I was born and raised in Robeson County, so that makes me practically a kissing cousin to y’all, but still, crossing that county line gave me just the slightest of chills — a shiver born out of childhood fairy tales of the boogeyman living down on Hay Street.
A child of the 70s, I grew up in the shadow of the Dark Ages of “Fayettenam,” as everybody called it in those days.
While Robeson County’s reputation wasn’t exactly spotless — more like Lady MacBeth’s bloody hands in overdrive — driving through Lumberton or Pembroke didn’t raise my hackles nearly to the heights a trip to Fayetteville did. The streets, Hay Street specifically, were notorious for prostitutes and pimps and red-eyed soldiers giving passersby a broken beer bottle salute.
In those days, Fayetteville was the place you came if you wanted to have a very bad time, or a very good time, depending on your disposition and criminal record.
Not that my family wasn’t closely associated with Fayetteville.
My Uncle Tommy was a bouncer at Rick’s Lounge, while my Aunt Saundra worked there as a waitress. They both quit the same day a man standing on the street next to them was gunned down.
My dad worked as a “jewelry hawker” on Hay Street, standing outside a pawn shop and trying to lure GIs inside to drop their paycheck on diamonds and gold. Talk about your tough jobs.
My mom was a saleswoman for awhile at the old Tart’s TV, until someone attempted to carjack her on — you guessed it — Hay Street, by trying to climb through the T-top of her ‘76 Corvette.
Personally, I have nothing but wonderful childhood memories of Fayetteville.
My entire family would load up in the old LTD station wagon every Sunday for a trip to eat at a now defunct Chinese restaurant where my mom and grandma always got a little too tipsy on Mai Tais and wore the little paper umbrellas in their hair.
After lunch, we’d go down to Treasure City for a shopping spree, and then off to a store that traded coupons from packages of Sir Walter Raleigh cigarettes for toasters and tents and lawn darts, sort of like Green Stamps for the black lung set. And grandma always had a stack of coupons as big as a New York crack dealer’s bankroll, since she smoked somewhere between four and 4,000 packs of Sir Walters’ finest every day.
It was my grandma who told me the scary tales about Fayetteville and put the fear of Hay Street into me. In retrospect, I guess she figured she had lost four children to the evil pull of North Carolina’s version of Sin City, and she didn’t want me to get caught in the gravity of that evil orbit, eventually pawning gold ID bracelets alongside my father while picking the pockets of privates and corporals like some modern day Oliver Twist.
But surprise, surprise, as I cruised through Hay Street, circa 2008, on the first day of my new job, I couldn’t find a prostitute or pimp or switchblade-wielding sergeant anywhere.
No topless joints.
No broken windows.
No juke joints pumping up the volume and the danger level.
The boogeyman had been replaced by a businessman in a three-piece suit.
People waved and grinned at me as if I were a prodigal son.
Why didn’t you folks tell me y’all had transformed the downtown from a sow’s underbelly into a silk purse?
I think my wife is on the phone; she’s found a house in Gray’s Creek.
Imagine that — me living in the once upon a time most dangerous city on Earth.
And loving it.