With the exception of an ATM machine, stowed in the corner behind the drink fridge, Price’s Chicken Coop is proudly low-tech. They do fried chicken and anything else that can be drowned into the bubbling sea behind the counter. The main menu posted overhead was yellowed with vegetable oil and looked as if it had been carefully handwritten by someone’s grandmother. Price’s entire staff, dressed in white with matching aprons, all milled underneath a bowing ceiling and cheap fluorescent lights. The older ladies manning the registers were dishing out plenty of southern drawl along with my change as they don’t take credit cards and probably never plan to. The place was packed with a socioeconomic mix of customers who had double-parked and ran inside to grab to-go boxes of a quarter chicken white or dark, plus two sides.
Price’s must have been what Kentucky Fried Chicken was like when it was merely a dive serving home-cooked food along Interstate 75 during the Depression and way before it was just a meaningless acronym. Once I received the freshly fried thigh and leg I ran out to my car with the anticipation of children at Christmas. Since a mess and myself aren’t separated for long, I decided to lean against the outside of the Camry instead of greasing up the inside and enjoy my prize in the afternoon sun. Good fried chicken is mainly in the quality of the batter but if the meat underneath is tender and well cooked then it can be deemed great fried chicken. But truthfully, it’s almost impossible to run across bad fried chicken.
The thin white paper was quickly peeled away and my fingers stabbed the hot, glimmering skin and quickly delivered it to my impatient mouth. It was a really well-seasoned batter. Good crunch. Below was tender meat to be sure, but a little rubbery. It was really good fried chicken, but I couldn’t call it great. Of course, you wouldn’t know that by the way I went from zero to cartilage in far less than sixty seconds.
Regardless, Price’s is a bright, glistening spot in an otherwise bland city when it comes to the edible and, I’ve found, when it comes to pretty much everything else. Charlotte is just one of those places I don’t get. I’ve tried to get it, over repeated visits, but I’ve rarely been somewhere that can’t claim at least one clear identity. You can’t even call it an identity crisis because that only occurs when there is a struggle between competing identities. But every time I go there, I can’t find any signs of struggle at all. Charlotte’s sprawling footprint is just stamped into the soil of southern North Carolina with seemingly few discernible tread marks.
Charlotte is shiny. Everything is new and bright. The downtown cluster is a polished zirconium, barely bigger than the five-minute drive from one end to the other. A few impressive examples of public sculpture sit at the handful of major intersections but they mostly seem like paperweights. There are a couple of small parks below the concrete and glass but I never see that many people gathering there. During daytime hours, hordes of business casual and formal scatter from the skyscrapers invading lunch spots and parking garages like ants on a timer. At night, save for a few lame bar strips and the occasional Bobcats game, the downtown area is fairly quiet. Charlotte is far from the only city with a downtown that dies after five but I’m sure an autopsy would reveal that it was dead on arrival.
Outside of downtown (actually called Uptown) are vast stretches of residential areas, many of them affluent and upscale. Some much further down the scale. Yet they all have one thing in common. While Kansas City may be the “City of Fountains” and Venice the “City of Bridges” it may be completely apt to christen Charlotte the “City of Retail”. How many malls and plazas does one metro area need? Every chain and department store you’ve ever heard of is well represented. At the South Park Mall, just south of Uptown (downtown), roving gangs of bored, upper middle class teenagers share the high-end mall brands with over-tanned cougars and ladies-who-lunch-a-bunch. The shopping plazas situated closer to the I485 beltway are sometimes so immense and labyrinthine that I consistently get lost trying to find the exit.
There are slightly more interesting neighborhoods. The South End, where Price’s sits, is a tiny pocket of art galleries and boutiques. By ‘tiny pocket’ I mean the microscopic one above the right pocket on a pair of jeans. Dilworth has a beautiful park situated in the middle and a couple of interesting places to eat. Plaza Midwood has Lunchbox Records, a rare independent record store, as well as some out of the ordinary shops. North Davidson, referred to as the grating ‘NoDa’, isn’t as interesting as its online boosters try to make you believe. I remember walking down its main drag last year, anxious to find something appealing in the city my parents retired near. All I could see were tattoo parlors, a lot of tie-dye in windows and some tired galleries. I stuck my head into uninteresting bars and unenticing restaurants. Disappointed, I got back into the car and before long found myself lost in a shopping plaza parking lot.
Harsh? Perhaps, but as a traveler and a person who writes about travel I really try to find the positive about every place I go, even if the negative has me in a headlock. But I’m sure whoever is reading this, especially if they live in and love Charlotte, is wondering what it is that interests me and/or what my fucking problem is. Personally, I want to see the story of a place unfold through its architecture, neighborhoods, food and people. I want to see attempts at not just preserving, but acknowledging the past, glorious or not. Charlotte predates the American Revolution in which it played a minor, yet not insignificant role. The Civil War had more than touched the city. A walk through the very well-done Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South on East Seventh Street and I learned the same could be said for Charlotte’s role during the civil rights struggles of the 60s. But you wouldn’t know any of that from even a cursory drive through town. It’s like the exhibit was referring to some other city.
Corporate encroachment and gentrification are realities and not always negative ones but it’s the independent, mom-and-pop spirit that excites me. The natural beauty of a place is always more interesting when you have to try and not run into a big box store. I’m drawn to locals who are proud of their city or town, who you know are just waiting for you to ask them to show you around. I like locals who want to make where they live better. That’s what keeps my wick lit.
But even in haystack beige, there is the occasional speck of color. One of those specks is Not Just Coffee, a horseshoe bar well hidden in the 7th Street Market downtown. The name is misleading as they really only serve coffee but once you have a sip of their very well-made cappuccinos you realize that the word ‘Just’ was meant to be italicized. It’s a serious shop under a roof housing other local food ventures doing something far different than what’s outside the market’s tall glass windows. I was encouraged, so much so that I ordered another cup of just coffee in a piping hot show of solidarity.
If you’re going to venture anywhere, though, you have to take your destination as what it is; mall parking lots, indie coffee shops and all. Sometimes, your destination has nothing to do with the actual place you are trying to get to but to a place you imagine or hope for. Everyone does it. Maybe I initially imagined Charlotte as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city where ribbons of a colorful and painful past are interwoven into its inevitable present. Maybe I was wrong. Since family is nearby, I’m going to be in Charlotte quite often and I hope there are many opportunities to be proven wrong. The best travel is all about being proven wrong.
WHAT: the wonderfully shabby vibe at Price’s Chicken Coop
WHEN: June 21, 2013
WHERE: Price’s Chicken Coop, Charlotte, North Carolina, United States