Cartography in East Durham is always, above all, a record of holy spaces. Which means my neighborhood welcomes me home at the same time that it tells me just how much my home is not mine.
It tells me on quiet weekday afternoons as I walk along Elm Street. If you want to hear it, too, it’s best if you get to Elm by turning left from Main; it’s the street between the chipped paint and barred windows of God First People Second Baptist Church and the banal grandeur of Refiner’s Fire Community Church. Both churches will be silent. If you’ve lived here long enough, you’ll know that Refiner’s Fire is always silent, despite its comparatively impressive size, and that God First People Second is always silent except late at night, when its congregation gathers outside under a makeshift awning with a pot of something to be ladled out. You’ll feel their silence as a fact embedded in the geography, and it’s that feeling that’s essential to this phenomenon, because if you keep walking down Elm, between the churches and across Morning Glory and Worth and Wall Streets, you’ll reach the crest of a hill. It’s not a hill anyone outside of the neighborhood would notice, but it is one that anyone who walks and bikes and drives it regularly can’t help but notice. And there, standing atop it, you’ll hear it, the sound rolling up from the bottom.
It will break the silence.
When I listen to it, I can almost see it, bouncing across the auxiliary government parking lot the hill falls off into and the lone wall of obscure origin standing, a ruin, in a field beside that lot. I can see it shifting through the neighborhood’s familiar valleys. The sound comes up the hill as a bark, a drum beat, an old Baptist sermon filtered through tape hiss and a blown speaker, its rhythms berating, pulsing, anything but soothing; it will overtake you, no matter how faint it is, will roll over you, will thunder and wince and move through these houses without expanding or dissipating into the other noise of the city for as long as you stand here. It will hold out against the voices from the bus stop and the dogs and the police sirens.
That sound is the voice of Dr. T. L. Peaks-Cash humming through the clapboard walls of the New Greater Zion Wall House of Miracles. Despite living in this neighborhood—just at the bottom of this hill, on Taylor Street—I have never met Dr. Peaks-Cash nor entered the New Greater Zion Wall House of Miracles, but I know the source because I can cite it from the sign posted where Taylor runs into Elizabeth Street, the street that marks the end of the neighborhood and the beginning of the rest of Durham.
The sound will recede as you head down the hill toward the church, a victim of some topographical trick. I imagine you’d hear it again as you approached the church, but I’ve never found out, because my house lies the other direction along Taylor. And because it is not a church for me.
But that voice. It is at once welcoming and resistant. I can hear everything about my neighborhood, about its particular warmth, about the lives lived here, about my home and the ways my home rejects me.
I have just heard Dr. Peaks-Cash, and now I am sitting at a teak cafe table in my bedroom. The table was “borrowed” from my partner Adrienne’s parents the way most of the furniture in this house was borrowed from somebody with vague promises of return waved away. I’m looking out the window the table is positioned under at the tree in my backyard that slopes at a near 45 degree angle and a hoopless basketball hoop whose plastic backboard and metal support pole have weathered to nearly the same color. I do not know what kind of tree it is because that is not the kind of thing I have ever known. The other tree, the one I can see in my neighbor’s yard if I look out the other window, is a pecan tree, which I know because a few months back it dropped a crop of rotten pecan pods over my yard that Adrienne identified and that we tried to harvest, only to find out how rotten they were.
Beyond my yard is another cinder block church, the Ecclesia House of Prayer, with a gravel lot that fills with cars and music on Sunday days and less so on Wednesday nights, and beyond the Ecclesia House of Prayer is a run-down apartment complex, all Soviet drab siding, that may or may not be Section 8, like the complex a few blocks to the west, on Elizabeth Street, just past the New Greater Zion Wall House of Miracles.
When I think about things as if they are out there, somewhere beyond where I am when I sit at this table, I think about what I know of Durham: that it’s an old tobacco town made of sanitized grit and tar left over from the factories and warehouses that sprouted up after the Civil War and left sometime in the 80s or 90s; that it’s an old blue collar town that’s proud of that fact; that people say it’s nothing like it was even five years ago, which is always polite code for it’s whiter and richer.
But what I actually see, right now, are three children standing in the culvert between the Soviet apartments and the church. They stand out against the dead winter growth in their neon T-shirts and they wander around and jump the culvert and look down and point at something that I probably wouldn’t be able to see even if I stood in the culvert with them, something from childhood and for children.
I have been searching for this window for a very long time. I have been searching for home, and it is here, amongst unknown trees and pecan trees, dilapidated backyards, and the diurnal scenes and rituals of the few blocks that comprise East Durham’s Golden Belt neighborhood—which I can now recognize, which now constitute the fabric of my life—that I have found it. I don’t need to meet Dr. T. L. Peaks-Cash to feel at home as her voice rolls over me.
And yet what I know about Durham seeps through my window. When I attempt to measure the difference between the out there I see and the in there they see, I find myself in an abyss, and I don’t know if you can build a home on an abyss.
Read the rest at Blunderbuss.