My one-second stand with Mick Jagger

I was tending bar the other night, my usual Monday shift, around nine o’clock, when our manager started acting flustered and put upon even though the restaurant wasn’t busy. A little while later, I went into the kitchen with an armload of dishes and glasses. The door into the kitchen from the bar is directly opposite another door, on the exterior wall, that leads out into the side parking lot, where no one actually parks: it’s small and narrow, mainly a way to get to the larger rear lot, and it has no designated spaces; the dumpsters are the main things there. The distance between these two doors is about thirty feet along a fairly narrow passage hemmed in by the expediting line on side, and on the other by the gamut of the coffee station, bread station, fridges, dehydrator, etc. Staff use the door to the parking lot to carry trays to the private dining rooms, which are in an adjacent building.

Coming toward me through that door were two of the Rolling Stones, led by Mick Jagger. The other one was Ron Wood.

I could go into some detail, which I learned later from our manager, about how this unusual entrance, and the dinner reservation for half the world’s most famous rock band, was arranged, but you can probably conjure that in your head: security detail calls the restaurant, then comes to case the joint; rejects the private dining room (why? I don’t know, but perhaps people that famous would like not to live in isolation all the time, to have someone other than their personal chefs occasionally cook for them); asks about alternative entrances to the building; etc. The SUV the two Stones arrived in sat right outside the kitchen door, idling, for the duration of their dinner.

The door leading into the dining room from the kitchen is about equidistant from the doors into the kitchen from the bar and the parking lot, and neither Mick nor I had the clear advantage on it from our respective approaches. We had an approximately one-second interaction, perhaps shorter than that, wordless, which communicated, entirely from him to me, via the eyes and body language (and what a body it is, and what language it can convey), all of the following. Please excuse the lengthy syntax, I’ve been on a Proust kick lately.

1) I’m sorry I’m in your way, what with that big stack of dishes you’re carrying;

2) it’s awkward to enter a restaurant through the kitchen, not least because I’m unused to proximity to the sorts of people who work in them, which at the moment includes you–although, alas, entering restaurants through their kitchen doors is a necessity with which I’ve become quite familiar, although perhaps not quite inured to, not least because of the heat and wet and blood and noise and general frenzy of kitchens but also, more theoretically but no more abstractly, because alienation from the means of production (I really mean of the consumer from the worker and the worker’s produce more than the more Marxist idea of the worker from his or her own produce and self, although in this moment, my mere momentary presence near these workers to some degree alienates those workers from themselves, if they happen to look up from their cooking and recognize me, which none of them happens to be doing, and in any case two-thirds of them are Mexicans, unfamiliar with my band, and wouldn’t recognize me even if they looked up from their cooking and see me) is something all of us, not just I, as a millionaire many times over and generally insulated from the production environment, strongly prefer and seek out in all relations with what we consume;

3) oh, and by “I”: no, your eyes are not deceiving you, it’s really me, Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones;

4) and as such, although “Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones,” is in fact merely a character I play–a worker alienated from himself, in a sense, although perhaps not entirely, and perhaps not in the Marxian sense, for much of that alienation from himself is caused by the very fame of the character, a fame conferred on him by people like you, the worker, carrying plates toward me from the other side of the kitchen–it is also a fact that I must play this character in all public environments, or even a very good dinner (indeed even before the very good dinner begins, while I’m coming across the kitchen);

5) and as my fame as this character makes my well-being and my safety of cardinal importance to hundreds of millions of people and, in fact, to history, regrettable though it is, if we were to collide and you were to knock me over, or break a glass in the collision and cut me, and I had to go to the hospital, the repercussions would be unthinkably grave, both culturally and economically;

6) there is thus no question that even (yea, especially!) if you were rushing toward the dish pit engulfed in flames while simultaneously under attack from a wild boar, I would still have priority for the door that opens into the civilized space of the dining room: I’m sorry this is so, this unjust and really rather arbitrary imbalance of status between the character you play when you dress for the night (bartender) and the one I play (Mick Jagger, lead singer of the most famous rock band in the world since the Beatles broke up, before you were born)–but these are the breaks, aren’t they, in life, or at least in this one, and so you’re going to have to cede the way and allow to me to exit into the dining room before you cross the kitchen with your precarious and slightly alarming armload of dishes and stemware.

I am pretty immune to celebrity. Right out of college, I had a job working on a TV show that starred Gene Wilder and a host of other screen stars, and I didn’t see what the big deal was, not least because of their wizened faces up close and desiccated bodies and vain petty celebrity requirements (e.g. I remember what a pain it was to get a treadmill into Carol Kane’s little dressing room). Then I worked in the office of the company of the most famous choreographer of the second half of the twentieth century, and saw and talked with him often and poured him more wine. After that I worked for arguably the hippest theater company in the world, one of whose members was also a famous movie actor, and even more famous people would come to see him act; so coming face to face with Madonna, Al Pacino, John McEnroe, etc. was just something that was part of my job. And when you live in New York City generally, you become accustomed to things like peeing next to Lou Reed at Film Forum.

But this was Mick Jagger, possibly the most famous, most iconic entertainer of his time–and, importantly, his time is a long time. The Rolling Stones played their first gig a year before John Kennedy was shot (“I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ When after all, it was you and me”). The sheer span of Jagger’s fame, which has never perceptibly waned–largely because the Rolling Stones have always been together–is overwhelming, a force of nature.

So is his presence. You hear this word sometimes, presence, when people are talking about celebrities. Most famous people don’t actually have presence, though. It’s constructed for them by cameras and rarefied settings and such. Kevin Costner sat at my friend’s pool party for two hours once, unnoticed. When I worked for that theater company, I was setting up for a post-show benefit reception and, confused about the schedule, Marisa Tomei showed up an hour early. Rather than leave and come back, she waited in the empty space, alone except for me, and mostly just tried sheepishly to stay out of my way–not necessary, because I barely noticed her.

Mick Jagger has presence. He is, as you probably know, quite small, as many celebrities are (Al Pacino was tiny, Madonna was tiny, Patricia Arquette was tiny). But from him emanates the [???] that separates the few from the many–and those few are not all celebrities. There are “regular” people who walk into a room–a bar, a bank–and get looked at, made way for, space expands around them and energy accrues to it; this happens quite apart from their lack of public stature. Mick Jagger’s presence isn’t a product of his fame, nor a cause of it. It simply but forcefully exists in him, from him, inalienable, ineffable, and nonreacting.

I stopped right there in my tracks and let him pass.

The rest of the evening passed without incident. Mick and Ron didn’t drink much–one beer each, I was told, or something like that. Mick had the quail, which is served with mole sauce and black bean succotash. I was a little surprised he ordered something so heavily seasoned and sauced. He asked for the air conditioning to be turned off, because cold canned dry air is bad for singers’ voices. One of the female companions, presumably a girlfriend, sent back her salmon (there was nothing wrong with it, she just ordered the wrong dish for her). Their three-man security detail sat two tables away and kept close watch on the dining room around them in case any of the fine dining masses should misbehave. The only time I went into the dining room while the party was in there, I heard Ron asking his companion, solicitously, with what sounded like overweening concern, “D’ye feel alright? Do ya feel alright?”

I already had tickets to the Rolling Stones’ show in Raleigh, which was last night. I got these via the “Lucky Dip” promotion, whereby a limited window opens on a limited number of really cheap tickets soon after sales begin. They were $29 each, which is to say, after you pay the Ticketmaster/Satan/Grant’s Tomb National Maintenance surcharges, $41. The idea behind these Lucky Dip tickets is not only to give a few enterprising (and poor) people a swell deal, but also to keep scalpers from reselling them. The way it works, or was said to work, is that you are not given actual tickets. You show up at the door with your ID; without it you can’t claim the tickets. Once you claim them, you may not leave the venue (and scalp them), and you are escorted to your seats by an usher. In reality, it was a good deal less military and efficient than that, but the anti-scalping measure was successful, so this is overall a promotion I can endorse–not least because I never would have paid the prices other people were paying for tickets: $85, $139, $1,000+. As the proprietor of the used book and record shop I frequent, put it when I told him I had tickets, “Good. Everyone should see the Grand Canyon.” And those were approximately the stakes for me: something I thought I should see in my lifetime, but not something I cared to pay more for than I pay for my monthly water bill.

I was nonchalant largely because I fall hard on the Beatles side of the Great Divide, although, like most white males, in my twenties I had a season-long stretch when I couldn’t stop listening to Exile on Main Street. (I haven’t read Keith Richards’s book, though, although my father has. I bought it for him. I think that must say something about what I think of the Stones.) I think I might not even have recognized a single one of the Stones’ non-hits until today, when, having learned via the late, great Scott Miller’s book, Music: What Happened? that XTC’s Andy Partridge, in a survey of musicians, named “Citadel” as his favorite Stones song, I played it three times, and I’m now listening to the widely dismissed album Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, the band’s only self-produced album–because the producer got fed up with the drugs and groupies and general dissolution and quit–and thinking I might need to buy it. (It’s really weird and neat, and has the chutzpah to include several seconds of the sound of snoring). Still, I thought it was worth $29 or $41 to see the Grand Canyon, and as it happened, the show date was my wife’s birthday. Sold.

