The Charleston visit… (revisited)

I wrote this post in October of 2004. It was on my old blog and someone I know wanted to read it so I am posting it again. Two things to note. First, I never went back to Charleston, nor will I. Second, I think that they were one of the harder hit areas for bad mortgages. And now, (with some slight spelling and grimmer corrections from the original), the post.


Ok. So the topic sums up my trip to Charleston. Need I write more? What’s that? You want to know why? Ok. I’ll tell you. But first I want to preface this with some background on why I went to Charleston in the first place.

I am homeless. Well, that’s not entirely true; I actually have quite a nice apartment here in Ventnor City, NJ. It’s totally free since it’s owned by my dad. I moved here for the summer when I came down from New York. My plan was to look for a house in Philly over the summer and then move out of here by September. Well, that plan didn’t go too well. I took a look in Philly once and wasn’t happy. I grew up there and loved it. That was until I moved to New York and realized that although Philly has the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in (and I’ve eaten all over the world), it’s still kind of dumpy and drab. And the prices! Jeez, it’s crazy. Also, I had a hard time driving up there to look while the summer was in full swing.

So the apartment here is a one bedroom loft and 95% of my stuff is in storage and has been since I’ve moved. It’s starting to get to me. I need a home and I need one fast.

Way before New York came into the picture, I was thinking that I wanted to move from Philadelphia, but where would I go? I came up with a list of requirements: close to the ocean, not too cold all the time, not Florida, not too south, near a city of some kind. From there I pulled out a map and came up with a number of places on the West Coast like Seattle and San Francisco. On the East Coast I came up with Savannah and Charleston. I never considered anything near Washington DC since I hate it there.

So I ended up deciding that Charleston would be a cool place to check out. I asked around and let me tell you something.  Everyone, everyone that I spoke with, people of all ages, backgrounds, temperaments… all of them said something quite like the following: “Charleston! Oh, wow! You’re going to love it there! It is just wonderful!” Mind you, I was telling all these people I was planning on moving there as well, not just going to visit.

So Ryan, Michelle and I planned a road trip to Charleston. Our trip would take us all the way down the Atlantic coast, along all the beach towns along the way to Charleston. (The plan was to see if there were any cool places along the way that weren’t on the map). Off we go….

The trip was awesome. We left early in the AM and drove down along the coast. I particularly liked the Outer Banks where we stopped that night before taking the ferry for day two of our trip. Finally, the night of the second day we arrive in Charleston. We come over this bridge and have no idea where to go. My plan was to just show up and see where the city took us. It took us to the worst slum I’ve ever been in. As we drove around, at about 10pm in the dark, we started to feel like Clark and his family did in Vacation when they ended up on the wrong side of the bridge in Detroit. This was it?

We found a cop and asked him where the center of the city was. Once we got there, we were tired and we needed to find a place to sleep. In the center of town is this beautiful Hilton. We pulled up and I walked in and asked for a room. Incredibly, they were booked. Evidently there was some wildlife convention in town. Ok, I said, can you recommend another hotel? The counter person laughed at me and told me that every hotel in the city was booked and told me to head out of town to some of the motels. Of course I didn’t believe her and I walked to the lobby phone booth, stole the yellow pages and headed to the car. We started calling. Every hotel in the city was booked.

We headed out of the city and started a full on canvassing of the area for motels. That night we must have stopped at 30 hotels and motels along the road. Every one booked. After every failure, we headed farther away from the city. It started to get funny. You know how you just start getting loopy as it dawns on you that your certainty (that we would find somewhere to sleep) slowly erodes into complete disbelief? We were there. Just totally amazed that things were going so poorly for us.

By 2am we had found a motel. We were literally 45 minutes away from the city at this point. We checked in and passed out. The next morning, after 2 days driving and an all night search for a place to sleep we took a vote and all agreed that Charleston could kiss our asses. We got on 95 and drove home. Stopping of course at South of the Border to get some crazy awesome fireworks.

Fast forward to 2 months ago.

Starr calls me up and says “How was Charleston? I’m thinking of moving there.” I remind her that I never actually got there and she tells me that she’s always wanted to go and has always heard such great things about it. I’m looking for a house and she’s thinking of moving. A trip is again born.

