Stranger in a Strange Land

My first year in Charlotte didn't go so well, what with the roaches and being arrested and all. But I eventually found my way, one more outsider in a city full of them

 

It was the evening before Valentine’s Day, and a chilly air swept through the city. Out of the shadows on Tryon Street jumped a small and smelly man. He had half his teeth, a dirty denim jacket, and a black knit cap just darker than his skin. He told me he needed a sandwich.

 

 

 

We made our way to the Subway on the corner of Trade and Tryon and spoke uncomfortably about the weather. Charlotte was cold. It was warmer in Jacksonville, the man’s previous stop, and California, which he never should have left. Like so many people here, he was only passing through, an outsider making his way among a city of outsiders. His struggles were my own.

The Indian behind the sandwich counter shot me a disappointed look. He grudgingly cooperated but scarcely acknowledged the homeless man. I had to grab the cup for the fountain drink. "You see what I have to deal with?" the homeless man said.

But I just stood there, staring up at the beige ceiling, while a loud contingent of banking types waited behind us in line with their shiny hair and ties. At last I paid, then continued on my way beneath the towers, which shimmered with the stars in the sky.

I am not that nice of a guy. I turn away the desolate all the time. I had done so not thirty seconds before the homeless man surprised me from the shadows, when another had called out to me from a bus stop. My benevolence is strictly a matter of chance—this much I learned about myself during the year I spent in Southeast Asia after graduating from Davidson College in May 2006.

I lived in a nice apartment in the foreigner district of the disgusting and tantalizing city of Bangkok, earning a living by teaching English to Thai students on weekends. Making my way down the filthy, smothering, roach-infested streets, I might refuse a request of ten baht from a crippled child. This amounts to about thirty cents. In fact, I traveled through some of the poorest countries in the world, regularly outrunning or avoiding the deformed and impoverished who cluttered my path, haggling over pennies with ragged rickshaw drivers and street vendors.

At the end of it all, I arrived back home in New York in late February twenty pounds lighter on my six-foot frame. My thick, curly brown hair hung down, offensively, to my eyebrows, and the food my family fed me made me sick.

I spent a couple of surreal weeks surrounded by the comforts of home. Then I packed up my truck and made the twelve-hour drive to Davidson to begin again where I had started a year before, feeling even more detached from civilization this time around.

Author Dave Eggers says not to write about college, ever. Things just aren’t as funny or interesting as you remember. This is probably true.

I spent my inglorious return to Davidson holed up in my poor girlfriend’s room, trying not to be seen, and sinking into despair. The various job prospects I believed I possessed in Charlotte proved pathetically misconstrued. I slept into the afternoons, then spent the nights hunched in front of my laptop sending out countless applications to publications throughout the country. Nobody replied to my calls for help.

Occasionally, I made vague and fruitless networking or freelance writing excursions into the city. I got drunk and slept on friends’ couches while they and their roommates prepared for work. I reported on humiliating events like the ACC women’s golf tournament, then sent in the stories from my makeshift office at the Caribou Coffee on East Boulevard, for minimal pay. I borrowed money from my parents and started gaining weight. Each time Charlotte appeared in my windshield as I sped south on I-77, its skyscrapers jutting into the horizon, the city became more appealing and impossible.

Once, a friend brought me to something called Alive After Five. Every Thursday, when the weather is right, Charlotte’s yuppie population flocks to Wachovia Plaza for a free concert. They sip from overpriced bottles of domestic beer, flirt, network, and show off their best business attire. It is the perfect uptown event.

I showed up in a pair of shorts, a polo shirt, and sandals, and couldn’t have felt more out of place, though almost everyone I met was from somewhere else. Weighted with melodrama, I snapped my head straight back to gaze up at the towers. They seemed so far away.

Eventually, I landed a summer internship at a sports magazine. I took the call in Caribou Coffee, then ran down the street screaming like a fool.

I made my temporary home in a musty, one-bedroom monthly rental in a Dilworth slum. There I routinely received mail addressed to the previous tenant, an old fraternity hand a couple years ahead of me at Davidson. This gave the place a Shawshank Redemption halfway-house feel, as if I should stand up and make my mark in the rafters overhead: Mike was too.

I would come home from work in my button-down shirts and dress pants, hang them back up in the damp and doorless closet, and make my stand against the cockroaches. Can of Raid in one hand, sneaker in the other, often balancing on a folding chair, I searched and destroyed along the top of the peeling cabinets or around the ancient brown stove that probably didn’t work. The roaches, like the broken screens and everything else, were never properly addressed by the realty company, which cited the building’s impending destruction as justification for its neglect. Such is the treatment a transient receives.

Pest control would spray my place after two or three complaints, and the number of belly-up roaches that surfaced over the next few days would only make the situation more alarming. While the pest company was not permitted to spray the entire building—despite my revelation that some roaches made the front porch their sitting spot at night—it was kind enough to explain the source. The building’s basement was full of water, which, when left untreated, created a breeding ground for all kinds of bugs.

And so I would spend my lunch breaks complaining about the roaches, or crush them quietly and hide their carcasses on the nights my girlfriend came to visit, and return to my couch or cubicle with my dignity intact.

I have heard Speed Street described as Mardi Gras for rednecks. During the week of the Bank of America 500, NASCAR faithful shut down the city. Mullets and sleeveless shirts fill the streets, third-rate bands play free concerts outside, and the business class is forced to share its bars with boisterous country drunks.

At around 11 p.m. that Friday, I found myself near the corner of Trade and Tryon, pleading with the police to remove my handcuffs. My shirt had been torn to pieces, and the white tank top underneath had been ripped at the left shoulder and was hanging down, exposing my chest. My arms and head were bleeding.

Here’s what happened. (I’ve since had all charges dismissed, no lawyer necessary.)

My friends and I were headed from Belle’s Barbecue (may she rest in peace) to the Loverboy concert. As we made our way through the crowd, a group of underage drunks started shouting at one of my especially intoxicated buddies. Maybe he bumped into someone. I wasn’t paying attention. But he just stood there staring into space, apparently unaware of all the commotion.

Anxious not to miss the concert, I stepped in and asked the ringleader to calm down.

"What?" the ringleader asked.

"Calm. Down."

And he socked me in the face.

So I socked him back, and his friends jumped on my back and knocked me down. They started kicking me. I began trolling along the ground like a crazed animal, growling and clawing at all the legs around me, tackling everyone within reach.

When I found myself pinned by two police officers, I thanked them for coming to my rescue. Then they jerked me to my feet and slapped on the cuffs. The only other arrest: a forty-something bald man whom I must have yanked into my pile of madness.

You really can’t argue once the cuffs are on. At that point, you’ve already entered the system, and can only wait it out. I did try, though. People from the crowd came over to chip in and were immediately herded away. I even demanded that the cops stare into my eyes, to better discern my innocence.

"You have the right to remain silent."

"Tell it to the judge."

"You’re drunk, sir."

At last I requested to be put in the car, to avoid the humiliation and possible job termination that might come with being arrested half naked in the middle of the city. The officers didn’t have a car. One was coming to pick me up. So I stood there under the glare of the Bank of America building, blood running down my face, my wife beater flapping in the wind.

I always thought the mug shots were taken right away, right after they take your fingerprints and put your stuff in a bag. This is not the case. First, you go to the holding cell. I took one of the remaining seats next to a shaggy blond kid who had been caught smoking pot behind a Harris Teeter. He wore a polo shirt and khakis and looked completely horrified.

After about ninety minutes, I was brought into a big waiting room. Here they took my picture and delivered my charge: nonaggressive physical force. None of the officers knew what it meant. Then I entered the next room, a bunch of open cells with a pay phone in the middle, where we received some sandwiches and chips and waited to be bailed out (me) or brought to real jail (lots of people).

As we ate, a man complained to a friend about being framed for robbing an old woman of twenty dollars.

"Twenty dollars, my nigga," he said, sadly. "Twenty dollars?"

Then he started in on corrupt-ass "crackers."

"No offense, man," he said, noticing me.

When my internship became a full-time job in July, I began combing craigslist obsessively in search of a place uptown. The few rentals in my price range were gone within a day. Visits to available properties were fraught with subterfuge. Some realtors wouldn’t let me see the unit under any circumstances, directing me instead to models and brochures. One two-bit hustler billed his place in Gateway as "bridging the gap" between Third Ward (where I did not want to live) and Fourth Ward (which would have justified his price).

Clicking refresh on my Internet browser at work one afternoon, I saw a new post for a place near Fourth Ward Park and e-mailed immediately to ask if the landlady could bring the price down a little. A few hours later, we had an agreement. When I met her to sign the lease the next day, she told me she had since been flooded with inquiries. In other words, I just made it.

Charlotte will never be my city, but it’s just as much mine as anyone else’s.

Now I look up at the towers as I walk my dog in the park each morning, civilly picking up his crap with the rest of the crowd. I jog through the city after work and on weekends, iPod blaring, nodding to the fitter finance types as I huff along. I shop at Harris Teeter, and order take-out sushi, and took the Gold Rush once. I’ve even been to see the Panthers and Bobcats, which aren’t really anyone’s first team, and clapped politely with the people around me.

On Valentine’s Day, I put on a tie and took my girlfriend to a fancy uptown restaurant called Blue. I requested a table with a view, nestled in among all the suits and hair gel, and decided to get drunk. "Cheers," I said, and raised my overpriced cocktail to the window, looking out onto the crowded street.