There is a certain vibe and look to the town I came from. It’s changed over the years but it also stays the same. Its based around the town of Raleigh, North Carolina and the college N.C. State, an engineering and big ag school that has had moderate fame with college basketball and the charismatic coach Jimmy V, who famously got up on stage with his late-stage cancer said, “I’m up here with tumors all over my body, and they think I care about that timer they’re flashing in my face." My high school was on Jimmy Valvano Drive. When I got older and started listening to punk, it brought tears to my eyes when the DIY punk band Underground Railroad to Candyland sampled Jimmy V on one of their records—"Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” He was so loved. I grew up in the suburbs about 10 minutes from Raleigh, and when I was a kid my dad took me to NC State to see the Wolfpack play. It was a small little arena deep in NC State campus, inside the rickety old wooden bleachers went almost vertical up the sides—there weren’t many people that showed up to these games—and the perfection of the polyurethaned court is seared on my memory. We lived in Raleigh, we were NC State people not Duke people or Chapel Hill people—a different kind of people entirely, and still today that’s a fact. I go to Durham, I go to Chapel Hill, I feel foreign.
The Wolfpack is the team, the Wolf is the mascot. The colors are red, the vibe is red and white. NC State is a brick school that looks like a former factory. At the center of NC State is a wide open space called the Brickyard. Everything is red and everything is brick, and the town and the university are both cut in half by the railroad tracks surrounded on either side by mighty pine trees. Pine trees, railroad tracks, brick, shopping centers, woods. There is a certain feeling to our bars and restaurants, at least those of the old vintage, to our people—even the Italian restaurants and pizzerias have this Wolfpack-y vibe. It is brick inside all the bars, brick and wood, there are pennants and stuff on the walls, and TVs—the people here don’t look country but they don’t look sophisticated either, they wear white or red hats and not so flattering clothes, their facial hair isn’t perfectly manicured, the women look tough, but not truly country tough like they look in Clayton and Johnson County and Cumberland County, they still look a bit urbane. Just a touch. Old men wear red hats, they have little trimmed beards. People are friendly, but they are not country friendly.
I lived my life in these brick houses set back in woods near the railroad tracks and I’ve always heard the train horn in the distance in the morning and in the middle of the night, in Raleigh, in Cary, in Apex, in Fuquay. This is Piedmont. In the mid-2000s there was a short-lived electro-clash band called Piedmont Charisma, and I still think about the lithe singer (who was kind of trying to channel the Make-Up) singing “Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina…Bunkey’s Car Wash,” something like that. I think about it all the time even though the Piedmont Charisma CD-R I had has long oxidized.
I think about the feeling when my dad took me to downtown Raleigh to go to his “office” or a bank or something—he worked at home, so I’m not sure where we were—but he took me to a big tall gray building in downtown Raleigh, it had an escalator going up to it, it had an elevator, people in suits, it was so exciting! But even then, I could sense that the “downtown” of Raleigh with its little smattering of tall buildings, the Wells Fargo building, was somehow a put-on, it wasn’t real urbanity no matter how much the people dressed up, the endless ever-dark forests were pressing in on it from all directions. The view from the top of any parking garage or the NC State Bobst library, it’s just pine forests in every direction. I’ve spent my life walking these piney tarry railroad tracks around Raleigh in every direction.
The bars around here, they have no character. There is a dart board. There is a TV. Even bars in the Rust Belt have a “Rust Belt” character. The central North Carolina is a blank palette on which others are writing their history, even our accent is a blankening palette, the twang is disappearing.
It’s strange, the bars around here fill me with a dread, horror vacui. For a while in the suburbs there was an Irish pub with dark wood booths and books and a fireplace, I loved it, I spent as much time as I could there. Now it’s gone and all thats left is a kind of empty room with chairs and flatscreen TVs that they call “bar” but repels personality, is anti-character.
I know everything about this place deeply, by feeling. After high school, my friends went back to the strange woods that punctuate NC State campus, the strange woods that I noticed when I was 10 and my dad was taking me to see the Wolfpack, and back in those little splotches of woods between the parking lot and the train tracks, there was a manhole with light coming from it. We opened in the manhole and inside was a network of steam tunnels. It was like a sauna down there. The nazis had graffitied it. We went so many times, following the claustrophobic little tunnels through campus, popping up in some building here or there, a janitors closet.
I know the vibe and taxonomy of Raleigh people. There are the basic Raleigh dudes with the white hats and the trucks, there are the hipster Raleigh dudes who have beards and bellies who are protective of whatever little indie rock or metal fiefdom they’ve built in a corner. I understand the Raleigh straight-edger, whether they came to it through Christianity, whether they’re headed towards pseudo-fascism, or they’re headed towards drinking and drugs. I understand the Northern transplant who came to the Triangle and their motivations for getting away from the Tri-State area, the immigrant, whether white collar or blue collar, and the reasons they came to the area (ease, a bigger house, a middle-class life).
And I’m carrying all this around and I’m not sure what to think about it—it’s familiar but I still feel like an outsider, I still don’t like setting foot into a Raleigh/Apex bar, I still feel like the stranger even though I have deeper roots here than others in that bar, and neither do I feel at ease in a Carrboro environment or a Durham environment, which are often built by and for transplants to re-create the worlds they came from.
I feel the multi-colored brick and the swaying pines and the late night empty 440 Beltline with the big moon.