By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 11, 2015
Early on Saturday morning, around 1:45, I was finishing up a blog post and was playing a game on my favorite Internet Scrabble app when I heard a series of short, staccato sounds: pop pop pop pop pop pop pop.
I frowned to myself. Were those fireworks? It seemed unlikely; the sounds had been too uniform, too regularly spaced. So, I asked myself, should I call the police?
I sighed and continued my game. Then I reached for my phone, except it wasn’t there — it was charging in the bedroom. I set my computer aside for a moment, grabbed the handset, sat back down with my laptop and scrolled through my contacts. I dialed the Durham police department and pressed 1 to connect to the non-emergency dispatcher. I gave my address and explained why I’d called. The operator asked where the noises had seemed to come from; I mumbled that they might have originated on Guess Road somewhere north-northwest of my location.
She asked what kind of gun I’d heard; I told her I had no idea. She asked if I’d seen or heard anything else; I hadn’t, and I told her so. When she asked if I wanted to speak with a police office, I said that I did only if one wanted to speak with me. The operator instructed me not to leave my house or put myself in danger; she also told me to call back if I heard anything further.
I hung up. I’d lost my game, a six-minutes-per-side match against a player with a lower rating than mine and the ungainly handle of Hump632003. My laptop was running out of juice, so I went to my home office and plugged it in. I’d been planning on going to bed, but I didn’t want to do so in case a police officer knocked on my door.
I rambled around my house for a while, noshing a bit and taking some medicine and reading. No officer came. I read some more. Ultimately, it was close to 4 a.m. when I went to sleep.
I woke up around 7:30 a.m. but went back to bed. I slept only fitfully. Even though the rain that had been forecast hadn’t actually materialized, I decided not to participate in the nature cleanup that I’d signed up to do Saturday morning because of my sleep deprivation.
I got out of bed around 9:40 and showered, dressed and walked to Joe Van Gogh, a local coffee shop. The temperature was a brisk 63 degrees Fahrenheit and expected to decline gradually over the course of the day, so I brought my New York Yankees hooded sweatshirt with me in case the shop was crowded and I had to sit at one of the outside tables.
On Wednesday, while walking home from JVG, an eldlery woman had called to me from the screened-in porch of her home on Berkeley Street, and we’d had a meandering conversation. I’d seen — well, let’s call her Granny — I’d seen Granny on my walk to JVG on Friday; she was sitting on her porch, and we exchanged waves and a smile. I was curious if she would be there around 10 on a Saturday morning, but I didn’t see anybody when I passed by her house.
I turned right at the corner of Englewood Avenue and started going toward Broad Street. Three minutes or so later, I was at the coffee shop. Joe Van Gogh was crowded, and there was one of the longest lines I’d ever seen there inside at the register. I considered for a moment and then decided to bypass the shop.
I went back out onto the sidewalk and continued walking north on Broad. I passed a man in a light-blue sweater and a vaguely familiar-looking dark-haired woman clad in grey. I walked past a store called Carolina Consignment; the door was open, and I caught a glimpse of a woman sitting behind a glass display case. I walked past a restaurant, Oval Park Grille, which also had its door open. I craned my neck and looked at the small group of staff gathered at the far end of the bar, hoping to spot the fetching bartender whom I’d seen there the other week. She did not seem to be present.
I crossed Club Boulevard. (Tangent: The former Watts Hospital is located on the northwest corner of Broad Street and Club Boulevard. The west end of Club is a beautiful tree-lined residential thoroughfare. I used to live just off that stretch of road, so I’m biased, but I happen to think it’s one of the most beautiful such streets in America. And now back to my perambulation.)
I crossed Club and kept on walking north. I happened to notice that letters spelling out “The Lane Building” were arrayed above the entrance to the three-story brick structure on the northeast corner of Club and Broad. The top floor of that property is entirely occupied by a dental practice called Lane and Associates, which has locations throughout the Triangle. None of this information was new to me, but somehow I’d never before realized that Lane and Associates has offices inside the Lane Building.