This time, we book a trip online, air, car and hotel. Not 3 days later a headhunter randomly calls me up and says he’s got a job opening and the company is interested in me. Cool, I say, where is it? Charleston. In my mind, a Celestine Prophecy moment occurs and I decide that yes, this is an important trip.

Big lead up huh? Well, you all know that I like to tell the whole story. Unlike Neil Stephenson, I actually try to have a good ending so here it is, from the beginning….

About 4 days before we are supposed to go, I get sick. Really sick. I actually think about canceling the trip. At this point, that’s huge. My friend Krista and Starrs friend Michael are now coming and I have this job interview and we’ve set up a whole day with a realtor. And the trip is non-refundable. I stay in bed and take pills, drink gallons of water and stop talking completely (my thought was hurting so bad). On Thursday, I somehow make the drive to Philadelphia. I’m totally not feeling good.

Now as an aside, I have to tell you how I drive on the highway. I am obsessed with driving well. I religiously drive in the right lane, only changing to a left lane to pass. I don’t use my cell phone, I barely use my brakes at all since if you pay attention to those ahead of you and keep good spacing you can always coast to where you need to be. I really concentrate on driving perfectly…like a race car driver. I get into this zone. It’s actually quite enjoyable.

Now I don’t use a radar detector. This is for a few reasons. First of all, they really don’t work anymore. With instant on and laser you are at a huge technical disadvantage. Secondly, and this is major, they make you lazy. You start to believe that they are a cop finder and that you will be just fine. You stop looking behind you and ahead of you for cops on the road. Eventually you just fall into that oblivious zone. I can’t have that at all.

I drive fast. Personally I don’t believe in a speed limit. I think it makes us all worse drivers and causes way too much chaos on the road. But that’s all for another blog entry sometime. What I want to say is that by driving the way I do in the right lane, and by paying attention and using a few techniques that I hold secret, I barely get pulled over. On the AC expressway, there are many places for the cops to hide so I usually set my cruise control to 78 (13 over 65) and space out.

Back to the story… On this day, I’m driving to Philly sick and actually in a hurry since I have to fly and got off to a late start. To be honest I’m not paying attention to my speed. I’m following some cars and just driving along. Of course, I get pulled over. The cop politely tells me that I was going 88. This is impossible since I was following a car that didn’t appear to be speeding and was actually being passed by two other cars. My thought is that the officers radar caught them and he mistakenly pulled me over instead. Whatever, it’s not really too useful to argue with a cop. But we discuss it a bit before he goes back to write me the ticket and he’s being cool. I decide to just let him go do his job and I sit back and shut up. The ticket is about $200 but I think it’s actually $400 since it’s doubled in a 65. That isn’t cool at all. A sign? Perhaps….

I meet up with Starr in Philly. She got in a fight with her cab driver. He got lost and wouldn’t listen to her directions on how to get to where she and I were to meet. She ended up getting kicked out of the cab and had to walk 5 blocks. When I met up with her, she was crazy pissed. But that dissipated as I told her about my ticket.

When we took off, we were excited once again. We were off to Charleston finally.

So, we land and all is looking well. All told, there are 4 of us together. I’d rented a 4 door car on the web and we’ve got the hotel all booked. We get out to the rental lot and low and behold the car they gave me isn’t what I was looking forward to at all. It seems that the simple 4 door corolla that I had planned on had now become a 2 door Mustang convertible.

I head back to the rental counter. The woman there kindly explains to me that they are all out of economy cars and she has given me a courtesy upgrade. Not only one upgrade, but 2! I complain that we can’t fit in the car and would not like an upgrade, but would like the lowly car I had paid for when I reserved. Hertz has this policy, she so helpfully pointed out that they don’t guarantee a car, just the rate. So, I was told, I should be happy I was getting a $50 a day car for only $16.99. But we can’t fit in the car I told her. Besides, I hate Mustangs. After much discussion, she finally offered me an SUV. A Ford Expedition. Now if there is anything I hate more than crappy American sports cars, it would be the SUV. I refuse to drive them. But, under the circumstances, I really had no choice. I accepted.

