It was always scale.
Trying to distill some perfect moment in Durham’s history is a facetious game. People who love a place will idealize a particular era in the face of change. Especially change as fast and relentless is Durham is facing.
Usually the era is the recent past.
“You just missed it.”
My friend Krista N. has said repeatedly, ‘Don’t mythologize our recently gone by Durham. It does us a disservice.’
This has been a hard lesson to learn. (1)
K.N. is right. Recent Durham was not a Durham where women were equal, nor where people of color or our LGBTQ community were treated equally. Recently past Durham might have been vectoring in the right direction, but at no time had we achieved social equality, to point out just one massive shortcoming in our idolized myth.
It was the scale we romanticized. The small scale, personal level at which we felt we all knew each other in recently gone-by Durham. The era that allowed me to get away with saying endlessly, “sometimes it feels like Durham has two and a half degrees of separation instead of the usual six.”
What is daunting and intimidating about New York or Los Angeles is the scale. The height (buildings) and the width (freeways) of scale, surely, but also really the pure teeming mass of humanity. In the anonymity before the internet, people could truly disappear in the city.
Durham was always smaller than that.
But the truth be told, it still is.
Last week I went to Surf Club to interview Treee City aka Patrick Phelps-McKeown about his upcoming album. Deets on that forthcoming with the full interview in January, album drops under the Raund Haus auspices in early 2018.
I want to tell you about that night and how it reminded me, if you are looking for it, the small scale, the intimate Durham is still here.
Most of our bars have multiple incarnations. To get to Surf Club at 8pm on Monday is to find an entirely different entity than 11pm on the weekend when the walls are sweating and weeping. Conversations below shouting decibels can be heard and held.
When Treee City aka Patrick and I met up to engage in such a chat, the multi-talented, cultural contributors, Shirlette and Shorlette Ammons were at the Surf Club bar. After Shirlette noticed Patrick and myself ensconced in a booth, she strolled over. She had heard about the new Treee City in the pipeline and asked the who, what, where, and when questions that should be part of every reporter’s playbook. Except she wasn’t writing a story or doing it for my benefit. She simply cared and wanted to know what her friend and Durham music making colleague was up to, with details.
Patrick and I talked for another ninety minutes, but Shirlette had gotten the essentials in five minutes. She also made sure that he was going connect her with a private link to the tracks, and then she apologized as if she had hijacked rather than heightened our conversation.
Amazingly, the rest of the night felt just as small scale and personal for me.
After I left Treee City aka Patrick, I needed to decompress and eat, so I headed down the block to Parts and Labor at MotorCo. I caught a night where the bartenders, Johnny O. and Geoff Register were old friends. Both are musicians, the Clarion Content has even written about Register over the years.
While I sat alone at the mostly empty bar schmoozing with Geoff and Johnny O., Johnny quite literally used to rent the duplex I live in, I was able to overhear and join another conversation between a couple of folks at the nearly empty bar.
They didn’t know each other. But it turned out one of them was a former member of my co-working space next door, The Mothership, and the other was former member of the popular local band, “I was Totally Destroying It.” She had just come from a meet-up at the Mothership. He was doing the sound for MotorCo during the Flash Chorus.
The conversation ranged across Trump, #MeToo, social change, small business, local music—life writ large and small. Geoff and Johnny O. weighed in. We discussed how you could make a cocktail that tasted like a S’more and a taste-tester shot of Hennessey/Bailey’s was poured as part of cocktail experiment conversation.
Scale. Small creates intimate. Small offers opportunities for engagement.
A half a decade ago I used to go the Carrack-Mercury Studio Artist Salon. It was only a dozen people, but such minds among the regulars, Laura Ritchie, Sarah V. Goetz, Jim Lee, Chuck Pell, Megan Jones, Erin Oliver. It was incredible. It was so stimulating as a creative, and it was supremely valuable as a fiction writer.
But, it eventually got too popular. Twenty, then thirty people a week started coming. Everyone couldn’t speak. Productive discussion was no longer possible.
Durham was dangerous then. Raleigh and Chapel Hill still spoke about us in hushed tones.
The other end of that stick was sitting in Durty Durham meetings watching three and four heads, yet again, coming up with a plan to host and house out-of-town DJ’s for Party Illegal. How to turn a shoestring budget into an event and a charitable contribution for the even needier. Scale could feel daunting in those Durham days because the entity was so small, the task at hand so great.
The Mothership(2) where I co-work and the Clarion Content resides, has both parts of this duality: the amazing small scale community where we know each other, incubate ideas, celebrate culture, make it happen with no budget, and the small scale community where we look at the massive enterprises and big changes around us in Durham and wonder how we will survive and it what form.
The Mothership, formerly Mercury Studio, is a nexus. A node. We had our holiday party and some of the same faces that I see out or saw years back at the salons were there. We talked about The Rise of the Creative Class and what this thesis means to Durham. How do we and how would we even document who is in that externally labeled “creative class”.(3)
It wasn’t so much that I found the answers in the small crew at MotorCo last Monday or the two dozen people at the Mothership Holiday party. It was that I was reminded the discussion is still on going in Durham. It is still happening small scale, a booth and a gathering at a time, even as development and wealth explode around us.
The Mayoral Campaign felt very personal to me because I knew two of the candidates well, long before the race. As we hosted our MayorUP forums, I came to know the other candidates and appreciate them all as individuals. Human beings. Scale entered what might otherwise feel distant and unreal. Politics. News.
Where do you collapse the scale of Durham? At Bike Co-op? A Wednesday night run? A filmmaker meet-up? A writing group? Thinking about the environment? Volunteering?
If you look for it, the small scale, the good neighbor is always there. Because the good neighbor is us and it is our participation in the community that gives it life and hope.
The record is not over yet.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”—Fred Rogers
(1)After all we use to publish a meta-fiction column entitled, “Searching for Ringside”. Ringside was a legendary, but long since disappeared, Durham bar.
(2)The Clarion Content faces this same double edged sword/Catch22 too…part of an amazing small scale community where we know each other, incubate ideas, celebrate culture, make it happen with no budget, and we look at the massive enterprises around us and wonder how we will survive and it what form.
(3)Don’t fret the best are hard at work on the answers.