People who bitch about not having enough money to do anything fun usually have one thing in common--a lack of imagination. What I found most striking when I first moved to Durham was the social resourcefulness exercised by its inhabitants. With a never-ending circuit of house parties, happenings and impromptu get-togethers, anyone with a phone can have a social life. So for my wild week riding the Benjamin (singular), I made sure I included one free thing to do every day. I budgeted myself $12 a day except for Friday and Saturday, when I set aside a twenty for each. It's easy to get your kicks cheap in Durham as long as you don't tie your social life too tightly around the bloated belly of crass consumerism. Here's how your week might pan out:
Monday: Feed your brain
If you don't have enough cash to enjoy a dinner at some of the nicer places in town, your new best friend is the lunch special. Even places with dinner entrees over $20 offer a lunch special from $5 to $7. One place that really makes you feel like you're getting a bargain is Pao Lim Asian Bistro. You'll get the same great food they serve at dinner but for a third the price. Usually there's enough left to take home and snack on at 1 a.m.
Once you're back at work and trying to keep yourself from nodding off due to all the Pao Lim you just swallowed, take a moment to search the Web for your Monday activity: a free lecture or reading. The Indy's A&E calendar is usually full of such events. Some of the events at Duke don't advertise readily, so if you have the opportunity to sign up for an e-mail list, do it. My two personal favorite venues for quality free lectures are The Center for Documentary Studies and Duke's John Hope Franklin Center. With all the university- and nonprofit-sponsored events going on in Durham, it's hard to find a night that doesn't offer something worth going to.
After rubbing elbows with the intellectuals, it's time to put your blue collar back on. Head over to The Green Room for a couple of free games of shuffleboard and a couple of PBRs, or whatever beer is on special that night. Now go home; it's a school night.
Tuesday: Pedal for pork!
OK, having fun while poor requires not only imagination; variety is also a necessity. There's no surer way to wear out your favorite cheap dining spot than visiting it three days in a row. So, Southeast Asia yesterday--South America today. The Latin Grill downtown has several cheap lunch specials from all over Central and South America. A lot of people mistake this place as just another Mexican restaurant, but it's not. The food is much more subtle; nothing like the places that cover everything with gooey, orange cheese.
Shortly after the American Tobacco Trail opened for bicycling, I received an invitation in the mail from my friends Jason and Maura. It was pink and had a block print of a pig with wheels. I was being asked to join the "Pedal for Pork," a bicycle ride that started at the Durham Bulls Ballpark and went all the way to Dillard's Bar-B-Que on Fayetteville Street, then (slowly!) back again. If you haven't been to Dillard's, you really haven't been to Durham. In business since 1953, Southern barbecue doesn't get much more real than this. Picking and choosing on the serving line is the way to order, but you can also get dinners off the menu.
If you make it back downtown, pedal over to the Durham County Library and check out a couple of videos. It's no secret by now that the library scored the Carolina Theatre's video collection when they closed their rental store. As long as you don't want to see anything made in the last five years, you're good.
Wednesday: The art of living cheaply
Pack yourself a lunch today, unless you made it home with some barbecue from last night. Make yourself a sandwich with $1 day-old bread from Ninth Street Bakery. Yeah, they only do that on Wednesday, but go get some even if you don't need it and throw it in the freezer.
Mid-week is the perfect time to suck in some free culture. There have to be at least 20 museums, galleries and businesses that offer quality visual arts in Durham, mostly free of charge. Even places that do charge usually have free days. Wednesdays after 1 p.m., Durham County residents can wander through the Museum of Life and Science gratis. And when Duke's Nasher Museum of Art finally opens its doors, I'm looking forward to seeing world-class exhibits on whatever free day they choose (hint, hint). When looking for visual art exhibits, don't forget about coffee houses and restaurants. More and more are exhibiting quality work regularly. Fowler's even has a person dedicated to hanging shows.
Now prop your New York City rectangular glasses up on the bridge of your nose and sneak into Federal before the dinner crowd leaves and the drunker crowd shows up. Federal is a swank new bar that also serves light dinners. They have a very nice beer selection, and usually the special is a tasty microbrew.
Thursday: Release the hounds
Durham finally has a dog park. Of course, it's hidden away in suburban Woodcroft and is a pain in the ass for us downtowners to get to, but it's there and it's good. If you don't have a dog, borrow one. It's like watching a movie, but with slobber. And dog people... uh, very entertaining. You are supposed to get a tag for your dog from the city to use the park. All the information is on the Web site: www.durhamdogpark.org .
