A Speech

Composed in My Head but not Delivered during Meeting for Worship to Honor Carolina Friends School’s 50th Birthday.

A certain word has been on my mind since last night, when I had a conversation with Hallie and Dave, who are here today with their daughter, Eliza, whom I adore. And then it came to mind again when I walked into the Center building this morning and saw the risers and lights — a performance space, basically — and then heard Nicky Kitchen play so beautifully. The setting reminded me that, although I have no documentation to prove it, in 1989, during the musical Working, which is a musical about sticking it to the man, or wanting to stick it to the man, and which I understand is just about to be performed again in this building under the direction of my former classmate, Brad McDevitt — during a performance, in the role of a steelworker, I became the first person to stand under lights in this building, in front of an audience, and say the word “fuck.”

And I may have just become the second. I don’t know why you’re all tittering! This word is spelled p-h-o-c and is French for “seal,” as my wife, who lived in France for most of a decade and is sitting next to me now, can tell you.

Well, of course that’s not the spelling I’m using, and we all know why that word makes us uncomfortable. There’s a wonderful anecdote told by John Cheever in the introduction to his collected short stories. He describes how his editor at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, discovered that Cheever would jump nearly out of his seat every time Ross used that word; so Ross would keep using it just to watch Cheever jump.

In other words, the effect I got with that word was intended. It made a lot of you jump, figuratively or literally. I think part of the reason why this word still has the power to do that is that we don’t quite know what it means or where it came from. It certainly does not stand for “Fornication Under the Crown of the King,” which a spurious etymology. It might have been Old German or Old Norse for “strike” or something like that, but we really don’t know, and so we don’t know, rationally, why the word strikes us the way it does. So this word is radical in the truest sense of the word: it is its own root, and it could mean anything, including the worst thing we could think of, which we can never bring ourselves to do. The word substitutes for whatever that worst thing is at any given moment. This is its power.

Its radical quality is why the word is still on my mind, because as we observe Carolina Friends School’s 50th birthday, and as I listen to Jim’s history of the school and its environment, I’m thinking of CFS’s radical origins. As a student here, I was steeped in the school’s peaceable philosophy; later, as a teacher, I was charged with passing it on to the middle-schoolers I taught. And what I always tried to stay aware of, and am reminded of today, is that, although the pedagogical engine of CFS has long run on flower-power, and although it rightly preaches peace, love and understanding, and although it celebrates the light in everyone — although it is in short a hippy-dippy place, for lack of a better phrase; I mean, this was a school where you could take batik, for credit — despite all of this swords-into-ploughshares, granola-bar goodness, CFS was founded as a fierce resistance movement, in radical opposition to its time.

It’s easy, fifty years on, to see that the segregated South, the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, was a blatantly unjust, hideously inhumane culture — so easy that we have managed to quarantine most of its wrongs in the history books we give our students to read. We see so clearly that barring people from using certain water fountains or sitting in certain seats on the bus — or hanging them in public without trials — because of the color of their skin is almost barbarically narrowminded. We see this so clearly that we don’t even see it. Racial justice is the pane of glass through which most of life is observed — not all of it, of course. We live in a world that is still sometimes deeply racist, as Ferguson proves, as Walter Scott in Charleston proves, as Eric Garner in Staten Island proves.

But isn’t it true that these seem like tragic exceptions now? Awful ones, to be sure, ones that warn of a flicker of evil, but fires we have the moral, political, legal and cultural means to extinguish. In the late fifties, we did not. Racial hatred was institutional, not exceptional, and often quite nonviolent. The worst oppression is what does not burn in sight but smolders unseen — oppression that’s daily, ordinary, habitual, almost banal: water fountains, bus rides, ballparks, and schools. CFS began as a challenge to this kind of oppression. It stared the dominant culture in the face and said: This is not the mold we want to fit into, nor our children to fit into.

But rather than try to break this mold, which no small community, which CFS is, can realistically hope to do, the Klopfers and their cohort built their own mold. And they said, anyone who wants to come and join us in this resistance to authority, this stance against the norm, is welcome. And they staked their property on it. In America, where property has always been our cultural and political god, that is about as radical as you can get.

The famous Schopenhauer quote tells us that truth goes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, and then it is accepted as self-evident. The truth CFS was telling 50 years ago, that we are all created equal, is now mostly accepted as self-evident, although we must still fight for this equality every day.

And there are other truths that haven’t been spoken yet. They probably seem ordinary, the norm, everyday; maybe we don’t really even think of them much because we are so entrenched in them — we don’t recognize how darkly we look through the glass. But there are wrongs all around us that have to be combated. The charter of CFS — what it tasks all of us with — was and still is this: Where we see something that is unjust, cruel or morally profane, we must stand up to this cussedness and say, in the noblest sense, Fuck This.

