Early this month, Durham city officials announced they were considering a proposal to bottle and sell the city's tap water. To me, this is like the village of Chernobyl deciding to market its topsoil. Still, the folks down at City Hall are excited about the idea, which floated to the surface after Durham won first prize in a statewide contest sponsored by the American Waterworks Association.
I cannot account for the AWA, its standards or the reputation of its high officials. I do not wish to comment on the fallibility of taste tests, nor will I raise the specter of bribery, blackmail or back-hallway deals. Let me say, however, that having lived in Durham for 13 years; having wincingly drunk thousands of glasses of tap water; having lost precious aquatic pets to its ravages; having stood in my shower stall 4,745 mornings forgoing deep conditioners and loofah scrubs lest I linger too long and succumb to toxic steam; having watched the paint peel off my car, the hydrangea wither, the children's hair turn that weird green of Luna moths; in my opinion, the water is sucky.
(For disclosure's sake, I moved to central Orange County two years ago. However, I still work in Durham, and I still wincingly drink the water, and it is still sucky.)
Traditionally, tap water in Southern municipalities has tasted vaguely fishy. "Fecundish" is how one of my college friends described it, holding a glass in one hand and a Faulkner novel in the other. Even when municipalities manage to keep their reservoirs free of man-made pollutants, it's difficult in a subtropical climate to prevent a teeming, organic free-for-all. This is the evolu-biological point of water: It propagates.
Piped in from reservoirs in the northern reaches of the county, Durham water starts out fecundishly enough, but city water-treatment specialists proceed to disinfect, fumigate, purify and sanitize it to within an inch of its life. What you taste and smell in a glass of Durham tap water is the purifying agent chlorine--a caustic substance produced by the electrolysis of sodium chloride.
Chlorine is useful in killing the microscopic vermin that plague the human species. It's what keeps the swimming pool safe in the event of gastrointestinal mishaps; it burns the mildew off your shower curtain and makes your whites white. As a water purifier, chlorine can kick the butt of the average bacterium. But in high enough concentrations, it is none too kind to human skin, lungs and mucous membranes. And it tastes like bleach. I don't know what concentration of chlorine is outright dangerous, but I'd wager that Durham water pushes the parts-per-million envelope with every gallon it pumps. Which explains why Durham is such a natural market for water filters, and why bottled water--tucked into pocketbooks and backpacks, strollers and briefcases--has become a standard accessory for so many.
Wondering what these bottle-toters might think of Bull City agua, I conducted an informal survey on Ninth Street. The following is a typical exchange:
"What would you say to Durham bottling and selling its own tap water?"
"I'd say the city officials that want to do that are suffering from a serious nervous-system disorder, probably caused by drinking the water."
"What disorder is that?"
For the record, a significant subpopulation of West Durhamites expressed socio-ecologico-political angst that less-well-off people are forced to drink from the toxic tap while rich people get their drinking water shipped in from virgin Alpine streams. These people scoff at the very idea of reverse-osmosis purification and object to the bourgeoisieness of Quibell and Perrier. They wincingly drink city water as a matter of solidarity.
I've been reminded more than once in this job that the lifestyles, politics and hairstyles of West Durhamites do not represent the town as a whole, and that I'd do well to seek opinions from other corners of the city. In this case it was good advice, since surveys in central and east Durham yielded very different answers. These residents were likewise surprised that the city would sell its own tap water in a supermarket--not because the water is bad, but because the city expects people to pay good money for what flows pretty cheap from the average kitchen sink. Here is a typical interchange:
"What would you say to Durham bottling and selling its own tap water?"
"I'd say show me the person that buys it 'cause I've got land in the Great Cottonmouth Swamp I'm looking to sell."
Nobody knows yet what a bottle of city water would cost, but at the going rate of about $1 for a 20-ounce bottle, customers would be paying roughly 3,200 times what that same amount of water would cost from their own tap. Dee Washington, a Durham native I found buying steak sauce at a Roxboro Road grocery store, said he's been drinking water out of his tap for 70-some-odd years, and he hasn't picked out his pallbearers yet. "I might yet fall into the grave, though," he said, "if somebody in my family started buying what comes out the hose."
Personal apocalypse notwithstanding, Washington was not surprised by Durham's proposal, which he attributed to the city's "general uppityness."
"Nowadays," Washington said, "you got to keep up with the Raleighs and the Chapel Hills. I remember when Durham weren't nothing but a tobacco town, and it was uppity back then, too. Thought mighty highly of itself is what I mean to say. Durham always has been a town with some sass to it."
Durham does have the most resilient ego. I mean, this is a city with a lengthy rap sheet, a city that can't buy a break from its reputation for crime, bad schools, gangs, drugs, corruption and poor traffic flow. A city one News & Observer columnist routinely refers to as the "bald-headed stepchild of the Triangle."
And yet, in the face of it all, Durham swaggers. Years ago, when Durham was trying to lure the super-conducting super-collider, I overheard a business leader at a restaurant speculate hopefully that the super-collider folks would be unable to resist Durham's charms: barbecue and basketball. It's touching, really. While Triangle real estate agents steer newcomers away from Durham with horror stories about the city's struggling schools and treacherous streets, Durham proudly hustles itself, demanding Triple-A baseball, gentrifying its abandoned tobacco factories and growing giddy over a downtown renaissance that has been just around the corner for as long as anyone can remember. My own favorite magniloquence is an erstwhile logo of the public schools: "Building A World-Class System."
World class? It makes me think of this rooster that lives near our house. I'll call him Ishmael, since he's been exiled to the farthest reaches of the yard, there to peck at the dog's leftovers. Ishmael shares his yard with a brood of hens and a rival rooster I'll call Big Red. Big Red is the alpha rooster. His wattle is crimson, his tail feathers iridescent, his crow shrilly virile. By barnyard standards he's pretty buff, and the hens are forever craning their necks at him and submitting to the feather-flying attacks that constitute chicken sex.
Ol' Ishmael, on the other hand, can't get laid to save his scrawny neck. Still, whenever Big Red isn't watching, Ishmael peddles his wares--strutting and bobbing and chasing the mortified hens. Of course, he's the more interesting rooster; he's got life experiences, near misses with the local fox, battles with black snakes. He's got style, character.
So does Durham, which is why I always cringe when people predict a future surge in Durham's popularity. "One day," a developer once told me, "Durham is going to come into its own." He made note of plans for a central-city park, another tobacco-complex renovation. "Durham has the potential to grow the same way Cary has grown," he said. "But first the city has to come to terms with its image. It has to fix things, and a lot of people who live in Durham love it the way it is. In fact," and here he laughed in disbelief, "they think Durham is some kind of wonderful."
Which, of course, it is. The silver lining to Durham's uppityness is that it helps assure the status quo. As Dee Washington suggested, the city does think mighty highly of itself. Highly enough to promise world-class schools when the current system struggles with white flight. Highly enough to envision putting its own tap water up for sale beside Evian and Aquafina.
If the city weren't so full of sass, things might actually change. Durham might "fix" itself, "come into its own." I'd rather the city stay its fabulous self, an Ishmael far from the madding brood.