“Would you like me to charge the credit card you have on file?”. Huh? I’m being charged for the privilege of driving this thing? All I wanted was a simple, 4 cylinder, 4 door economy car and now I’m being asked to pay extra for an 8 cylinder gas guzzling waste of metal? Turns out, this car is $75 a day. Who in their right mind would pay that much to rent a car? I walked out. I guess we’d have to put some of our bags on our laps and squeeze into the barely existent back seat. So much for Southern Hospitality.

The ride from the airport to the hotel is uneventful at first. We have a map and we’re trying to find our way. So far no problems. Then after a bridge, it happens. Behind me is a police cruiser with his lights on. I look over at my friend Michael. “Is he pulling us over?” Evidently he was. We pull over and the kind officer tells us that the speed limit on the bridge is 25MPH and we were going 42. Now, like I told you before, I speed a bunch. But on this night, I was going just as fast as everyone else on that bridge. Not to mention the fact that we were from out of town, in a new car, and just looking for our hotel.

Turns out, our hotel is remarkably close to where we got pulled over. In fact, after being signaled by the cop, he directed into a nearby parking lot to stop which in fact turned out to be the parking lot of our hotel. The reason I tell you this is because all night, we would see cars in this lot after being pulled over. At the bottom of the bridge was a speed trap. We only saw them on this night. Sept 30.. can anyone say quota?

So, that night as we drove around town, we saw no cars at all.. it was late, but no cars anywhere. What we did see, all over, at every turn? Police cars. We decided to be extra careful with our speed from that point on and we were. Besides, we were on vacation, no hurry…

Oh, and that bridge was crucial to us. To get anywhere from our hotel we had to go over it. So I had driven it a bunch of times. Can I just tell you that coming over the apex of the bridge, as you head on the downhill portion? Do you know that to maintain 25MPH you actually have to ride your brakes? I know since that’s what I did. The whole trip I watched my speed, to the chagrin of the other motorists behind me trying to pass.

So that was day one. Day two I had 3 things to do: look at houses with a realtor, do my job interview, and check out the town a bit. The houses were nice. The realtor wasn’t too great and he didn’t really show us much in my price range, but insisted (and later in his office ‘proved’ using some crazy mortgages I’d never seen) that I could afford a house way more than I though I could.

Insane ARM like mortgages aside, I still decided that if I got the job I’d be able to find something. So, task 1 complete.

Task 2, the job, went even better. I had a great interview and they stopped short of offering me the job. I was told to contact them if I was interested. I was. The company and the job looked really good. By the time I was walking out of the office I was dreaming about my new life here, all I needed was a peek at the town a bit.

We drove over the bridge and headed to downtown Charleston. I have to say, I wasn’t too impressed. People say how historic and beautiful it is. Yea, I’m from Philadelphia and let me just say that downtown Charleston is a pale imitation of Society Hill. I could care less. What I wanted to see was something like South Street with just maybe a hint of counter culture. We looked high and low and it seemed to us that the only non-residential part of the city was downtown and downtown was just tourist central. Very unimpressive, but maybe the nightlife would be better.

Nightfall came and we headed out for dinner. Dinner was quite nice since we went to an expensive place. After dinner we were excited to find out that they had a first Friday celebration. Finally, the art world! There were a number of galleries, all in the downtown area. We went into every one of them and sadly the art was all local stuff, and none of it modern. There were the usual sunsets and landscapes, not one nude, not one abstract that was of interest. Nothing caught my eye. Quite sad.

So, it was night. It was time for Charleston to show us a good time. We went to two bars that looked cool, one was recommended by the realtor earlier. Both didn’t approve of our jeans. Well, you know what I say about dress codes don’t you? “Go fuck yourself!”. We decided downtown wasn’t our scene.. just too Southern Belle for us. We needed a crappy college bar. We headed to the college part of town and began soliciting advice from college kids on the street. Not one could point us to a college or counter bar. They all, to a t, pointed us downtown. What the fuck?

