Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A long view of Charlotte

Last night a guy named Matt Lassiter taught me more about Charlotte in two hours than I've learned in years.

Lassiter is a University of Michigan professor who recently published a book called "The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South." He spoke at the Levine Museum of the New South to a crowd of a couple of hundred -- they kept dragging in chairs to handle the overflow.

He studied Charlotte along with Atlanta, Richmond and several other Southern cities to see how they dealt with the big issues of the past 50 years -- mainly, growth and integration.

A couple of revelations (or at least they were to me):

-- Charlotte was one of the most integrated Southern cities 50 or 60 years ago, before several key decisions -- mainly zoning laws, and decisions on where to put the interstate highways -- pushed black families into the same neighborhoods.

-- The language used by Charlotteans in the battle over school integration in the '60s is exactly the same as what we use today. Lassiter dug up quotes from old newspaper stories and interviews. Some people wanted their kids in the school closest to home; others wanted diversity, and wanted their kids to have a shot at the schools with the best facilities. You could've stuck the quotes in any schools story today without changing a word.

-- The most interesting point: He gave Charlotte credit for at least still talking about the direction of the schools. He said most cities (including Detroit, where he lives) gave up long ago. White kids make up less than 10 percent of the population in a lot of big-city school districts. Governments create separate suburban districts, or parents send their kids to private schools or just move away.

So are we beating our heads against a wall? Or is the conversation still worthwhile? Comments, debates, arguments below.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Remembrance of pit-stops past

Had some relatives in town the past few days. A couple of the guys are NASCAR fans so we rode up to the speedway, then stopped by the Hendrick Motorsports complex nearby. The race shops there include the ones for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. (If you speak Racin', that would be "the 24" and "the 48.")

There's also a fairly cool (and free!) museum. But the one thing that sticks with me was a box on the counter in the gift shop:


There were 20 or 30 of 'em in there, all with chipped yellow paint. Could've been from one of Gordon's Daytona wins. Could've been from a minivan out in the parking lot. The sign didn't say.

I'm thinking about a tearful moment, three or four days after a funeral, a family sitting around the dining-room table. There's a gentle thunk on the table, followed by a moment of silence as everybody stares at the thing in the Ziploc bag. And then somebody says: OK, y'all. It's time to decide who gets Daddy's lug nut.

So what's the most bizarre souvenir you've ever seen for sale? What's the weirdest one you've ever bought? And more important: What's the souvenir that still has some sort of hold on you, even now?

Comments, stories, tearful revelations below.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Have a seat

Picture your favorite table, the place where you have the best conversations. Maybe it's a corner in the back of a bar. Maybe it's your regular spot at the diner. Maybe it's at home in your kitchen. Comfortable chairs, cold beverages, interesting company.

You talk about anything, everything, and when the night's done you realize you never once looked at your watch.

That's what I want this space to be like.

Every so often I'll throw out something to talk about -- a story that's not quite a column, some chatter from life in the city, little flakes of things that move me in some way.

Feel free to help steer the conversation. I'm not sure where this is going. That's what makes it fun.

Let's get started.

April is such a great sports month -- the Final Four, the Masters, the start of baseball season. The time when gifted athletes do things they'll talk about in their rocking-chair years.

But the quasi-jocks among us, the ones who never made it past church-league softball -- we have our stories, too.

Here’s mine:

Mid-1980s, Panama City Beach, a club called the Spinnaker. We’re drinking some kind of watermelon punch that comes in a bucket, and we’re sitting on the top deck, three stories off the ground. Below us, maybe 75 feet out on the beach, there’s a garbage can.

I take a hunk of watermelon rind and aim for the can. Thunk – right in the bottom. High-fives all around.

But a fluke. Right?

Couple minutes later, I break off another chunk of rind and say Watch this. As soon as I let it go, I can tell it's way off to the right -- but then the wind kicks up off the waves, and the rind arcs left, a celestial curveball.

Dead center of the can.

Applause from the bar. Bragging rights for years. I can still close my eyes and see it, except now the trash can is 200 yards away, and orchestral music swells in the background, and I am played by Brad Pitt.

So how about you? What's your one semi-shining moment? Don't be shy -- we'll accept everything from bowling to horseshoes to Madden. (Not Asteroids, though. NOBODY could whip me at Asteroids.)