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Posts published by “Carmela Guaglianone”

I watched all 162 crashes at the Can Opener. Here’s what I saw.

The stoplight is red and the “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign flashes urgently as a semi-truck waits at the intersection. The driver has a moment to consider turning before impact with the railroad bridge above Gregson Street. Instead they keep going and approach the bridge at a crawl, hesitate, then charge on. Wrong move. 

The crash on Nov. 13, 2020, was just one of more than 160 recorded in this very spot, the scars etched onto the bridge’s protective beam. The beam is the real foe, unmoving and unforgiving. Its scratches are an inventory of human error, of man versus metal (man losing). 

The bridge at the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Underpass is known to the world as the Can Opener for the merciless way the beam peels the tops off of unsuspecting trucks. To watch it (160+ times!) is like seeing a giant hand pull the tab on a can of sardines and seeing the metal curve to unveil the prize within.

Since 2008, the Can Opener has developed a cult following well beyond Durham. The website 11foot8.com and its YouTube channel, operated by Jurgen Henn, an IT Manager for the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, have shared videos of the crashes from cameras Henn set up at his office in nearby Brightleaf Square, and, later, in a shop kitty-corner to the bridge. 

Henn, who has worked in Brightleaf Square since 2002, got the idea to start recording the videos after a couple of years of hearing trucks smashing into the beam. His YouTube channel had a slow start but now has 164,000 followers. A typical video will get more than 1 million views. 

To understand the Can Opener, I watched every video. As I sat in cafes around Durham, I watched hours of scrapes, smashes and crashes, catalogued the human error, the reliability of steel, and the fragility of sheet metal and fiberglass. I laughed and gasped and winced. People stared. 

This is what I learned, spiced with some quotes from police reports that give you a flavor of the action.

VEHICLE 1 WAS IN THE RIGHT LANE OF TRAFFIC TRAVELING SOUTH ON GREGSON ST WHEN IT COLLIDED WITH THE OVERHEAD BRIDGE GUARD JUST SOUTH OF W PEABODY ST

Drivers cause the crashes, but in the videos, you don’t see the people very much. They exist in the periphery: innocent bystanders shielding themselves from debris or drivers who jump out of the trucks and throw their hats in frustration. The trucks become animated and the people are minimized to supporting characters. 

From what I could tell watching all the videos as well as reading accident reports and news coverage, very few injuries have been reported, and no one has died in the crashes. The majority of the harm seems to be to the drivers’ pride.

While each crash is its own special snowflake, I identified three main types of encounters: the Curious Cat, the Bullet, and the Barbershop Shave. 

The Curious Cat takes a hesitant approach; like a troublemaking feline, the driver suspects something is amiss but can’t stop themselves from exploring. Their foot barely touching the gas, they ease toward the bridge. (Perhaps they believe if they are quiet enough, the Can Opener won’t notice the oversize trailer!) Then they hear the unmistakable bang and metallic scrape from above as the beam peels away their roof. Because they’ve gone slowly, some are able to shift into reverse and delicately extract themselves; others need to be rescued. 

The Bullet is the most exciting of the Can Opener crashes. The driver approaches with velocity, seemingly unaware of the trap that lies ahead. The impact causes a whiplash, like a dog jerked back by their leash—the cabs sometimes lifted into the air by the impact of the beam. The top layer of aluminum is sometimes guillotined to varying degrees, usually triggering Newton’s first law (objects in motion stay in motion), ensnared where it is crumpled by the equal and opposite force of the wrinkled metal.

And then there is the Barbershop Shave. These trucks almost clear the height requirement, and usually make it most of the way through without much damage—but they leave with a kiss from the bridge. Debris rains down like rice at a wedding, marking union. 

DRIVER 1 SAID THAT HIS TRUCK IS MEASURED AT 12’4”; SIGNAGE FOR THE OVERPASS INDICATED THE CLEARANCE IS 12’4” 

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has futilely tried to stop the crashes over the years. When I spoke with them, they made it clear that there’s only so much they can do, as the bridge is technically the property of the North Carolina Railroad Company. 

“You know from our standpoint, we’ve done everything we can do to help the situation,” said Marty Homan, a spokesman at the NCDOT. 

In 2013, new signs indicating the height of the bridge were installed, in addition to a static overhead caution “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” black and yellow sign, to make the clearance warnings more visible. Two hours later, there was a crash. 

In 2016, traffic lights were added to the overhead warning that forces drivers to stop, stare at the now height-activated electronic “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign, and ponder their options before they crash into the beam. That day, the camera recorded some successes from the new setup. Two months later, an Excel Moving and Storage truck crashed into the beam. 

Jurgen Henn, whose videos have made the Can Opener famous. The bridge was raised to 12-feet-4, but his website is still known as 11foot8.com. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone – The 9th Street Journal

In 2019, the North Carolina Railroad Company threw the NCDOT a bone—it raised the overpass 8 inches to 12-foot-4-inches. The project was not to prevent damage to trucks, but to level the tracks above. Crews lifted the bridge on hydraulic jacks, re-graded the tracks, and placed shims on the old foundation to add height. They also took the opportunity to spruce up the paint job. 

And to accent the bridge’s fresh, unjaded, bright yellow protective beam (installed to replace the one tormented by years of violence) the NCDOT positioned new height warning signs. Still, the bridge is more than a foot below standard overpass height. 

“You know, there are multiple signs, there are literally flashing lights that tell you, you’re about to strike the bridge. We can’t really do anything about it,” says Homan, “Because again … it’s not our bridge.”

Three weeks after the 2019 renovation, an Idealease box truck hit the beam and lost a piece of its roof. 

DRIVER 1 STATED HE WAS NEW TO THE AREA, WAS DISTRACTED BY THE GPS/NAVIGATION UNIT, DID NOT SEE EITHER OF THE OVER HEIGHT SIGNS OF THE ROAD, DID NOT SEE THE LED AND FLASHING SIGN HE WAS OVER HEIGHT, AND CRASHED INTO THE IRON RAIL PROTECTING ACTUAL RAILROAD BRIDGE

Drivers on Gregson heading toward the underpass are inundated by warnings of their impending doom, but some still crash into the bridge. 

