Thursday, June 9, 2011

Notice of Removal

It's been nearly a year since I began this two-wheeled commute, and in all that time my bicycle has had a constant companion, at least for the hour or so each day I spend at Duke's Brodie Gym: a teal and silver mountain bike, left behind God knows when. Soon however, we must bid adieu to this orphaned ride, as its end has been ordained, foretold by this harbinger from the powers that be: "Notice of Removal."

I discovered this notice upon returning from a trip to Arkansas and Missouri, the second of two recent visits to this region necessitated by the death of my father-in-law. The first was for his funeral, and while we left his ashes then at the family plot in Joplin, back in April, it was on the latter trip, 'round Memorial Weekend, that we truly dealt with his remains – that is, his home, and all that was in it.

This house was a homeowner's nightmare, a horrific vision of the consequences of neglect. My father-in-law had not been well in recent years and he was a man who valued his privacy, so he had been neither able to take care of the place himself nor inclined to hire those who could have done it for him. The roof had numerous leaks, leaving moldering piles of insulation and broken bits of ceiling tile round about, and soft spots underfoot where the floorboards were rotting away. Insects were busy returning the structure to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

For all that, there were many areas where his stuff had safely accumulated, and accumulate it had, in breadth and depth. If housecleaning seemed a futile exercise, like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, at least it provided a means of separating wheat from chaff, of finding such things as someone might want to preserve, whether that someone be family holding on to cherished keepsakes or garage salers seeking cheap merchandise.

But listen: Mike Mills was on "Fresh Air," playing on the boombox while we worked, telling Terri Gross about his semi-autobiographical movie, "Beginners." He spoke of how a life ends up in garbage bags, as his father's had, Mills having had to clean up after his dad's death, just as we were doing the very same thing after Jenna's. The rented dumpster in the driveway, quickly filling to its rim, offered mute testimony to mortality. We might hold on to a few of these things, and relatives and strangers a few more, but ultimately they will all end up as trash.

Think of those family photos we salvaged. Jenna recognized the more recent ones, while her father's cousin could identify some a bit older, but by the bottom of the box we were looking at ancient black & whites of unknown ancestors, younger than photography but already lost to memory. The bins of mementos Jen brought home to Durham are sandbags against the rising river of time.

I suppose mortality is nature's constant message, whispered in the comprehending human ear, though sometimes she turns up the volume, as she had done in Joplin the night Jen arrived in the area, a few days before I flew in. Her father's grave was just three or four blocks north of the path of the F5 tornado that decimated the town, but the cemetery was untouched, its trees and monuments pretty and peaceful as we paid our respects on Memorial Day, then drove south across a landscape of broken trees, crushed cars, and absent houses. Nature's message was the same as mine at the yard sale, a few days later: Everything must go.

I've often said that comedy is simply skipping the ending – the inevitable tragedy of death – so I was struck by something revealed in the Mike Mills interview on "Fresh Air": that "Beginners" is a comedy, though it embraces the death of the father, one of the main characters in the film. I'm sure it is also a drama, but that doesn't deny the comedy, like the heartfelt laughter one often hears at funerals, as stories are told of the deceased. There was such laughter at Jen's father's funeral. No, he didn't live as large as Mike Mills' father apparently had at the end, but he traveled some, he had a deep and meaningful relationship with popular culture, and he loved arguing politics with the conservatives around him in Northwest Arkansas. His house was a disaster, but he probably spent more time at the Starbuck's in Rogers, whose baristas expressed real sadness at his passing, all of them signing an apron with personal messages, two of them even attending his funeral, where one of them spoke movingly. He will be missed.

…at least until all of us who remember him are gone, and then we will be missed until… Well, we're all swept away by the whirlwind eventually.

Forest Park Cemetery – Joplin, MO – just north of the tornado's path – Memorial Day 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Urban Spelunker

The eastern frontier of my neighborhood, Morehead Hill, is defined by Third Fork Creek. Running south of Morehead Avenue, it's a little stream alongside the American Tobacco Trail, subject to occasional neighborhood clean-up efforts. Running north, it goes underground, and yesterday I chose to go with it. Below are a few pictures from my journey.

Looking south along Third Fork Creek, at the entrance to the underworld.

The entrance

While not a natural cave, the Third Fork Cavern has natural stalactites.

Here I am, headed upstream. The pipes behind me appear to be part of an old sewer line that is no longer in use. A storm drain is not a sewer, and never the twain should meet.