To Eliza and all of our students, I will say: I hope you will use this word appropriately, necessarily. To everyone else here, and to myself, on this day that marks a half-century of CFS, I assign this mission: to do more than just utter this word; that is, having once uttered it, make change; and, most importantly, having made that change, devote ourselves to the work of sustaining it.


Some Thoughts on Durham Co-op Market

In 2011, I interviewed a number of people involved in the efforts to open what was then known as Durham Central Market. The name reflected the organizers’ essential mission: to open a grocery in downtown Durham, which had none. The words “food desert” were often used in these interviews. A few of the board members lived in Old North Durham, so the impetus for the market was appealingly personal as well as public.

The interviews were conducted as part of an article I wrote for the Independent Weekly about the market, which was then in what was described to me as its fourth year of planning and development. The market board had an option to buy a parcel of land at Mangum and Broadway, and a goal to build the market on that land. The estimated cost of the project was $4.2 million.

That seemed like an awful lot of money to raise for a co-op startup, but I was inclined to be optimistic. I really wanted a grocery store I could walk to, and I live just three blocks from the location at Mangum and Broadway. I like co-ops generally, if they’re run well. I was a regular at Wheatsville in Austin when I lived there, and I tried my best to shop at the Durham Co-op (“The People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy”–apparently that was its actual registered name), even in its dying days, when the shelves were mostly empty and the produce largely rancid. A fair portion of the Durham Central Market organizers was composed of refugees from the doomed co-op.

I must say that I found the interviews tough to come away from with optimism. I got many vague answers, sometimes defensive ones, to very specific questions–none of which were especially pointed or doubtful–and evasive responses to my questions about fundraising and budgets. One of the board members (since departed) spoke at length about the “Slow Money” movement and a book on the subject. There was lots of theory, but indeterminate practice.

I was perplexed by the market’s proposed owner/investor system, which seemed–as I believe Ross Grady put it–“passive-aggressive.” It may be the way all co-ops work, but it seemed needlessly complicated, hard to wrap one’s brain around, and it had what struck me as unwieldy mechanisms for investment and return. I got the vague sense that the board was half hoping that Weaver Street Market would open a Durham branch and make all of their efforts unnecessary. Weaver Street was “what we want to be when we grow up,” project manager Don Moffitt told me. I thought, but didn’t ask, “Why don’t you want to be Durham Central Market when you grow up?”

I asked whether it was realistic to expect to raise $4.2 million for a co-op market–Weaver Street had launched on just $300,000-$400,000 in the late 1980s (yes, I know, inflation, economy collapse; but still)–and was told that it was realistic, especially if an angel donor would pony up an originating (and large) chunk of the money. That seemed like pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, but Don Moffitt and the three board members I interviewed sounded confident about someone swooping in and dropping a big check on the project. I asked if the board had looked into existing structures in and around Central Park (which was the specific part of downtown where they wanted to locate the market), rather than building new construction. I was told that they’d looked at every space in the area, and that none of them were suitable. They were also adamant that the location on Mangum, across from what is now Saltbox, was the right one. They’d hired a marketing consultant to evaluate the site and were convinced of its worthiness.

At the time of my interviews with the board and Moffitt, early in 2011, DCM had less than $500,000 in hand. The market was just about to have a fundraising “pep rally.” (The article I wrote was published to coincide with it.) The goal was to raise $1.5 million through an “owner investment campaign.” The timetable for the campaign was only about a month–another unrealistic goal, I thought, as was the projected opening date of August 2012; but, again, I wanted to be optimistic. These people’s hearts were, and are, always in the right place. Re-reading the article I wrote with four years of hindsight, I can practically hear the words coming out through clenched teeth as I try to spin the story positively (which my editor encouraged me to do). I wanted to buy in, despite my misgivings. Self-interest was operating along with my local-business commitments, since I really wanted that market near my house and had already become an owner via a $140 household buy-in.

But I wasn’t surprised that nothing much happened after that. The owner investment campaign didn’t yield much, no angel donor materialized, and the board let the option on the land at Mangum and Broadway lapse. A year after the original story ran, I contacted the board and did a few follow-up interviews for a potential update story for the Independent. The only news of note was that the board had started exploring sites outside of downtown, including up in North Durham. So I didn’t write a story. There was really nothing to report except bad news–which I found quite dismaying. The whole point of the market, as far as I was concerned, was that it was going to be downtown. Otherwise, to me it was just a pet project of people who just wanted another Weaver Street Market. Much as I like the idea of keeping the money in the local economy, I already do the vast majority of my grocery shopping at the Farmers Market (which is not as overpriced as some people misjudge it to be), and I can go to King’s Red & White for the rest if I want to. The market was going to put an anchor downtown, make the area more livable, and issue a strong statement about urban life.