How can that be?

The problem is not unique to the Can Opener. Traffic sign experts and traffic engineers from across the globe are baffled and intrigued by this question of road sign efficacy. 

“Criteria for the Design and Evaluation of Traffic Sign Symbols,” a 1988 study published by Robert Dewar, explores various aspects about why signs work and don’t work. Dewar’s careful analysis found “understandability” and “conspicuity” to be the most valuable aspects of effective signaling. The report leaves a reader thinking that a combo like, “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN,” surrounded by flashing lights, and accented with clearly noted height requirements, might persuade drivers not to crash into a railroad bridge. But apparently not.

Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman writes that the signs aren’t flawed, we just have too many of them. Monderman believes that drivers have become numb to the forests of signs on  many roads. They just tune them out.

For clarity, look no farther than “Driver’s Cognitive Workload and Driving Performance under Traffic Sign Information Exposure in Complex Environments: A Case Study of the Highways in China” (a paper whose title seems to be a “cognitive workload” itself).  It, too, makes the point that drivers are overloaded with stimuli and can’t process all the signs they see.

Indeed, I noticed that many of the Can Opener’s victims are Penske or other rental trucks. That suggests the drivers might be unfamiliar with their trucks, unaware of their clearance and don’t realize they need to  be on the lookout for overheight signs. 

Henn, resident 11’8” (now +8”) expert, has some different ideas. 

“I think people are just distracted. They don’t expect it, sneaks up on them a little bit,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And the location is a little tricky because it’s a two lane, one-way road between two relatively tall buildings. So the approach is really narrow.” 

On top of that, drivers are often speeding on this road. The speed limit is 25 mph; an impact at that speed would not cause Bullet level damage. 

“If you haven’t been paying attention to the signs, you won’t catch the bridge, and by that time you’re on it,” he said. 

VEHICLE #1 COLLIDED WITH A LOW BRIDGE PROTECTION PILLAR, DAMAGING THE TOP OF THE BOX TRUCK. THE PILLAR PROTECTS THE RAILROAD BRIDGE THAT CROSSES OVER N GREGSON ST.

To watch over 160 of these collision videos is to understand the modern limits of onomatopoeia. Somewhere around video 30, “shhhhhhrhastpt,” “craaasttshp,” and “sRTkkkst” all start to tire of their intrigue. 

Watching them is to realize, too, how few verbs there really are to describe the length, magnitude, and velocity of a large truck unknowingly stopped by a steel beam. “Collide”, used often in the police reports of the incidents, seems to forget that the tops of these trucks are flayed effortlessly. “Smash” ignores the delicate niche of the truck’s cab gliding under the bridge, only to be harangued back by the bar’s unsympathetic disposition. “Hit” is useless. I looked up synonyms for “decapitate.” 

I tried to be precise in my descriptions but found the terms of local trucking were a bit baffling. In the case of the box truck, stout or extended, the structure tends to be made up of dry freight aluminum sheeting within a heavy duty metal frame or Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood, according to a US Truck Body brochure. Both styles are adorned with an aluminum “Zephyr” front nose and corner castings. This seems to be the piece that sustains the Can Opener’s initial blow. 

But the beam is not discriminating in its victims, and box varieties are not the only overpass underpassers with battlescars to show. Many campers will find themselves sweating in the summer months, as their RV’s AC units get plucked off by the beam. One trailer carrying a stable’s worth of hay lost two bales from the top of the pile to the team, and trailers alike often find themselves stacked too high for the bridge’s liking. 

The worst crashes look horrible. The top is guillotined with a swift but abrasive punch. In some cases, the roofing is rolled off with precision, like those fancy ice cream places that take a scoop and turn it into a tube. Depending, then, on the extent of the damage to the top, the sides begin to give. If the beam intersects at the right angle, the sides sometimes mangle from the get-go, and the whole truck box suffers a rupture. 

Every now and then, a driver is able to escape. When November’s 18-wheeler victim moved forward after its sneak approach, its cab bounced under the beam with a snap and pop. Thinking quickly, the driver dropped the air suspension and backed out to avoid further damage. After careful extraction, his box attachment escaped unscathed. 

The Can Opener was left hungry. 

THE VEHICLE WAS RETRIEVED BY ONE OF ITS COMPANIES REPRESENTATIVES AND CONTINUED IN MOTION. 

Photo montage at top: Six of the 162 videos we watched from 11foot8.com. Copyright Jürgen Henn – 11foot8.com 

Celebrating Tom Bonfield, from a safe distance

Wool E. Bull stood in the back of a truck, holding a drum of sorts and waving emphatically as his chariot rounded the corner of City Hall Plaza and Mangum Street.

It was Tuesday, the last day of Tom Bonfield’s 12-year run as Durham’s city manager.

In other years it would have been a more intimate celebration, but in the time of COVID-19 Durham continues to adapt. To say farewell, the city organized a Surprise Retirement Parade. 

Bonfield sent a retirement letter to Mayor Steve Schewel on Aug. 2, citing the pandemic and the heavy issues Durham must address. Teams addressing those issues should start and finish these upcoming projects together, the 65-year-old said.

Tom and Karen Bonfield outside City Hall. Photo from City of Durham

To salute a stampede of supporters, Bonfield and his wife, Karen, stood behind a table decorated with a Bonfield Ave street sign, a wooden mallard and a balloon-decorated tablecloth. Bonfield wore a Durham Bulls mask.

As soon as the celebration started, honks sounded from every direction on Mangum Street near City Hall. A map provided on the online event guided drivers to round a designated corner and pass the man of the hour who stood, after 42 years of public service, waving.

Cars in the left lane moved excitedly through the parade route, outlined by orange cones outside City Hall. Police cars passed with lights twinkling. Construction vehicles came by with passengers holding neon vests out the window in greeting.

