On a Saturday at 9 p.m., East 22nd Street tickled my “seedy” meter as we rounded the corner to a seemingly nondescript, dimly lit nook in Optimist Park.
I bit my tongue, though I was convinced swapping out GPS for a “sense of direction” wasn’t the best decision. But just as I reached for my phone, the guiding lights of Charlotte’s Starlight on 22nd warmed the street ahead and I realized we’d found our North Star.
After months of watering hole fatigue, hearing the boo say, “Hey, wanna go to Starlight tonight for a drink?” felt like music to my ears. It’d been so long since we’d discussed visiting, but the image of a colorful starburst mural decorating the front of the building reminded me that my original excitement still lingered.
Nestled between new construction projects that loom above, making for an active site in the day but a feeling of emptiness up and down the street by night. Starlight defiantly fills in the nooks and crannies of the developing street, looking like a beacon of resistance alongside (or across from) the equally colorful Rock on 22nd.
The music spilling out of the front door of Starlight pierced the eerily quiet in this fledgling strip of Optimist Park in a way that made me feel as though we were in a vacuum being sucked toward the patio.
The string lights twinkled as they danced with the welcome breeze. It was then that the childhood nursery song popped into my head: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.”
*Record scratch.* My starry-eyed urge to record video and take pics of everything had caught the attention of a soon-to-be-impatient boyfriend.
Though dissatisfied with the grainy, MySpace aesthetic of my captures, making any sudden movements toward an eyeglass cleaner would prove a dangerous mission even for Starfleet.
My failed attempt to set the stage for memory, however, was quickly overshadowed by wonder as I entered the door. From the jump, it’s clear why owners Ruth Ava Lyons and Paul Sires hold the title of founding artists of the NoDa Arts District.
Mismatched furniture, sculpted centerpieces, thrifted decor, and extravagant art in a laid-back, approachable dive-meets-lounge set the tone for the ultimate playground of oddities, curiosities and creatives alike.
Speaking of playgrounds, my inner child rejoiced at the sight of chicken nuggets and pizza on the small bites menu … along with the jello (shots). My eyes must have betrayed me as my boyfriend announced, “We just ate.”
My (presumably frozen) delights would have to wait until next time … or the next round.
Spoiler alert: I opted for a cider (and I didn’t get a snack) while boo ventured out and ordered a Starlight Spritz with grapefruit and rose vodka, Aperol, hibiscus syrup and sparkling wine. For an amazingly simple cocktail, you’d be surprised how many Q.C. hotspots can’t quite get it right. Thankfully on this night, the stars perfectly aligned; it was love at first sip.
Outside on the large patio, the playground continued. I’m talking all the space for running amok, hula hoops, disc golf, Ping-Pong, and Jenga?! I don’t even like playing games and yet I was “kind of” kidding when I challenged bae to a hula-hoop duel. And “kind of” wanted to prove to him these hips don’t lie when he laughed at my request.
A single red metal bench for three toward the exit in front of a string of lights kept catching my eye as we listened to the band play. It’s an antique, with duct tape on both arms where most likely the worn metal had become scratchy from wear and tear over the years.
She was much like an elderly lady with a classic red lip. She may tell you, “Come sit on Grandma’s lap,” dig in her purse to hand you a broken peppermint, or get snippy if you’re doing too much — but boy does she have stories to tell.
I don’t know where she came from, but at that moment, that bright red bench felt like the Red Lady of Optimist Park — a space Lyons and Sires would like to see become a new Charlotte arts district.
In that moment, the bench was a gatekeeper of the neighborhood’s secrets and history, frozen in time at Starlight on 22nd, just waiting for someone to sit down so she can grant their wishes and share her stories with anyone who’ll listen.
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