Dejected, we decide to head to this place near our hotel that we had found the night before. This was way against my rule about visiting new places: You should never, no matter how great it is, go back to the same place twice. As an aside, we ended up there 3 times which tells you how much we liked the place.

Whatever. So Saturday comes and we have to take Michael to the airport since he’s leaving a day early. As usual, we all shoehorn ourselves into the mustang and off we go to the airport, watching our speed as usual. I mention this because it’s very important and germane to what I’m about to tell you next. What I will tell you next is what made me decide that Charleston wasn’t for me and turn down a nice pay raise and job opportunity.

It’s not fresh in my mind, which is sad, because there were so many little details that were just so important. I really want to be able to convey the insanity of… The Airport Police!

The airport in Charleton is right off a highway. You take the exit, make a right and you are on the main road. The speed limit is 45 for the first part and then 35 later on. We were driving along, minding our own business when Starr yells out from the back of the car “Cop!” Now, this was a game we stated playing since Thursday night. We saw them everywhere and we liked to see who could spot them first. As soon as she said it, I looked down. I was going 41. I pressed the brakes and slowed to 35. No matter, he decided to pull onto the road and behind me. Seeing his lights, I pulled over, shocked.

The officer took his time getting out of the car. Did you ever see cops? Ever see when they pull over someone in a stolen car? They get out of their vehicle all slow, hand near their gun, they creep to the back ¼ of the car. Just far enough that they can talk to you through the window, but at a far enough angle behind you that you can’t get the jump on them and shoot them. This cop did that. In all my life, I’d never been treated this way. I found it peculiar. He asked me if I knew why I was being pulled over. I always found that a funny question. Usually I knew damn well why I was being pulled over, speeding in some form. This time I was clueless. I ventured a guess since obviously he was looking for speeders. “Uh, speeding?”. I continued “…Officer I saw that I was going a bit over 40. I apologize for that, I must have not been watching my speedometer.” Which was true. It’s really hard to maintain a speed limit exactly without looking at the speedometer constantly. In my opinion, it’s best to get close, and look out the window instead, while trying to stay with traffic. This was, in fact, what I was doing.

The officer then informed me that the speed limit was 25 and that I was driving dangerously. And then my favorite cliché “Are you in a hurry? Trying to catch a flight?”. Actually, we weren’t. We left early since we didn’t want to deal with TSA and all that jazz. Oh shit, I forgot to mention that in Philly, Starr and I almost missed our flight. Silly us thought that getting to the airport 1 ½ hours early would be cool. At the US Air gate, the security line was 45 minutes. It literally stretched from the gate to the parking lot. Just insane!

Oh, so the cop. He would hear nothing about the fact that we had never been to the airport before, we were visitors, not our car, nothing.. nothing would convince him. So he went back to his car to write us his ticket. We waited, and waited, and waited. It took him over 25 minutes to write the ticket. Surely he was trying to make us late. Oh, by the way, the whole time I was talking to him, he was still back in the corner of the car. I can understand thinking I’m a possible terrorist or whatever at first, but surely once he saw I was a respectable white kid in a car with 2 girls and a guy in a suit you’d have thought he’d have lowered our threat rating… nope.. In fact, as he came back to give us our summons ($180) he still took that defensive stance. “Drive safely!” he warned as he walked back to his car. Fucking Pig.

So, after all our following the speed limits everywhere, we still got pulled over…just bad luck I guess. But, after all that time waiting, we still had time to get Michael to the terminal (which was only 300 yards ahead). I pulled onto the road and tried to set the cruise control to 25 just to be safe. Wouldn’t work. Seems that’s too slow. No matter. I was fixated on the speedometer now. Michael called me out of my trance, “US Air, over there to the right”. I look up at the terminal signs and see the one for USAir. I pull over to the curb and just up on a cool speed bump they put in the middle of the road. Michael gets out and as soon as we are about to head out, a second police officer comes over to my window. This officer is on foot. He’s not as nice as the first one.