A petite woman inside a small blue vehicle with  “Congrats Tom” signs hanging from the driver’s side stuck her hand out the window and bellowed salutations. 

For those caught by surprise, a large neon traffic sign informed them of the event: “Parade Traffic Left Lane,” it read. Vehicles shuffled right. Traffic stalled. There were more honks.

Above their masks, the Bonfields’ eyes looked delighted as they bid goodbye to drive-by Durhamites in the humid mid-day.

A man in a pink shirt and a black mask scurried around the corner, back and forth, directing the paraders along their route. Bonfield continued to wave.

Despite the distance, people celebrating Tom Bonfield connected with him from driver and passenger seats on Tuesday. Photo from City of Durham

9th Street Journal reporter Carmela Guaglianone can be reached at  carmela.guaglianone@duke.edu.

At top: Durham Police Department members, including recent graduates from the city’s training academy, joined Tuesday’s parade honoring retiring City Manager Tom Bonfield. Photo from City of Durham

Wade Williams, Durham’s activist with art

“VA 2-211-685” is scrawled in black marker across a sheet of paper. Wade H. Williams, artist at his own company Artist at Large, holds up his handiwork to his computer cam. He is sitting in his studio, with a charcoal portrait he’s just finished in the background. He wears large round glasses and a silver earring dangles from his left ear. Above his lip a handlebar mustache is expertly curled at each corner. 

The string of letters and numbers he’s holding up over our Zoom call is the copyright registration number of his painting in downtown Durham, created when Black artists showed their opposition to police violence with an extraordinary collection of murals. The painting, called “Lady Justice/ Black Lives Matter,” depicts a Black Lady Justice wearing a white blindfold and holding the scales of justice. It can be seen on West Chapel Hill Street at Five Points downtown. 

It was opportunistic protest art. “Lady Justice” is one of many works along Main Street and West Chapel Hill Street after local businesses boarded their windows with plywood in response to Durham’s Black Lives Matter protests in June. The wood provided a canvas for Black artists to make statements about racism and the BLM movement.

Wade Williams’s mural “Lady Justice/ Black Lives Matter.” Used by permission.

Williams has much experience with public art, but this hit particularly close to home. His art has highlighted issues of race for many years. 

“I try to give food for thought on the African Diaspora,” he says of his work, which has been displayed across the world, from New York to Philadelphia to Belize. 

Williams was born in Duke Hospital in 1950. He graduated from Hillside High School in 1968 and majored in Fine Arts at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh. He spent the next 10 years at the Art Students’ League of New York. He studied drawing, oil painting and artistic anatomy (important fundamentals for an artist who cites French Impressionists and Renaissance masters as his influences.) 

In 1989, he decided he was on his way to becoming a professional student — a fate he wanted to avoid — so he sold his studio in New York and moved to an island called Caye Caulker, 45 minutes from Belize City via water taxi. 

“The idea was to unlearn everything I had learned in school,” Williams says. “You want to come out with your own style, your own thing.” 

He went on to hone his style as an artist and educator in Philadelphia, and eventually he returned to Durham in 2006 to help care for his mother and grandmother. He is now a member of the Public Art Committee of the Durham Cultural Advisory Board, a contributor to the Durham Civil Rights Mural Project, and competitor in the Durham Arts Guild 66th Annual Juried Exhibition. 

Willie Bigelow, art curator of the Hayti Heritage Museum in Durham, is a fan of his work and included Williams in the museum’s annual Black History Month Exhibition. Bigelow suggests teachers use his work to educate their art students. “It’s got an European-African flare,” he says. ”It’s superb.”

When I ask Williams about the mural downtown, he stands to find a print to hold up. This is just one of the many times throughout our interview when he will stop for a moment to find a relevant passage to read or show a painting he’s just mentioned. 

“I’ve been an activist in a quiet way, in my own way,” he says. “Either I’d show it through my art or when I was younger I would march or boycott.”

When attending college, he became a member of the Black social fellowship Groove Phi Groove, which continues to do public service around the Triangle. The group’s colors are black and white — just like the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams points out. The Groove Brothers provided water, food, and masks to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and recently raised money to donate masks and gloves to Durham neighborhoods with fewer resources. 

“At the age I am now I really can’t go out in the street and walk those miles, but I support them,” Williams says of the protesters. That’s why he created “Lady Justice/Black Lives Matter.”

“Someone brought it to my attention that they were doing murals, and naturally I wanted to be a part of that,” he says. He searches through his desk to find a picture of “Weeds Habitat,”  his first mural, painted in New Rochelle, New York, which shows leaves and rainforest painted in shades of green and blue. Since then, he has often used murals to bring art to a wide audience. 

“In every part of Philadelphia there’s a mural with my name on it,” Williams says of his time there, where he was assigned to “areas that angels would not go.” He tried to portray himself as a role model to the students he worked with. His low-key style has earned respect.

His mixed media portrait of Miles Davis. Used by permission

“He is quiet, but when he has something to say, people really listen to him because he’s not busy taking up a lot of space, which can happen in group dynamics,” says Brenda Miller Holmes, an artist and public arts consultant in Durham. 

The two met when Miller Holmes was organizing the Durham Civil Rights Mural Project in 2013. She knew right away that she wanted to include Williams and now considers him a friend. 

“He creates art that’s pushing against when it’s necessary. He also creates a lot of artwork that’s about beauty and culture and what you want to build and hope for the future,” she says. 

Even when he’s not working directly with students, Williams tries to educate through his art. 

“What I’ve been doing lately is trying to express how Black people live, how they have fun, and I do that to combat some of these stereotypical thoughts people have of people of color,” Williams says. 

He pulls up “An Unquiet Moment,” a recent piece of a Black man sitting solemnly with a french horn. Yellow flowers sit in a vase on a vanity, and light shines through the room from an unseen window. 

Another piece he shares shows Miles Davis trumpetting on a bright day. He is a collage of a french railway map in a landscape of watercolor. On his face is joy and from his horn there is music. 

