The number should grab your mind, your attention, your heart: 102 homicides in less than a year.
And now, 103, with the shooting death of Scott Brooks, co-owner with his twin brother, David, of Brooks’ Sandwich Shop, the red cinderblock building on the curve of the back of Brevard Street.
Every death should scare us. Every death should make us wince, the way I did when I woke up to the news that an unnamed employee at Brooks’ had been killed before dawn Monday, killed just for the simple, daily act of arriving before 5 a.m. to unlock the door and start making breakfast.
Every death should make us gasp, the way I did a few hours later when word finally leaked out that it wasn’t an employee killed but Scott, the guy with the trim mustache who spread chili on every cheeseburger I ever got from Brooks’.
We should gasp at them all. We should gasp when three kids were fighting on school grounds Thursday night and one got chased into the street and killed by a car. It wasn’t a shooting, but it was just as violent. It should tear just as big a hole in your soul.
Brooks’ is different, though. Brooks’ is family. Brooks’ Sandwich House is part of the fabric here, part of what we point to when we try to answer “what’s Charlotte?”
Charlotte is Brooks’ chili cheeseburgers, and Price’s Chicken Coop boxes with the red writing on top, and Mr. K’s, and Circle G, and Pressley Park. It was the original Coffee Cup, back before the land where it stood was overrun by development and the hand-scrawled menus of oxtails and fried chicken and perfectly formed biscuits disappeared for good.
All of those restaurants have, or had, had a lot of things in common: They’re working-class places, in urban neighborhoods that were once surrounded by factories, places where people needed cheap food, made like someone cared. They are mixing places, where you go whether you’re black or white, whether you’re from here or from somewhere else, or whether you’re wearing a button-down shirt with your tie tucked inside, or a neon yellow safety vest, or a uniform shirt with your name stitched on the pocket.
That’s the thing about Brooks’, for me. Scott and David Brooks’ father, C.T., started it in 1973, when there was no such thing as NoDa, no galleries in the old brick buildings, no breweries on every corner.
NoDa wasn’t NoDa. It was North Charlotte, a mill village with its own downtown. You went up there on a Friday night to grab a PBR at a well-worn bar called Pat’s Time for One More, or on a Sunday afternoon to see if it was true that a small candy factory used to rinse chocolate-scented water down the gutters on the side of the street. (It was.)
Brooks’ was already a legend by then: They used to play a game to intimidate first-time visitors. If you looked like you were a little hesitant to push your way through the door and eat something cooked in such a small, run-down place, one of the employees would welcome you by slapping a rubber rat down on the counter.
I don’t know if they still play the game with the rat – I’ve been going to Brooks’ long enough that I no longer hesitate to lay down my money and grab my burger and my Cheerwine, and I feel right at home standing at the rough wooden table out back to eat.
When C.T. died in 2017, at the age of 90, I was proud to write his obituary. David took the time to call and thank me. He was usually more talkative than his twin brother, Scott. The number of people who clicked on that story was proof that a lot of people think of Brooks’ as a piece of home.
The Brooks family is so much a part of North Charlotte that I wasn’t surprised at all last summer when they turned up on a list of donors who are trying to do something real about Charlotte’s other crisis: The lack of affordable housing.
I pay attention to the housing costs, because all those restaurants that we love – the new, edgy places that we hope will bring our city fame and well-heeled tourists – all of those restaurants struggle to find workers. It’s hard to keep kitchen staff if they can’t afford a roof. When you make $12 to $15 an hour and you work until midnight or 1 a.m., it’s tough to drive 45 minutes to the nearest bedroom community.
The Brooks family understood that. They’ve made a living off $4.25 chili cheeseburgers for 46 years. So they donated 2.1 acres that their father bought in Sharon Forest in the 1950s, land he purchased as an investment for his sons’ future. It’s enough land for Habitat for Humanity to build up to two dozen townhomes.
“My dad’s vision was basically the same as mine,” David Brooks said at the time. “If you can help somebody, do it. If not, you can think of a way to do it. My brother and I got together and thought about it, and this was the best use for the land.”
When something like this happens, it’s easy to wring our hands about violence. No one should be shot for showing up to work. By midday on social media, there were already comments claiming violence is somehow unique to Charlotte. I don’t think that’s true, though.
Our city has worked hard to become a big city, to enjoy the perks that come with size. But there’s a downside to big. It’s a price that bigger cities, places like Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, are already accustomed to paying: The high cost of housing, the terrible toll of crime.
Maybe that’s the tiniest of comforts: Charlotte is still small enough that every death still counts, all 103 of them. Every loss still has the power to make us gasp when the fabric of our city gets torn.
Kathleen Purvis is a freelance writer in Charlotte who covers food and Southern culture.
Notes: A GoFundMe has been set up for Scott Brooks’ family, to help pay for funeral costs and a scholarship for his son. The community is invited to a candlelight vigil in Scott’s honor at the restaurant on Tuesday, December 10, at 6 p.m. An early version of this story said Scott’s death was the 104th homicide in Charlotte this year. It was the 103rd, according to updated CMPD numbers.