Round up the pooches and drop them back home in time to catch a film at the Carolina Theatre. If you can get to one before 7 p.m., it's $5.75, and it's always $5.50 with a student ID. Plus, you fill up one of those cards with five stamps and you get a freebie. Besides having the standard art-house releases, the Carolina does a good job of offering special screenings. I think a lot of Durhamites take the Carolina for granted, but I guarantee you'll sorely miss it if it goes away.
After the Swedish film you didn't understand is over, walk a block up to Joe and Jo's Downtown for the best burger in Durham and whatever beer is on special. A neighborhood bar with zero pretension, tended by the hardest-working couple in Durham, if you don't like this place you probably pinch puppies.
Friday: Carrot cake round midnight
Ah, the weekend. Time to plug that well-worn card into the ATM and pull yourself out a Fastcash $40. You deserve a long, leisurely lunch, but make sure to pick a place that will put some leftovers in the fridge for when you come home at 3 a.m. on Saturday night. This is a job for Chinese food. Specifically, Shanghai Chinese Restaurant. I don't think I've ever finished more than half of one of their lunch specials.
You'll still be digesting pot stickers when it's time to drive up Fayetteville Street for Jazz at the Know. Durham legend Brother Yusef Salem leads a group of rotating musicians in a three-hour session starting at 7 p.m. every Friday. The Know also offers a $6.95 buffet, which, in addition to the $5 cover, makes a hell of an evening for 12 bucks.
After Brother Yusef's set, take your remaining three bucks across town to Ooh La Latte and buy one of their monster slices of cake. It's at least enough for two people, maybe three. Getting a coffee will put you over budget, but you can't have cake without coffee.
Saturday: Rock and row
If you didn't tie one on Friday night, you might be able to get up in time to go to the Durham Farmers' Market. If there is a retail platform that qualifies as the anti-Wal-Mart, this is it. Take all your fresh produce and what-not home and pack a brunch. It's time to get out on the lake.
Drive north on Roxboro Road (U.S. 15-501) and take a right on Orange Factory Road. In a couple of miles you'll pass over Little River Reservoir; take your first right and stop at the boat landing. Anyone with a driver's license that has Durham as your home address can rent a rowboat for $4 a day. If you're not a Durham resident be prepared to part with another two dollars. If you want, you can fish from the boat without a license, because this lake is run by the city and not subject to state fish and game laws. If you want to launch your own boat, you'll need to head up Roxboro a few miles more, turn right on Bahama Road, and drive three or four miles to Lake Michie where private boat launching is allowed for a small fee.
After a day on the water, treat yourself to the best tacos in Durham. They're at Super Taqueria back down the other end of Roxboro before you hit Club Boulevard. Better brush up on your Spanish because this place is the real deal, and they're not looking to put up a Polaroid of you in a sombrero when it's your birthday. What makes this place so great is the condiment bar. You get your tacos--double tortillas and meat only--and then it's up to you to choose from about 20 different salsas, chopped veggies and pickled stuff, just like a street stall in Mexico. Two tacos and a medium horchata will set you back $4.
It seems only a short year or two ago you couldn't assume there would be a rock show on Saturday night in Durham. But it looks like the slump is over. Some weekends you'll actually have to (gasp) choose between two good shows. Just check the "8 days a week" listings in the Indy for Durham shows. Thanks to places like Ooh La Latte, Joe & Jo's and D.A.I. (or Mr. Shoe, as most of us stubbornly refer to it), Durhamites don't have to risk DWI's just to see music on Saturday night.
Sunday: and Dim Sum
And on the seventh day a little old man came around with a cart full of sticky pork buns. Dim Sum, for my money, is the best hangover food out there. You don't have to think; you just take what you want off the tray, leave what you don't want. You only eat as much as you want, and the teapot keeps getting refilled. I get my Dim Sum at Hong Kong Restaurant across from Grannies Panties on Guess Road. It's not the best I've ever had, but it's close (geographically), and on Sunday morning you want to make it as painless as possible.
Once your green tea cleansing is complete, drive out to West Point on the Eno and hike on the trail for about a mile and a quarter until you reach the old mill pond, a great swimming hole. We've got at least another month or two of swimming weather left; if you haven't gotten wet in a river this summer, you'd better do it now. The non-swimmers can always raid the compost heap for red worms and go fishing. A lot of people don't know that in North Carolina you can fish with live bait in your home county without a license.
By this point you'll be completely tapped out. But tomorrow is Monday, and another $100.