West Parrish Street
I’m half a century old today, plus thirty-five years, give or take.
I was born in the north part of the city, all farmland then. We moved to the city when I was still a boy, so my father could work in the mills. From the apartment building I live in now, I can see the mill where he used to sling armloads of tobacco onto conveyer belts until his back was permanently stooped. He was dizzy and sick more days than not from the nicotine he’d soak up through his bare arms. They call it the Green Tobacco Sickness if you’re harvesting it out of the fields, but the men in the factories got a kind of sickness, too, just not so bad. My father never did smoke a cigarette.
Me, I worked my way up to the other end of the business, the kind that wears neckties and sits at desks with ashtrays. Back then, I smoked one a day, just after lunch. On special occasions when it was important to showcase the value of our product - sales meetings, say, or business lunches. But most days, it was just the one, which my secretary Shirley left in the ashtray for me with a lighter that had my name engraved. Now, my one-a-day is during my evening walk down this alleyway where the back stairwell of my apartment meets the street. It used to be a banker’s alley on one side, filled with nothing but white collar trash that regular bums didn’t know what to do with. And on the other side was a grocery, with the kind of trash that was useful at least, and beside that a diner and a furniture store and then up at the end of the alley, a post office.
Tonight, dusk is falling in the alley, though the summer sky above the rooftops is still late-evening blue. The air is downright wet, the kind of humidity that recalls screaming cicadas, but the city drowns those out. I got used to that absence as a boy, hard as it was. Still, the mill sounds replaced the sounds of the fields, and losing those sounds was a harder thing to endure, in the end. It’s hard to recognize the city now. So many well lit spaces and decorative planters, a crane reaching into the clouds, promising progress no one can put a name to. A city where the sweet dank smell of tobacco no longer hangs in the air, where the sound of a mill whistle would be alarming, instead of the welcome signal to the end of a long, sweat soaked work day. There are lights strung across the alley, of a festive variety. On the corner, people stand outside a bar holding drinks with tall straws and spiraled rinds of fruit. There is a mural on the brick wall of a bull dressed in flowers. The paint is fresh.
A woman in a long skirt comes floating down the alley towards me, where I am smoking beneath the fire escape. She is lovely in a way that is visceral, a loveliness I can almost breath in. She walks along the left side of the alley, close to the wall, her fingers trailing over the brick. Her other hand is holding a phone to her ear and she is laughing and then exclaiming, in mock anger, “So you’re abandoning me to the Durham night? Is that it?” She sees me but doesn’t see me. I am old, and I am used to this. If I were young, she might be afraid, or, if she were a different kind of girl, she might approach me, and I can still imagine what that might feel like, a strange woman making eye contact across a street, the smell of her as she came near.
As she passes by the courtyard where I am standing, the woman pauses – she is so close to me – and reaches out her fingers. For one moment I think she is reaching out to me and I almost extend my cigarette to her - but, she is only reaching out to touch the iron bars of the courtyard gate. “It’s open,” she tells the invisible person on the other end of the line. And then, “Hold on while I take a picture.” She pulls the phone away from her ear and holds it in front of her like a photograph she is examining – though it’s not a photo, not yet – and there is not the sound of the shutter clicking or the rasping flutter of a flush – there is just no sound at all when the image is captured, no sound but her own voice, which is telling her friend – man or woman, I can’t tell – “You should see the picture I just took in downtown Durham. Oh my god, you just have to see it.”