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Stranger in a Strange Land: Raeford, NC.

There was a time, in the not too distant past, when God hadn’t yet created mobile phones or GPS.  

When you needed driving directions, you looked around until you spotted a pedestrian who looked like he or she knew the area and asked for help. 

I never could find the right person to ask. For example, if I were to ask some random person for directions to Route 66, then I’d get these sorts of responses:

  1. Oh, yeah….uh, you gotta go….some…where…north, probably on…a…road…pretty much south from, yeah, then you turn…I think…I’m not sure…anymore.
  2. I’m not telling. You need to go buy a map, just like everyone else, and figure it out for yourself. You can’t just rely on others to fix your problems. That’s the problem with this country. People need to learn a little self-reliance….hey, come back here
  3. Deutschland wird wieder auferstehen, du Amerikanischer Schweinehund!  Heil Hitler!
  4. Hey, Baby. You wanna go out on a date? I know you wanna go on a date with me. You wanna have a date?

People got lost all the time.  If you couldn’t find a pedestrian for help then you’d use the position of the sun to get an idea where to point yourself.  Sometimes you followed the cars whose drivers seemed to know where they were going. 

You could buy maps but, after the extensive unfolding process, you had this very detailed and intricate 5′ x 5′ map which did you absolutely no good whatsoever because you had no clue where you were vis-a-vis the map. There was no YOU ARE HERE arrow on the map. Not that it mattered because you couldn’t read the names of the streets on accounta the names were written in 0.0025 point font.

Here’s a map.

People generally scoured the maps for an hour before throwing them in the trash. 

Here’s where you put the map after giving up trying to use the map.

The next step in the process was to call people you knew who might help. This meant finding a “phone booth” which was a very small enclosed space where you stood and used a landline connected phone to place your call. 

The multipurpose phone booth.
The zero-purpose phone in the phone booth.

This was a real hit or miss process for a few reasons:

  1. The handset was often nowhere to be found. All you had was bare wire indicating where the handset used to be. 
  2. The “phone booth” was identified as the “bathroom” by people too drunk to notice the difference and the odor was used as a weapon of mass destruction in wars until it was banned by the UN.
  3. It was also identified as “the office” by drug dealers and pimps who stayed in the phone booth 12 hours a day conducting business. 
  4. Federal law prohibited anyone from cleaning a phone booth so the whole phone apparatus was converted in layers of slime, hair, snot, dirt, beer, vomit and dead flies who got stuck on the slime.
  5. You had to drop in a quarter to make a call unless the call was to someone outside a 500′ radius of the phone booth. If that was the case then you were making a “long-distance” call which required additional quarters at random times and if you didn’t put in enough quarters in time then your call was cut off.
  6. Even if you were able to actually call and actually reach someone then the call would go like this:
  • You – I’m lost. Can you give me directions?
  • Person You Called (PYC) – Where are you?
  • You – I don’t know. 
  • PYC – Uh, well, what city are you in?
  • You – I don’t know. 
  • PYC – Let’s see if I’ve got this right. You want me to tell you how to get from “there” to “here” but you’re missing the minor detail of where “there” is. Not a lot to work with. 
  • You – Okay. This will help. There’s a Citgo on one side of the street across from an office building with two benches in front of it and sitting on one of the benches is a guy wearing a green….
  • PYC – [click]

One day, in the late 1970s, I drove into a town in North Carolina called Raeford. I had no idea how I got there and no clue how to get the hell out. Raeford was quaint, small, quiet, provincial and very Southern. The people were really nice. They’d smile and wave as I drove by.

I did ask a few natives for directions but I couldn’t understand a word anyone said because every man, woman and child in Raeford had a pound and a half of chewing tobacco in their mouths. They couldn’t use consonants. When they spoke, they sounded as though they were at the dentist and the novocaine had kicked in. Plus, pieces of tobacco came flying out of their mouths and huge amounts of brown slobber ran down their chins and onto their shirts.

I thought about the beautiful Raeford bride walking down the church aisle in a gorgeous white dress with brown slobber all down the front of it. Then, I thought about the 20 member church choir singing elegant hymns with pieces of tobacco and brown saliva flying in all directions of the church.

