Charleston Chili Special

If Orange County feels new—if it feels that the land beneath my feet was turned from cow pasture or wheat to multinational corporate headquarters with no stops in between—that may be a product of the fact that I have just returned from Charleston, South Carolina

One of this country's least-gentrified Southern jewels, Charleston has a stately, lush beauty that simultaneously straightens your posture while slowing your cadence. The unique double-galleried architecture of its oldest mansions put a premium on veranda space. None of them have workout rooms. You can start out hurrying through Charleston's cobbled streets past centuries-old wrought ironworks while clutching your guidebook and fingering your pager, but soon enough, the languid rhythms of the low country will overtake you and you'll find yourself sipping a cool mint julep on a porch somewhere, pondering dinner.

When that happens, meander over to Alice's Fine Foods, where you can get anything Southern you want (excepting Alice, of course). Serving up okra, grits, red-eyed gravy and Coca-Cola cake (yes, that's cake made with Georgia's most famous export), Alice's is a rare treat—a tourist attraction that's also favored by the locals. There are plenty of other good eats to find downtown. The Hominy Grill is a fine site for a Sunday brunch or a portabella-mushroom sandwich. Blossom Caf, the best of all, is a bit pricy but worth it—plus, you can sit outside. Be sure to steer clear of the tourist-trap restaurants in the Market Street area.

Charleston is also a great city for walking and—notwithstanding its unconscionable number of one-way streets—biking, which is how I came upon the most ethereal scene I have witnessed.

One hot Charleston afternoon not long ago, I biked past a restaurant advertising a "Lunch Special": chili and grilled cheese for $2.25. Considering that two and a quarter for a steaming-hot lunch would have been a good deal back when the White House pet was named Checkers, I dismounted, locked my rig to a lamppost, and darted hungrily into the diner. Amid a gallery of empty seats, one somewhat disheveled customer sat on a counter stool, staring at the cook, who was staring at the floor. A rather portly waitress was berthed at the counter, drawing sedately on a cigarette. No one spoke, and it seemed as if the silence had been undisturbed for a week.

No matter; I was there to grub, not chitchat. But my boisterous entrance went completely unacknowledged, and nobody came forward to take my order. So I cleared my throat and crisply announced to all concerned that I'd like to have the "Lunch Special." Nobody moved. That's all right, I figured, these folks might be kinda leery of a visitor rushing in and demanding hot beans. So I paused to let my edict penetrate the silence and struck up the cause again.

"Um, I'd like the chili special," I reiterated, taking a hesitant step toward the waitress. She shifted her gaze from the ashtray to the cook, squinted at him through her glasses, and asked, "What you say, Les?"

"No, it wasn't Les; it was me," I said. "I said I'd like to have the chili special."

By now, I had requested service three times. By now, if I had been in one of my native, rapid-fire, "why-don't-they-make-cell-phones-waterproof-so-I-don't-have-to-waste-time-in-the-shower, hey-gimme-my-lunch-NOW-motherfucker" Southern California eateries, I would have been thrown out for loitering.

And then Les smiled curiously at me and answered, "Special? I don't believe we have a special."

"But it says so on the chalkboard outside."

"Yeah?" He seemed genuinely surprised, and I scanned his face in vain for a hint of sarcasm. Nudging the waitress, he asked, "Hey, Edna, we got a special today?" The word "special" sounded foreign, like I'd asked him to roll me up a haggis gyro or flamb a plate of ostrich tongues.

Edna shifted on her stool, assessing me for the first time. "Special? What's so special?"

"I think it's your chili," I said, chuckling. "At least that's what the chalkboard claims."

I gestured toward the front door with my thumb.

At this point, Les the cook meandered out from behind the counter with a furrowed brow and an investigatory stroke of his chin. "Well," he muttered, "lemme just see here." He gave me a wave of the arm to join him, and we shuffled outside together, shielding our eyes from the late-afternoon sun. With both arms folded about his chest, he peered back and slowly read aloud the chalkboard, broadcasting the much-maligned chili-and-grilled-cheese deal.

"WELL, I SAY! I guess we do! Sheee! Look, if that's what you want, I'll make it for you!"

"Thanks," I said, as we walked back inside.

Spying a newspaper vending machine across the street, I asked Les for change for a dollar. Big mistake. Gotta keep these people on-task. Here I was delaying even further the very agent responsible for grilling my sandwich. "Hmmm, a dollar . . ." He proceeded to s . . . l . . . o . . . w . . . l . . . y and tenderly pat his entire body down as if some coins might be hidden not only in his pockets but also in his armpits and kneecaps. When his probe proved unfruitful, Les bellowed, "Hey, Edna! You got change for a dollar?"

"A dollar? Nope."

I feared another erotic-coin-jig a-brewing, but Edna remained rooted to the stool.

Taking the matter in hand, I attempted to advance the stalled mission. "What about the cash register? Think there might be some change in there?"

"Well," said Les, "then I'd have to open it up."

As I was pondering just why that was so implausible, the mute customer suddenly burrowed into his jeans and produced a handful of coins and pocket lint and thrust it at me with nary a grunt.

I approached the door, coins now in hand. Les noticed me leaving and shouted, "Hey, you still want your chili special?"

"Yeah," I replied.

"Then why you leaving?"

"I'm just going across the street," I said. "To get the newspaper."

At this, Edna suddenly perked up. "You gettin' a newspaper?" she bellowed. "THEN GIT ME ONE!"

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