“You've picked a funny time to come home,” my friend Ron says. The weather is unnervingly mild for winter, the people are unnervingly mild. Everything is about 70 degrees and breezy, which is pretty eerie. We’re walking along the side of the highway—a truck crunches over some mangled roadkill. We keep on walking. “Coming home really freaked me out, man—all the college students, all the same old people still hanging around doing the same old thing, new people that think that this is their town, their moment.”
After a while, you settle back into North Carolina's woodwork and start to remember what you loved about the lumber yards and Biscuitvilles and empty freeways. The weather. The forests. The skies. The thunderstorms. The humidity. The cicadas. The moon. The glow of some biotech or app company, set back in the woods around the Research Triangle.
“Every time you come back to town I remember how badly I need to get out of here,” Ron grins. He has been living in the mid-sized Southern city for at least a year and a half and he has been talking for a year of that about leaving. He was sunk deep in the quicksand now.
He’s not going to move away, I think to myself. We walk and talk some shit. We share some laughs. We head down the pitted clay toward the train tracks, the good red smell of hot tar rising and filling my nostrils.
There is a certain Southern frequency that must be settled into like silt, like those half-pigeon poses in yoga. Any attempt to glide along with that harried, striving, goal-oriented, use-value time sense imported from the North or another ganglion of capitalism will be met with dissonance. I went away to New York when I was very young, lured by its cultural magnetism. I could have stayed home, or gone to DC, like the others. I regret it. After ten long years in the North, I sense that I have brought some of the gaze-averting, sarcastically-avoidant, hardened demeanor back inside me. Before I had sinned and tasted the forbidden fruit, people had nodded, had interacted with me normally. Now the first thing they ask is “Where you from?” through narrow eyes, the underlying assumption being, You’re not from around here are you. Something within has changed. It is a bad feeling, for a Southerner to return home and be mistaken for a Northerner.
You can make a perfectly nice life here. Tons of people do. They come from all over, for the weather, for the jobs, for the lifestyle. It is not the true South, but a cozy simulacrum of the South, it has its own interesting culture, with convienent access to the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. You can get a good job that pays multiples of mortgage or the rent, a path to the middle class, nice parks, nice woods, cheap enough.There is no need to really leave. And yet, its proximity, its lower-mid-Atlantic-ness, and the fact that it is not so much a hub, but a redoubt— naturally the youth want to go out and see what the rest of the world is all about. They go up to DC to visit. They want to go to college there or move there for a while. And further up the coast is New York, the distant shining crazy diamond, both loathed and loved, like some kind of Magic Mountain that North Carolinians feel the urge to climb to prove to themselves. We're not just simple backwater provincials, oh no, we can be as hard and toughened as the Northerners. Southerners have long ventured to the more-prosperous and intellectual North in search of education and career advancement. But something is always given up in this seeking.
Many people I came up with in North Carolina suffer from a certain restless malady of this early comfort, decency and womb-like goodness, an offshoot of Goldilocks syndrome. This internal needle swings wildly from one side to the other, its not unlike North Carolina’s political history—from hard-right to progressive, for every Jesse Helms a Terry Sanford, for every stronghold of Fusionist power, a Wilmington 1898 Redeemer riot.
Unlike the people raised in, say, some hellish corner of the freezerburned Midwest, North Carolina is not a place you escape from permanently. You don’t want to stay away forever. You leave and then return, with your tail between your legs. This access to coming and going to different worlds so nearby, leads to a feeling of dislocation, a kind of pirating view of the world. Since the time of Blackbeard, NC has been a base, a reliable fort from which to set out and plunder. To go and get that Northern money, northern cultural capital, but to bring it back.
Many move away to Baltimore or Portland or DC for a time, but then burnt-out return home for a time to recover their finances, their connection to family and nature, to the important parts of life that they feel like they lost in the nether lands. They eventually feel stultified by the smallness and familiarity, by the car culture, by the tightness of social life, and spring back out into the vulgar world with renewed vigor to make another go at it. Maybe it’s just the people I grew up with, but those who have this ambivalent, back-and-forth relationship to the state seem more numerous to me than those who have left and stayed gone for good. (This sense of recovery and womb-like peace is probably best expressed in literature in a section of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, where he posts up on the back porch of his aunt’s house in Rocky Mount, NC—meditating, praying, listening to trains, and sitting in the grass). And some friends, who I assumed had left forever and were successfully rooted in other cities sometimes surprise me when we catch up and, after a couple of beers surrounded by frogs and cicadas on a yellow-lightbulb-lit front porch, they say that one day they dream of moving back home. One day, one day. One day in some future time, maybe. Like Augustine, lord make me chaste, lord make me chaste, but not yet, not yet lord. But for some, that sometime time never comes.
North Carolina is always in a delicate place—it’s cities are always just on the cusp of getting really great. "Its happening, this is the moment!" they were saying about Greensboro in 2004, and I imagine the true believers, they're still saying it. Soon. Every person counts, each individual contributes something. Each small business or person could tip the scales—greatness and community don’t just exist as a huge blob to be tapped into—they have to be actively built.