We never went to went to our seats, which were terrible. We watched, standing, from the lip of the concourse across the football stadium, not unimaginably a quarter mile from the stage. And even at that distance, it was hard to stop watching Mick Jagger, even though you could watch the megavision screens on either side of the stage. This is what presence is: it is visible at close range, in a kitchen; and it is visible in a football stadium, from a quarter mile away. It’s not merely that Jagger was out there giving us the full measure and range of his body language: jumping, shaking, shimmying, running; he’s in incredible shape, and turns 72 this month. Nor was it that he was under what was probably the brightest spotlight on the stage (I bet by some sort of hard-won contractual requirement). It was that he was even larger than the larger-than-life stage environment around him, more vivid than the dreamworld built around him. He was entirely comfortable commanding, ringleading, a football stadium and everyone in it, comfortable being the human presence at the heart of a cosmic phenomenon. My mind kept running the confounding math that tried to equate that figure, at once antlike and godlike, with the one I had seen quietly eating a late dinner two nights earlier. There are very, very few people on earth who have not just the ego but also the mental and physical strength to do what Mick Jagger has been doing for fifty years and not to lose an ounce of power or presence. He made Ron Wood look tiny, weightless. He often made Keith Richards seem like a mere mascot.

That is not to say that the other Stones were insignificant. Because Mick and Keith are the icons of the band, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Keith and Ron are one of the great one-two lead-guitar punches in rock history. On the few occasions when the two of them would go a-dueling, with their guitars both loud and lacerating in the mix, I could have listened to that for a long time: the raw, ionic, over-saturated, almost brawling and drunken sound of it. David Menconi, in his newspaper review of the show, pointed out that the mix was overall not very good. He was right, I guess, but I didn’t care at all about that. The guitars were loud and occasionally painful, too loud; Mick was loud, everything and everyone fought for volume space in the mix, and that seemed just about right to me. This band is still impolite. And in any case, what they do has nothing to do with clarity. Complaining about that is like complaining that fireworks are too loud, or too bright.  Loud and bright are the point. And turning everything up is still, after all these years, as legitimate part of what it means to rock as a I-IV-V chord progression. It’s only rock and roll until you push past ordinary thresholds; then it can transform into something ferocious, powerful and intoxicating.

Menconi also news-and-observed that the ragged jamming–there were expansive solos, call-and-response and such in all of them, I think–extended the songs to an average length of seven minutes. I had barely noticed that. Yes, a couple of songs got fatiguing, but I was really glad they weren’t delivered as carbon copies of their studio versions. You felt the band was actually out there performing, being in the moment–even a slick, expensive, carefully managed moment (I disagreed with Menconi that the show was “sloppy”; it just wasn’t planned to the square inch, and room for Keith to run slightly amok is built into it)–and generously giving the crowd its own unrepeatable experience. Maybe that wasn’t really true; maybe the occasional “sloppiness” was itself part of the script. But I doubt it, or in any case I’m not cynical enough to believe it. The Stones have been doing this so long that they can actually get up in front of 40,000 people and improvise, adjust on the fly if necessary, to a degree. They can even screw up and recover, with barely a blink. In that way, they’re more like athletes than musicians. They are great showmen, too; the production details were chintzy and few–a mostly unadorned stage, a few lame animation sequences, and the occasional firework–and the band did not need them at all. Bright costumes sufficed, and Mick even spent long portions of the show in all black. They gave huge energy to this thing they could easily have just phoned in. They were sincere–sincere about their work, even if perhaps totally jaded about everything else, even if totally detached and uninterested and hating each other. They are completely above all of that, including their own contempt, for everything or anything, which may very well be massive by now.

Jagger tried a couple of times to make between-song local-color patter about where he was. “Are there any Wolfpacks here?” he asked the Raleigh crowded, botching the word, thus the syntax and everything attached to it. Later he said he was glad to be back in the “RTP Triangle,” another howler. He confirmed, lamely, that we like sports around here. It was interesting to me, later, that he went out of his way to ask specifically if there was anyone from Durham in the house. Met with a mere smattering of cheers (he was too far away to hear me!), he said, somewhat disappointed, “Not so many,” and quickly moved on, perhaps abandoning some further routine he had planned. Durham, where Jagger and Wood (and perhaps the rest of the Stones) were apparently staying at the Washington Duke Hotel, was apparently too hip for the Stones, or just too small to make a dent in the audience. (But if we think we’re too hip, we might want to ask ourselves why it was possible for Pat Benatar to be playing the Carolina Theatre on the very same night; not to mention wonder at the very existence of DPAC, and its popularity. It’s not just people from other counties going there.) He made reference to the Stones’ first show in Raleigh, fifty years ago, and claimed to have gone back and read reviews of another long-ago show here. It’s immaterial to me that he may have been fed all of this by a PR handler (although my wife found evidence that Jagger is a staunch researcher, and I bet he at least appreciates that his band has been coming here since, basically, Jim Crow). It’s also immaterial to me that he messed up the local details, which he would have been better served to omit entirely. We were there to see the Stones, not for the Stones to see us. As the very tour title–“The ZIP Code Tour”–implies, we were just a place to mail it in. What was satisfying about the show is that they didn’t do that.

I had some things to say about how generous the Stones were with their backing band; some of the members are longtime stalwarts, like bassist Darryl Jones, whom I first saw in Sting tour documentary Bring on the Night in the mid-eighties. Almost everyone got solos and so forth, but the main thing is in this detail, which says something about the security of the band’s collective (and individual) ego: the moment of the show that really brought the house down was when Lisa Fischer, who is herself pretty famous, and has been part of the Stones’ touring band since 1989–about half of the band’s existence–finished off her tour de force duet with Mick on “Gimme Shelter” all the way down at the end of the catwalk, and the crowd went nuts.

The question, of course, is why the Stones keep at it after all these years. Yes, they probably have major expenses and need to keep making millions of dollars, or think they do. Yes, they have competitive egos and don’t want anyone catching up with them as the most important rock band on earth, much in the same way (to make a local, Jagger-prompted sports comparison) Mike Krzyzewski could easily retire as the most famous and greatest college basketball coach of all time, but won’t. He can still do it, after all, as well as he ever has: he’s the reigning champion, as the Stones once again proved they were last night.

You could also make the case, a reasonably sound one, I think, that the Rolling Stones’ job is to be the Rolling Stones, which includes going on tour sometimes. But they could just as easily retire if they wanted to. I think the answer may have its roots in something that sounds much simpler, almost humdrum–but actually, when you ponder it, runs deeper than any of the foregoing explanations, and it’s on the Stones’ own website. A quote from Keith:

“There’s one thing that we haven’t yet achieved, and that’s to really find out how long you can do this… So we’ve got to find out, you know?”

The Stones operate in a world few other bands, few other people, ever get to, and they’ve endured in that world longer than most minds can possibly imagine. Public performance and its attendant craziness so overwhelmed the Beatles that they stopped touring in 1966, before they made their greatest albums. The notorious excesses and ravages of the rock life have done in countless other bands, cut short careers and lives–as has, of course, more simply, a loss of popularity, that most mysterious and devilish of favors to which, we sometimes think, the Stones sold their souls. But the Stones showed that they still had soul last night, not to mention popularity, and their perpetual active presence isn’t a matter of sheer survival, which at this point the Stones have proven they’ve mastered–and have the almost limitless resources to prolong, as a functioning corporation, until Charlie, Keith and Mick die. (Don’t forget that Ron Wood didn’t join the band until 1975; they can carry on without him.)

No, I think it’s a more ontological question. I think the question Keith is asking, despite using the word “do”–to really find out how long you can do this–is less one of duty and act than it is of sheer being. The enormous odds, not to mention demands, against being a Rolling Stone, and the Rolling Stones, are absurd. The band’s almost accidental greatness, an unbearable unlikeliness of being, puts these men in an almost impossible state of existence, in orbit around reality even when they go into restaurants through their kitchens. They are bigger than, and thus unattached to, every single place they go and all the humans they encounter, whether face to face with a bartender or playing for 40,000 people and, in effect, the entire world. They have an unearthly existence on earth, although they are earthlings. Every morning, when they wake up and perform themselves again, they extend some kind of record that they themselves hold, whose quality and meaning only they will ever be able to understand. No one else will ever see, or feel, or know, or be, anything like it.


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