Fairmont, N.C., March 28 – Here come the excuses.
I’m flush with them lately.
We rolled into Fairmont on Wednesday after a fruitless and frustrating day of driving and getting lost and driving some more and getting lost some more in the general vicinity of Sanford, N.C. We’d gone there to look up the son of Floyd Council, the obscure Piedmont bluesman who put the Floyd in Pink Floyd. That didn’t work out at all. Sometimes it just doesn’t.
But, in the spirit of a failed quest, here’s Floyd’s “Runaway Man Blues,” which includes a line that should be the envy of any gangsta rapper who ever gangsta-rapped: “Gonna get me a razor knife and a blue-steel gun/So I can cut you if you stand, shoot you if you run.”
That was Tuesday. On Monday night I spent three hours with a man called Bullfrog in Raleigh at Havana Deluxe. I met the Bullfrog at Havana Deluxe because, in his words: “They let you smoke there. And I know that’s something I like to do when I drink beer.”
I had a great time with Bullfrog, but his penchant for burning American Spirits at both ends left me with a bit of a headache the following day. We drove about as if in a haze of smoke, burning up fuel as if we were millionaires. There’ll be much more on Th’ Bullfrog Willard McGhee later soon, hopefully.
I thought Fairmont might be an out-of-the-way place to hole up for a couple days and catch up on a week’s worth of writing. Also, I had this is terribly pretentious and hopelessly whimsical idea: I hoped the ghost of Joseph Mitchell might rub off on me and lift my prose from the pedestrian climes where it customarily hangs out.
After we arrived yesterday, I walked from the McDonald’s on Walnut Street to Fairmont Town Hall. I did so because Willie Broox Webster, the uncommonly accommodating octogenarian we met here a decade ago, had once served Fairmont as mayor. I couldn’t recall his name, but I knew someone at town hall would.
And that’s how, without malice aforethought, I happened into the office of incumbent Mayor Charles Kemp. After a few minutes, I knew I would return and chat with him at length. Before I left, he scrawled down phone numbers for Jack and Joey Mitchell, nephews of the famed New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. We would never have been here once, let alone twice, if it weren’t for Joseph Mitchell.
I’d only been in Fairmont a couple hours, and I could see where I’d be getting in deeper before I began to work my way out.
So I shambled back to the McDonald’s, encouraged by my interaction with Mayor Kemp and soothed by the warmth of the Carolina sunshine, which had been notably absent since we arrived in the Tar Heel state nearly a week ago.
No sooner had I sat down then I was set upon by a stranger named Jay Leggett. He’d only wanted to give Max a mass-produced plastic toy that had come with his meal. Then he started talking, and I was rapt. He talked about his son, Willie. He told me how Willie died six years ago. He talked about grading tobacco in the old days, before tobacco vanished and left Fairmont grasping at ghosts. He talked about sows and piglets. I could’ve listened to him all day.
We considered getting a flea-bag motel for a whole week, and nearly got suckered by the proprietress of the Economy Inn on the outskirts of Lumberton. She’d quoted Becky a price of $232.99 for seven days. Becky said we’d think about it. Before we could escape the parking lot, she was back, hard by the driver’s door. Said she’d got her husband to lower the price to $225. Sweet.
Again, we said we’d think it over. I worried she wouldn’t let us go.
Once we’d made our getaway, we reconsidered our plans. Since I was going to be compiling more new information before I started to working through the old material, we elected to hold off on the motel junket until I had a chance to see where the Fairmont story went for the next 24 hours or so.
We found our way to the Walton Family General Store in Lumberton and availed ourselves of the customary free lodgings. After we dined on Becky’s fried rice, I walked inside and plugged in my laptop and Max’s little DVD player and sat my ass on one of a phalanx of motorized scooters.
I hooked into a wifi connection from Lowe’s next door, and set about finishing a post that’s been languishing in my drafts file since the first night of the NESCent conference I had the good fortune to attend last weekend as an impostor journalist.
Well, you can guess what happened next. Two men, both of the rough-looking variety, sat on a bench opposite a bank of grabber machines. The older of the two started in on me before I made any progress at all.
