Monday, July 31, 2017

The Last Real Chapel Hill Summer

A warning last week from a Facebook friend that the students would be coming back in a couple of weeks to interrupt our summer-sleepy town once again reminded me of how much summers have changed around here since I got to town.

Okay, before I go any further, I do realize how cliche that sort of backward-looking is.  When I arrived as an incoming freshman in 1978 (interrupting someone else's sleepy summer), the following joke was already well-worn:
Q: How many Chapel Hillians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Five.  One to screw in the light bulb and four to reminisce about when Chapel Hill was still a village (alternately, four to talk about how great the old light bulb was).
So I know that any backwards look like this is inherently fraught with danger, but what the hell.  While it's true that summers do still slow down a bit around here, Chapel Hill has over the past 40+ years become more and more a bedroom and retirement community with the influence of the university waning as a result.  That doesn't mean that it is not still a college town by any means, but the percentage of residents that are directly associated with the U has dropped significantly.  As a result, the tides of the town don't ebb and flow as strongly as they once did.  The academic year of the U also seems to have fewer gaps than it once did, so there're no longer those nice long slow weeks between graduation and 1st summer school session, for example, where the town approached empty.

For me, the last real Chapel Hill summer was 1981.  The previous two summers I had spent back home in Charlotte, working for a custom cabinet maker in Mint Hill and sometimes working at the movie theater at Eastland Mall.  As I finished my junior year, I found a couple of campus jobs that would allow me to stay in town (we were paying for our apartment out at what was then Tar Heel Manor anyway).  My friend Lex, who was in the same year at Davidson, was going to come up as well and we planned to spend the summer getting up to no good.

I had managed to find a couple of jobs that basically allowed me to sit on my ass in air-conditioned comfort.  One was working the desk at Summer Conference Housing, which was at Morrison Dorm that year.  Every summer, groups would schedule various conferences in town to take advantage of the campus downtime and one of the dorms would be made available for cheap stays (there were VERY few hotel/motel rooms in Chapel Hill those days and the Carolina Inn was pretty much a dump).  I worked 3 nights a week from midnight to 7am, "working" primarily consisting of unlocking the door for late night revelers that had been wandering around looking for "the party" on Franklin Street (dude, it's summer - there is no "party".  Just you and your drunk JayCee buddies looking for the co-eds that are all back home in Wilson or Bryson City for the summer).  That was over by 2am and I spent the rest of the night reading the Playboys that the dorm subscribers had forgotten to stop or the romance novels that the day shift had left at the desk (that was my one and only experience reading Jackie Collins.  I still have the scars.).

The other job was sitting (again) at the remote computer room at Cobb Dorm.  There was a card reader for one of the campus mainframes (pretty sure it was an IBM 360/75 but could have been an IBM 370 by then) and three or four green-screen terminals that accessed the campus computers as well as TUCC (Triangle University Computing Center) that was shared by UNC, NCSU and Duke.  I was there to help folks with JCL (Job Control Language), make sure the card reader didn't get stuck, and not much else.

I was a bit transportation-challenged at the time.  I had an old Suzuki 185 that was stolen just before the start of summer, so a typical day was me busing in for a noon to 5pm shift at the computer room, busing back out to the apartment for a couple of hours of sleep, riding my bicycle back into town for my night shift at the dorm then riding back out at 7am past the cheerleading campers starting their early morning barking exercises in the Granville Towers parking lot.  Some days I'd be back on campus by noon the next day.

That kind of schedule also made for some long stretches of downtime, much of which was spent at what was then the brand-new Henderson Street Bar.  Tim Kirkpatrick (owner of the eponymous Kirkpatrick's) had just opened the place in the old Record Bar location and it still smelled of new wood rather than stale beer and old pee like other bars I frequented.  Those entering were greeted with the 8-Ball Deluxe pinball table admonishing them to "stop talking and start chalking" usually followed by someone hitting the jukebox for the 37th playing that day of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" (I was probably responsible for a dozen of them most days).  Side note: I didn't know Tim Kirkpatrick at the time but he sold us our Honda Fit at Crown Honda a couple of years ago.  Very nice guy.

There was also plenty of time to sleep during those 2-3 day periods where I didn't have a shift at either job or to go down to Sugar Lake and float around with a cooler full of cheap beer, catch movies, grab a dinner at Tijuana Fats and generally not worry about much of anything.  There wasn't a jug of cheap-ass red wine that was safe from us (or a restaurant menu that didn't have Lex' teeth marks on it).  I'm pretty sure that was the summer when I set my personal record of eating pizza for 7 straight meals.  Greg Humphreys/Hobex captured that type of summer perfectly with their song "Windows" - all you really needed was a friend with a car that had a working radio and windows that rolled down all the way.

Lex only lasted about a month, as I recall.  Day laborer was not in his make-up (mine either).  But one loss was made up for by a gain, when one of the daytime folks working the desk at Morrison said some guys coming in that afternoon mentioned seeing a motorcycle off in the woods beside the path behind the dorm.  Sure enough, someone had ripped the ignition wires out of my bike and had tried to start it pushing it down the hill.  A couple of days over at Motorcycle Supply and I had motorized independent transportation again.

Hell, looking back on it I might have thought I was bored at the time.  But in retrospect I was relaxed, for probably the last prolonged period of my life.  By the next summer I was working full-time at IBM while finishing up a last class during summer session and that was all she wrote.  For the next 35 years.

So I think we all ought to take a month each year and do Chapel Hill summer old school.  Take a sabbatical from our real job, hang out in the shade during the day, get lively when the sun goes down and it starts to cool off a bit, go hang out at He's Not Here all night and take a drive out into the county some afternoon with the windows down and the radio on.