Trail, N.C. But that’s another story. Thanks again the hospitality, Willie and Lillian. Not surprisingly, both have passed on since we crossed paths. The incumbent mayor, Charles Kemp, told me they were living at an assisted living facility in Fayetteville when they died. Surprisingly, the Internet has yet to give up an obituary for either of our departed friends.