Editor's Note (June 2016): A Quarter’s Worth
HE GAVE US each a quarter before we went in, and we started the evening by rolling them along the padded armrest of the bar to see whose would go farther. The turning coins tumbled underneath the arms of various shades of men, most with dirty hands wrapped around a bottle, most in flannel. There was one old guy with a leather face in the far corner who never talked to us except to say he didn’t like kids. As hard as we tried for the perfect roll—all the way around the curved bar to the other side—we feared the consequences of a quarter ever clinking against his Miller Lite. We were boys, though, and part of me dreamed that he’d be so amazed he’d shed the scowl and say, “What a toss!” That’s what most of the other men did, anyway: “Good one!” the guys might say, or, “Got ’im that time, Mike.” And Missy, the bartender with flat brown hair down to her belt, would bring the quarters back and say, “You’ll get your brother next time, Kenny.”
The VFW was the only bar within 20 minutes of our home, and for a few years of my childhood my father stopped there a couple of nights a week. If we were lucky, we got to go with him. He’d stand in the same corner with his boyhood friend Donnie and smoke Winston Lights under the sign that read, “No shoes. No shirt. No service.” That sign always made me laugh. Imagine the fool who’d stumble into the V barefoot and bare-chested!
Kenny and I played pool from time to time, and by that I mean we stretched our heads over the edge of the table and flung the balls toward the pockets with our hands. There was a jukebox against the cinder block wall. Sometimes I’d use my quarter to play “Red, Red Wine.” Not exactly honky-tonk music, but I liked the color.
Most nights, though, I saved the quarter for something better. Behind the bar, above the rows of liquor, was a box of Lance crackers. The Toastchee type—or “Nabs,” as North Carolinians call them—was my favorite. On the tag of the box, in red pen, was the price: “25¢.”
You could do a lot with a quarter at the V.
Move forward 30 years and my father has long since quit drinking and, more recently, smoking. After several strokes, he rolls around in a wheelchair and lectures any kid with a cigarette—“Those things put me here.” And I live in the city where Lance was born, a city where breweries and beers are more ingrained in the city’s culture every day. In a blink, we’ve gone from hiding our drinking in dark bars to a world in which a Bible Belt city builds bright breweries with kids’ areas.
The best way to understand where you are is to understand where you’ve been. This month, we present an issue devoted to affordable dining in Charlotte. It’s really an issue about traditions. At first glance, it might seem like a counterpoint to our popular 50 Best Restaurants issue, which this year came with fancy dessert on the cover and top-of-the-line dishes throughout. But cheap eats and fine dining have more in common than you might think.
Take Jim Noble, one of the fathers of Charlotte’s modern dining scene. In food editor Kristen Wile’s opening essay, “Butter Beans and Memories," Noble talks not about the business of being a restaurateur, but instead about his childhood eating vegetables his great grandfather grew. When we asked writer Cat Carter to explore the role of international food in our city’s less-expensive food scene, she found herself going back home to the Korean dishes her mother made.
I’ve tried every brand of snack imaginable since those evenings at the VFW, but I’d take a pack of Nabs over any of them. Like Noble and his Southern vegetables, they put me right there alongside my dad and brother again.
Friday nights were the best nights of all. Sometimes the phone would ring at the V, and Missy would say, “Fred, it’s Patrice.” His friends grumbled a joke about my mother, a first-grade teacher, calling to check up on him. I’d look up and stare into the phone knowing she was somewhere in there, and I’d hear him mutter, “You already ordered it? Alright, we’ll be home soon.”
Then he’d say goodbye to Donnie and the other guys in flannel, and we’d hop in his truck and stop on the way home to pick up pizza, our family’s traditional Friday night meal. If Dad had any leftover change in his pockets when we got to the house, he’d toss it in big coffee cans—one can was for pennies and nickels and dimes, the other just for quarters.
Also by Michael Graff:
→Mustang Green: A Season of Hope in a Segregated City
This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine
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