i'm not spatial or anything
bec's sister leila and her menschfreund sebastian (pictured above) bought an old, rundown mill house in a small town called burlington about 40 minutes from durham. the house is the last on a lane of perhaps a dozen similar structures, the former domiciles of mill workers and their families. the mill stands on a riverbank at the end of the road, just a short walk from home. but no sign of the company sto'.
about ten years ago a local preservation society had the lil' mill town declared a historical site, and they've been encouraging people to fix 'em up while maintaining their old, quaint character by offering the houses and plots of land for the reasonable price of $20-30k. of course, the fixing up in some cases will cost at least as much as the buying price. (quite a boon for lowe's, home depot, and local contractors.) in leila's and sebastian's case, there is a hell of a lot of work to do. the house hasn't been lived in for fifty years. the wood is mostly rotten, the foundation supremely shady. but the place is damn cute and no doubt has potential.
(raise the roof--before those trees give out.)
leila and sebastian have undertaken this gigantic project to give them a bit of concrete (actually, wooden) relief from their gigantic academic projects over the next couple years. an admirable undertaking for its sheer ambition--never mind that they have decided to do the home-improvement pretty much all by themselves, save for some consulting courtesy of a local contractor and an occasional donation of several days labor from family and friends (usually repaid with BBQ and beer, which is fine by me).
due to bad lighting and forgetting to take pictures, i don't have shots (yet--i think there's a documentation site in the works) of the holes in the roof, the cracked beam and sagging north side of the house, or the gaping rift in the kitchen wall. but the shape of the outhouse--which must also be reconstructed and 'preserved' (and which will make a great spot for a moonshine still)--gives a sense of the challenge that this project presents:
my best shots are perhaps those that depict the curious and ubiquitous nests created seemingly some time ago by mud wasps. though i didn't see many mud wasps while working on the house, their tracks were everywhere, making me wonder how pesty they will be when the season is right. in the following shot, you can see the way they affixed their nests to a flue that previously stood in the ceiling of the bedroom (which seems like quite a distance to travel for a mud-slinging wasp):
check the detail:
pretty creepy, in the classical sense. but you can't choose your neighbors.
speaking of neighbors, i got quite a kick out of the north carolina accent, which is not so deep-south as to prove forbidding for as avid an accent accruer as i. by the end of the week, becca was looking forward to returning to cambridge where i would be less tempted to pronounce my i's as ah's and put a vague twang on everything else. (my poor aunt who has lived in NC for six years now is verging precipitously toward ah-ing her entire vocabulary, her r's having been turned to ah's by a boston upbringing.) unfortunately, accents are generally difficult to reproduce on the page; their phonemic twists too subtle for this alphabet. even so, i am still turning over in my mind and on my tongue one very memorable phrase from the past week.
while talking to a contractor working in the same old-mill complex, we were treated to a couple stories about the "stupid" things that people do sometimes--probably prompted by an acknowledgment of all the very stupid things one can do while (re)building a house. the contractor prefaced these stories with the intriguing qualifier, "i'm not racial or anything." which one usually takes to mean, "i'm going to make some remarks that could be interpreted as racist, but i am not a racist." of course, i was amused by the way the guy mis-spoke, for it could very well be that he's not so much racist as racial(ist). of course, the two are very related and can slip back and forth between each other: the former reliant on the latter, the latter enabling the former. in the end, i'm not sure which he was, and maybe the distinction is not important. he went on to tell us about two incidents in which he saw four men in a car holding down large objects on the roof--a mattress in one case, sheets of sheet-rock in the other--with just their hands. precarious predicaments, and possibly perilous. the "racial" part of the stories was that one group of men was black, the other mexican. clearly, these identifiers were superfluous to the stories. duh--one finds stupid people of all stripes. that the contractor found it necessary to employ "racial" terms as salient identifiers--and, by implication, explanatory factors--suggests to me anyway, that he most definitely is "racial." or something.
it was innocuous enough, i suppose. but these are the very exchanges--at the level of everyday language and common sense--that reinforce the concepts that underlie racism. of course, none of us challenged him on it. just a little nervous laughter and some general agreement about the stupidity of such acts (with, of course, no affirmation of his stereotypes, aside from our taciturnity about them). you have to choose your battles, i guess. a snarky, deconstructive comment like, "ha! mexicans and blacks are so stupid!" would probably have done little to change this guy's ideas about the world, though perhaps they would have challenged his assumptions somewhat (at least about which white folks would want to hear such shit). at any rate, i decided that it would be best not to piss-off my sister-in-law's neighbors before she even moves in. ah, pragmatism.
my other favorite phrases of the week allow me to feel a little bit better about my interactions in this complex social space we call the US. they both were uttered at a salvadoran restaurant in durham where we had some hearty dinner one night after spending the day tearing-up floor boards. the first is unremarkable as a phrase, except that it symbolizes the larger exchange which i found rather interesting. our waitress came to the table and said, "como estan ustedes? que quieren tomar?" and some other things in spanish. she didn't speak a word of english to us the entire time. i really enjoyed this, not just because it allowed me to practice my limited espanol but because it seemed to express a certain kind of confidence about (spanish-speaking) immigrants' sense of place in north carolina. or at least in their own places of business in north carolina. (and apparently, the mexican/latin-american community in NC is burgeoning.) the burden was on us to fit in--not unlike, say, in a french restaurant--and it really wasn't much of a burden. it's pretty easy to point to what you want and mumble "dos dos equis." we never had a communication problem. the food was excellent. and no one drove up with a bunch of sheet-rock on the roof.
the other phrase that i've been repeating to myself came when the two troubadores who were making the rounds from table to table approached us and asked, in english, what kind of song we would like to hear.
what they actually said was, "would you like to hear a happy song or a romantic song?"
given such a provocative set of choices, we asked for a romantic song. afterwards, they played a happy song. meanwhile, daddy yankee was on the television above the bar. and i realized, looking at the flags on the wall, that el salvador obviously refers to jesus. duh. also, my fried tilapia was muy tasty, and my aching bones appreciated the dos dos equis as much as my aching head appreciated the espanol and live music.