March 30 – Languishing amid the plastic sameness of yet another McDonald’s, with someone else’s french fries beneath my chair.
(Now past 7 pm. I just had the pleasure of a brief chat with an employee. He was mopping around me. He was very polite. Said excuse me. No excuse necessary, I said. He said once he accidentally touched a patron with his mop. His manager got wind of it and sent him home. Docked him four hours’ pay. I said it sounds like an awful job. He said it is. Said he blew out his knee during high school and is not fit for heavier manual labor. I frowned.)
Turn my head hard to the right, and I gaze west across U.S. 17 toward The Alabama Theatre. To its north sits the local branch of House of Blues.
We’re deep in the heart of tourist town, USA. We need to find a way out. Which way to the egress, Mr. Barnum? We’re sputtering a bit, trying to regain our bearings.
We’ve traded southern North Carolina for northern South Carolina. As we sit, we’re just south of North Myrtle Beach and about 20 miles north of Myrtle Beach proper.
Geography, it can be confusing.
We left Fairmont, N.C., yesterday afternoon after a two-day stand. Fairmont’s deep in swampy eastern North Carolina. I like Fairmont. I must like Fairmont. We’ve landed there twice inside of 10 years, lured by the ghost of Joseph Mitchell.
In case you’re reading this and haven’t read him, Joe Mitchell owns a permanent luxury suite in the pantheon of literary journalists. I remember my first run at “Up in the Old Hotel.” It was the spring of 1996, shortly after Mitchell died at age 88.
I’d heard about the towering greatness of Joseph Mitchell. At first blush, I didn’t get it. His prose did not leap off the page and grab me by the balls. It did not dazzle me with lofty erudition. That’s not what he does.
Mitchell’s writing does not caper and preen like a drunken peacock. It is not bombastic or flashy. It is the antithesis of pretentious.
It’s subtle, elegant and poetic.
I’m glad I gave it a second read. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting the Mitchells of Fairmont, N.C.
There was no plan to visit Fairmont. There is rarely a plan to go anywhere. We are forever open to serendipity.
The idea of tracking down Joseph Mitchell’s nephews never crossed my mind until I sat in the mayor’s office and he put it there.
Now my backlog includes an additional three or four hours of interviews recorded on my new digital voice machine. I arrived in Fairmont hoping to get back to the beginning of the trip and write about our visit to Antietam and the sweet day we spent with the Vi-till-they-die Vias of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
I’ll get there. Sooner or later. Now I want to post a relatively quick update just in case anyone’s out there following along at home.
On Thursday I spent an hour with Charles Kemp in his office. The mayor, he’s a trip. Fairmont is not just a town for him. It’s his passion.
He’s P.T. Barnum and Billy Graham rolled into one civic evangelist. He’s been trying for two years to raise funds to place an advertisement for Fairmont on an I-95 billboard. He succeeded in getting fliers printed to inform south-traveling tourists that the shortest route to the South Carolina beaches runs through Fairmont. Once he spotted an out-of-state license plate at the local McDonald’s and introduced himself to the driver, just to confirm his fliers were doing their job.
He’s 66, and will run for a third term in November.
Fairmont could use a savior. All roads leading there are straddled by flat, fertile farmland wich once teemed with cotton and tobacco.
Now, decades after the tobacco market crashed, the plight of Fairmont is testing the passion and ingenuity of Charles Kemp. It sits stranded in the no-man’s land between Raleigh-Durham to the north and Myrtle Beach to the south, looking for a ready source of cash.
Visually, Fairmont appears stuck in the 1970s. Main Street downtown is awash in empty storefronts and second-hand emporiums. A few days before we arrived, a 16-year-old boy was shot to death while shooting hoops at a local park. Two days after that, a 34-year-old man killed his 10-year-old son while wiping down his shotgun.
An aura of sadness hovers about town.
The mayor and I chatted in his humble office, where the door is always open. Town hall sits in a squat, brick building that housed the Fairmont Hotel back in the glory days. During tobacco buying season, money men sat on the porch, traded insults and smoked big cigars.
Charles Kemp’s parents sent him here at age 5 to live with his aunt and uncle. I asked him how far back he could trace his zeal for Fairmont.
He had a ready answer.
“I knew when I was 12 years old that I would be mayor of this town,” he said. “When I was going down the hill to the warehouse watching the tobacco auctioneers sell tobacco, I thought that was just the coolest thing in the world. I knew I wanted to be quote in charge. I knew I wanted to be the mayor.
“I had to travel a few years and down a few roads to get here, but it happened. ”
After leaving town hall Thursday, I walked aimlessly beneath soothing sunshine, admiring the loblolly pines (I hope they’re loblolly pines. Perhaps they’re another species of southern yellow pine) on Jenkins Street, across Highway 41 from the McDonald’s. I got Joey Mitchell on the phone. I asked him about his uncle’s legacy here. He said some intriguing stuff. I jogged back to my computer so I might record some of it.