Alfred Hunt, whose business card bills him as a retired gangster, wants to know about the little DVD player. Precisely this: What is it?
For the next 90 minutes, I am treated to an impassioned primer on the personal philosophy of 52-year-old Alfred Hunt, who lives a few miles north off Interstate 95 at the Sleepy Bear RV campground. Well, he lives there when he’s got money.
Right now he’s waiting on his disability check. It’s due Friday.
Try as I might, I couldn’t understand the second word in “Sleepy Bear.” I heard him say it four or five times, and each time it sounded like “barrow.” What the hell’s a sleepy barrow? Today we passed a billboard alongside I-95, and I understood him at last.
A minute ago, I nearly wrote this: By now, I had nurtured the hopes I’d graduated from eccentric journalism into something more serious and lofty. I caught myself before it was too late.
I remembered Joseph Mitchell. The reason for this leg of the trip. Joseph Mitchell was the greatest practitioner of eccentric journalism who ever lived.
There were, he wrote, no “little people” in the peerless tales he culled from a wondrous collection of one-of-a-kind characters who roamed the Bowery and inhabited Fulton Fish Market.
“They are as big as you are, whoever you are,” Mitchell wrote.
It is good advice to remember.
Suitably chastened, I’ll do my best to tell Alfred Hunt’s story. I only had a brief time with him, though it seemed kind of long. Make no mistake, he left an impression.
And before I get too far in, one more excuse: I want to apologize for the way Alfred’s story goes on and on and on. And on. In my defense, I’ll cite the old line from Pascal: If I had more time, I would’ve written a much shorter story.
After we clear up his confusion visa vis Max’s DVD player, he asks if I am retired from some lucrative career or am just wandering the country on the beneficence of some obscure sinecure or sugar daddy.
Then he shares his plan for future security. I recognize it immediately, because it sounds like Becky’s: Stop worrying and win the lottery.
Only, he says, he won’t go nuts with his newfound fortune. He’ll know how to handle sudden wealth. No extravagance for him. No, he’ll buy a series of $100,000 homes in select states. Figures he’d be set for life if he just had a weekly allowance of $500.
“A poor man, he’ll go crazy if he gets a hundred million dollars,” he says. “He’ll lose his goddamn mind.”
If Alfred Hunt’s not worried about ending up in the poor house, it’s probably because he’s living there already. He knows how it feels, he says, to break down in a 1975 motor home and endure four nights at 17 degrees without heat and no food but soda crackers.
“And I got diabetes,” he adds.
Says he’s got 14 siblings. And 14 kids. Forty-seven nephews and nieces. But he’s got no money.
“It’s a scary feeling going down the road broke,” he says. “I know what it’s like to stop by the side of the road and sell stuff just to get home. I sold an $80 knife for $4, just to get gas money. Some people walk up to you and they hate you just for being there. ‘I ain’t got no money,’ they say. They don’t realize it could be them that broke down. One guy said ‘if you’re broke, why you driving that RV?’
“That’s the way it is with life. One day you’re flying high, next you’re skidding on your belly in the gutter.”
He wasn’t always broke. Becoming poor, he says, taught him a big life lesson.
“If you think you’re better than somebody, you’re wrong,” he says. “I used to be high and mighty. I had money. I had a Harley Davidson. Now I ain’t got shit.”
He’s big and burly. He’s got a gravelly baritone, and he speaks with a vaguely threatening manner. His tone is forceful. Maybe I’m just easily spooked. He’s a strong, strapping, ol’ country boy. He wears a leather jacket over a hoody sweatshirt. A jaunty trilby crowns his bald head. Doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d want to piss off.
With this in mind, I do a lot of nodding and smiling. It’s what I do best.
Alfred says he was worth $100,000 five years ago. It’s not a lot, but it beats flat-busted. Says he’s been married five times, though he didn’t put in a good word for any of his ex-wives.
Now and then, or maybe more frequently, his narrative gets a big garbled. Says he sold his 1994 Jeep for $3,000 just to get home for his mom’s funeral. Best I can figure, Zella Hunt died recently, or maybe not so recently, at age 90.
“My luck’s been bad ever since,” he says. “One of these days I’m gonna rise again.”