I stopped paying much attention after that attempt to write a follow-up story. It seemed to me that the board wasn’t all that devoted to its efforts. They had been generally lax about responding to interview requests, not very forthcoming with information, and unskilled at marketing themselves or keeping their efforts on the general radar. When I heard that the Self-Help Ventures Fund had finally stepped in and offered to build the co-op a building–virtually right on the site of the old co-op, an old-hat-new-hat outcome–I wasn’t surprised, although I was also not excited. The name changed, subtly but importantly, from Durham Central Market to Durham Co-op Market. Gone was the notion that the market was centrally located, despite what some of its apologists say.

One of the quotes I really wanted to use in my 2011 story, but decided out of decorum not to, came from Lex Alexander, who knows from the grocery business. Lex was pessimistic about Durham Central Market, and had told them so, but quipped, “Maybe people are finally fed up with Whole Foods.” The co-op is only a mile from Whole Foods, which offers far more goods and at similar prices, and not really in the direction of downtown. It mostly serves Lakewood and Morehead Hill, along with Trinity Park and Forest Hills–neighborhoods that generally don’t need another market, can only dubiously be called “diverse” (as the Independent’s recent article does), and certainly aren’t in a “food desert.” Whole Foods is quite convenient, as is the massive Harris Teeter that opened in the mean time. It may no longer matter that people are fed up with Whole Foods, if they actually are.

There’s a hideous new prefab apartment complex on the other side of the freeway overpass from the co-op, and the souped-up University Apartments in the other direction. I lived in the latter for three years when it was still the funky, wonderful “old girl,” as its superintendent called it, that was home to a diverse population. We all got evacuated when the place was sold and gussied up, and now it’s a place for Duke kids (I guess) who have a co-op nearby. It seems appropriate that both University Apartments and the old co-op have been reconstituted right on site, at higher prices–the co-op is not cheap. Same same but different, as they say.

The co-op never claimed it would be cheap, of course–it’s a mistaken notion that food cost is a draw of co-ops, especially in the modern, corporate co-op model. They sell local-economy spending opportunity, which is significant, and lifestyle choice, which isn’t. The products are largely the same as you’ll find in most other co-ops, and the perfectly pleasant space feels more or less identical to co-ops I’ve been in in Carrboro, Hillsborough, Burlington and elsewhere–again, the modern, corporate co-op model at work. I’m glad the co-op finally opened, and I’m sure I’ll shop there some, but there’s no avoiding the fact that it abandoned its founding mission and that downtown Durham still doesn’t have a place where you can buy a gallon of milk or a bag of rice.

On James Salter

A writer’s writer — awful term. It’s damning, like putting a bird in a cage or a princess in a castle. There’s even “a writer’s writer’s writer,” applied to Elizabeth Bishop by John Ashbery, and by Terry Southern to Henry Green. I’m sure there are others. It is a high compliment and a virtual death sentence. It has not only to do with low sales but also high style: somewhat austere, perhaps, basically inimitable, with a certain difficulty or density or obscurity. Salter seems (at his best) to do more than his language suggests. Actually, it’s that his language is so often almost entirely suggestive, creating space around things, enlarging them. A Sport and a Pastime, his best book, is barely 200 pages long.

Maybe it’s risky or repugnant to say it’s his best novel. A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is an objectionable book, a secret book, a precious book, a notorious book. Continue reading On James Salter

10 thoughts on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper


1) Any book that quotes from Four Quartets, my favorite long poem, wins my prizes.

2) I like that every now and then she reminds you that many conversations rendered in English are actually taking place in German. It gives the whole book this great occasional (but very strong) sense of alienation and misunderstanding and exile, even loneliness (which is much of what Tiffany suffers from, I think). And it makes you see that Tiffany and Stephen don’t really understand one another any better, even though they’re both speaking their native English.

3) My objection to most younger writers’ books (that I read) these days is that they’re trying so hard to sound older than they are. Nell Zink is trying to sound a good deal younger than she is, which is harder. To some degree I’m sure this is just her voice (as demonstrated The Paris Review interview, which is almost as fun as The Wallcreeper), and I wish more people were talking about the voice. When I used to teach high school writers, a lot of them were obsessed with this. I always told them voice is the last thing any writer should worry about. But if I was going to tell them what “voice” was, I’d tell them to read this book. Continue reading 10 thoughts on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper