Seven years ago, I worked a job in downtown Durham. I often got my lunch at King’s Sandwich Shop, a tiny, white building with a window and a few picnic tables under an awning. It was located beyond the center field wall of the old Durham Athletic Park, and when I got my order I’d climb the fence at one of the gates of the park, bag of sandwiches in hand, hop over, and eat my lunch in the bleachers watching the heat.
King’s had some of the best sandwiches I’d ever tasted; a chili cheeseburger with onion rings seemed capable of arresting both heart and soul. The only difficulty was, the King’s staff and I found each other mutually incomprehensible. Ordering water was particularly difficult; I always had to repeat myself several times, and the farce usually ended in pantomime. I practiced enunciating the word while walking over; I even quizzed friends and tried a local accent–all to no avail.
Now I’m working in downtown Durham again. Times are leaner, and I usually bring my lunch, but King’s is still there, and this week I went for old time’s sake. I’ve lived in the area now for the better part of 10 years, and I wasn’t worried about ordering anymore (though I brought my own water). I’ve become fond of and comfortable in the South; a year in rural Person County and a home-grown roommate who has read The Encyclopedia of the South cover to cover will do that to you.
Time has changed me less than I thought, and King’s not at all. No eggs after 10, bread or bun, toasted or plain, tomatoes and lettuce versus onions, slaw, and chili–every item I attempted to order was a linguistic and cultural minefield. The clerk was exasperated with my incomprehension and unusual tastes; it took several humiliating minutes to get my order straightened out and to pay. Behind my back I could feel the eyebrow-raised amusement of other lunch-rush customers. I waited nervously for my food; when a bag was finally pushed through the window I grabbed it and began to walk away, eager to escape. An outcry ensued from both staff and customers: I’d taken another man’s sandwich. As I sheepishly returned it, the cook appeared in the window next to the squawking clerk, and informed me that if I stuck my hand in there again I’d get a spanking.
The buzz-cut, mustachioed, round-bodied contractor next in line stepped to the counter. “Hon, I just want a lemonade,” he said. Understood.