3 min read

Day 30: Bojangles Territory

Day 30: Bojangles Territory
The old Park Center, in Charlotte, NC

Charlotte, NC (Population: 873,570)/Mecklenburg County (2020 Election Results: +35 Biden)

Miles Driven: 114.48 (5,849.84 total/Cups of Coffee: 2 (81 total)/Lowest Gas Price: $4.35/Number of States Visited: 23

Lodging: Some dude's house (Airbnb)

It's hard to get all three right--the fried chicken, the sides, and the biscuit. KFC might get two out of three; Church's Chicken, not so much. But Bojangles, man. The red seasoning on fries that are crispy yet thick, the browned biscuit, those dark meat thighs, not to mention the sweet iced tea (and I don't even like iced tea).

As I headed south from NYC/New Jersey a few days ago, billboards foreshadowed the changing culture--Fireworks! (independent of the 4th of July), and once I crossed into Virginia, those blue highway food signs signaling the impending ubiquity of Bojangles, the--yes I'm going to say it--best fast food in the nation.

I've spent little time in North Carolina since going to college here twenty years ago, and whenever I return, I'm struck by the unexpected natural beauty of a simple drive down a two-lane highway. The mix of beeches, elms, and conifers engulfs me, the lush green forest yielding to mountains in the west and sloping to thin ribbons of sand, the famous barrier islands, to the east.

Baptist churches fill the space, with their manicured lawns and long driveways. I pass through a small town with multiple signs for "Trump Town," a souvenir stand festooned with red-white-and-blue tchotchkes begging for a 2024 run (and even hawking Trump ice cream!) and covered with Confederate flags. Wander a few exits down and you will find roadside porn stores and, at least when I was in college, strip clubs serving diner food with names like Cafe Risque (yes, I went). The contrast of pious and prurient has always underscored the region's identity crisis, haunted by its past and unsure of its present. A beautiful, repressed place.

The South has also long been a hotbed of professional wrestling, but of a very different flavor than the WWF, which while now national, has its roots in the northeast. To wrestling purists, the best wrestling was down in Dixie, pinioned in places like Charlotte, where promoter Jim Crockett ran shows every Monday night at the Park Center. While the WWF featured a more plodding pace of matches and, in the 1980s, a cast of cartoon characters, southern rasslin' was more athletic, more real. More Ric Flair, less Hulk Hogan.

To initiate myself, I seek out the Park Center, where so many of the wrestlers I'm writing about sweated and literally bled for a living. Now called the Grady Cole Center, it's an unpretentious building with blue doors numbered 1-6, looking like it's probably changed little since the days of Tony Atlas and the Masked Superstar. The doors are locked, but I close my eyes and imagine a smoke-filled, cavernous interior with chairs pressed around the ring in a time before guardrails and plasma screens.

7/22/68 at the Park Center

On this Fourth of July, the sky darkens and finally relents. Lines of rain streak down from above, forming little pools and rivulets that grow quickly in size, the tap-tap-tapping of fresh drops drawing tiny cirlces that dance like dozens of flashbulbs going off in a dark arena. My notebook starts to bleed blue, the lines getting fuzzier, the paper useless. I quickly fold it up and put it away, turning my face upwards. Cars whoosh by on the nearby street, and sirens wail in the distance.

I am still, and cool. After a month on the road, I exhale.


Brad Balukjian is on a nine-week road trip, driving 16,000 miles around the country for his next book, The Six Pack, to be published by Hachette in 2024, about myth vs. reality in pro wrestling and the true identities of 1980s WWF wrestlers. To read past posts, click on the back arrow below.