For 36 years, Lloyd May rose at 3:30 a.m. to start cooking whole hogs over a barbecue pit, to fry catfish and croaker. Murray's Bar-B-Q & Seafood even turned out chitterlings on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays -- but not in the summer.
So on his last day in business on Old Poole Road, the crowds in business suits and bib overalls again crowded in Tuesday for one last pork plate, one last cup of sweet tea. May ran out of 'cue at 1 p.m. He ran out of ice at 2.
He sat behind his old Sanyo cash register, a Jim Beam racing hat on his head and a pouch of Red Man in his jeans pocket, and he thanked a generation of customers, one at a time.
"I'm going broke," said May, who turns 70 next year. "It's costing me $10 a pound to cook."
Murray's was the kind of place that drew black and white, lawyer and trucker -- anyone with a taste for vinegar-based 'cue.
"It doesn't have all of that tomato crap in it," said John O'Donnell, a Raleigh lawyer and Thursday regular. "It's pure Eastern North Carolina barbecue. I owe them my stroke."
Just a cinder-block building in far-east Raleigh, Murray's was a spot where folks sat on plastic chairs underneath portraits of NASCAR greats. Junior Johnson. Dale Earnhardt.
"I was a good friend to Dale," May said. "We played the dogs together. Drank a little beer."
May calls Luther Hodges, who was governor in the late 1950s, the best customer he ever had. Former N.C. Agriculture Secretary Jim Graham would bring lawmakers and "big shots" by.
But the place wasn't always so respectable. When May stopped serving beer in the 1970s, his business went up 25 percent.
"Then I got the families," he said.
The new U.S. 64/264 Knightdale bypass has drawn customers away, and the cost of running a restaurant is no longer friendly to shoestring operations like May's.
He took over the restaurant from John Murray on Sept. 29, 1969, when, according to May, the two of them got drunk together and a business-weary Murray leased the place to him.
After three decades, he was selling his 'cue for $7 a pound.
You got yam sticks six for $1.45, and fried chicken by the piece. Wings were 80 cents. Legs: 95.
You could get Pepsi or Coke, and it was a buck-ten for either one.
There was brunswick stew and collards by the half-pint, pint and quart. Chicken pastry. Boiled potatoes. 'Nana puddin'.
"My daughter moved to Dallas, so I have to send them barbecue," said Inez Forte, a regular since 1966. "It cost me more to send it by UPS than the barbecue cost."
Even on the last day, with May vacating the building he doesn't own, he refused to let anyone see his pit. He cooked with wood, a rarity in Raleigh, and doesn't think many others will be around to take up the trade.
One thing is sure: May's Social Security won't pay his bills. So he will be looking for a job.
There won't be many slots for a man whose calling card is that he knows his way around a barbecue pit.
But May will settle for something behind a cash register.
Staff writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or email@example.com.