“We would love to think that we’re a smart family, and he sort of legitimizes that,” Joey said. “He’s the evidence of a hunch that we all had.”
Joseph Mitchell was caught between the old south of his parents’ generation and the cosmopolitan frenzy of New York.
“He wasn’t like my father or mother,” Joey said. “He had an air of an artist. He was just real thoughtful in everything he did. He was quiet when you talked to him. He’d say, ‘oh, I know. I know. He would include you. It was like he was agreeing with you on some level.
“He was a southerner and he was a northerner. He was both in a strange way. It wasn’t like he was a Yankee.”
Yesterday was a brilliant Good Friday in Fairmont, warm and pleasant as a southern spring day should be. I sat in the grass beneath the historical marker honoring Joseph Mitchell. It’s a nice marker. It was raised about 18 months ago by a local book club.
A woman parked her truck across Main Street and gave me a smile as she walked toward the door of an unmarked building.
“It’s a pretty day to be lost,” she said.
I smiled back, but I wasn’t lost. The sky was a canopy of blue, save for the renegade cloud that positioned itself high above Main Street.
Just after 12:30, I climbed into Joey Mitchell’s SUV. He gave me a tour of pertinent family sites.
He pointed out the building which used to house the tobacco concern of A.N Mitchell and Sons. He showed me the grass field where the family warehouse stood. We went to the graveyard where Uncle Joseph rests. We visited the old home place, drove through a pecan orchard and imagined what it might’ve been like when Joseph Mitchell was a boy.
Joey returned me to the historical marker, which sits in a grassy plot adjacent to the Border Belt Museum, about an hour hence.
A short time later, I was sitting next to 75-year-old Averette “Jack” Mitchell on the tailgate of his Chevy Silverado. We stayed there for 90 minutes, talking about his uncle while dogwood petals fell all around us.
Funny. It took me a while to get a hold of Jack. When I finally did, I thought he sounded kind gruff, maybe a little put out. I worried. Joseph Mitchell was notorious for guarding his privacy. I thought I was about to get the cold shoulder.
Turns out, he couldn’t have been more welcoming or generous with his time.
He told me some great stories, and when I shook his hand and bid him farewell, I got the feeling I’m not wasting my time.
This journey, this project, however it turns out, will be a success if only for the people we meet and the stories they share.
We drove out of Fairmont, cutting south through old tobacco fields hiding beneath ground cover. We passed through swampland as we got closer to the state line.
It wasn’t long before we arrived in North Myrtle Beach, and we set out on a hit-and-miss search for hotels. We discussed getting a place for a week so I can catch up on writing and maybe we can finally find someone to fix the behemoth.
We could’ve stayed in relative luxury at the Red Tree Inn for one week for a bit more than $350. I couldn’t decide. I was tempted, but worried about what dropping such a big number in South Carolina might mean for our budget come July or August. And, I happen to be a world-class fence-sitter. This drives Becky insane.
And as often happens when uncertainty is allowed to fester, tensions in the behemoth began to strain. We worked through them, as we usually do.
When we moved down the street to the Atlantic Breeze, I was informed the only accommodations they had for the next week was a three-bedroom unit for $2,426 before taxes.
I wanted to run back to the Red Tree and lock up our room. As it was, we set out for our familiar digs at the nearest Walton Family General Store. We took the roundabout route, but we made it.
On the automotive front, the “check engine” light briefly went dark this morning, for the first time since we left Pennsylvania. It’s back now.
The engine’s sputtering noticeably. The undiagnosed problem is exacerbating our already poor fuel economy. I’ve been to five places from Spring City to Durham to Fairmont and have yet to find a mechanic with the time and tools to suss out the problem. When I got the behemoth looked at in Pennsylvania, the check engine light was off. You cannot figure out the problem, it turns out, if the light is not on.
We’ll need to find a shop with a scanner that can pick up the codes on a pre-1996 vehicle, which I’ve learned is a problem. A nice mechanic in Durham named Doyle came up with three numbers. He said they all point to the distributor.
Unfortunately, the distributor is relatively new. He said it would take time to take things apart and suss out the real problem that’s causing the light to illuminate. He didn’t have that time. We moved on.
Hopefully we’ll find some place along the coast between here and Florida where we can hole up for a while and find someone to check out the behemoth.
Max and Becky are playing on the beach now. When they return, we’ll head south again, likely to Charleston. Probably be a mistake to bypass the cradle of the Confederacy.
Till then, we’ll keep wandering the southeast in the haphazard fashion that’s become our way of the road.