Trivial anecdotes from a recent Saturday night

September 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 9, 2014

Saturday. Before 8 p.m., I stop by Alivia’s in the Brightleaf district of Durham, N.C. I order shrimp with cheese grits — light on the cheese. There are two college football games on the televisions: Michigan State at Oregon, the day’s marquee match-up, and a pixellated, halting Internet feed of Duke at Troy. The meal is good, but not light enough on the cheese. Shrimp with grits: Great, in my book. Shrimp with cheese grits: This, to me, is much less enjoyable.

I don’t feel like staying after I finish eating. I pay my bill and drive over to Iredell Street. I park behind the Whole Foods and amble a short block over to Ninth Street. Then I walk up the long, long, long block to Dain’s, a bar popular with Duke graduate students.

More college football is showing: East Carolina vs. South Carolina, Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Michigan at Notre Dame. The Irish are crushing the Wolverines and the Gamecocks are holding a 10-point lead on the Pirates, but the Hokies are acquitting themselves well vs. the Buckeyes.

I order a New Belgium Snapshot wheat ale — my first alcoholic beverage in a few weeks — and nurse it for the better part of an hour; maybe longer. I also sip some water. At one point, I ask a bartender to switch ECU–South Carolina over to the Michigan State–Oregon game, and he obliges. The Spartans had held a modest lead for much of the third quarter, but suddenly the Ducks get a wide-open receiver and a way-too-easy touchdown.

Eventually, the beer and my interest in lingering are exhausted. I’m tired, too, but I’m not ready to go home just yet. I walk back to my car and retrieve a small backpack. Then I retrace my steps: Up Iredell half a block, left on Perry Street…

There’s an odd bar on Perry called Crazy Camp Music Park. It occupies a space that had been closed for some years, and that for some time before that had been a dive bar that also had live music jams. I haven’t been in the current incarnation of this establishment, but every time I walk by when it’s open, I swivel my head to one side and gaze in. On this night, there’s music, but it’s hard to see the performers from the street, even though the bar has a bay window and, on this mild late-summer evening, a set of wide-open doors. (And even though the space isn’t particularly deep.)

Also tonight, there’s been a group of people hanging out, chatting and joking and smoking, in front of the entrance to Crazy Camp. The size of the group has varied in the times I’ve walked past, but there’s been a mainstay I’ve seen on each occasion: A white guy, probably in his 20s, tattooed, wearing a baseball cap and a tank top that shows off his large biceps, smoking.

If I were feeling peppier, I might just bypass this stretch of sidewalk altogether, but I am barely keeping my eyelids propped open. I figure that using the sidewalk, even a crowded one, represents the path of least resistance.

When I come to the bar’s entrance, the white guy is right in front of me. He turns his head slightly and sees me. At the same moment, I recognize that I can dart behind him and pass by without interrupting his conversation. But just as I step to my left, he takes a step back, inadvertently blocking me. We adjust accordingly — I step to my right as he steps forward — and end up in another stalemate. There’s a third try at mutual accommodation, with the same result. Finally, on attempt No. 4, I scoot by.

Sorry, the guy says, smiling. No problem, I reply, turning my head and smiling as I continue walking by. Do-si-do, I say, and laugh at my own joking reference to our impromptu dance. I turn my gaze forward before I can see whether anyone appreciates my humor.

I enter Francesca’s Dessert Caffe, a Ninth Street mainstay, and pick out a spot by the emergency exit. (This is in the front room on the right as one enters the business.) I order a piece of coconut cream pie and settle in to read Blindness, the acclaimed 1995 novel by Portugese author José Saramago. It’s about 9 p.m. I plow through several pages before helping myself to the delicious pie.

An older man — white skin, white hair, white beard, glasses — is sitting to my right. His loveseat is positioned perpendicular to the one that I occupy. At some point, he’s joined by a woman. They review and discuss some papers. I periodically glance at them, and at the pair of college students on the futon opposite them, and at other people in the coffee shop, and at my smartphone.

Francesca’s is open until 11 p.m. on Saturdays, but by 10:30, I am well and truly bushed. I gather my things and wearily stand to go.

When I gain my feet, I notice an iPhone in a pink case. It’s resting near the man — not on the arm of the loveseat next to him but on the edge of the crate that serves as a coffee table immediately adjacent to the loveseat.

Is this the man’s phone, or his companion’s? Did someone else leave it there? I decide to say something.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Is that your phone?”

The man looks. It is, he says. He and the woman thank me. One of them says that he has a tendency to forget about the phone. The man picks it up and tucks it into his breast pocket. I suppress my surprise that a man is carrying a phone sporting a case in such a traditionally feminine color.

As I turn to go, the woman asks me a question.

“Is your shirt real?”

I turn back. I arch my eyebrows. I look down at the shirt and tug at it momentarily. It’s an old cardinal-red shirt with “Stanford” spelled across the front in faded white letters. The fabric is marked by sweat-stains old and new.

“What do you mean, is it real?” I respond.

The woman says, Sometimes people wear shirts of colleges or sports teams that they have no association with. So what I’m asking you is, Did you go to Stanford?

“I did,” I say. She smiles. “It was a privilege to be there.”

We wish each other a good night. I smile and turn toward the door. I walk down Perry Street without incident and make my way home.


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