This fosters a kind of fetish for community-building, for intentionality.
Of course with this comes a kind of self-consciousness and uptightness that kills all forms of spontaneity because an often neglected aspect of community is the ability to be truly comfortable, to act out, to be themselves unintentionally, as most people do for most of their lives, even if they are tapped into the highest levels of monitoring themselves and maintaining a self-awareness.
Its metropolises are like some balkanized social movement that is never quite able to pull it together and keeps saying, “Next time! Next time!” This in-between-ness causes problems. You can move between Asheville and Raleigh and Winston-Salem and Wilmington for your whole life, each has their advantages and disadvantages, but in each one, the walls start to close in. After a time the small provincial-ness becomes too much and the typical Carolinian decides it is time to bust out and heads to Portland, or Baltimore, or New York, or more rarely to New Mexico, or Michigan, or to the actual Netherlands.
The many exiles I know remain haunted by a strange kind of bipolar nostalgia, always longing for the simplicity of life, for the trees and smells and weather and the moon at night and the lonesome sound of train whistles; for the ease and innocence that they remember, while at the same time being frustrated by its reality, not quite the city, not quite the country, but a metropolitan area of forests punctuated by strip malls, hip gastro pubs and universities.
After a few years the crushing reality of these strange cities, the absence of natural community and the absence of family back in the mountains, Piedmont, or Coastal Plain, becomes overwhelming and these lost souls head back to North Carolina to hide out in the womb of the pines—you don’t have to put on airs, you don’t have to pretend you’re into things you’re not really into, you settle back in. Perhaps in a different city than the one you left. But essentially back in the same fabric, like a ratty old sweater—time begins to move again at its proper place; nature and the pines and the sunrise and sunsets are predominant. Boredom returns and from boredom springs creativity, for that is the way creativity is expressed in North Carolina, naturally, not by some sheer force of willpower, but as a way to fill the endless mild afternoons; and you feel safe, and you feel home, and you feel a little bit of missing out on the metropole, but you feel safe and home and your rebel spirit is intact and you are near the mountains and the beach and the people you know and have known forever might be a little bit overfamiliar at times, but you can trust them, fundamentally.
So those who come and go are searching for something that they can’t find. But they also can’t leave. And those that stay at home for their reasons can’t help but wonder what they’re looking for. But they also wish they too could go wander in the big wide world.
As I said above, the young Carolinian, having the access to the culture and life of the mid-Atlantic and the North, inevitably feel the urge to find out for themselves. Unlike the Missisippian or the Floridian, they are not down there so deep that they can't get out, prisoners to geography. North Carolina's culture and development has become infused and blended with the Midatlantic and Northeastern culture to become Southern-lite, a diluted sweet tea.
In this way it is fundamentally split, pulled apart in two directions, and this has only increased as the mid-Atlantic has expanded into the upper South.
The true power of the state lies not in the demographically-shifted little emerging Southern lefty utopias, but out there in the vast pirate land, not in the dinky, bureaucratic state capital, the city that was built not for its rivers or natural resources but because there was a bar there that early lawmakers liked to meet at—and so the capital was built where the bar was and that was where the government would be. There is little difference between Raleigh and Brasilia. The artificiality of that city, a city I have loved. It’s impossible for it to have any true history other than dead bureaucratic history, so unlike the long settlement of any place with true natural resources, a port, a river, some genuine reason for people to be there before the rise of institutions.
Joseph Mitchell, the great-granddaddy of the detached New Yorker reporting and writing style, had the malady. He left his hometown in Eastern North Carolina to make New York his home, and his subject. He wrote magazine profiles. At the end of his life, when he was basically emeritus at the New Yorker, he began working on a memoir about North Carolina that was never published or finished. The New Yorker published a section of it in 2013, and its last paragraph was so haunting it deserves to be quoted in full:
Several years ago, however, I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I never had belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually became more definite and quite frequent. Ever since I came to New York City, I have been going back to North Carolina for a visit once or twice a year, and now I began going back more often and staying longer. At one point, after a visit of a month and a half, I had about made up my mind to stay down there for good, and then I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn’t belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was. When I was in New York City, I was often homesick for North Carolina; when I was in North Carolina, I was often homesick for New York City. Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression. A change took place in me. And that is what I want to tell about.
This same feeling—homesick for New York, homesick for North Carolina—this strange restlessness between the invisible meridians, persists in the present era. Mitchell is now largely forgotten, outside of publishing circles—maybe justly forgotten. He was a middlebrow, middle-path writer who toed the line between expressing himself and making a living. Mitchell was buried in Fairmont, NC, not the New York that endlessly fascinated him and was the muse of his wonderful reportage. One afternoon, I drove out from Raleigh down the tiny backwater roads, lined with tobacco and cotton, to look for his grave. Fairmont was a sleepy, boarded-up little Eastern North Carolina hamlet, untouched by the relentless New South development of the Triangle, Charlotte, and Asheville, around I-40 and I-95. Tobacco fields, a barbeque place, a gothic out-of-the-way town with signs that say THIS WAY TO THE BEACH —> (as if they know Fairmont is just a place you pass through when you’re lost trying to get to the coast). If the town leaders knew how famous their native son was, they gave no indication of it—there were no placards, signs, museums, or even directions to his birthplace or gravesite. I looked all over town, wandering into all the overgrown church graveyards and all the overgrown town graveyards, before giving up and heading to the coast.
