In late March I left New York, fleeing the mayor more than the virus. Sunlight being the best disinfectant and I having parents to see, I grabbed a tube of disinfecting wipes and flew to Palm Beach, Florida.
After seven weeks of sunny inanition, I prepared to leave and return home. Among my objectives was the fulfillment of a request by a New York friend to pick up a carton of cigarettes for him at Florida prices. Though not a smoker, I sympathize with the tax-burdened as a rule. Entering the Palm Beach Publix supermarket, surely the only Publix with valet parking, I made straight for the tobacco counter, having been advised by my nicotine-addict friend that the store was known to carry his off-piste brand, Carlton 100s.
‘Sorry, only the menthols,’ was the reply from the cashier in her plastic cage. I left empty-handed, though committed to doing my bit by checking for the low-tar darts at each stop as my parents and I made our way up I-95 by car.
In Santee, South Carolina, Smith’s gas station had plenty to beguile — muscadine wine, fried redskin peanuts, lewd bumper stickers — but no Carltons.
‘Ain’t never heard of those,’ replied the cheery cashier from behind her plexiglass screen.
Santee, according to my sandlapper friends, isn’t known for much. ‘It has a lake’ and ‘There’s a strip club next to the first hole of the golf course there; it reeks of trash from their dumpster’ comprised the scouting report. It seemed a place of some misfortune, and we were glad to motor on to Florence, our destination for the night. Florence, billed by another South Carolinian friend of mine as ‘the murder capital of the state’, was no such thing. It was more a fading old town with decent bones, trying hard to give people a reason to stay. The senescent downtown had the obligatory new-school barbecue joint, a taqueria and a few bars, all occupying decent early 20th-century brick buildings. South Carolina’s governor had just given restaurants the option of reopening for outdoor dining, but we had our hearts set on Tubb’s, a seafood spot that was only doing takeout.
Fried shrimp, hush puppies, and comeback sauce held up beautifully in their Styrofoam containers. The meal called for beer; gas-station tall boys would have been fine, but local suds were better. Southern Hops Brewing Co., just a mile away, offered to-go growlers of their own creation. Except, as the hostess explained, ‘We’re out of growlers so we only have half-gallon cartons.’
The word ‘carton’ conjured up a cardboard box, which would be a strange way to distribute beer, but of course the virus had disrupted supply chains. The reality was a plastic jug, the sort that milk comes in. Filled with beer, it was a fittingly ad hoc receptacle for this improvised meal. A friend whose grandparents had lived in Florence, pecan people, told me, ‘I thought it was the last place in the world that would succumb to the microbrew trend.’ I was rather glad it did.
Much of I-95 in the South is a dull drive over flat land, punctuated only by the entertainingly flippant billboards for South of the Border, a fireworks emporium turned amusement park; we didn’t bother. At a truck stop in Kenly, North Carolina, there were still no Carltons, but I did see a tin of the American Snuff Company’s Grizzly dip for $2.71 — a new record low. While I was browsing the shelves, a woman complimented my Belgian loafers. Waiting to pay for my biscuit sandwich, I saw the trucker in front of me win $400 on a lotto ticket. I think he was also in line for a shower.
The Good Earth Peanut Co., a shack off the road in Skippers, Virginia, sold trophy specimens in all varieties: large and pleasingly crunchy and housed in brass tins, making Planters peanuts look like a different, anemic species. We left with tins and tins of peanuts and a hunk of slab bacon, most of which turned out to be just salted and spiced fat.
Reaching Richmond by the afternoon, we dined al auto at Boulevard Burgers & Brew, a retro-styled patty purveyor with superlative onion rings. For once, there was no traffic around Washington, DC, and we were in New Jersey by nightfall. A sinister sign on the Turnpike advised that there was to be no tailgating, whether outside or in one’s car — as if we needed reminding. Arriving home, I had no cigarettes in hand.