The plan was simple: Spend a day in downtown Raleigh. See. Report.
I'm new to North Carolina. I hadn't spent much time in Raleigh, and with the new convention center opening, it was suggested that I explore downtown through a newcomer's eyes—much like a conventioneer.
I thought it would be important to find and/or do something distinctly Raleighian. Conventioneers will note that upon arriving at a registration desk, they usually are given a tote bag containing a variety of tchotchkes and a brochure or map guide of the city. These usually won't reveal much about the city itself, but this is, of course, the point. These guides are designed to keep a person trained on a certain path, lest they wander down the wrong street and see something that isn't manicured to the point of being uninteresting.
No way I'm doing that. Instead, this is how I spent an entire day wandering the dust-covered streets of downtown Raleigh, dodging men in white plastic hardhats and searching desperately for something worth remembering.
This is how I ended up standing in front of a large bronze statue of an acorn with a homeless man named Danny.
After pulling into what a recent News & Observer article told me was the city's newest parking deck, I have, due to my poor sense of direction, already gotten myself lost. I was attempting to locate the Museum of Natural Sciences. Instead, I found the Salvation Army. Dozens of homeless people line the street outside the building, sitting and chatting. Later in the afternoon, I met a boyish-looking man sitting astride a bike wearing the purple polo shirt of a Downtown Raleigh Alliance ambassador. He told me that his job primarily consists of keeping tourists happy. A happy tourist spends money. Part of keeping the tourists happy and spending money, he says, is preventing homeless people from bothering them.
When I meet Danny he's sitting on the sidewalk, eating an egg and cheese biscuit. He looks to be around 50 years old, but that could be due to accumulated wear from living on the street for the last 30 days, which I guess would leave anyone looking more severe. I ask him for directions and he balks. I'm wearing a tie. Danny doesn't trust men in ties. He is, however, in need of a light. I give him one and he takes a long drag from a gnarled cigarette.
For the next 15 minutes, we have a conversation about the city's revitalization efforts, mostly about his belief that black folks are being shut out of construction jobs in favor of Mexican workers. This, he says, is one of the contributing factors to his current living situation.
"I've been to almost every job site in the city," he says between bites. "I've had them tell me they'll get back to me in a week and then seen them hire some Mexicans right on the spot."
I ask him if the recent development projects downtown have brought any other types of jobs, ones that he might be better able to secure.
"Maybe," he says, "but you probably can't get any of them without an I.D. And you can't get an I.D. without an address. You can't an address without a job. And the jobs you can get won't pay for you to stay anywhere. So what the fuck you supposed to do?"
While Danny and I are having this discussion, we're interrupted by a woman who just moments previous had been lying on her back on a patch of grass nearby. She asks what I'm doing. I give her a cursory explanation and her eyes light up. She doesn't want to tell me her name but is otherwise quite forthcoming. Her recent divorce from a bigamist has left her unable to claim a vast cache of money. Her work in the occult has left her an outcast. Also, she knows of a place in downtown that I must see lest my trip end in failure. The price for her services as guide is 30 minutes with my cell phone.
My attempts to negotiate fail miserably, and she, visibly annoyed now, goes back to sitting on the grass. At this point I think it's worth pointing out that out of the dozen or so people I will talk to today about experiencing something that is unique to Raleigh, she will be the only one who is able to come up with a suggestion.
Danny shakes his head, and then leads me over to Moore's Square landmark, a large metallic acorn. "This the kind of thing you were talking about?" he asks.
I pause because I'm honestly not sure.
In the windows of Big Ed's restaurant, which is located in the tourist trap that is City Market Square, is a sign that reads "Where High Brow Culture Meets Biscuits and Gravy." It strikes me that this is something I'd seriously consider having etched on my tombstone. Intrigued, I go in and am escorted through a Cracker Barrel-esque dining area before being seated directly next to the group of middle-aged men I'd seen twice earlier in the day. In the morning I saw them exiting their hotel, and later walking from the history museum near the old State Capitol.
It's said that even in the largest cities you'll find yourself running into the same people, but I disagree. If in the span of three hours you can walk four blocks and see the same person three times, each time in a different location, then you live in a town, not a city.
After ordering a steak sandwich with collard greens, I overhear the men, now post-meal, speaking in tech jargon. They look to be the right demographic for convention attendees, and as it turns out, they actually are. All work for an information technology firm based in Kentucky. Today is the final day of the company's annual conference, which is being held outside the Bluegrass state for the first time.
I ask them how Raleigh stacks up to the previous conference sites.
They spend a moment exchanging silent glances before one finally says, "Hey man, it beats the hell out of Louisville."
My subsequent visits to Raleigh will reveal that the Shimmer Wall, located on the facade of the convention center, is far more impressive from a distance. But standing directly in front of it for the first time, it looks more ordinary than I think was intended—kind of like parts of the city itself.
As in many a Southern city not named Atlanta, there is an effort in Raleigh to revitalize, to become a destination—much like Atlanta. The Shimmer Wall is part of that effort. As I walk away, I begin to wonder whether the purpose of public art is to exist for its own sake, or to distract from the rest of the skyline. I try speaking to a few pedestrians about it, but none seems to want to talk.
After being rejected twice I conclude that the wall has either already become old hat, or that some of these people don't know it's there. Then I decide that the whole question is pretentious and try and find a place where I can get a decent beer.
I arrive just after happy hour and the bar is packed. I'm told by a waitress that the seating is first come, first served. I outmaneuver a family of five for the last open table, after which the couple's youngest daughter shoots me as dirty a look as an 8-year-old can muster.
"This is the place that Obama came to have a beer, so the cool thing to do now is to go to Raleigh Times and have a PBR," explains one of my recently arrived colleagues.
Somewhere in America, there's a place that has suddenly become cool because John McCain showed up one day to drink a beer.
I order a fried shrimp sandwich and a microbrew, followed by a shot of whiskey. The sandwich because I'm starving, the microbrew because I can't resist a beer called "Mad Bitch," and the whiskey to stave off the feeling that just by being here I've become a Buppie.
Back on Fayetteville Street, a group of people mill about outside The Big Easy. It is the only restaurant on the main downtown strip displaying any signs of life. I stop and ask a man in a gray three-piece suit what is going on.
The peak of the RBC tower has just been lit, he says, taking a sip of red wine. The 15 or so men and women gathered outside the restaurant are company higher-ups, many of whom I presume work near the top floors of the building. The significance of the moment is lost on me, but to the well-moneyed group craning their necks toward the sky, this seems like the culmination of what I imagine was a long and expensive effort.
After a few moments, a man standing near the back of the pack says, apropos of nothing, "We're locked and loaded."
The city of Raleigh is apparently locked and loaded. At what point does it go off?