I kept going. Between Club Boulevard and Guess Road, Broad Street dips gently and then rises again. I was on the incline when I noticed a man in a gray sweatshirt walking in my direction. Was he Tony, the local man with a lawnmower who frequently offers to do lawn work? I couldn’t make out enough detail to be sure one way or the other. Then we got closer, and I saw that it was someone different.
Then I was at Sprunt Avenue. I turned right as I walked this block, the easternmost one on Sprunt, and crossed to the other side of the street. When the street dead-ended, I went left on Clarendon. Moments later, I reached Guess Road. I turned right and continued onward.
It was a little chilly, but there was no rain. I thought about James Joyce’s classic short story “The Dead” and a phrase from it that had always stuck in my mind. “Rain is general over Ireland,” I said to myself once or twice, affecting an Irish accent. (In writing this blog post, I checked. The actual phrase, used twice in the story in slightly different permutations, is “the snow is general all over Ireland” or “snow was general all over Ireland.”)
And suddenly I was in free-association mode. I thought about the accent I was using and how it was really that of a caricature of an Irish man — the drunk roustabout with the lilting voice. I thought about a film adaptation of “The Dead” that an English teacher had shown my class in high school many years ago and how one of the main characters had seemed to be ashamed not of being Irish — or at least not exactly — but of how the world typically associated his people with that caricature, and how this character, a sophisticated man, hated that connection. And I thought of a man named Brian.
Brian was a doorman who worked at an apartment building near 32nd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. One of my late grandmothers had lived in that building for a big chunk of her life. Brian was tall and thin; red hair and a red beard framed his gaunt face. Sometimes he seemed very chipper; other times, quiet and withdrawn.
He was also, or so it was said, an alcoholic. One time, years ago, my grandmother said that Brian had been fired: He’d not shown up to work for several days in a row, apparently on a drunken bender; afterward, he returned to the building to ask for his job back and was refused. I hadn’t thought of this man in years, but I felt a twinge of sadness as these recollections passed through my mind.
I turned onto my street and ducked into my house and grabbed my car keys and got into my car and drove to Iredell Street and parked my car and got out of my car and started walking around the block.
Iredell is parallel to, and runs between, both Broad Street and Ninth Street, the latter of which is one of Durham’s retail and entertainment districts. (It used to be the closest such place to Duke University before the development of Erwin Road out by Duke’s sprawling medical-industrial campus, as I jokingly refer to it.) This particular block of Ninth, Iredell and Broad is rather lengthy; for the sake of exercise, I like to walk around it on my way to and from the destinations that I visit.
I walked south for a minute and then turned the corner onto Perry Street. A moment later, I was heading north on Broad Street yet again.
As I approached Hummingbird Cafe, who should I see but the same gray-sweatshirted man whom I’d passed a few blocks to the north just a few minutes earlier? I smiled to myself, thinking it was funny that we were crossing paths in this fashion. He didn’t look at me as we passed; I noticed that he no longer was carrying the paper bag he’d previously had, which I think had contained a can of… well, of something.
And then I was at the building where Hummingbird is located. It was hopping: Dance classes are given in the building, and lots of parents and grandparents and little girls were about. All the kids were very cute, and despite being an inveterate grouch, they made me smile. I also noticed, with a little amusement, that the same couple I’d spotted earlier outside of Joe Van Gogh — the man in the pale blue sweater and the woman in gray — were now sitting in Hummingbird.
I put down my bag and went to wait in line to order some tea. As I made my way to the end of the line, I spied a man showing an image on his phone to the other people at his table. He’d taken a photograph moments earlier, apparently, of his little girl and her friend standing in front of a picture window on the second floor of the building that faces Duke’s East Campus on the other side of Broad.
I smiled again. “When you and I were kids,” I said to the man, who was about my age, “you had to wait weeks or days to get your film developed and to see your photograph.” We both laughed about that.
And then I ordered my tea and took it and my bag outside, where I settled in (after pulling on my Yankees sweatshirt — it was brisk!) and sat down to start writing this blog post.