“John told the salesman at a Home Depot in Durham that the chain was for a porch swing, the concrete block for a step to the utility building in his back yard. The backpack and sleeping bag he purchased without explanation at an R.E.I. in Raleigh, the inflatable plastic raft, foot pump, and two-piece paddle at Walmart. He made up the name Jimmy Ray Gallup and, at a Goodwill in Mebane, picked out a hoodie, a navy T-shirt, work pants, and boots that Jimmy Ray Gallup would wear. He bought the toolbox and three padlocks from an Ace Hardware in Pittsboro. He paid cash for everything and threw the receipts away in trash cans outside the stores. He bought nothing in Chapel Hill….”
— Opening paragraph of “Backpack,” short story by Tony Earley in the current The New Yorker
Though born in San Antonio, Texas, Earley grew up in Rutherfordton, studied English at Warren Wilson College and worked news at the Thermal Belt News Journal in Columbus and the Daily Courier in Forest City.
” ‘I don’t know that Trump has historical awareness at all,’ Fitzhugh Brundage, the chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me…. ‘I’ve had any number of colleagues say they feel recommitted and energized to do what they do, because of its very importance now.’
“Brundage told me that he has fought against ‘fake history’ for decades; in the 1980s, he often heard bizarre claims related to Pearl Harbor — that Franklin Roosevelt intentionally allowed the Japanese to attack or tried suppressing information about a potential attack and whether it would bring the U.S. into the war. ‘Every now and then Reagan made weird statements, like having been there when they liberated concentration camps,’ Brundage said. ‘But that may have been the onset of Alzheimer’s. All of which is to say: I’ve dealt with fake history before, but not sustained by a President adding to it.’ ”
— From “Teaching Southern and Black History Under Trump” by Charles Bethea in the New Yorker (Feb. 2)
This just in: yet another contribution to the archives of fake history….
“The change had taken place gradually, practically invisibly. Michael Jordan was no longer cool.”
— From “How Air Jordan Became Crying Jordan” by Ian Crouch in the New Yorker (May 11)
“For some years, I’m now prepared to admit, I somehow labored under the impression that Rocky Mount is the line of demarcation that separates the two principal schools of North Carolina barbecue. Wrong. The line of demarcation is….”
— From “In Defense of the True ’Cue: Keeping pork pure in North Carolina” by Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker (Nov. 2)
Who but the peripatetic Trillin could quote in a single (if lengthy) article not only such regional stalwarts as John Shelton Reed, Doug Marlette, Dennis Rogers and Jerry Bledsoe, but also Ada Louise Huxtable?
Kim Severson, Atlanta-based food reporter for the New York Times, calls it “a deceptively simple story about heat and meat…. I defy anyone but the staunchest vegetarians and kosher keepers to not want a pork sandwich after they read it.”
“Thomas Kunkel’s biography adds some telling details to what [Joseph] Mitchell’s readers already know about his childhood as the eldest son of a prosperous cotton and tobacco grower in North Carolina. Perhaps the most striking of these is Mitchell’s trouble with arithmetic—he couldn’t add, subtract, or multiply to save his soul—to which handicap we may owe the fact that he became a writer rather than a farmer. As Mitchell recalled late in life:
You know you have to be extremely good at arithmetic. You have to be able to figure, as my father said, to deal with cotton futures, and to buy cotton. You’re in competition with a group of men who will cut your throat at any moment, if they can see the value of a bale of cotton closer than you. I couldn’t do it, so I had to leave.
“Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina [1925-29] without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one….”
— From “The Master Writer of the City” by Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books (April 23)
But the reddest meat in Kunkel’s “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker” is the revelation of how much fiction Mitchell infused into such classic works as “Joe Gould’s Secret” and “Up in the Old Hotel.” (“Does It Matter?” some ask.)
Earlier: Kunkel on Mitchell’s Fairmont roots.
“In one of his more notable generosities back in Washington [as editor of the City Paper], he purchased copies of Joseph Mitchell’s ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ for the entire staff. He signed mine, ‘To Jelani, This will show you the way.’ Not quite. That was a distinction that belonged largely to him.”
— From “Postscript: David Carr (1956-2015)” by Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker (Feb. 13)
I was pleased — if momentarily surprised, given their generational divide — to see that Joe Mitchell’s admirers included David Carr, the irreplaceable, too-soon-gone New York Times media writer.
Coincidentally, the New Yorker this week published the last fragment of Mitchell’s never-finished memoir, in which he reflects on “a hodgepodge of pasts,” including “the past of a small farming town geographically misnamed Fairmont down in the cypress swamps and black gum bottoms and wild magnolia bays of southeastern North Carolina, a town in which I grew up and from which I fled as soon as I could but which I go back to as often as I can and have for years and for which even at this late date I am now and then all of a sudden and for no conscious reason at all heart-wrenchingly homesick….”