Some places weren't so wet or cramped as in the previous photo. This line doesn't carry the main flow of the creek, but carries water to it as it drains down from the American Tobacco Campus.

Even deep in these passages, you'll find evidence of ongoing human activity.

This shrine was one of the more interesting examples of that. One of my companions lit these candles, but they were already here when we arrived.

And then there was this.

But mostly, my trip up Third Fork Creek was about cool old passageways such as this, somewhere below American Tobacco. Clearly, this is one of Durham's older storm drains. It's architecture such as this that makes this underworld well worth a visit - at your own risk, of course.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Fall colors peaked on Monday, two days ago. The morning view biking up Arnette Street, with red and white oaks rising above old wood frames, was perfect. Then it rained on Tuesday, and today the street was thick with fallen leaves. The views remained gorgeous, not just on the street but high above, in my office suite at Erwin Square, but I'm still calling Peak Day for autumn 2010: November 15th.

The rain raises another issue, which perhaps I should address anyway, as a service to anyone considering bicycle commuting: the mechanics. During my first stint as a bicycle commuter, I avoided rain as much as possible, driving my car when skies threatened, but during my most recent previous round on two wheels, I biked to work without regard to weather: rain, snow, cold… I worked at NC State, and I didn't have a parking pass. I was committed.

Lack of a parking pass was certainly an incentive, but the real difference between my first and last previous experiences as a bicycle commuter was the nature of my destination. The first time, I was headed for an office building, with an elevator ride as the final leg of my journey. The last previous time, at NC State, I worked in an office suite converted from a graduate dorm suite, in a building that still, otherwise, was a graduate-student dorm. I passed no besuited executives on my way in, I had no elevator to ride, and I had a shower right across from my office.

Today, I once again work in an office tower and ride an elevator en route to Duke's leased space at Erwin Square, and I'm reluctant to arrive looking too bedraggled. Thanks to the nearby Brodie gym, I'm freshly showered, at least (though in summer, when the humidity kept my hair from drying, I worried that my wet locks would be mistakenly thought of as sweat-soaked), but the final third of a mile leaves plenty of opportunity for rain to render me quite unpresentable, though the service elevator does offer an alternate route, I suppose.

There are other reasons for my rain aversion. First and foremost, there was my wrist injury during the summer, in a non-rain-related bike accident, yes, but it still makes me nervous about wet roads. I only recently got around to having X-rays taken to confirm there was no fracture, and now I've been given PT exercises to stretch my shortened ligaments. As well, I flash back to my worst rain experience, when I got caught in a downpour on Erwin Road, en route to a meeting at the Lemur Center. I arrived quite thoroughly soaked, which was unpleasant, though I still managed to enjoy walking through the woods with lemurs leaping from tree to tree, following my group.

So rain makes me skip the occasional day, such as yesterday, and skipping calls attention to the mechanics, the procedural issues that are normally second nature, but which become less natural when the routine is interrupted. What's involved? To start with, there're changes of clothes: first, the ones I wear while biking to the gym, then the clothes I wear while working out at the gym (same as my biking clothes in the summer, but different now that it's colder outside), then the change for work, starting with the underwear I change into after showering and before my final leg of biking, then ending with the outerwear I change into at the office. Sometimes the office clothes are in my backpack, other times they're stockpiled at work, and often it's a bit of both. Then there're the toiletries, which come out of my pack when I'm showering at home and driving to work, then go back in when I'm back on my bike and showering at the gym. Today I noticed that I was almost out of soap, so I'll have to remember to replace it. Then there's the locker lock, the bicycle lock, my iPod (for the gym), my towel… It seems like a lot to remember, but I normally put together my pack half-asleep and still get it right, then go through my changes and morning routine with little thought. Skip a day, though, and I find myself arriving at the gym without my toiletries (happened only once, and fortunately I found a bar of soap in the shower), or my towel (again only once, but that was less pleasant), or I leave my iPod uncharged and must listen to the awful TV of my fellow gym goers (did you know MTV still shows videos in the morning?). Today I found myself staring blankly at my locker door, wondering where I was in the process. Oh yes, I've just changed out of my bike clothes, into my workout clothes, and now I must stow my bag and head for the elliptical machines. Then it'll be back to the locker room and on to the showers. And so to work.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Full Durham

Today was a Full Durham day, starting with a walk from my home in Morehead Hill to a meeting about the Pauli Murray House, held at the Lyon Park Community Center, and ending at Fullsteam Brewery, where Jen and I introduced ourselves to their new stout, Workingman's Lunch, served with a Moon Pie on the side. Before that, we had dinner at the Fish Shack, where oysters are once again on the menu. It's been a while.

