Durham is
a love thy neighbor place

People are my Drug

from Phil Cook and the Guitatheels—preorder here.

Phil Cook

Phil Cook

Durham is a love thy neighbor place

by: Aaron Mandel

Phil Cook recently told us at the Pinhook that it was all about the light and the love. At the “People are my Drug” album release show, he told the crowd over and over again that it was about “the community”. He talked about his love for his bandmates. His love for the community, that they, the band, gave him. He talked about his love for The Pinhook. The community and the safe space for any and all members of the Durham community. He talked about his love for that safe space and for owner-operator Kym Register who was there when he conceived the album.

Cook sang evocative songs about love, hopes, dreams, despair, and spirit. Between a dozen or so tunes, some from the new album, others from the deep repertoire of gospel, Motown, and more that Cook and his band, the Guitarheels, have mastered, he sprinkled conversation.

After the audience swayed to Tamisha Waden’s deep soulful voice, appreciated James Wallace’s mastery of the keyboards, enjoyed the hard gigging jazz percussionists, JT Bates and Braven Hampden, and the low, rich resonant bass player, Michael Libramento, we heard Cook’s emotions as he pointed to his mother in the crowd and thanked her profusely, telling her that he loved her.

He said this was his hometown bar, that he couldn’t help but talk more than usual, because he had “shit to say.”

Cook gave the assembled crowd specific instructions: say something to the stranger next to you. Break through that bubble. Paraphrasing, “Because at some point that ‘stranger danger’, shit they tell you, you’re too old. We can’t treat everywhere like it is the airport [or the grocery store]. Talk to the person next you.”


In Cook’s opinion, because it is the only way to “fix this shit, people”. To this end, Cook used the lens of parenthood to say that only when we simply see each other as humans are we going heal and repair what’s wrong with our community. Locally and globally.

He brought it back to Durham telling us that just a few miles east of where we were standing at The Pinhook, there were parents worrying if there kids were going to come home safe. Parents who had needed to coach their children on how to talk to police officers because as Cook put it, “One wrong move.”

Cook said he could relate to the fragile and frail thin thread of life because of the travails of his own son who spent his first eight days of life at Duke Hospital’s Intensive Care with respiratory problems. “[My wife, Heather, and I] didn’t get to hold our son for eight days after he was born.”

He told the audience that other parents had kids who been in ICU for weeks or months and that he was thinking of those parents tonight. And of the parents waiting for their kids to come home safely. And that for him, it just hammered home the truth that we’re all human.

But the final injunction was about saying something to the stranger next to you. Demystifying them. Acknowledging them and our evident common humanity.

This is not a new conversation either. I recall discussing this same topic with Daria Drake of the Durham Originals some eighteen months ago, when the pit for One City Center was being dug. We were at the old Scratch location brainstorming on some of the simplest things that we could get the Durham community to do engage with each other and the environment.

One City Center excavation in progress

One City Center excavation in progress

One thing that came up was greeting the stranger in the street. Simply even saying, “Hi, how are you?” We didn’t formulate a specific plan around it. Or come up with a catchy hashtag. (These things work. #PeopleAreMyDrug) We just discussed how for each of us talking to randos in the street was a real and okay thing. Daria’s family has a long and storied history in Durham such that her parents, like many long-time Durham residents, recall an era where it was certain that you would say ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ to someone you were passing by on the street.

Multiply pedestrian traffic levels by New York, Beijing, London, and it becomes obvious that modern urbanization has made this impractical. Our society at its largest scales does not comport itself in such a way that stranger meeting stranger on the street is even available as an option.

Durham is urbanizing.

But not being able to say hello and how are to everyone is not the same thing as not being able to say hello and how are you to someone.

While you can’t greet everyone on the street, Durham is a powerful intentional place when it comes to meeting strangers and encountering others.

I see that ethic embodied every day in my shared co-working space, The Mothership, which welcomes us all as “aliens” so that no one might feel alien among us. Every time a new rando comes in, various people pipe up to introduce themselves, to learn about the new person’s background and story. This isn’t mandated or forced. It isn’t done strictly by the ownership team (Katie DeConto and Megan Jones). It is understood by the Mothership community as an innate responsibility of who were are as a co-working community. We welcome and embrace the stranger. Not because we are ordered to, but because each time, it makes the community better, more supple, via our difference, our elasticity.

Before I went to see Phil Cook on Friday at The Pinhook, I was at the Pleiades Gallery on Chapel Hill Street. Two Mothershippers were showing their short animated films as part of an Earthist exhibit called, “Changing Worlds”.

Eri Yokoyama and Jaclyn Bowie were strangers to me when I met them at The Mothership. But when I saw them at The Pleiades, even though I know neither of them well, they were fellow community members, of my co-working space, of Durham, of the local artist community, and of humanity.

The Cooks hit this same theme two weeks ago at their ten year wedding anniversary party. That night, Heather Cook, toasting from the stage to a crowd of easily more than one hundred, made us each promise to introduce ourselves to one person at the party, someone we had never met before, make a new friend. The Cooks had gathered so many of their loved ones together from the four corners of the globe. They wanted that we should meet one another and make community, feel the light and the love.

That night at Durham Fruit, I met a drummer named Lance from Richmond, Virginia. He’d been there almost twenty years without really planning on it. Sounds like me in Durham. He described a community that I could relate to, musicians, artists, creatives, small business people and more, that inhabited Richmond. He told a freeway story that reminded me of what 147 did to Hayti. We commiserated about rising rents and gentrification and the worry that our city’s rich cultural vibe was going to change.

A stranger showed me our self-evident commonality. Our worries and fears. Our joys and loves. Our communities.

Again, I was reminded that all you have to do is listen to someone. Open up. Engage. Come with heart spread wide.

Durham is a love thy neighbor kind of place.

Phil Cook reminded us as we sang along. He told us, we were doing what we were supposed to do on a Friday, “sharing community, making music”.

It was a joyful noise, indeed.


Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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