From around the age of six until I obtained a driver’s license, Vernon Park Mall was the social hub of Lenoir County.
Every Saturday for a decade I’d ride to Kinston with my grandparents. We’d eat supper at the Golden Corral on Vernon Avenue, located in the building that is currently home to El Norteno. Just like church, we sat in the same place every week – the window table facing the paint store across the street. To this day whenever I see a Sherwin-Williams sign I crave a steak.
Avoid the box store blues with a visit to Blizzard Building Supply, located at 405 Walson Avenue, Kinston.
There was nothing highfalutin about the food, but the sirloin steak/baked potato/Texas toast combo was solid. Truth be told, the Texas toast probably weighed more than the steak. When the juices from the steak crashed into the A-1/57 mixture and spread to the edge of the bread, everything was right with the world for a few seconds.
My grandma kept a small washcloth in a Ziploc bag in her purse in case the napkins on the table weren’t up to snuff. Longtime readers will remember this is the same lady who ate Cheetos with a fork.
After the Golden Corral, we’d always go to the mall where most of my grandparents’ siblings and their spouses would also turn up. The men would sit on the benches and solve the world’s problems. The women would walk around the mall looking for bargains or returning bargains from the previous week.
Most of the men who sat on the main bench between the jewelry store and what was then Stacy’s restaurant were related by blood or marriage, but like guest stars on a sitcom, there were always different characters floating in and out of the rotation. At the time 100 percent of my kin on the bench were farmers, but doctors, lawyers, and all manner of “professional” people ended up sharing space on the bench as well.
There was also a real character of a guy who wore giant, metallic, multi-colored hats that he crafted himself. An online plea for the man’s name hit pay dirt thanks to Chris Maroules: The Hat Man’s name was Fred Dixon, nicknamed ‘House’. These hats looked like something out of a New Orleans parade, a UFO, or both. With the proper strap, one could use the hat to go parasailing or pick up Radio Free Europe.
As Cory Stuart commented on social media, “his hats were extremely unique; they should’ve been hanging in a local art gallery.”
Mr. Dixon always had a brewing smile on his face, as if he’d just found a $5 bill in a coat he hadn’t worn in years. On more than one occasion I witnessed a total stranger walk up to him and buy the hat right off of his head.
My granddaddy and his brothers were usually dressed in khaki pants, plaid button-up shirts, and Members Only jackets. To see them sharing the same bench with a guy who was wearing what was essentially a full-scale topographic map of Las Vegas on his head was surreal. Mr. Dixon always asked me how I was doing in school, but most of the time he and the other men on the bench shared stories about their tours of duty in World War II.
For most of those years there was a Waldenbooks store in the mall, and every week I’d go in and read a bit of the same comic book novel that featured Batman and Superman in the same story. They must have kept that book on the shelf specifically for me because I think it was there for several years. Then there was the magazine section that doubled as a public library for many. I remember the poor cashiers trying to shoo people away who were brazen enough to sit on the floor and read magazines from beginning to end without paying for them. These people are now adults who believe every cuckoo claim on the internet is actual news.
Around the age of 13 or so, I’d start to meet up with a buddy or two at the mall, usually spending most of the time sitting in a booth at Stacy’s. My truant friends and I would usually be heckled by my uncles. Like a herd of Don Rickles, they’d give us endless guff, but there’s something about being goofed on by a group of old men that was endearing – we actually looked forward to it. When one of the men on the bench told a friend of mine the water levels of the Neuse River once got so high you could see under it, he was catatonic for nearly half an hour.
Once I turned 16 I got my driver’s license and felt I’d graduated from hanging out in the mall. I was now ready for the next phase of life: driving around the mall. I never fit in with the crowd that hung out on the hill behind the mall, and driving around the mall lost its allure after five minutes. Even if you caught the Belk’s sign in the right light, driving past it more than four times in an evening causes even a goofy teen to rethink their life trajectory.
To be honest it was always more fun to go to the TV section in Sears, turn down the sound and improvise new dialog on the spot for ‘The Love Boat’. I thought Capt. Stubbing was actually more interesting with a southern accent.
Of course, we’d always make our way down to the benches to catch some good-natured verbal abuse from the old guys sitting on the bench – and then they’d buy us ice cream. I guess to those guys we were forever children, but I still say free butter pecan ice cream is a better deal than driving around a parking lot.
Jon Dawson’s books are available at www.jondawson.com.