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Seeking Soft-serve

Our trip to exurbia

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If you live in Charlotte and want to be around people who really are different from you, don't bother going to places like downtown or Plaza-Midwood because they're chock full of folks who are trying to be original but in ways that are pretty much the same. Tattoos, piercings, and edgy purses are becoming as staid as little white gloves since so many urbanites display them as proof that they're unique individuals -- just like everybody else.

No, if you want to see people who are truly distinct from you, with no conscious effort to be, go to a small town -- a real one, not just a fake model maintained to ensnare tourists, like our good friends in Blowing Rock. Once you get to the town, head for some hopping gathering place like, say, a soft-serve ice cream store. You'll see fellow humans who exist in a style that your hip, urban self thought had disappeared a few decades ago.

Every year after we see the McAdenville lights, we stop by a soft-serve place in a nearby town. It's part of a chain that's opened a number of shiny new slots in suburban shopping centers recently, but this location is one of the originals -- a squat, grimy brick structure that was probably built at least 40 years ago. The joint's sign is burned out so you could easily miss it along the unlit road but apparently the locals could find it blind because the line for the drive-through window is always wrapped around the building and inside it's jumpin', even on cold winter nights.

This time, I noticed when we walked in that all faces immediately looked our way. Now when you go into a city restaurant people check you out, but they're too cool to do it openly, and they're also less likely to assume that they might actually know who you are. I looked back, and concluded that we had left the land of the carefully maintained, judging by the number of mugs that were doughy, slit-eyed, and ever so slightly gray.

In fact, there seemed to be a faint gray film clinging to the air and everything else; it wasn't as obvious as smoke, but was the residue that builds up from the constant co-mingling of those two former restaurant faves, tobacco fumes and fryer grease. Technically the place had a "smoking section" consisting of two rows of booths equipped with black ashtrays, but since it's all one big room, it made absolutely no difference as fresh plumes of smoke reached across to the rest of us before sliding up toward the ceiling.

"They're smoking over there," my son hissed in the scandalized tone of the latest generation to be drilled on the evils of tobacco, but I found it kind of quaint, especially since we weren't there to actually eat a meal; nobody goes to a soft-serve place to have dinner, right?

Actually, that's another thing way different beyond the city limits. Looking around, I began to suspect there's a fanatical fringe version of the Atkins Plan calling for massive consumption of fries, cheeseburgers, sodas and sundaes. There sure were lots of trays loaded with all of the above and balanced on wide girths as their handlers triumphantly bore them down the aisle.

A number of tray bearers were still dressed up in what looked like church clothes even though it was early evening, so apparently church can take all day in some places and this was their ritual Sunday sacrifice to the heart-attack god, polished off with a good, long smoke. The men in suits actually wore tiepins, a piece of adornment I thought was extinct, and now looks much more exotic than earrings on men.

When a man would come in, he'd greet the other men in line with a "How you?" as he headed for its end. Can they really know everybody, I wondered, but concluded that they were hailing all males, acquaintances and strangers alike, in a social ritual that would draw strange looks in the city.

Soon, one kind of female I haven't seen in awhile bopped in: the bubbly, blonde child-mother. This girl, looking at most 15, proudly carried a baby out in front of her like it was a doll she'd found under the Christmas tree. An equally young boy shuffled in behind her and took a seat while she waited in line, still holding a bundle she didn't yet appear to realize the full weight of.

Another baby in a pink suit was being passed around an extended family taking up most of the smoking section. There she went, from stoic Dad in a hunter's cap, to a cousin in curler-shaped curls and a cheerleader's uniform, to Mom whose face was starting to harden into a mask, and back to puffing, laughing Grandma. That she had so many hands to go to seemed more typical of this huffing hut on a dark road than a city full of people dug up from their first soil.

I left, resolving to say, "How you?" to a stranger or two.

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