“It’s ridiculous how often you have to say hello on Emerald Isle. Passing someone on the street is one thing, but you have to do it in stores as well, not just to the employees who greet you at the door but to your fellow-shoppers in aisle three. Most of the houses that face the ocean are rented out during the high season, and, from week to week, the people in them come from all over the United States. Houses near the sound are more commonly owner-occupied. They have landscaped yards, and many are fronted by novelty mailboxes. Some are shaped like fish, while others are outfitted in cozies that have various messages — ‘Bless Your Heart’ or ‘Sandy Feet Welcome!’ — printed on them.
“The neighborhoods near the sound are so Southern that people will sometimes wave to you from inside their houses. Workmen, hammers in hand, shout hello from ladders and half-shingled roofs. I’m willing to bet that the local operating rooms are windowless and have doors that are solid wood. Otherwise, the surgeons and nurses would feel obliged to acknowledge everyone who passed down the hall, and patients could possibly die as a result.
“While the sound side of the island feels like an old-fashioned neighborhood, the ocean side is more like an upscale retirement community. Look out a street-facing window on any given morning and you’d think a Centrum commercial was being filmed. All these hale, silver-haired seniors, walking or jogging or cycling past the house. Later in the day, when the heat cranks up, they purr by in golf carts, wearing visors, their noses streaked with sunblock. If you were a teen-ager, you likely wouldn’t give it much thought, but to my sisters and me — people in our mid- to late fifties — it’s chilling. That’ll be us in, like, eight years, we think. How can that be when only yesterday, on this very same beach, we were children?…”
— From “Leviathan: Ways to have fun at the beach” by David Sedaris in The New Yorker (Jan. 5)
“There is a newspaper published in Lumberton, which is the largest town in Robeson County and the county seat, named the Robesonian. It is an old paper — it was a hundred years old several years ago — that prints news from all over the county. Shortly after I came to New York City, I subscribed to the Robesonian, out of homesickness, and I still subscribe to it; it is as necessary to me and as much a part of my life as the New York Times….”
— From “Days in the Branch: Remembering the South in the city” by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker (Dec. 1)
In this second and apparently final chapter of Mitchell’s unfinished memoir, he happens onto the 1790 census and finds countless names he still sees on trips back to Robeson County — “on the fronts of stores and filling stations and sawmills and cotton gins and tobacco warehouses and on the sides of trucks and on roadside mailboxes and on miscellaneous roadside signs.”
His deep dive into the minutiae-packed pages of the Robesonian will stir nostalgia in anyone who has ever subscribed to a small-town paper.
Here’s an excerpt from a previous chapter in The New Yorker.
“Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, fans thronged Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium for the Army-Navy football game…. The game was frequently held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and just as visiting fans were showing up the day before, holiday shoppers also would descend on downtown…. The cops nicknamed the day of gridlock Black Friday, and soon others started to do the same….
“Retailers worried the phrase would scare people away….. A few decades later, when the term came to describe a day when retailers’ ledgers shifted ‘into the black’ for the year — a connotation also pushed by marketers — people assumed that had always been the connotation.
“That idea never made sense to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an amateur etymologist. ‘Since when was “Black Friday” ever used in a positive manner?’ she wrote in an e-mail. She searched for the earliest uses of the phrase, finally landing on [the Philadelphia] reference, a discovery Taylor-Blake reported to the listserv of the American Dialect Society….
“Puncturing the myths surrounding Christmas, even cynically manufactured ones, can make a person feel like the Grinch, but Taylor-Blake hasn’t suffered. ‘I’m fortunate that family, friends, and co-workers I’ve shared this story with are, like me, skeptical at heart,’ she said. She doesn’t care much for shopping; on Black Friday, she plans to stay home.”
— From “”Everything You Know about Black Friday is Wrong” by Amy Merrick in the New Yorker (Nov. 28)
“In bluegrass circles, it is being called ‘The Moment,’ and some of the people who saw it wept. I heard about it from Gillian Welch. It involved the master guitar player Tony Rice, who was giving a speech late last month in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the occasion of being inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame.
“Rice, who is sixty-one [and lives in Reidsville], is a revered figure in bluegrass…. He released his first record in 1973, and the shadow of his articulate and forceful style falls across the playing of nearly all other bluegrass guitarists. If you play bluegrass guitar, you have to come to terms with Rice the way portrait photographers have to come to terms with Avedon….”
— From “An Astonishing Moment from a Bluegrass Legend” by Alec Wilkinson at newyorker.com (Oct. 14, 2013)
Wilkinson, a New Yorker staff writer since 1980, has also written appreciatively about North Carolinians Doc Watson and Garland Bunting.