My first official act in Raeford was to find lunch. Easier said than done. The restaurants, such as they were, didn’t look appealing.

One place had a boarded up window and a homemade sign on the door saying, “Beer to go. French Ticklers. Food.”

Another rustic emporium had no name. Just the “Eats” sign above the door with a sandwich board leaning next to the door with pink letters that said, “Today’s Special: Meat.”

I spotted a convenience store. It was rustic, too, mostly because it was gross. There was a flashing neon sign behind a window. It was difficult to read because the window hadn’t been washed since the Roosevelt Administration. Teddy Roosevelt. I was about 4″ from the window before I could finally see the glories awaiting within. “Bait. Tobacco. Beer. Homemaid [sic] Donuts. Enemas – 99 Cents.”

I imagined myself walking into this southern, rural, redneck store and saying, “Yes. Hi, there. I’d like a Perrier with a lime twist, please.”

Then, I imagined the guy behind the counter looking at me and responding, “You pretty sensitive, ain’t cha boy.” Just before hitting me on the head with a crowbar.

I found a place called, “Quick Stop.” Except “Quick” was spelled “KWIK.” Wow, “KWIK,” isn’t that cute? Oh, just the cutest thing ever. Sooooo, cute.

I was desperate so I rolled the dice and entered the KWIK (K….W….I….K….) Stop.

Inside, there were two people who may very well have been employees. Both were sitting, glassy-eyed and practically catatonic, behind the counter watching a TV rerun of, ”The Munsters.” They looked like they had just finished a 14-day, sleepless heroin binge. 

They were friendly, in their own way. 

I asked the two fine young people if’n this here KWIK Stop (K…W…I…K…) had anything to eat.  One of them slowly turned her head and opened one blood-shot eye. Her tongue was hanging out and there was some crusted vomit on her lip. She managed to say  “Ffffffffffffffffffuhhhh,” before her head rolled back. She fell off her chair and went to sleep on the floor. The other employee, looking quite bewildered, slowly turned to me and whispered, “Y tha’ lil’ friggin’ ought ripiz lungs out.” He fell face-first into the TV, crashed the screen with his face and ended up with his head stuck in the TV. Then he went to sleep. 

The “deli” aisle included “pressed meats,” bologna with holes in it, something that looked like it had already been digested called a “pork roll,” and a semi-melted yellow-ish thing with green chunks in it with the sign CHEEZ propped up next to it   (C….H….E….E…Z….). The soup-of-the-day started out, I think, as tuna-salad that had decomposed into a grey, thick liquid with dead flies around it.

Along the wall, a sign said something like SNAX (S…N…A…X…). Under it was an open bag of Doritos covered in chocolate sauce, a few piles of fried dough under a sign saying DONUTS (D…O…N…U…T…S…) and a pink, glow-in-the-dark condom.

I lost my appetite.

A sign saying KOOL DRINKS (K…O…O…L…) was above the refrigerated section which was chilled to a crisp 88 degrees.  Behind the greasy, snot-stained, bullet-hole-ridden glass doors were gallon jugs of PREMIUM WATER with handwritten labels saying, “Water Out Of A Garden Hose.”  I did manage to find a couple bottles of Gatorade that didn’t have any hair on them. 

I brought the Gatorades and some gum to the cash register where the female employee, having scraped herself off the floor, stood   She attempted to enter the information on the cash register.  But she had on 6” long press-on nails so she kept hitting 3 different keys but not the one she wanted to hit.  She decided to resolve the issue by hitting the keys harder. So hard that her press-on nails started flying in all directions. I hid under a table so I wouldn’t get hit by one. One of them got embedded in the ceiling. Another flew into the glass door and shattered it. Another hit her co-worker who still had his head stuck inside the TV. This caused him to wake up, pull his head out of the TV, change the TV station and go back to sleep. 

