Changes cheery and not

seen in downtown Salisbury, N.C.

I noticed that many things had changed downtown on my first return to Salisbury, N.C. after leaving in the early 1980s. There were not one, but two wine shops downtown, right across the street from each other. An actual coffee bar. And an Asian restaurant not decorated with red paper lanterns. The beautiful bookstore where I did a cookbook signing, Literary Bookpost, had once been a Rack Room shoe store (where, I found out later, the chain used to send its ugliest shoes on purpose).

In less happy changes, the Coffee Cove was gone. It was a counter-top downtown diner where I first met peanut butter pie. And the general store – a real, live general store, where they had anything you could possibly be looking for, if the staff could only find it – had gone touristy.

However, some things had not changed, as this sign bears witness to the town’s continuing fascination with its native drink, Cheerwine. I had never heard of the stuff when I arrived there in 1979, revved up for my first job out of journalism school. By the time I left, I had seen just about everything done with Cheerwine possible, from cakes to Jell-O molds – but not this. In memory, I used the soft drink in a recipe in “Wings: More Than 50 Recipes for America’s Favorite Snack.”


The flight of Al’s Night Hawk

The post on Twitter asked for information on “unheralded, unknown beer joints.” And it brought back to me the most unheralded, (but not unknown in its town) beer joint I’ve ever visited. It was the kind of borderline unsavory place that inspires scenes in novels and epic excuses to spouses. Pretty good for a place with little seating.

Al’s Night Hawk was located on the main drag through Salisbury, N.C., a bit off the street. The building, when I knew it in the early 1980s, had been built to be a drive-in burger joint in the ’50s. And it still served hot dogs, which I was advised by natives to avoid. Food was not the draw. You pulled in at most any hour, got a beer, and sat in your car and drank it. I was assured that its reputation was better than its appearance.

I was a reporter at the Salisbury Post, which was an evening paper then. That meant we went in early, and the deadline for copy was around noon. One winter day, a giant snowstorm threatened. The publisher moved up the deadlines so that carriers could get the paper delivered before the blizzard. He told the reporters and editors to put out a small edition, then go to our homes to hunker down. When we were done, a few little flakes were falling. We had a free afternoon off. We weren’t about to go home.

Two other reporters and I got in the managing editor’s car. The small town had locked up tight in fear of the white blast, but he knew one place would be open. We crept down the whitening street and saw the friendly lights of Al’s Night Hawk.  We were the only car in the lot, but that didn’t matter. The ME went in to buy the first round. After the fourth trip inside, the Al’s folks did suggest that they might be wanting to close, and the snow was starting to pile up on the hood. We admitted it was probably time to hunker.

Al’s is gone now. I don’t remember now what we talked about or what we drank, although I’m sure it was something cheap in a can. But I remember the feeling of being let loose from school on a snow day, with people I not only worked with but enjoyed being with. Even in a car in a seedy parking lot.