Without People

Tonight, I went walking around Durham, North Carolina by myself. Let me set the stage: the abominable HB2 is still in effect, in spite of the efforts of the noble locals, and Duke is graduating. Everywhere, there’s an air of celebration and shame tied together. I leave on a plane tomorrow for Atlanta. I’ve just visited with my good friends, and no one I know is around.

So, like any sane human, I went on a solo bar crawl to do some people-watching. I grabbed my copy of Meg Wolitzer’s THE INTERESTINGS and set off from the 21C Hotel.

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Durham is nice. It’s a bunch of reclaimed tobacco buildings surrounding the ultra-swank Duke University. The air around here is electric with the hopes of rich parents and desperate students. It strikes me as overly-gentrified and desperately green, but pretty.

Beautiful fruits and peppers. Great smoked speck.

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My first stop was Bar Virgile, where I had an Old Fashioned, a Brooklyn Lager and a Smoked Speck Charcuterie. A party of loud students and family reveled nearby, drowning out all other sounds. The two bartenders, a pair of hard-working fellows, barely had time to hazard me a glance between all of the demands put upon them by the celebrants. The place was packed.

I started reading my book and munching on the meats, and at one point, a woman came down and asked to sit next to me. The oldest guy at the party nearby shooed her away, insisting that I was “already taking up too much space.” If I hadn’t been so engrossed in the camp scenes, I would’ve told them to fuck themselves. By the time I’d come to my senses, the woman was gone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but I felt bad for her.

Two members of the party approached me, I’m guessing the parents. “I heard you order. Are you from Cotton Country?” said an older lady. “No, Shel,” was her husband’s rebuke. “Don’t bother him.” She insisted that she just wanted to find out because she’d heard me order and she thought she placed the accent. He complained that they were leaving.

“I guess we’ll never know,” I said with a smile and took up my book again. I watched her ushered out the door by a horrified husband. I’m not sure how to feel about that one. It was the last time anyone would speak to me that evening. At least, it was the last time anyone would ask me for anything other than an order.

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I think I was happy to get away. I walked all across downtown before tucking into a few treats in Brightleaf Square. No one bothered me. No one spoke to me. I kept seeing the pattern repeat over and over again: mother and father, student, siblings, all dressed in Sunday best. They all seemed so wealthy, so cautious–the fathers’ eyes inevitably darted around like they could get mugged at any second.

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The above photo was taken after a family of Duke folks stood under the sign. The grandfather, I’m guessing, had backed out into the street to try to get the photo, much to the chagrin of his family. They barked at him to get out of the road, in spite of the lack of traffic, and whined that they hadn’t yet selected a restaurant.

The look on his face when they disappeared into the lit plaza without him was the saddest, saltiest thing I’d see all night. Why couldn’t they see he was trying to capture this magical moment in a time of his life when memories faded?

When their backs turned, I ducked into traffic next to a pylon to take the photo. Sorry, grandpa.

I walked all over the east campus, underneath the rotunda and past the clock tower. A bus arrived and let out a group of students who couldn’t care less about graduation. One particularly frazzled guy let himself into the Center for Ethics, cursing loudly. He wasn’t graduating, I guess.

After a round near Burger Bach, I turned back and walked to the Counting House, about a mile and a half away.

Ponysaurus IPA and tobacco panna cotta.

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That’s my food: a Ponysaurus IPA and a tobacco panna cotta. The bacon-ish stuff on top is roasted, candied orange slices. The broken cookies are delicate honeycomb candies.

I ate in silence as I watched a couple of law bros, glad to be divested of their parents, sit down at nearby couches. They complained loudly about the lack of decent draught beers in this (nice, expensive) place and told the wait staff repeatedly that they were graduating. I enjoyed seeing one of them get shot down after making a pass at an overworked woman. I’m sad to think it must’ve cost her a tip.

This was my idea of a good time.

Not talking to anyone, not being seen, gave me a sense of profound serenity, like watching a play from backstage. Maybe I’m a judgy little shit–I haven’t ruled that out. Maybe I didn’t like seeing other people happy when I was lonely, but I doubt it.

I enjoyed seeing the private interactions that I so often miss in my own life. How many times have I laughed too loudly, irking the poor wait staff? How many times have I left someone I loved standing in the street, disappointed that they couldn’t capture a memory? I’ve never flirted with a waiter, but it probably would’ve had a similar result to the law bros.

You don’t get to see backstage very often. As a writer, I can’t recommend it enough.

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