Every night, seven days a week, ten Chinatown buses set off from the suburban edges and gas stations of little North Carolina outposts, heading to New York. The passengers will be in the metropole by daybreak. The Yankee always has a soft spot for the North Carolinian—they have family down there, they dream of moving down there. They view Durham and Rocky Mount as their woodland redoubt. Tell some New York City tax or city official that you're moving away back to North Carolina, they exude complete sympathy and understanding, they never question. Take that overnight China bus from New York to Durham, you can feel the layers peeling off the other people. Their ragged, stressful breathing stabilizes and calms somewhere down in the woods of Petersburg. They are bifurcated, they calm, they become different people when they hit the Southlands.
I took the Chinese bus up to New York for a visit. The time was spent luxuriating in the parks, having intense, driven conversations with friends, walking the Red Hook waterfront. It was intense—the moments were jam-packed. The time sense was crowded and cosmopolitan.
The void was edged out and I momentarily forgot that it existed. The pressure to perform well socially is exhausting, only extroverts can find joy in it. And yet, when I went down into the Bowery late at night and caught the half-empty overnight bus headed back to the South I breathed a sigh of relief. On the dark bus, heading into the dark forests, I could let go and once again be unseen, hide in the shadow of the world. The bus barreled back through the mid-Atlantic. At four AM, we stopped at a truck stop in the woods of rural Virginia—a half-dozen unmarked buses were refueling and a human swarm, the riders, mostly black and Asian, milled about with beaten-down eyes on the too-long rest break—it looked like one of those scenes in the apocalyptic Hollywood movies with the crowd at the spaceport with screaming babies, trying to get on the last transport off the dying planet.
At dawn, the bus deposited me on the nether edge of Durham at a BP station. No one else got off the bus and no cabs were waiting, so I called Durham’s Best Taxi Company. A chipper (for the time of morning) Peruvian guy picked me up and we drove through the neighborhoods, which look consumed by the forest, to my house. We got to talking about New York. “I used to live in New York,” he laughed, “It’s great. But it’s a lot to handle.”
I asked why he had left. He sighed the way people who used to live in New York sigh—the sigh that typically precedes a reasonable list of gripes and grievances but secretly conceals an unspoken feeling that they left because they were inadequate, that they couldn’t cut it—“Here, there is more space and time, you know? Life is not all about the money.”
Like certain really great drug experiences, living in New York for a while can taint your perception for the rest of your life, make everything else seem bland and colorless and slow—nothing can compare, walking quickly through brick and industrial neighborhoods with a regular coffee and butter roll, it all becomes part of you, you become part sooty brick yourself. For the rest of your life, you can find yourself making comparisons—any other city, even with its nature or certain perks, can never artificially fill you like the true urban environment can, its palpability, its endorphin rush.
I told him that I had just moved back and my time sense had not yet adjusted. I was still running on the nervous energy—I was frustrated with how slow everything was. He nodded, understanding, “You get behind someone and they just sit there for a while, even though it’s there turn to go. It’s like what are you, asleep at the wheel?”
He didn’t want to raise his kids in New York. He wanted to make more money and pay less rent, reasonable things. I told him I had just moved from Raleigh to Durham—that I was from there but that now, with what it had become, I hated it in a certain way. “I never liked Raleigh,” he shook his head, “It is a bit too much. It seems a lot like Washington, DC.” I agreed, it had changed a lot.
It’s hard to reinvent yourself. It’s hard to be true to yourself. It’s hard to leave your home place or never leave your homeplace. It’s also hard to ever find a way to live in a different way, in your hometown. Jesus said, "you can't be a prophet in your hometown."
The Nazarenes heckled him. The Gospel of Luke claims they even tried to push him off of a cliff.
At a distance from shared pasts and histories, illusions and myths are easier to cultivate.
For this reason, Jesus abandoned Nazareth forever and spent most of his life in Judea and Galilee.
This phenomenon can be experienced contemporarily with bands and art—how people in New York City are so eager to romanticize anything and everything, as long as it comes from outside, if it comes from the South, if it comes from overseas. Bands on tour from Alabama and performance artists from Greece do much better than, say, the cowboy country group from Greenpoint or the writer from Clinton Hill—too close, too familiar, we reasonably hate what's familiar, we feel the contempt.
The Avett Brothers, a country indie rock outfit from North Carolina, represented a different, far-away world before they moved to Brooklyn and were just another band in the heart of capital. They had more credibility and authenticity when they came from somewhere else. The myth takes root in distant soil where the ugliness of birth and the real-world machinations remain shrouded behind the curtain. It is ugly to see how sausage is made.