"When in Rome" applies just as well when you're in Raleigh, I figured. So two Saturday nights ago, during a visit to the North Carolina capital, I ventured forth in search of the local specialty: barbecue for dinner.
I found it, in all its vinegary glory, at a strip-mall place in North Raleigh called Barbecue Lodge. I also found one of the oddest stories I've encountered in quite some time.
As I walked up to the door, I noticed that the place closes at 9 p.m. It was 8:56, but I decided to try my luck.
The hostess seated me. A cheerful waitress took my order. I ate. I enjoyed. I wiped my fingers. I got up to pay.
As the waitress took my credit card, I thanked her for squeezing me in at the last minute. You must be eager to get home on a Saturday night, I said. Really sorry to have held you overtime.
She wasn't going anywhere for quite a while, she replied. And she pointed to the reason: a man who was eating at a booth in the far corner.
The man comes to Barbecue Lodge every Saturday night just before closing, she told me. He always orders four complete dinners. He proceeds to eat them, one after the other.
The boss has decreed that the staff must stay until the man is finished, the waitress told me. After all, this is $30 worth of business, week in and week out. So the staff never gets home until Saturday night is verging on Sunday morning.
Who could eat that much at one sitting? And why? Why just on Saturday nights? Why does the man always arrive just before closing? Why is he always alone? Why doesn't he take some of the food home with him?
The waitress had no idea. After grabbing a glance, I had no idea, either.
The man was not fat. He was not destitute. He was not a vagrant. He was about 60 years old, well-dressed, well-groomed. He did not read while he ate (unlike some columnists I know). He just sat there and relentlessly demolished his four dinners.
Understand that a dinner at Barbecue Lodge consists of a meat course (chicken or ribs), two side dishes, an automatic helping of cole slaw and hush puppies. Now multiply that by four. Most of us would need a doggie bag, or a truckful of them.
But this man never asks for one, the waitress told me. He just plows straight ahead, downing meal after meal. Every Saturday. Same time. Same way.
Asked to comment, the owner of Barbecue Lodge told researcher Samantha Ganey that he "might have an idea what you're talking about." But "I'd prefer not to" supply any further information, he said. Then he hung up, without supplying his name.
Ladies and gentlemen, go find those thinking caps and don them.
What's the unseen piece of this story?
Does the man have a tapeworm?
Is he trying to win a bet?
Is he just lonely and trying to find solace or meaning in barbecue?
Pretend you're a detective or a novelist. How do you explain this man and his regularly enormous appetite?
Speculation of all kinds welcome, via any of the usual routes:
By mail: Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.
By fax: 202-334-5150.
By e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks in advance. By the way, if you're ever hungry and you find yourself on Capital Boulevard in North Raleigh, you now know where to go. Even at closing time.
Two readers, from different states, with the same general idea. Could it be the beginning of a groundswell? We can hope.
First came a call from Gay Nanda of Reston. She had seen my recent column about those who deliberately straddle lines in suburban parking lots. Reason: to keep other cars at bay, so no one will chip their precious paint jobs.
Please don't get apoplectic over your cereal. I'm not wishing damage on an innocent vehicle. I'm not making excuses for clods who carelessly open doors and watch them bang into a stranger's car. I'm not trying to excuse an idiot who thinks it's okay to dent a $35,000 SUV because the owner can afford to fix the damage.
Gay Nanda thinks an ounce of prevention will fix this situation. She suggests that SUVs be given their own spaces in lots that are big enough. She wants to place the "SUV ghetto" at one end of the lot, where birds of a feather can park together, without ever mixing with mere sedans.
I like it a lot. Of course, shopping center managers hate it a lot.
They say SUV spaces would have to be wider because SUVs are larger. That would reduce the total number of spaces in the lot.
They say that repainting lines would cost money -- in which they are not rolling.
They say the minute you treat SUVs differently, you'll have minivan owners, VW bug owners and pickup truck owners demanding special treatment, too.
To which I say: Have you met Phyllis T. Glaude?
Phyllis, a reader from Silver Spring, had a short, sweet and devastatingly persuasive comment.
"Parking lots [already] have special spaces for handicapped drivers," she noted. Why not for vans, SUVs and other over-large vehicles, too?
Game, set and match to you, Phyllis. Perhaps your good sense will persuade shopping center management. An endless stream of nicked doors doesn't seem to be doing the job.