The Last Hot Dog I Ever Ate
A Charlotte native’s thoughts on a changing city, and what we’re missing
THERE HAS NEVER been any denying where I’m from. You can hear that place rooted in the cadence of my voice. You can see that late-90s skyline, before Hearst Tower or the Duke Energy Center climbed higher than the old First Union building, tattooed on my arm.
I am from Charlotte. I’m from the place where Freedom Drive dead-ends into Paw Creek. I’m 31 years old but I’m not a millennial. I’m an I-485-er. I’m a Larry Johnson, Grandmama, Converse with React juice kind of old coliseum Hornet. I’m a Price’s Chicken Coop and Green’s hot dog Charlottean, and I am proud of that fact.
Nowadays, I say that just as much as a reminder to myself as for a clarification to others because, although I was born and raised here, it’s been a long time since I’ve called this city home. My parents and family are still right there near Paw Creek, just as that line has been since the 1700s, and I come to visit often. But for the last half of my life I’ve lived in the mountains. That’s home to me now and I don’t see that ever changing. I’ve always been defined by place.
I was thinking about this recently when this magazine’s executive editor, Michael Graff, was interviewing me for a story about my first book. He asked if I have nostalgia for the city, and although I think he expected my answer to be no, I told him that I miss the hell out of this place. Not for what it is when I come back, but for what it was when I was growing up. The thing is, I tried to explain to him, the place of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore.
In the summer of 2012, I got word that Byrum’s General Store would be closing after more than 120 years in business in the heart of Steele Creek. Soon as I heard, there was no doubt in my mind where I’d be headed that weekend. Not even flyfishing could stand in the way of the 180-mile trek for one last chili-slaw dog. But more than the hot dog, I was chasing one fleeting glimpse of a memory that seems to fade just a little more with every birthday.
The old brick building had been the lifeblood of Steele Creek since 1890, and though my history with the store didn’t start until a century later, my family had stories dating back to the beginning. When the Depression settled onto West Charlotte and my Granny’s father lost the 60-acre farm, the family moved from Moore’s Chapel to a big house owned by the power company in Steele Creek, a house that ironically didn’t have electricity. Granny used to tell me how she despised wiping the soot from oil lamp globes that lined the stairway, but that the one highlight of living in that old house was when her daddy would come home from work with a bag full of candy from Byrum’s General Store. Her favorites were the soft peppermints and molasses-flavored BB Bats taffy pops. The simplest things always seem to become what we hold onto forever.
My memories of Byrum’s didn’t start until my high school years. The city bussed kids in from that side of town to go to Harding, where I went, and so I became friends with a bunch of boys who’d grown up there. I reckon they introduced me to the store, but I can’t remember for sure. Occasionally, I would ride home with a buddy named Grady Gordon, and we’d spend the evening chucking spinnerbaits to largemouth bass on Lake Wylie. On the ride to Grady’s house we’d stop by Byrum’s for hot dogs and Cheerwine slushies.
Those same years, I was lucky enough to know the owner’s son, Beau Byrum, and there were many nights that we’d sit by a fire drinking cold beer that a few of the guys snuck out the back door of the store.
Those were the memories I chased when I drove from the mountains to my parents’ home in Charlotte, and that Saturday morning I got up and made the drive into Steele Creek one last time.
The old roads that were familiar a decade ago weren’t even available anymore, everything rerouted. The exit ramp dumped me off within a hundred yards of Byrum’s, but with no trees or fields to mark the landscape, I turned the wrong direction and drove a few miles into unfamiliar country, a place I’d been to a thousand times before but never seen like that. Everything was different now.
There was a median splitting the road in front of Byrum’s. What had always been wooded was clear-cut awaiting the next shopping center, and where the two-story, white-columned house once stood—an old Southern-style house that Beau and all other Byrums called home—there was a CVS.
Still, Byrum’s General Store remained: unpainted brick on the front, white painted brick sides, a red-block, white-lettered Byrum’s Gen. Store sign, the gravel parking lot and a rusty ice chest outside with its motor gurgling and ticking to keep cold. Inside was just how I remembered: a musty, dust-laden smell; all aisles filled with fishing tackle; beer in the back; a mounted largemouth bass with dentures on the wall; laughter behind the counter as Robby Byrum sold one more fishing rod. I stood there and let the place seep inside of me to a corner of my mind that hadn’t been touched in a long time.
Beau met me for the last hot dog I ever ate from Byrum’s, and after ordering two with chili and slaw and Cheerwine slushies, we sat on the tailgate of his pickup, the way we’d done countless times before, and watched the world go by.
We talked about the way our lives had turned out and about how the place had changed. We shared old stories and he told new ones: about the day they moved the Byrum house from where it was built more than a century earlier, and an afternoon the summer before when newcomers called the law after he and some friends were skeet shooting in the field behind the store. “I told him we could do whatever we wanted,” Beau said. “We’re outside the city limits on private property.” But the city was overtaking what little bit was left of that country. It’s all within city limits now.
In the 10 years that I’d been gone, Steele Creek had died and the only thing left beating of the place I remembered was the rhythm of Byrum’s General Store, even though its pulse had slowed to a pace that would cease in a few short weeks.
While we sat, I watched folks come and go from the store and listened to older generations sharing nearly forgotten tales with children and grandchildren who had no reference point for the way things had been. The cars sped past and the clock ticked away. Only one thing was certain anymore: The way it had been would never be again. So, I said my goodbyes and I drove away, while Beau went home to his wife and daughter just down the road in a neighborhood where deer and turkey had wandered in the woods just a few short years back. Part of me is sad to think that Beau’s daughter will be the first generation of Byrums to not know that place in the same way, but there’s also a strange pride in knowing that she’ll grow up right there in Steele Creek, just like generation after generation before her.
Now, I tell this story not as some disillusioned sap who can’t see that cities change, that cities have to change, that the evolution of a place is unavoidable. I tell this story because of how fast it has happened, and because what has become popular and trendy—the reclamation and revamping that we’ve seen in places like NoDa—won’t be possible if those places are bulldozed for strip malls. I say this so that hashtags such as #IHeartCharlotte will hold value even if the people using them didn’t grow up here. I say this because I am from Charlotte and because this is a beautiful city, and there is still a lot to lose.
David Joy is an author who lives in Webster, North Carolina. His first book, Where All Light Tends to Go, was published by Putnam in March 2015.
This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Charlotte Magazine
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