The cost, once she finally mastered the cash register,  came to $1.50. I gave her a $5 bill. She stared at it, clearly stunned, and didn’t know what to do.  I don’t think she had ever seen a $5 bill. Plus, she couldn’t figure out how to open the cash drawer. Anyway, girlfriend took the $5 bill and slowly backed away to talk with her co-worker who, having urinated on himself when he was hit with the press-on nail, managed to regain consciousness.  They huddled and whispered trying to figure out what to do next. 

She looked at me in sheer terror and said, “Uh, uhnnn, mmmm, gotta talk, errrr, to, uh yeah, like talk to my manager errr somethin’.” She went to a back room and, after about 15 minutes of crashing noises, out comes this guy with jet black hair hanging over his eyes wearing nothing but a necktie, black loafers and a jock strap.  On his chest was a very large tattoo of Betty Boop sitting on the toilet, smoking a cigarette and reading the sports page.

I explained higher mathematics to him and said he owed me $3.50. Another five minutes while he tried, and failed, to figure out how to open the cash register. He went to check his pants pockets for a key to the register until he realized he was only wearing a jockstrap. Finally, one of the press-on nails fell from the ceiling and landed on the cash register causing it to open. 

There was another ten minutes during which the manager just stared at the cash drawer before, after much research, he determined he owed me $3.50. 

I made a solemn vow to myself that if it comes down to KWIK Stop or death then I’d go with death just to avoid the aggravation.

With my hunger issue fully resolved for quite awhile, I hopped into my car, drove a block and turned onto Main Street where, two blocks later, I got pulled over. I was probably driving 0.0001 MPH over the speed limit but the car had New York tags so I’m sure Mr. Nice Policeman Guy (MNPG) couldn’t resist. In my rear view mirror I saw him slowly get out of his car.  This guy looked exactly like Sheriff Buford T. Justice from “Smokey and the Bandit.” Down to the sunglasses and cigarette.

It took him about five minutes to walk from his car to mine. Once he finally made it, he scanned the interior of the car before finally looking at me. 

“Lah-since ‘n reg-stray-shun.”

I gave him my license and registration. He stared at them for a minute and said, “Don’ ‘member seein’ yew in mah fahn city before, Son.” 

“First time I’ve had the pleasure.”

MNPG threw me a sardonic smile. “Well, well, well, ain’t dat sweet. I dew trust yew have found us most accommodatin’. Have we met yo high standards of decorum ‘n grace?” 

“Well, if I actually had high standards then the folks here would have exponentially exceeded them.”

He lifted up his sunglasses, stared at me for a few seconds and let drop back onto his nose. “Yeah, we’ll see ’bout dat. Tell me, Son. To wha’ do we owe duh pleasure of a visit from a dazzlin’ young urbanite such as yo-sef in the humble, God-fearin’ town uh Raeford, Nothe Car-LINE-uh.”

“Me? Right. Yes. Trying to find Fort Bragg to visit a friend but I got lost.” This was a lie but I thought I might score points if I said I had a friend in the Army. Plus, Fort Bragg was close by so it sounded plausible.

“Oh, reeeeely. Wuz his name?”

“Jack Tatum.” Jack Tatum was a safety for the Oakland Raiders. It was the first name that came to mind.

Please don’t ask me any more questions about this.

I thought that. I didn’t say it.

MNPG looked puzzled. “Thought Jack Tatum played fo the Raiders.”

“Different Jack Tatum.

“Related?”

“Highly unlikely.”

“Wha’s ‘is rank, if Ah may be so bold as tuh ask?”

“Private First Class.”

I’m screwed. He’s gonna trip me up. 

He paused, looked all around my car, frowned and asked, “How long yo friend been servin’ in duh Army?”

“Little over a year.” I knew I had to reroute the conversation. “Oh, while I think of it, and if you don’t mind me asking, then….”

MNPG stepped back in mock-surprise. “Now why would Ah mind yew askin’ me anything? Ah would be honored to provide duh answers yew longin’ tuh git.”

“What’d I do wrong? I mean, honest. I’m not sure what I did to get your attention.”