“Some kid may see that and wonder who that is, what’s that about and they may not have known the struggles or the things people before us went through to get to that position,” he says. 

In a different painting, an operating table is center stage and a Black operating staff is working to finish a procedure. The image is stark with dark colors save the contrasts of white uniforms; the team is solemn and focused under their masks. Behind them is a small window. Outside, the sun shines.

“I don’t think of him as an activist, he’s more of a reporter, and he uses his art to do it,” says Bigelow, the Hayti museum curator. “He uses his art to relate what he sees is happening around the community. He’s like a newscaster: here’s what I see, here it is.”

Williams wants his next project to highlight the Tuskegee Airmen, but he is early in the research, not yet sure how it will take shape. He also is keeping in mind a large basket of vegetables his neighbor brought over recently. He was stunned by the beauty of the vegetables and photographed them so he could paint them later. 

“I want to tell a story of all the positive things my people have done, that’s one way of defunking the socialization of a people,” Williams says. “Knowledge is king, knowing your history is king.” 

Above photo of Wade Williams by Henry Haggart, The 9th Street Journal

The Bull Durham house, then and now

From the outside, the Bull Durham house at 911 N. Mangum St. looks pretty much the same as it did in the famous 1988 baseball film. The windows are big and a mix of styles, typical of the home’s Queen Anne architecture. A swing still hangs on the front porch. 

But inside, there is barely a trace of the erratically wallpapered, chaotically cluttered home where Annie Savoy, played with passion and wisdom by Susan Sarandon, seduced a series of Bulls players, most notably Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and Crash Davis (Kevin Costner). Today, the home is transformed into an embodiment of southern minimalism. 

The garish wallpaper is gone (understandably) and the walls now display a spectrum of muted pastels. Instead of Annie’s large collection of candles, the home is filled with natural light. It is very southern chic, with plenty of open space, simple colors, and vintage-esque furnishings. 

We know these details because the sale of the house is pending (asking price: $1.15 million) and, when it was on the market, it even had its own website, thebulldurhamhouse.com, complete with a virtual tour. Stroll through the house (virtually or in person) and you won’t see many signs of Annie or Crash or Nuke – except for the tub.

“For me, the scene I’ll never forget was the infamous bathtub scene with Annie and Crash,” says Jarin Frederick, the real estate agent selling the home for Urban Durham Realty.

“The clawfoot tub is still in the home today!” says Frederick, referring to the location of one of the most famous moments in the film. The tub scene is all kinds of steamy, with Costner and Sarandon finally consummating their love affair surrounded by dozens of burning candles. They share passionate kisses and the camera pans away as the water splashes out the candles’ flames. 

Is the tub now in a different room? It seemed larger in the film, but maybe that’s an optical illusion.  But if you’ve got $1.15 million, who cares? You can recreate this moment of movie magic, even if you have a bit less space for candles. 

Even before it was on the big screen, the house, built in 1880, carried an air of celebrity. It has been granted historical status both locally and nationally as the “James S. Manning House.” 

Manning was a reputable Durhamite, first as an attorney and judge, later a state senator and eventually as the North Carolina’s attorney general. He remained in the home until 1912 when he resettled in Raleigh. After the Mannings relocated, the house changed families a few times until it eventually became vacant. 

The garish wallpaper is gone and the home is now filled with natural light. Photo by Taylor McDonald, courtesy of Urban Durham Realty

That’s how it stood in 1986, when Ron Shelton, a director, screenwriter, and former minor league infielder, saw the house while scouting locations for the film that would eventually become Bull Durham. Shelton has said in interviews that the filmmakers chose Durham because of its minor league team and its skyline of dilapidated tobacco warehouses, which complement the romantic allusions of the movie. 

But Bull Durham wasn’t entirely shot in Durham. A batting cage scene was filmed in Garner at what is now a mini-golf course; the bar where Nuke and Crash first meet is in Raleigh; and the baseball diamond where LaLoosh is interviewed about pitching in “the show” was in Arlington, Texas.

The Manning house, though, is less than a mile from the Durham Bulls stadium where the team played in the 1980s and where much of the film was made.

What a difference 30 years (and a little decorating) can make. When Annie lived there, the house was decorated with a seemingly endless collection of tchotchkes: buddhas, goddesses in various forms, and baseball memorabilia. Each room had its own statement wallpaper (usually floral) and the whole place was candlelit by night and sunlit by day. 

In a desperate attempt to seduce Nuke during what he thought to be a celibacy-induced winning streak, Annie shouts that she detests cute – she wants to be “exotic and mysterious.” That describes her home, too, a workshop for her new age mysticism.

Today, the home is spacious with four bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms, a front and back porch as well as an office, family room and living room. In the film, the house was painted a fading mint color. Now, it’s a slate gray, the classic mismatched windows accented with a bright red like the stitches of a baseball. It’s so nice it looks like it’s been on the cover of Southern Living.

Frederick says the owners have taken good care of it. “When you walk through the home you are immediately aware of the love and commitment the  homeowners made the last 13 years in preserving this historic Durham treasure,” she says. 

The website highlights a laundry list of restorations and updates since 2007. These range from lighting fixture updates to larger renovations, like the addition of a garage and workspace in the backyard and the refurbishment of the front porch where Crash awaited Annie’s return from the ballpark in the film’s last scene.  

Annie joins him on the porch, and the two sit under cover as rain comes down around them. She rambles about the non-linearity of baseball and Crash kindly tells her to shut up. Eventually the two move inside. Much is left unsaid as they dance in front of Annie’s shrine to the religion of baseball. 

Staff writer Carmela Guaglianone can be reached at carmela.guaglianone@duke.edu

At top, photo of the Bull Durham house by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Durham book lovers find no place to browse

Suddenly book browsing has become a hazardous pastime. Durham’s libraries and bookstores have closed their doors, so book lovers have no place to wander through the stacks or pluck an interesting-looking tome off a shelf. 