But the women, women other than his mom that is, have been his downfall.
“I got involved with one woman,” he begins. “I met this girl at the club. I had $2,900 up in the bed mattress. When I went to the store to get a drink, she stole my money.”
His RV is OK, it just needs maintenance work. Brake shoes. New battery. Points and plugs. Carburetor.
“I wouldn’t trust it from here to Florida,” he says.
Alfred Hunt’s a big believer in God. He just doesn’t have much use for religion. Greed and technology will be our undoing. He’s a prophet of doom.
“People talking about God don’t answer your prayers; that’s a damn lie,” he says. “If it wasn’t for God, I’d be in bad shape. God won’t put nothing on you that you can’t stand.”
He sits on a bench opposite those grabber machines and watches the Walmart women come and go. He dines on potato chips, Pepsi and peanut-covered M&M’s. And he’s secure in the grace of God.
“I never been a Christian,” he says. “There something up there, something more than people can see or understand. God is an alien. It’s like a UFO. I seen a UFO one night. A spaceship in the woods. I went up there the next day and there was a big, old brown spot in the woods. People don’t believe it.
“People think they’re so smart. We are like cave men to them. Compared to them we are dumb and ignorant. That’s how it is with God. We always will be just like little toys to experiment with.”
He has no more use for hell than he does for organized religion. As for theology, he professes a belief in a self-styled kind of reincarnation. If you screw up this life, you come back for a do-over. And you do it over and over till you get right with God.
In that vein, he thinks he’s paying now for ancient transgressions.
“I believe a thousand years ago I was a rich man and I was greedy,” he says. “God had me come back as a poor man.”
His familial relationships haven’t worked out much better than his marriages. He says Ray Ray, 26, is the only kid who’ll have anything to do with him. His dad, well, his dad was no good.
“He wanted to be a farmer,” Alfred says. “He drunk his money away. He beat my mama all the time. He was 90. He died a lonely old man, thinking about that big, old farm he never had.”
Computers and cell phones and social media, they’re killing us. They’re making us nuts, jacking up our impatience to untenable levels and turning us into road-raging automatons.
“It’s 24-7 all the damn time,” he says. “Peoples’ minds are not settled. The government’s putting a chip inside our phones. When you lose your cell phone, you start going crazy.”
Here he pantomimes a man in distress, walking around in circles in search of a misplaced phone, saying over and over, “Where’s my goddamn phone?”
As for social media, it’s the postmodern Jerry Springer.
“This Facebook, it messes the whole world up,” he says. “And it takes a fool to get on TV and tell your own damn business.”
Did I say he’s a prophet of doom? Bad times are nigh. The visions have haunted his mind.
“In another 20 years it’ll be all messed up,” he says. “The government owns you. It owns your mind. Owns your damn thoughts. You don’t own shit anymore. Tell you what to do, when to breathe, when to wake up.”
The government, of course, also sends out his disability check. I hope it’s not too uncharitable to mention that here
Preachers, they might be worse than the government. Bad as technology. They’re the old evil. They never go away.
“The preacher, he wants your damn money,” he says. “He’s living in a big, old brick home and eating steaks while I’m eating pork and beans. He preaches you shouldn’t have those things, and he has them.
“A preacher’s con artist.”
People, when you add it all up, are drowning in a sea of trouble.
“The majority of people who come through this place are not happy,” he says. “People in marriages are not happy. They can’t get out because they can’t survive by themselves. It takes two paychecks to survive now. If your wife wins the lottery, she’ll pay you $4-5 million to get rid of you. With that kind of money, you don’t need no wife.
“There ain’t no such thing as love anymore,” he says. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and it’s getting worse. Hard times is coming. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
He allows the economy’s a problem, too. People are naturally envious. Someone sees you with something, he wants it.
Says he’s color blind. Then he continues to hold forth on the panoply of ills stalking modern man. I was afraid this was coming.
“You don’t see a damn black bird flying around with a damn red bird,” he says. “Everybody’s queers, steers and faggots. Got more gays now than you got preachers.”
Pride’s among the dumbest of the deadly sins, he says.