“License!”. “Excuse me? What have I done officer?”. I haven’t been giving you the running commentary of Starr and Krista in the back seat. Let me just say, they were in shock. Anyway, back to officer pork roll. “You know what you did! Same as last time! You were driving like a crazy person! And this time you went through a stop sign!”. I looked at the road behind me. I could see from here to where I was pulled over the last time. No stop signs. “Where officer?”

He so kindly pointed to his left at a small stop sign on a weighted base in the middle of the road, right in front of the speed bump I was on. “This one! You could have run someone over!” I kept my cool. “Officer, I don’t mean to be rude, but there were no people in front of my car or I would have stopped. I surely wasn’t doing it on purpose, I was looking up at the terminal signs. Besides I did stop.”

He walked away with my license. Surely he wasn’t going to give me another ticket? And what about this speeding deal? There was no way I was driving over 25. I got out of the car. Mind you, this was an airport terminal. There were cars and people everywhere. The officer was 20 yards from the car and I wanted to plead my case a bit. This was getting out of hand now.

I kid you not. The man looked at me and lowered his hand to the butt of his gun. “GET BACK IN YOUR CAR!!!”. It was at this point that I almost peed my pants. I had never seen a police officer so angry and afraid and ready to pull his gun. On me? As I sat back in the car I tried to figure out how I had appeared such a threat to these people. It was then that Starr said “This is sad to say, but I feel like we are black”.  And she was exactly right. I’d heard about being harassed by cops for no reason other than skin color but it was just an abstract concept to me. I mean, how could I understand it? Well, let me just say that I probably still can’t fully feel it, but this was definitely a taste of it. We were being harassed. I can only guess because we were Northerners. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am really respectful with police officers. I mean, its good business, sometimes they let you off. Let me say, as crazy as all this was, I still stayed cool and friendly.

So we waited in the car, in complete disbelief as not one, but two cruisers came up. They all talked it over a bunch and finally a new cop showed up at my window with my new ticket for “unsafe speeds” ($180). I tried to speak to him a bit, pleaded my case about being a first time visitor, being not familiar, etc. He said “I’m not going to argue with you, there are multiple witnesses that saw you driving recklessly”. Again I tried to say I wasn’t speeding. Then finally he said the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Finally I had given up arguing. “That officer over there?” He said, pointing to the fat fuck who had walked up to me first… “That officer is radar certified, he can tell your speed within 2 miles per hour”. I looked at the officer and then to the one I was talking to. Calmly I replied “with his eye?”. The cop looked at me and said with total conviction “That’s right.”. He handed me my ticket and walked away.. oh yea, of course he said “Drive safe”.

At this point I had decided that we were marked. In our shiny new Mustang convertible, we were marked terrorists. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to put the car in gear again. I was convinced we would be pulled over again and who knows what else? After a few minutes I finally was able to start the car. The three of us were on full alert. Every stop sign, every speed limit sign, every lane change, we followed beyond normal. We went 5 mph below the posted limits, we stopped and counted to 5 at every stop sign, we signaled like crazy. We worked really hard to get out of there alive. I can say with certainty that if they pulled us over again, one of us would end up either beaten up, in jail, or both. We were all scarred as hell. But we made it.

That day we had planned to tour the city and its suburbs. After the airport, we were finished. All we wanted to do was go home. We drove to the nearest shopping mall and spent the rest of the day in the movies. As a final fuck you to Charleston, we went from one film to the next without paying. Our first actual crime and nobody noticed.

After the movies, we went to our hotel and played cards and drank beer until we passed out. The next day I was so scarred to drive to the airport I had stomach aches. I thought I was going to throw up in fear. Luckily the rental return lot was far from the main terminal so we didn’t have to go through the German front again.

Now I’ve said a bunch way back in the beginning about signs and how Charleston was calling me. After all that happened, I would say that the signs were actually pointing the other way. There was a reason I was to go there. But I think that the reason wasn’t to move there but to decide that the whole south can kiss my ass. This was all amplified by how painless it was to leave. Not only did the rental return go smoothly, Starr and I were able to get on a direct flight back to Philly for free. The gate agent was really nice and we got home at 1pm instead of the 11pm that we were supposed to get home. The cab to my car and the car ride back to the shore were painless. On top of that the Eagles won. It was good to be home again.

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