The Regulator Bookshop, Letters Bookshop and Golden Fig Books have closed their doors. The libraries are open for takeout only. These are challenging times if you want to read the first page of a novel before you buy or check it out. 

The Regulator’s website explains the hesitation: “Rather than setting any date and possibly raising false expectations we will withhold any announcement until we have a firm date.” 

It’s the same for the other stores, which haven’t set a date to reopen. Until they do, the book browsing experience will, like so many things we have come to know, be done through a screen. For now, the smell of freshly printed pages and the satisfying sensation of flipping through a paperback won’t occur until the box arrives by UPS – or you pick it up curbside. 

Golden Fig owner David Bradley, says they’ve been “overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we’ve seen from the community” as they ship books throughout Durham and operate a curbside pick-up service. 

Durham libraries closed their indoor spaces to the public in response to county stay-at-home ordinance, but residents now have two ways to get new books. They can get ebooks through a newly expanded online program, or actual books through a new pick-up service.

Last week the libraries launched a “Take-Out!” book station at every location, a curbside pick-up service much like a restaurant. Book lovers can just order ahead and swing by when the books are ready. 

This virtual inventory has been well received by parents adapting to home schooling, with an increase in kids ebooks and e-audio of 88% from February to March and 55% from March to April . 

For physical materials that had been in limbo since the stay-at-home order, the library system opened up an automatic book return system June 1 outside the newly renovated Main Library at 300 N. Roxboro Street. 

Bradley said that, as the national conversation has shifted, so has the demand for new books. 

The New Jim Crow’, ‘How to Be an Antiracist’, ‘Me and White Supremacy’, and ‘White Fragility’ are so popular they’re now on backorder with publishers,  Bradley said. 

Likewise, Stephanie Bonestell, a spokeswoman for the Durham County libraries, said they also have seen a similar increase in interest with titles related to Black Lives Matter, civil rights, and racism in America.

The interest in books by Black authors has prompted important discussions in Durham.  

“It’s been our story,” said Victoria Scott-Miller, the owner of Liberation Station, a Durham based “Pop-Up” bookstore. Their website says their mission is centered on “making representation accessible and amplifying Black voices.”

As conversation around systemic racism continues throughout the city, many are asking Scott-Miller and her staff how to educate themselves on the Black experience. Liberation Station has updated its website with resources, but Scott-Miller said this is still a time of grieving for many in the Black community.

“This is a moment for you to learn, for you to gather, for you to do the research and understand the impact,” Scott-Miller says to like-minded community members. She says that provides them time “so we can have the conversation but we’re not having to show up both grieving and teaching at the same time.”

Throughout the pandemic, the store has transitioned from hosting pop-up events (which were like a new take on the Scholastic book fairs) to an almost entirely virtual platform that even includes online storytimes. Still, Scott-Miller and her husband, who co-own the business, insist on hand delivering all orders within the city (they wear a mask and gloves). 

Victoria Scott-Miller, owner of the Liberation Station Bookstore, carries a full load of books to deliver in Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

The couple feels that the personal delivery is a way to connect with customers and provide a special experience.  

“There are a lot of children of color that are seeing themselves in these books for the first time,” she said, “we want them to know that they are of value.” 

Their packages are wrapped in chalkboard paper, tied in red twine, and accented with a green notecard — and a handwritten note.

Photo above: Letters Bookshop in downtown Durham remains closed to the public, but the owners have online ordering. Photo by Henry Haggart, The 9th Street Journal

A Durham moment: ‘Ain’t nobody gonna save us but us!’

An American flag flails halfheartedly beside the demonstration in downtown Durham. A Pan-African flag — larger and catching more gusts of wind — is paraded through the crowd. 

In the heart of downtown, where Main Street meets Morris Street meets Chapel Hill Boulevard, Durhamites have gathered in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation. Under a gray sky, they wear masks and hold signs. The air is ripe with electricity and anticipation, like we are on the brink of a storm.

“End White Silence,” demands one sign, written in red, white and blue. 

Another sign simply says, “GEORGE FLOYD,” potent with a power that has mobilized millions. 

Beside the woman holding this sign, a fellow protestor holds a piece of cardboard. In Sharpie, it begs the question that has brought so many people from the virus-protected safety of their homes out to this demonstration and others like it. 

“Are me and my family next?” 

They’re here because they saw it on social media – first the horrific video of Floyd being pinned under a police officer’s knee while he gasped “I can’t breathe!”, and then the call to action for protesters, which spread quickly through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

One participant mentions that she saw a post online about protests in Raleigh on Monday, which she also plans to attend. As she says this, someone sitting nearby asks for logistical details.

The protest has no agenda, so people in the crowd just speak up.

“Ain’t nobody gonna save us but us!” shouts one woman, standing in the center of the demonstration. Others circle around to listen as she calls for community action, for holding each other accountable, and for getting out the vote. 

“We didn’t fight each other, we fought for each other,” she says. The crowd echoes her passion, chanting “No justice, no peace.”

More protestors take their turns sharing stories and making short speeches. On the outskirts of the crowd, an older gentleman wearing a blue plaid sportcoat adorned with a “F— Trump ” button, is offering everyone squirts of hand sanitizer. 

Beyond frustration though, many in the crowd are angry. 

“F— the police,” rings out occasionally from the protestors as cops on motorcycles loudly circle on neighboring streets. 

Talking through his mask — blue, with the word “Democrat” patterned across it— Jan Cromartie, who mentions that he is a candidate for the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District, says he appreciates the way the community has organized to support the movement, but hopes to see grander, institutional changes as a result. 

“Rhetoric is good,” he says, “but I believe in action.”

Droplets of rain start to fall as the protest continues into the evening.