“Glad yew asked cuz Ah wuz quite alarmed seein’ yew cuttin’ in and outta lanes, burnin’ rubber in our thrivin’ bidnis district in yo effort to git outta our fine, provincial, church-goin’, lil’ hamlet. You’ll pardon mah ignorance when Ah ask yew, ‘That how yew people drive in the big city?'”

“We have to drive that way. Less likely to get shot. Survival tactic, really.”

“She-it.” 

I thought this was the moment he’d pull the cuffs and say, “Boy, yew got duh rat to git duh fuck outta dat car and come meet some mah ‘sociates.” 

Instead he frowned and said, “Whadda you got in duh trunk? Got a broad in there?”

“She didn’t fit. Besides, her father made me give her back.”

“Cute?”

“Well, nice legs. Shame about the face.”

I finally got a chuckle out of him. “Yew funny. Ah believe Ah dislike yew a little less. Mo than Ah kin say fo most yew people. Gimme yew wallet.”

I gave MNPG my wallet. After carefully inspecting the contents, he pulled out a $20 bill, put it in his shirt pocket and tossed the wallet onto the passenger’s seat. 

“Ah b’lieve duh appropriate restitution has been made. Ah thank yew. An’, Son, may Ah sincerely say, on behalf uh duh good, decent, patriotic an’ highly Christian folk of Raeford, Nothe Car-LINE-uh, the followin’: GIT DUH FUCK OUTTA HERE. An’, God bless. An’ don’ say one fuckin’ word.”

Seemed like good advice. 

He started slowly walking back to his car, pivoted towards me and said, “Give yo friend at Fote Bragg a kiss for me and tell him I’ll write.”

“Would it be okay if I killed myself instead of kissing him?”

Got another chuckle out of him. “Ah dew b’lieve Ah dew not dislike yew even mo'”

I was still lost, of course. No clue where to go. I looked back towards MNPG as he slowly sashayed back to his car. He stopped, turned around and said, “Drive straight ahead. Then, keep drivin’ straight ahead. Then, go nothe on 295 until yew arrive at the enchanted village of Fote Bragg, Nothe-Fuckin-Car-LINE-uh.”

Then, he belched, turned back and continued walking. 

“Ah, thank you, Sir. Thank you, kindly.”

He looked over his shoulder and said, “N’ ‘member to always keep yo ass to duh sunset.”

This is advice I give people to this day. 

I drove, very slowly, out of Raeford. People smiled and waved. I passed six churches and six bars in the course of five blocks. So, it evened out. Plus, it’s convenient because, when the earth quake hits, all the people in the church can quickly run to the bar and vice versa.

At the last stop light in town, a young mother walked by with a baby girl in a stroller. She walked up to me to say hello. The baby had brown slobber on her bib and pieces of tobacco on her pacifier. 

She, the mother, was very nice especially when she nicely asked me if I had any money I’d care to give her. She looked flat broke. No wedding ring. This was back in the day when single motherhood was quite frowned upon. I thought her story may not have been a happy one.

“Your baby is gorgeous!” I was being nice. I mean, the kid looked okay. I could have said, “Your kid isn’t horrible looking, so that’s good. Potentially, inoffensive. Wouldn’t suggest pursuing a career in modeling unless they’re looking for a ‘before’ picture.” But I went with “gorgeous.”

“Why, thank yeeeewwww.” Where upon she gave me the brightest, most expressive, sincere and saddest smile I have ever seen.

I asked her if everyone in Raeford was a nice and friendly as they seemed to be.

“Why, yes, Sir. We try to be nice to everyone. Do unto others….” She kept up with a smile that was heartbreaking. She was doing her best.

“Is everyone always nice and friendly to you?”

“No.”

She looked at her baby and shrugged.

I said, “I’m sorry.”

I gave her the money MNPG didn’t shove in his pocket.

“Oh, thank yew, Sir. Bless you. Thank yew so much.”

As the light turned green, I looked at her, smiled and said, “Mah pleasure. And, just remember, Honey, to always keep yo ass to duh sunset.”

She laughed. “I guess yew met the Sheriff.”

I drove off. In the side mirror, I saw her smile and wave. For that moment, at least, her smile was a happy one.

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