About the Pauli Murray thing: I've always eschewed the planning process, even though I served three years on the board of a community nonprofit in Raleigh (or perhaps I should say, because of that). But I have to admit I was impressed about how the process caused a plan to come together, as the various thoughts about the Pauli Murray House were organized under various rubrics, and at the end of three hours it seemed there was something of an organized plan for creating a community center and historic site of this old home. The good news is that the Pauli Murray Project now has an option to buy the place, so this plan may actually come together.

For me, another aspect of the morning was getting there. The Lyon Park Community Center is very close to my home, less than a quarter mile, but it's to the west, and living on the west end of Morehead Hill, as I do, I have a tendency to lean east. Going west crosses a racial boundary, of course, but there're other boundaries revealed by the Durham County GIS maps, which I learned well during the home-buying process: home prices and income drop, crime rises. The short walk down the greenway across the north end of Lyon Park from home to the community center took me just south of a crime cluster, revealed in a pox of red dots on Durham GIS, marking the dead end of Rock Street, where lies an apartment complex. So in all these months living within sight of it, I'd never walked that greenway, which proved quite pretty: a short walk through the woods and over a creek, emerging by a baseball diamond in a neat little neighborhood, where lies the center. On the way back, I climbed the steep embankment south of the greenway and checked out the woods in the undeveloped parts of Lyon Park, away from the baseball diamond and basketball court. It turns out they're dominated by a field of kudzu, which is a shame, though there is a little creek running through it, with only one shopping cart to be seen, and I think that's obligatory. All of this just a tenth of a mile from home, and I'd never seen it.

It was a lovely fall day, full of hope for new things in the West End, the return of oysters to the Fish Shack, and a tasty stout at Fullsteam. Thus does Durham lean forward into the new decade.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ghost Train

Sometimes when I'm biking down South Buchanan in the morning, the railroad gates will go down, the lights will flash and the bell will clang, but no train will come. After a minute or two, the gates will go back up. I realize it's probably caused by the morning westbound Amtrak rolling and stopping as it loads at nearby Durham Station, but I like to think of it as the ghost train.

'Tis the season, after all. Students are back on campus, playing quidditch. (Yes, they were, this evening, during my homeward commute.) I miss some things about summer: the lack of student foot traffic on my route, the American Dance Festival's "Busta Move" bus. But summer is not my season: not anywhere, and certainly not here in the South.

The ADF's "Busta Move" bus on Duke's East Campus.

Recently I've been walking - and biking - to Maplewood Cemetery, where I quickly found the elaborate grave of Julian Carr and family. In an early blog entry, "Durham Palimpsest," I mentioned the sign on Chapel Hill Street, due north of my house, noting that Carr's grave was "1/4 mi. S." Well, it's a bit further than that and at least as much west as south, but there it is, of course, in Maplewood Cemetery, which is pretty much one-stop shopping for Durham history geeks, when it comes to graves: Blackwell, Duke, Hill, Morehead, Parrish, Watts, Wright, and all the rest, very nearly. They even have Bart Durham, though they had to dig him up from his family plot west of Chapel Hill to get him.

Carr's family plot:

This creepy maternal tableau lies at the south end of the Carr plot...

...while this even creepier angelic scene is found to the north:

(don't blink)

Carr was the big advocate for this ghoulish bit of civic boosterism, though it wasn't until nine years after the "General"* died that they pulled it off. I sense a certain false modesty in Carr's promotion of Durham as "founder" of the city that came to bear his name: commissioning a portrait of Bart Durham (from a photograph) after the city commissioned a portrait of him, then going on to promote the idea of re-interring the long-departed doctor in Maplewood.

In the end, Durham's Maplewood marker says it all: They managed to get both his birth and death years wrong, as well as his middle name (1824 - 1859, and it was Leonidas, not Snipes, though the latter was his mother's maiden name). They didn't care about him as a person at all; they just wanted his body.

*Julian Carr was a 19-year-old private at the end of the Civil War. "General" was an honorary title accorded him by a Confederate Veterans group he headed.

Monday, August 30, 2010


When I was a child, the scariest thing in the world to me was the 1963 movie, "The Haunting," based on Shirley Jackson's novella The Haunting of Hill House. One detail of the film is that the lead psychic investigator is a professor of parapsychology at Duke University. I failed to note this fine point until watching the film as a young adult living in Raleigh, and only some time after that did I learn that Duke once had such a person in reality: Joseph Banks Rhine. I eventually saw his Rhine Research Center where it now stands on Campus Walk, at a discreet distance from the university, and having heard that Rhine parted company with Duke in the early 60s, I assumed his relationship was a brief, early countercultural misstep by this prestigious school. Only very recently did I learn that this was far from the case - that, in fact, Rhine's psychic research is deeply entwined with Duke history, down to its very roots.

Preston Few, the president of Trinity College who became first president of Duke University, "staunchly backed" faculty member William McDougall when he brought Rhine to Duke and established the parapsychology program, according to Jean Anderson in her history of Durham. This was in 1927, when Duke was but two years old and West Campus still a twinkle in a stone mason's eye. Ten years later, Duke University Press began publishing The Journal of Parapsychology. The fact is that, from 1927 until some point shortly before its move to a building near Duke on North Buchanan in 1965, Rhine's parapsychology lab was based at the West Duke building on East Campus, which I now bike within sight of as part of my twice daily commute.

Rhine was led to his search for psychic abilities by his fascination with the prospect of an afterlife. Can the dead speak? Can anyone hear them? Oddly, for a lifelong secularist, I grew up with a terrible fear of ghosts. I was scared as that kid in "The Six Sense" to get out of bed to pee in the middle of the night, whether at my 50s vintage suburban residence near Cleveland or my maternal grandparents distinctly creepier turn-of-the-last-century home on Martha's Vineyard, though by all indications, no one had ever died in either place.

Today I live in a home where I know at least one person died: former Esquire editor and Durham Herald columnist Bob Sherrill, who retired from an evening of sitting on his (our) front lawn on the night of July 4th, 2007, and was found in his (our) bedroom several days later. However, though I now sleep each night in the room where he died, I awake and pee fearlessly. I catch a glimpse of myself in the darkened bathroom mirror and think how once this would have terrified me. But now, despite this known death and possible others in a house 80 years old, despite my daughter and her friends recently scaring themselves silly with a Ouija Board in the family room, despite the strange way the neighborhood fox barks at our house most every night, despite having an empty old mansion called Hill House just down the street, despite all this, I no longer feel at risk of visitation. Perhaps it's the dim view Sherrill took of death's approach, but I think it's more that I'm older and I've seen death, particularly my mother's piecemeal departure over twenty-some years, and I am no longer capable of belief.

It's sad, I suppose, but at least I get a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Road That Goes to My House

Tonight, as I was sitting in the parlor of my home, reading Jean Anderson’s history of Durham, I heard that familiar hoarse bark I hear so often around the neighborhood, and which I have come to think of as the local fox’s bark. This time, though, it was right outside my western window, and as I looked out, I saw that it was indeed the fox barking. He saw me and moved away, coming to a stop in the middle of Cobb Street, looking back toward my home. I grabbed my camera and headed outside to take his picture, but he trotted away down the driveway of the abandoned modernist house across the street, where he appears to have a den.

So I didn’t get a picture, but I was motivated to write, for the first time in a while. I took a spill on my bike last week, after hitting one of the many potholes along South Buchanan, though now I think an accessory on my bike may have contributed to the accident: a red blinker electro-magnetically powered by the turn of my back wheel. That’s what it’s supposed to be, at least – it worked for only the first few weeks after I bought it, many years ago, and now, because of its need to hover near my wheel, it’s prone to being jostled between the spokes and bringing my bicycle to an abrupt halt, as happened last week. Or so I have reconstructed, seeing it nearly happen again this morning. I really must remove that broken bit of failed green technology from my vehicle. You’d think, given the several road-rash scabs I now sport, and the pain in my right wrist reminiscent of when I fractured it in another bike accident years ago (though not as bad, and getting better), you’d think I’d’ve removed the offending device as soon as I realized its likely culpability, but I’m a procrastinator when it comes to such practicalities.

The mechanics of bicycle commuting do intrude, even for a veteran. This morning, for the first time since I started my new commute in June, I had to bike in real rain: not a slight drizzle, nor a downpour I could simply out-wait, but a steady rainfall that left me soaked by the time I reached Brodie gym. With my wounded limbs emerging from wet clothes, I was not an advertisement for bicycle commuting.

But it gets better. It’s surely good to be so close to things. Last weekend Jenna and I walked from home to Durham’s new brewpub, Fullsteam. Sadly, they were out of their beer I really like, the Rocket Science IPA, but we stopped by Tyler’s at American Tobacco on the way back, and they had it on tap. Such are the consolations of the Urban B/Hiker lifestyle.