In photo at top, demonstrators held a peaceful rally in downtown Durham on Saturday. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

A stroll through Southpoint

The smell of Auntie Anne’s, once unavoidable, is canceled out by the scent of a lemony floor cleaner. Masked shoppers exchange gentle, knowing looks. In the stores and at the kiosks, cashiers attempt to look approachable behind clear plastic register shields. Customers in line to check out are instructed where to stand by stickers marking 6-foot distances. This is Southpoint mall as Durham begins to reopen

In the past two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, beer-loving Durhamites have been enjoying their brews on their front porch, rather than with a game of cornhole at Ponysaurus or Stand-up Comedy at Durty Bull. As the city, along with many parts of the country, move through the phases of reopening, the hiss of a beer can be heard further and further from home — on the East Campus lawn or at Old North Durham Park. But these familiar outings look different, transformed by the social distance dance we all must do as we adapt to the World with the Virus. 

A stroll through the Streets at Southpoint offers a concentrated look at the choreography of this emerging reality. The parking lot, usually buzzing with shoppers hoping to capitalize on Memorial Day sales, has the feel one might expect during a midday visit on a Tuesday. In the quiet lot the dance begins: Is it alright to park right next to another car? Is that violating social distance etiquette? And walking in: Is it still polite to hold the door open for the person behind you? 

To amble around Southpoint is to do this awkward dance, a once-ordinary walk transformed into navigating a minefield that might hide an invisible disease. A pair of teens joke about crossing the tape line of the boarded-up massage chairs outside Macy’s, but they respectfully step to their right as another shopper comes into their radius. This is the dance. Couples share nervous glances when strangers get too close, but everyone works together to pretend at normalcy, making nonchalant conversation with their gloved cashiers as we shift into our new roles as mask-wearers and social distancers. 

A smattering of the stores have made the decision to open up and the new summer collections are the least of their changes. Hollister now requires masks to enter; Aerie gives them away; Macy’s has hand sanitizer stations at the entrances. Urban Outfitters has gone so far as to tape arrows on the floor to provide shoppers with a suggested path, taking you from room decor to hair accessories, to promote social distancing. 

The open retailers skew younger: Forever 21 and H&M. Pink, marketed toward young adults, is still closed, but Talbots, popular with middle-aged women, is in business. 

There’s no skew to the shoppers.  People of all ages wander the mall. Almost everyone travels in pairs; masks muffle the conversation, which makes the place quieter than usual. 

“This area is for sitting, not eating,” reads a paper sign taped to the Streets’ patio furniture. “This too, shall pass,” it adds. 

The sign hints at a return to normalcy, but that day is probably a long way in the future. Restaurants have shifted primarily to pick-up options. Food court favorites like Built (Custom Burgers) and Pholicious are open, but there’s not really any place to sit.

The fountains have gone dry as sculptures of children wait out an invisible storm for the mall to return to normal. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

The dark storefronts have paper signs with vague explanations and a little hope. The AMC Theatre says it is closed “today,” apologizing for the “inconvenience.” Bath & Body Works stresses the safety of their employees in the decision. 

What’s next for these stores? Will they open their doors again soon? Or fold like so many seemingly impenetrable companies taken down by the virus (JCPenney has filed for bankruptcy, while Pier 1 is closing all of its 540 stores)? Are they really holding back out of safety concerns? Financial difficulties? How are their workers holding up without the income? It seems these answers will not be available until “further notice.”

The mall, like Durham, is in a state of transition. The tables at the food court are cordoned off and the fountain outside the movie theatre is drained, like a lake after a drought.  But even so, people are puttering about — attempting to make sense of it all. There is an eeriness to this new world and a guilt to participating in it. How essential is this trip? Who am I putting at risk by making it? These questions lead to the bigger one hanging above Durham, palpable in public spaces like this: Are we ready for Phase 2?

In photo above, seating in the food court has been moved to discourage seating. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

At Bull City Magic, ‘the soul goal’ and a vision of a brighter future

“We’re not like a regular store,” Lynn Swain says, holding a smoking bundle of sage over the flame of one of her shop’s locally sourced vegan candles. 

Tom Swain, her husband and business partner, nods. “We want everyone to feel better when they walk through that door.” 

The door he is referring to opens into the mystical expanse of MagikCraft: Bull City Magic, a metaphysical shop and spiritual safe space just off of 9th Street. The store is owned and operated by the Swains, and its mission is what they call “the soul goal.” 

In what has come to be known as “this uncertain time,” they provide insight, positivity, and a bit of magic to Durham. 

The store is her headquarters as a clairvoyant, a service more pertinent than ever. With our routines and physical lives so starkly interrupted, today is on hold, making questions of tomorrow more pressing. It’s a perfect time to ponder the future. Lynn, a healer, psychic, and medium who also goes by the name MagikCraft, says she has a powerful relationship with energy and the (supposedly) unknown. She reads people and receives messages from the universe, often using crystals or cards as guiding tools. 

These days she is talking with clients over the phone or other virtual platforms, and it’s not just the mode of communication that has changed. She says that many of the inquiries she has received lately have related more to clients’ personal journey and reflection than ever before. That’s an encouraging trend, she believes. Working parents are spending more time with their children, relationships are being reassessed, and careers and passions are being critically evaluated. The shutdown has “put the brakes on, stop and look and listen.” she says. 

In a politically polarized time, the store is focused on offering a safe space to any and all who need it. “We don’t talk about politics here,” Tom says. “It’s not about what you are politically, it’s about your soul,” Lynn adds.

Eye-catching merchandise lines the walls and fills the glass display cases: crystals from every corner of the world—including one from the highest elevation of Tibet—countless tarot decks, lavender soaps, books on destiny or tarot reading, and cast-iron cauldrons. She says 80% of the mystical merchandise is by customer request, from over 40 local vendors. 

Even during a time of social distance, everyone receives a warm (but safe) welcome. This comes in many forms; sometimes it’s Lynn walking a customer around the store on FaceTime to put in a virtual order, other times it’s Tom, who was not “blessed with gifts” of psychic and medium knowledge like his wife and co-operator, but is known for pulling out a book that offers a look at a customer’s destiny based on their birthday and sharing a page or two with them. 

