Charles Dowell looked up from his grill and acted like he knew me. He doesn’t, really. Sure, I’ve stuck my lens inside Snappy Lunch more than a few times over the years, but to this legendary North Carolinian, I’m just the latest in a l-o-n-g line of curious cameramen to seek his counsel. When I pointed to the newspaper box outside and told him USA Today named his humble restaurant among the ten best places to pull over on a motorcycle, his scraggly eyebrows arched in feigned wonder as he tried to appear impressed for my sake. Since Andy Griffith first mentioned his boyhood haunt on his landmark TV show, journalists, movie stars and housewives have made a pilgrimage to this unassuming corner of Mount Airy, where a wizened Yoda of a fry-cook served up Southern-fried kindness and the very finest in Pork Chop Sandwiches. Another newspaper blurb atop a lifetime of acclaim probably didn’t mean a lot to him but ‘Mr. Charlie’ only smiled graciously as I reached over the counter and attached a wireless microphone to his well-worn apron.
For the next few minutes, I ambled around the country diner with my camera on my shoulder, feeling very much like a bull in a china shop. All the while a steady stream of elderly couples in matching t-shirts filed in, oohing and ahing at the famous faces on the wall as locals hunched over an early lunch and ignored the news-shooter got in everybody’s way. No one likes to be photographed eating, whether its bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon, or an oversized hunk of fried pork slathered in onions, coleslaw and white bread. Still, the early lunch crowd nodded knowingly and chewed with their mouth shut, knowing that the paparazzi was just something you have to deal with when dining at Mayberry’s most famous eatery. Wishing I’d brought my tripod inside, I braced myself in a corner and dodged waitresses as I committed shot after to shot to disc … a young family of mullets drowning their accents in sweet-tea, a group of ladies ogling a dated picture of Dowell and a Incredible Hulk-era Lou Ferigno, a burly farmer chewing furiously as he closed in on one last unobstructed artery…
Lost in the process of gathering shots, I barely noticed when Mr. Charlie tugged at my shoulder and motioned me to the back of the restaurant. I followed his stooped form through my viewfinder, instinctively rolling on the over-the shoulder point of view. When we rounded a corner, I was surprised to see a gleaming new kitchen and dining area, far shinier than the age-old front room of Snappy Lunch. Dowell beamed at his ancient facility’s shiny new wing, and as I trained my lens on the homegrown fry-cook impresario and began the usual interrogation. ‘No’, he had no idea being mentioned in passing on a black and white sitcom all those many years ago would fill his simple place of business with adoring patrons every time he opened the doors. ‘Yes’, he enjoyed every new customer - even if they did ask him the same old questions over and over and over.
Were it not for my headphones I might not have understood Dowell’s every mumbled syllable, but I nodded on cue and soaked up each word. Though at times he paused mid-sentence, the celebrated short-order chef answered my questions with lucidity and charm, shaking his head slowly at the improbability of his storied life. A few minutes later, with my Mr. Charlie back behind the grill and my won Pork Chop Sandwich in a bag under my arm, a female employee with a blonde bouffant approached.
“Honey, did you get everything you needed?”
I sure did, I said - remarking on what an agreeable old chap she had for a boss.
“Yeah - he’s purty special.” she said as she tried to hide her concern at he elderly employer. “He’s been in poor health lately - getting’ confused and what all - but he seems to be happiest here.”
I followed her gaze and watched as Mr. Charlie hovered over the grill, spatula in hand and eyes down as he stood watch over the post he’s manned since 1943. No doubt his loved ones see only the frailties of the figure in the corner, but I saw a man of great strength - a diplomat and statesman firmly in charge of his fate, his grill and his legacy.
We should all be so frail.