The skyline of many American cities, formerly cut solely by grand monuments of production and finance, now share the space with the creepy specter of immense new detention facilities. Communities whose incarceration needs were once served by single floors in a county building have financed and constructed towering stand-alone structures, massive monolithic structures housing the two million-plus failures of the American experiment--and a pathological national craze to punish.
Durham is no different. The cream and galvanized metal jail cube dominates the skyline as much as some other Chamber of Commerce friendly city icons like the CCB building.
This summer, when one drives north on Roxboro Street under the grand old concrete railroad bridge, the sight of the detention facility gives away to the towers of uplink trucks shimmering in the rising July heat--jousting lances lacking only royal banners of the various houses of nooz nobility: CBS, ABC.
There are levels of influence: the rarified strata of the principals of prosecution, defense, defendant, witnesses and experts; the pundits of the national Mass Media; the local daily newspapers on down to the small fry--us. And finally, the service sector grunts of the infotainment infrastructure who load the trains that supply America's lust for vicarious tragedy.
Consider the freelance AV Court TV technician. These guys are interested in few aspects of the Peterson case except audio level and camera trim. When Vinnie Politan, the face of CourtTV, is prepped for his appearances-- fussed and fretted over, handed water, made up, lavaliere miked--the fellas have to scramble. But most of the time there is absolutely nothing for them to do but sweat in the heat.
We wandered up one simmering morning and I heard the crisp clear notes of a live instrument, a Dobro it was. Roger, the lean, weathered country boy eight hours from his home in Georgia was picking away under the Court TV circus tent.
"Nice," said I. The instrument looks new . "I didn't know you played."
"Oh yeah, man. Lotta hours here with nothin' to do." I looked around and there were instrument cases scattered about I had previously failed to notice: mandolins, guitars.
"Shoot, you've got a whole string band here."
"It's just something we do."
I got an idea--a big ole Triangle howdy-do for the guys. "Lookie here. Y'all ain't got much to do in the evenings, right?"
Roger gave a pained look. Life on the road in a strange town is a living version of Willie Nelson's "Hello Walls."
I live with a bunch of musicians, bluesmen mostly. Josh and Turner have provided a stellar service for Raleigh, serving as impresarios for the "Josh and Turner Blues Jam" every Wednesday downtown at the Berkeley Cafe. I explained the setup for the jam. "Whyn't come on down to Raleigh and sit in. The Court TV All-Stars. Nice ring, don't you think?"
"It's mostly a blues thing, but heck, they've had knuckle-dragger metal acts. You'll be fine."
It's not that there's not a lot to do in Durham--there are about a half-dozen jazz and music clubs within a short walk of the courtroom where Jim Hardin Jr. is trying to put Michael Peterson in jail for the rest of his life. It's just that Durham seems to be its worst enemy in courting a nightlife, as it is with so many other things--like seeing its crime rate and police department's dirty laundry hung out in front of a national audience while a newspaper columnist and mayoral candidate is put on trial for murder.
"The deputies told us not to go to far away from the court house"--not the greatest PR and reminiscent of Barney Fife's street-savvy observations about Raleigh, the "nekkid city, folks eatin' peaches, reading' newspapers--go, go, go."
"I ought to have brought my gun from all I've heard," allows Roger.
All week when we arrive at the courthouse, we pause and listen, they are there under the tent working up a repertoire of the three songs allowed.
Olason ups the ante and sets up a meal for the fellas before their Josh and Turner debut, courtesy of his Thai boarder, Woody Chaimongkol, a wonderful artist, who back in the old country did what it took to make it, from police jungle patrols to running a restaurant.
Olason owns a house that is admirably suited for entertaining--high ceilings and generous southern-style porches upstairs and down. And that's where we were, lounging, when the long, white, windowless, van idled down the darkened street. I know a crew van when I see one, so I holler and soon there is a string band coalescing on the front porch. Jody Stillwell, from Mineral Bluff, Ga., the uplink operator, extracts from the van a full-sized acoustic bass, illustrating one advantage to crew work: room to take your hobbies along.
There's also Frank Rider, camera and guitar, and Joe Radler, the sound guy who plays mandolin, both from Charlotte; and sound tech Roger Robinson from Jasper, north of Atlanta, who has a dual task--guitar and Dobro.
They are 1099s--subcontractors working the southeast for Talking Rock Productions, contracted to Court TV. That makes them one of several teams of hired guns toiling for a network devoted to the only stable business in the country--crime and punishment.
So it's beers and a little light warm-up pickin' on the porch, the gut bass plonking away on the heavy old porch serving as a sounding board, the wistful cry of the Dobro echoing off the dark trees. And what brought us all together, an accident of job, geography and a murder, begins to shimmer and fade--irrelevant as a distant war.
Soup! Soup! Life and death and soup. Woody has prepared a fine noodle soup: a light chicken broth into which one spoons sprouts, spices, cubed meat, noodles. The ingredients cook in the stock and the house is filled with a wonderful aroma--a little home-cooked Thai dinner for some regular guys a long way from home. We all get to know one another, where we are from and what we do, the exchanges given a theater different from one of a court proceeding.
At the Berkeley things are heating up, the usual gang trading licks on stage--smokin'. The fellas are grooving on the music, looking a little nervous being a follow-up act for the cats burnin' up the stage.
Then there is a role reversal of sorts. Instead of setting mikes and lights and being behind the scenes, Two Cats (the name an old southernism "sounds like two cats fightin'") are front and center. And God bless 'em, considering Jody's been playing his bass for two whole days and Joe's mandolin is being run through the kick-drum mike, they sound surprisingly good. They run through an '80s guitar thing, a workmanlike cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow," and then Roger, a veteran of the clubs north of Atlanta, leads a really fine walking blues country tune. The Berkeley crowd is supportive, whistling and stomping.
Their set over, the CourtTV posse, me, Olason head for the door. There's court tomorrow and we all have to get a good night's sleep. Out in the parking lot behind the Berkeley, the night is like satin, mockingbirds and katydids making a chorus of their own. It is a perfect night of music and food--and then I turn and am brought back to the world by Raleigh's version of the Durham jail--the John Baker Law Enforcement Building--looming into the damp night--the only difference between me and the tenants perhaps a wrong decision or just plain bad luck.