Bull City Magic hosts a range of 32 workshops – from monthly Full Moon Gatherings to Crystal Grid training. Stay-at-home restrictions have moved many of these events to the store’s new YouTube page, but the storefront remains very much in business; after a call to City Hall describing the value of their apothecary inventory and soaps, Lynn said Durham has said they could stay open. 

“We don’t want to just sell stuff,” says Tom, “we want to educate.” 

The couple has been in this space for almost three years, underneath Cosmic Cantina (the enchanted names of the two businesses bear no relation, but there is certainly a bit of Bull City magic in Cosmic’s bean burritos). Before moving to this location, the Swains worked out of a nearby office space to build clientele. 

“You don’t just open a metaphysical shop in the belt of Christianity without testing the waters, ” says Lynn. She has discovered that “Durham is a very mystic space,” but people like to keep that  “on the D.L.” 

Given the name MagikCraft by the universe, Lynn is a seventh generation medium and psychic; the store’s website boasts that by 2019, she had read over 30,000 people. Her many skills are are listed there:

Tarot , Oracle, Crystals, Ruins, Tea Leaves, Palm Reading, Scrying, Channeling, Mediumship, Akashic Records, Bone Throwing, Roots, Herbs, Shamanism, Reiki Master, Candlewax Reading, Fire Magic, Smoke Reading, Multi-Verse Dimensional Messages, God, Goddesses, Angels, Spirit Guides, Ancestor, Aura, Soul Energy, Dream Interpretation, Past Life Regression, Astral Projection along with visions through prophecy, Telekinesis, Psychokinesis, Aerokinesis, Afterlife Communication, AKD- After Death Communication, Healer, Clergy, Teacher, and Practitioner of the Craft.

She became a medium at age 4 and began reading people at age 13.

Besides being a guru of the metaphysical, she is a savvy businesswoman. At the age of 57, her resume includes a degree in mathematics from the University of Delaware and more than 30 years in corporate finance. 

Even in her years in the corporate world, Lynn worked internationally as a reader and healer. It finally became her full time profession when the newlyweds decided to open the shop in 2017. At the start, Tom, who worked previously as an electrician, manned the store during the week while Lynn continued her corporate work. She would then spend time in the store at night and on weekends, working more than 100 hours some weeks. Soon, though, she came to an important conclusion. 

“I realized everything I was saying to my clients I wasn’t doing,” she says.

This was a part of her process of “walking through the portal of fear,” advice she gives clients struggling to commit to their passions or confront the things holding them back spiritually. 

She is now fulfilled — though never finished. “I was blessed by being an insomniac,” she laughs. During the coronavirus slowdown, she and Tom are working on an herb wall, making more services available online, and they are collaborating with a Duke alum on a podcast. 

They opened a second location to host magical meet-ups: a Kava, espresso, crystal, and sage cafe between Durham and Hillsborough called Magic on 70. The cafe boasts coffee flavors with mystical namesakes, such as “Thoth: God of the Written Word.” Just as one might expect, this carries notes of “Vanilla, Dark Chocolate and Cranberries.” 

But alas, the website informs customers that for “the health and safety of our magical tribe,” the new shop is closed temporarily, although spiritual sessions are still available through virtual appointment with Lynn. 

Like all of us, they are learning to adapt. 

Lynn wears a purple mask around the store, and it nicely accents the lavender walls and the 700 pounds of amethyst crystal near the tarot cards. The store sells masks like hers in a variety of colors.  

“Mother Earth has put us in timeout and we need to self reflect,” Lynn says. She doesn’t expect things to ever return to “normal,” but feels this forced re-evaluation has some positive and powerful elements. She is hopeful for the future, a reassuring thing to hear from a psychic. 

People are taking this time to explore their  spiritual realm, whatever that realm maybe, which she says is “a human reset on a core level.” 

She smiles. “Positive energy is contagious.” 

Above, Tom and Lynn outside of Bull City Magic. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

‘You are not alone’: Signs of a pandemic

To break through the deluge of headlines and non-stop news alerts about COVID-19, many people have reverted to an old form of information sharing: a Sharpie and a sheet of paper. 

In this strange time of distance and sheltering-in-place, signs seem to greet us more often than people. They are placeholders of the reality we once knew, the restaurants and coffee shops we visited, the schools we attended, and the parks we lounged in on Sunday afternoons. They are now silenced, explained by a few scrawled words of instructions, explanations or well wishes. Like buildings with speech bubbles, the conversational nature of these notices gives life to dark news. 

Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

“OPEN FOR LUNCH” shouts the sign outside Skewers on Main Street. It usually boasts Open Mic Nights or Karaoke, but it’s now trying to convey the simple message that Skewers is still in business.  That tactic is being used by many restaurants and businesses, to simply reassure customers that a store is still alive. Some have an artistic flair, like Michoacan Mexican Restaurant’s “Open/ Take Out & Delivery” sign, spruced up with an emphatic blue marker. Shooters II opted for a sweet farewell, “Be Safe/ See Y’all Soon.”  At the Italian Pizzeria on Hillsborough Road, the sign says, “Everything will be okay… Love and Teamwork always wins.” 

Businesses are also using their signs to share changes in procedures for our strange COVID-19 world. “Please keep an 8 ft distance between yourself and other pick-up folks!!” reads a printed sign attached to a traffic cone outside Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street.

Photo by Corey Pilson

Most signs are concise, but not at K Nails, a nail salon on Hillsborough Road. It has two signs, both full paragraphs describing their plans regarding the changes. One details changes in the usual cleaning routine to be more conducive to virus protection, asking customers to “wash their hands prior to being seated.” The other, apparently posted later, informs of a short closure, citing it as the toughest choice they have ever had to make. 

With advice and understanding surrounding the virus that is constantly changing, this transparency of businesses offers comfort. Customers are getting a personal look at the way restaurants, stores, and salons are adapting. “We’re Still Here (we’re just hiding),” promises a bright pink flyer outside Durham Short Run Shirts. It says they’re now selling online, and it signs off, “Stay Safe + Stay Healthy.”

