Recently I learned that my grandparents are coming for graduation. I was astonished to hear that they had found somewhere to stay in Durham, given the hoopla that’s already precluded hotel bookings within a 10-mile radius of Duke’s campus. In her email to my mom, my grandmother mentioned a good rate and a place that included breakfast. Surprisingly, though, the confirmation was in British Pounds. As it turns out, my grandparents—the psychologists who discourse freely on Ingmar Bergman and first introduced me to The New Yorker—had accidentally booked a hotel in Durham, England.
It’s a silly mistake and a good story. And—worry not—they’ll be joining me for my rite of passage (stateside) after all. Unlike my grandmother, however, I’d heard of the English Durham, but hadn’t looked into it beyond noting its distinction as our Durham’s sister city. It was our Durham that was recently selected for the New York Times’ well-known “36 Hours” travel feature—a journalistic stamp of approval that essentially means your city’s made it, that your renaissance (rejuvenation, reclamation, gentrification) is in good health. “36 Hours” has become a worldwide currency—even repository—of customizable city-visits. Each piece breaks down the place in question into accomplishable experiences: Tour Duke at 3:30 p.m., and make sure to include the Nasher—the Matisse exhibit is great (it is); drink beer at Fullsteam at 9:30 p.m. (subtext: don’t stay up too late, because you have to catch the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning). Sumptuous photos of food, nightlife and always (always!) a clothing boutique refer back to, and indeed proclaim, the city’s identity, no matter how diverse. The pieces always end with posh hotel recommendations, the logical answer to a cutesy conditional (“If you go”).
I’ve relied on these guides while abroad: Upon my insistence, “36 Hours in Dresden” directed a cluster of grumpy, rain-soaked American undergrads to a club styled after an East German living room. Once there, we sat on starchy green sofas, sipped Communist bloc beers and twirled to Joy Division until sunrise. Getting lost repeatedly on the way there only added to the splendor.
My reaction to Durham’s being placed among the ranks of the small-town urbane is twofold, and muddled. Initially, I was thrilled that the New York Times saw Durham as I see it. My little, beautiful, vibrant, cool, intelligent, artistic, progressive Southern town, I thought, as if turning it in my hand, the place that’s defined my early adulthood, empowered me, turned “community” into the most important concept I know and is now begging me to stay and grow old with it.
Once I let the distinction settle, I started to think about how I usually spent 36 hours in Durham. I laze in bed in the mornings, propped elbows on my windowsill to get a hold of the precise view that links residential backyards to buildings downtown. A trip to Bruegger’s happens if I’m lucky and can catch a ride. I plug in headphones on my walk to the Center for Documentary Studies—now competing with the Ark for my favorite building at Duke—and lately Mount Moriah, a treasured Durham-based band, is my soundtrack. I take iPhone photos or scribble down fragments of people and things that intrigue me. Occasionally at night I’ll check into a restaurant or gallery downtown on Foursquare, but mostly I’m watching life unfold in Lilly, the Chronicle office or the Coffeehouse, and weaving myself into the buzz of each venue. Duke is a fundamental part of my Durham life, and it always has been: there’s no physical or metaphorical wall between the two. The city holds this pastiche of places, people and activities that have finally let me wrap my arms around this collective locale, stare it in the eye and unabashedly say, “love you; mean it.”
Durham feels normalized to me—even the “cool” parts now relegated to the “to-do” list for the city’s newcomers. I slip between spaces and am smug with my knowledge of the city and university—topographically, socially, culturally. That is, until…
…A rock wall in the middle of the Blue Zone looks like a remnant from a Civil War battleground. That wall gives way to a cemetery I never knew existed because I never walk here because I don’t have a car. The cemetery gives way to an impulse to choreograph a dance between the headstones and the trees. That impulse reminds me that I still love dance, and that the last time I felt that love completely—bodily, intellectually, spiritually—was while shimmying between people I sort-of recognized at the Pinhook on New Year’s Eve, when no other Duke undergrads were around.
Being meticulously attuned to physical space is the equivalent, or a greater amplification, of engaging with a painting or novel or performance so fully that we term the effect in the apt-albeit-nebulous world of the ‘visceral.’ Doing something—writing, dancing, reading, acting—“from the solar plexus,” a phrase a friend borrowed from a beloved professor. Two years ago, I sat for several hours in the same Perkins armchair in order to finish Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The process induced REM-reading; when I closed the book and rose from the seat, my eyes felt hollow, my skin prickly and my walk undulating like Woolf’s textual waves. I don’t see this as very different from my inability to sit still during dance performances. To be physically capable but consigned to the realm of “audience” produces a physical tension unlike any other I know. Walking to class along the opposite sidewalk or taking a “wrong” turn in downtown Durham—or even booking a hotel in the “wrong” Durham—produces new spatial awareness, but the real nugget is documenting that difference, calling it out as unusual. Traversing unaccustomed earth on the ground and in your notebook.
Last semester a writing professor advised our class to conduct interviews in motion. Talking to someone while walking—en route to the State Capitol or down the hallway to the janitor’s closet—introduces a new scenario to inhabit and reconcile with our own smug ways of ambling through the day-to-day, whether numbed to the normal or aspiring toward a “cool” espoused by the New York Times. Treating life as an individualized creative project encourages us to get lost—intentionally—and generate the type of experience a travel guide cannot reproduce or categorize. Fundamental to the art of storytelling is the understanding that we’ve taken stock of where we’ve been, and that our pathways are unique. If I bristle at you the next time you ask me that question—“What are you doing next year?”—it’s because I’m interested in inverting it. What we’re “doing” too easily assumes two things: that a job or position entails a precise way to pattern our days, and that said patterned position entails spatial, physical, holistic happiness. Lately I’ve been thinking of my current and future life in terms of where I am and where I’ll be. It makes me feel more comfortable with my full intent to insert myself into something that’s emerging and learn its contours indefinitely—and, no, I don’t necessarily mean that “emerging city” of newsgiant fodder.