“I know one thing: damn pride kills people,” he says. “Before I starve to death I’m going to ask somebody for a couple dollars. I ain’t gonna let damn pride get the better of me. Don’t never say what you’re going to do in the life. I said 20 years ago I’m never going to be homeless.
“Now I”m homeless. You don’t know what the future holds. You don’t know.”
“Now, anytime I got a women, if I can’t be in control, I don’t want her,” he said.“Only the strong survive,” he said. “You gotta be smart in the mind. If you can’t talk, you’re in trouble. If you ain’t got a good mouthpiece, you ain’t gonna make it in this world.”
He doesn’t understand suicide, either. Could he see himself waking up one day taking arms against the sea of troubles that man is heir to?
“Nah, man,” he said. “I say to myself, ‘Alfred, it’s bad but this is going to get better. I am a strong mind. I ain’t weak. I got a strong mind. I never cried when I was a baby. One day they took me to a doctor. They thought I was deaf and dumb.
“When I turned 5 years old, I spoke my first word. I said, ‘Mama, get me a glass of water.’
“They said, ‘boy, why ain’t you been talking?’ I looked at them and said, ‘I didn’t have nothing to say.'”
He takes off his hat and wipes his head. Says he can’t wait to get back to his spot at the Sleepy Bear. It’s a nice one, next to a giant oak tree. And it’s just $340 a month, all the amenities you could want.
Besides, he said it’s too damn dangerous and expensive to travel around. People always snooping into your business. Then, of course, there’s the police. They’re always looking to make trouble for strangers.
“The law stopped me today,” he says. “Five laws. What am I supposed to be, a damn gangster? I asked why they stopped me. ‘You look suspicious,’ they said.
“I said ‘hell, you look suspicious. If I had any goddamn charges (outstanding), would I be carrying a gun on my damn side?’ He said ‘are you trying to be a smart-ass?’
“He said, ‘I’m a law.’ I said, ‘I’m a damn outlaw.’
It becomes hard, without the benefit of getting to know someone better, to distinguish where fact breaks down and fantasy takes over. I’m not saying I didn’t believe Alfred’s every word. It’s always best to take a skeptical approach, though.
And I had to scratch my head when he introduced the sawed-off shotgun.
“I had this shotgun,” he said. “Somebody cut it off. He looks in the door of my RV and sees that raggedy-ass shotgun. My ass is going to prison, I think. This gun is supposed to be over 13 inches long. He’s got a size 13 shoe. He measures that shotgun against his shoe, and it just comes over the tip of the shoe. He said, ‘well, the gun’s all right. It’s legal.’ I thought I was going to jail. I ain’t never been to prison.“He gave me that shotgun back and told me to go about my business. I threw it in the damn woods.”
“I get high from living,” he said. “I don’t need to drink beer to get high. I don’t need to smoke grass to got high. I get high on life. Hell, let me live another thousand years. I got a 17-year-old mind trapped in a 52-year-old’s body.”
I guess he didn’t want to go without giving me a bit of friendly advice on fathering. Maxand Becky had stopped by after picking up a Scooby-Doo movie in the Redbox.
He says you can’t be too solicitous of your kid’s needs. Can’t show weakness. Gotta raise ’em up with tough discipline.
|After looking over Alfred’s prescriptions for fatherhood, I can see where I’m failing on every count.
“You gotta beat em. you can’t let ’em get by with things ,” he says. “You gotta raise him up to be a man.”
“Every young’un should have a brother and sister to play with,” he said. “He should not be by himself. If you’re gonna bring a young’un into the world, you should at least have two or three of them. Gotta have someone for them to play with.”
For some reason, again probably because I’m a weasily coward given to occasional paranoia, I couldn’t completely rule out the possibility that Alfred and Ray Ray were going to visit the behemoth in the dead of the morning and murder us.
Maybe I was thinking about that sawed-off shotgun that’s waiting in the woods for some kid to find. Or maybe it was that thing he said about being done with all his “shooting and killing and whoring,” and that he’s straight now.
Perhaps it’s his final piece of advice that got the irrational hobgoblins doing the jitterbug in my head:
“Don’t trust anyone. I don’t trust my own damn self. How could I trust you?”