Photo by Corey Pilson

Electronic boards outside schools and colleges blare LED messages that seem to be a mix of outdated information and not-so-subtle attempts to exercise waning authority. Hillside High School’s sign has clearly not been updated since the statewide mandate that schools close until May 17th, and its hopeful blue “Classes Resume April 6th” carries an unrealistic  cheerfulness. 

Duke’s East Campus Trail, teeming with people on their daily walks, has many lawn signs that say “Duke/ We’re In This Together / Keep Your Distance,” which seems like an oxymoron. Other signs use levity, like NCCU’s cheeky light-up billboard, using its eagle mascot to exemplify an adequate social distance. 

Signs on the Al Buehler Trail take a more serious tone. “DO NOT USE FITNESS STATIONS” says a laminated sign on the fitness loop, accented with a decorative stop sign to convey a tone of urgency. “Observe social distancing” it states later — not a suggestion but a demand. Another one, next to the public fountains, says, “WATER FOUNTAINS ARE TEMPORARILY SHUT OFF TO REDUCE PUBLIC INTERACTION.” 

Other signs are poignant, offering messages of hope or simple solidarity. “You are not alone,” says one drawn with a rainbow of colored pencils that is posted on a residence hall door on Duke’s West Campus.

Top photo by Corey Pilson | The 9th Street Journal

‘Wipes are not flushable’: Inside Durham’s toilet paper freak-out

In stores around Durham, aisles usually well-diversified with toilet paper brands endorsed by happy bear families and cherubic mascots are barren. A sign above the depleted shelves at the Target on 15/501 declares, “Due to high demand and to support all guests, we will be limiting the quantities of toilet paper, flushable wipes and facial tissue to 1 each per guest.”  

These are dire times. One unanticipated consequence of the coronavirus crisis is a nationwide shortage of toilet paper, as well as tissues and (now-infamous) flushable wipes.  It’s not just Target. The shelves echo emptiness at Harris Teeter, Costco, Whole Foods and just about any other Durham store that sells it.

The void in the home-goods aisles has made room for Durhamites to step in. Listservs, Facebook groups, and Instagram posts show how the community has come together to help people cope with the toilet paper turmoil. 

On one Durham email thread, a woman offered up her own recent shipment from Who Gives A Crap, a specialty retailer that sells a version said to be 100% recycled.  She emphasized that she was not amassing a supply of the paper (which has become a bit of a taboo, particularly in community-minded Durham), but was simply a long-time subscriber to the service. The woman, ironically enough, did seem to give a crap: Her goal was to donate toilet paper to groups that may have a harder time obtaining it during the COVID-19 crisis such as the elderly or immunocompromised. 

Scott Sellers, a father of two, is also attempting to pass some TP under the stall, so to speak. He and a few of the other younger members of the listserv have banded together to run errands for those more at risk – and make sure they get the toilet paper they need. The effort, he says, is “emphasizing the best about us.” 

Sellers has heard some horror stories of stockpiling. 

“Harris Teeter restocks [toilet paper] at 6:30 a.m.,” he says, “and people are waiting in line until they run out.”

He is still scratching his head to understand the hoarding culture. His theory is that toilet paper is tangible.

“You can’t see this virus but you can see the toilet paper,” he says. Leaving a store with four 12-packs of Charmin or Angel Soft, in the face of mounting unpredictability, feels productive. 

People seem to crave this feeling. Throughout the county, there is a dull quiet. Workplaces are closed, stores are shuttered. People are seeking control – so they stock their pantries, and they fill linen closets, with toilet paper. 

A coping mechanism, “that’s probably what it is,” Sellers says. “Like, this gives me a piece of anchoring during this completely uncertain time.”

Empty shelves at the Target on 15/501.

David Matthews, the branch manager of Not Just Paper, an office and school supply store on Main Street, is also trying to understand the obsession. He agrees that it’s less about the use and more about the preparation. When expecting a child, this concept is called nesting – the urge to create a comfy space for the new baby. When expecting a pandemic, it’s about preparing the nest for an unclear future.

“People are unfamiliar with what all these stay-in-place orders mean and we feel insecure,” he says. “Word got out that you have to have your basic supplies and when you think about it, (toilet paper) is a basic supply people take for granted.”

He thinks there’s a bit of groupthink, too. “It gets your attention when you see the shelves empty.” Everyone is wondering why their friends and neighbors are stocking up, but don’t want to be the ones caught empty-handed. 

People have traveled far, from Rocky Mount and Jackson County, to visit his store. So he is loudly marketing their stash: a sign out front boasts, “We have toilet paper!”

“Supply and demand,” he points out. “We have it; other people don’t.” 

Not Just Paper is one of the many retailers that has taken to establishing a limit per customer, in an effort to flatten the curve on stockpiling. “I want to make sure there’s enough for everyone,” Matthews explains. 

At the end of the day, Matthews isn’t worrying about the psychology behind the hoarding. Like Sellers and the listserv volunteers, he just wants customers to know he can help. And while they’re not just paper – they do have plenty of it. 

And finally, some discouraging news for those who have not been so lucky in their bathroom stashing and have attempted to get creative. Flushable wipes, which are likewise beginning to sell out (much to the chagrin of city officials) are meant to serve as a TP alternative and dissolve in the sewer. Indeed, Cottonelle, the self-ascribed “No. 1 Flushable Wipe Brand among national flushable wipes brands,” claims to begin this dissolving process right after flushing. 

The city of Durham begs to differ. 

“Wipes are not flushable — no matter what the ads want us to believe!” their Instagram, @cityofdurhamnc, posted recently. The post goes on to implore residents to discontinue use of the products, which can clog home plumbing or sewer lines. It sums up the warning by urging followers to “#protectyourpipes,” perhaps in a wink to the respiratory pandemic causing the surge in stocking. 

At top, a sign outside Not Just Paper. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal