Manhattanites in the Gate City and a fat kid eating chips

by Brian Clarey

It’s a fat kid, maybe 10 years old, less than 5 feet tall and tipping the scales in the high hundreds, the kind of kid who exemplifies our nation’s epidemic of obese children, raised on Happy Meals and curly fries and the twin deadly sins of gluttony and sloth. He’s at the Lexington Barbecue Festival with his mom. And he’s hungry.

They’re standing by one of the food booths.

“Momma?” he says. “I want chips,” pronouncing the word “chee-ups” and referring to the spiral cut, fresh fried potato chips served on a paper plate in an oily mound as big as a molehill.

“You better finish ’em,” she says. “The last fair we was at you got ’em and you didn’t finish ’em.”

My friend TD, a Manhattanite unaccustomed to dietary traditions in rural Southern towns, is aghast.

She’s gonna make that kid eat ’em all. The whole plate of chips.

He can’t believe it.

It’s his first brush with the South in a long time. Living in New York City for the last 10 years or so – a place with more than 8 million residents, six daily newspapers, 25 or so subway lines, 12 major bridges and tunnels and roughly 100,000 restaurants – made him forget what the rest of the world is like.

“We got it all down here.” I say to him as we thread our way through the densely packed streets of downtown Lexington, a main street that’s actually called “Main Street” with old-school brick storefronts and a tractor dealership on the north end. “People of all different opinions and beliefs. The playing field is wide down here.”

On our way back to our cars we see a Ford SUV with a message on the rear windshield imploring “Rag Heads” to “knock it off” and the legend: “Allah called. He’s out of virgins.”

Also: a peace symbol with the description, “footprint of the American chicken” and a Confederate States of America sticker.

We laugh about it over dinner that night.

Though my family has been in Greensboro for more than six years, TD and his wife Mrs. D are the first friends of ours who’ve come down to visit. Most of them thought we’d fallen off the face of the earth and relocated to some vague destination south of Washington DC, which perhaps we have.

We get this all the time: “Where are you? Greenville? Is that North or South Carolina? That’s pretty close to Atlanta, right?”

So when the Ds came down, mainly to eat barbecue at the Lexington street festival, I developed a side agenda: to show them Greensboro’s best face.

That means downtown on a Saturday night, and on this particular Saturday the ranks of sidewalk revelers are swelled by NC A&T Homecoming and the Furniture Market in High Point.

We hit Thai Pan on Elm Street and watch the long line for the A&T bash at the Empire Room move slowly past the windows.

It doesn’t hurt that the two have internalized a particular brand of New York bitterness – “They should pay me to live in New York,” my friend said. And it helps that the restaurant was exceptional – “This is one of the nicest Thai places I’ve been to, and I’ve been to like twenty.” But I feel a surge of pride for the city where I live.

Elm Street is resplendent, with well-mannered throngs jamming the thoroughfare, bright new signage above Triad Stage at the Pyrle Theater, the time and temperature faithfully broadcast from the top of the Lincoln Financial Building and free parking in the garages.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” TD says. “It’s not what I expected. I thought it would be more like Lexington. I thought it would be more small-town, more rural, like a bunch of towns cobbled together to make a fake city.”

The Manhattanites are impressed most of all, of course, by the free parking.

I make fun of my friend for being useless all the time; I have been doing it since we were roommates in college and I would routinely humiliate him at Tecmo Bowl on my Nintendo NES with my split-back combination of Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen.

But he has one extraordinary talent: Put a menu in this kid’s hands and he will always order the best thing on it.

At Thai Pan he fixates on the duck curry after exhaustive study of the listings. He lays into the food with unbridled zeal.

“Seriously, this is awesome,” he says. “And I eat Thai for lunch like three times a week.”

My dish is not as good, so we share the curry, slurping our way through a couple servings each. And though we don’t appreciate it at the moment, I later reflect that in that minute the two of us – both former fat kids – have more in common with the portly boy at the Lexington Barbecue Festival than either would care to admit.