I left Upstate South Carolina at age 18. In the seven years that followed I went to art school, managed a record store, fell in love, got a dog, dropped out of art school, appeared in a movie, got rid of the dog, moved to Los Angeles, was mistaken for Bobcat Goldthwait by Don Rickles, worked on a dozen movies and one TV show, lost the girl, got some cats, watched the city go up in flames, missed the dog, was shot at in a drive-by, and lost my fucking mind.
I drove around Spartanburg in my rental car with nowhere to go. All I’d accomplished in the last 12 hours was to put 2,500 miles between Hollywood Boulevard, the prospect of a motorcycle suicide, and me. That was something, of course, but I no longer had a home in my hometown. At some point during those seven years my parents left South Carolina. My sisters were long gone, too. The verdant kudzu and rusty soil may have served as an emotional anchor, but I had nowhere to stay, no one to visit, nothing to do. I was adrift in a town that was no longer my home.
So I drifted. I drove around and listened to Living Colour’s Stain. I rode by my first apartment, the old house that was a brothel before my roommates and I rented it for $250 per month. Now it was home to a law firm. I cruised past the parking garage where those same roommates and I were jumped, but there was nothing intimidating about it now. Onward to the shop where I bought my first good bike. I still had the bike, but the shop was gone.
I stopped at the Sub Station and order a number 13 with extra vinegar and oil. The sandwich was every bit as good as I remembered, and the same High Speed pinball machine stood in the corner. I jammed it full of quarters and pissed away a couple of hours racking up free games and cursing the machine for somehow cheating me.
Every town has its local spot that makes the best something. Everything about Sub Station’s sandwiches struck me as perfect: their bread’s texture, the acidity of their vinegar, the thickness of their onion slices, even how they shredded their lettuce. Sub Station made perfect sandwiches.
My first summer home from art school I noticed that a new sandwich shop had opened in Boiling Springs, the small town outside of Spartanburg in which my parents lived. The name implied that it might somehow be related to Sub Station and it was several miles closer to home, so I gave it a shot. Their bread was mushy and flavorless, the vegetables bland, and the meat no better than grocery store lunch meat. The furniture consisted of the uncomfortable yellow molded fiberglass benches typical of a fast food restaurant and there wasn’t a pinball machine in the corner. The owners couldn’t have sent a stronger message that they wanted us to shovel down their mealy sandwiches and get out, yet the place was packed.
“Is it always so busy?” I asked the lady wedged into the adjacent feeding booth.
“At lunch it is,” she said.
“Why? The food sucks.”
“I like it.”
“Have you ever been to Sub Station?”
“That’s old,” she said. “Subway is a real chain. I never thought Boiling Springs would get a big chain.”
What some see as signs of progress others recognize as moles with irregular borders. That Subway was the first sign of a franchise cancer that tore through Boiling Springs, claiming Ronnie’s Pharmacy, Gregory’s Barbershop, Kimbrell’s Clothing, most of the houses along Highway 9, more than a few fields, and the Community Cash grocery store. And all for the convenience of a shitty sandwich that on its best day doesn’t taste as good as Sub Station’s wrappers.
When I was pinballed out I drove over to the mall to see whether Camelot Music was still there. Not only was it still open, but the guy who got me my first record store gig was standing behind the counter. We visited for a little bit, then we walked out to his car so that he could sell me a guitar. I stuffed it into the trunk of my rental and went back inside. At the mall’s bookstore I ran into a close friend from high school who offered me a place to crash while I was in town.
These somewhat chance encounters lifted my spirits. Two out of three places I visited brought me in touch with kind people who seemed genuinely glad to see me. This stood in stark contrast to Los Angeles, where I was alone in the middle of four million people; where my friends were names in an address book filled with film industry contacts. I didn’t have friends in L.A., so much as a network, but in Spartanburg I could drop into a couple of shops and leave with a guitar and a place to stay.
I drove over to the Sugar-N-Spice, home of the best souvlaki in the Upstate. The guy in front of me in line shot me a look and said, “Jim Stafford?”
“James, but yeah.”
“Hey, man. Casey, from high school.”
“No shit? How you doing, man?” We ate together, then I followed him over to his place, where we listened to Led Zeppelin III and smoked a joint while we caught up.
“You know that girl you moved to California with doesn’t work too far from here. I see her all the time,” Casey said.
“Ah, man. You don’t want to go over there. We got good tunes, a nice buzz. Just crash here, man. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want.”
“Thanks, but I already told a friend I’m crashing at her place. So where does Jody work?”
She stood behind the bar, beautiful as ever. It took a moment for her to recognize me with my head shaved. “You’re cool again,” she said. “I like that tattoo. What is it?”
“Just a commemorative thing.”
“What does it commemorate?”
“Nothing,” I said. “So what’s up with you?”
“Nothing much. Just living with Mama and working here,” she said. “Did you move back home?”
“No, still in L.A. Still in the same apartment. Just came for a visit.”
“Well I’m glad you did. You look great.” She gave me a beer.
“So do you miss it?”
“L.A.? Yeah, I do.”
“Why don’t you come back?”
“I’m going to when I save up enough,” she said.
“You still dating that guy?”
“No. Don’t remind me. What an asshole he turned out to be.”
“Do you regret it?”
“Dumping me for him.”
Thunderclouds formed where her smile once shined. “Jesus Christ. Not this shit again,” she said.
“What? No shit. It was just a question,” I said.
“It’s never just a question with you. You dig and you dig and you dig. Just let it go. It’s the past,” Jody said.
“Well, I just wanted to say hi while I was in town.” There didn’t seem to be any point in describing the winds that blew me across the country, the desperate need to latch onto something, anything, before I drifted away forever. “See you around,” I said. We didn’t speak for ten years after that; in fact, I didn’t even speak her name for a decade.
Aside from an awkward run in with Chuck the Magnificent, that evening with Jody was my only bad experience during that week long visit to the Piedmont. I returned to Hollywood no longer suicidal but convinced that it was time for a change. It was time to leave Los Angeles.