lux et libertas


Chapel Hill, NC

Thomas Wolfe wrote “you can’t go home again,” and he should know: he used to live in Chapel Hill. Really, the only way to deal with this place is to have a sense of Infinite Elasticity, to look upon the town as a living organism that sheds its limbs – even useful ones – en route to its future.

This town forgets you the minute you leave, like a lover that has moved on to another boyfriend. “What about all the good times?” you plead, “What about doing Dead Nazi shots at Molly Maguire’s and flirting with Kelly McElheny on the 6th floor of the Graduate Library?” And the town pauses briefly and asks, “What was your name again?”

Why people continue to have businesses on Franklin Street elude me. Besides Sutton’s Drug Store (1924), Pepper’s Pizza, Ye Olde Waffle House and the various places that sell Tar Heel paraphernalia, every other vendor totters on the precipice of extinction. Shit, even the Gap couldn’t make it here. They should have taken a cue from Schoolkids Records (still extant) and changed their seasons more rapidly.

One such storefront housed my favorite place in Chapel Hill: Barrel of Fun, the arcade with everything, including Chiller (Jon Vaden’s fave), the Cyclone pinball machine, and even Track & Field. Being a pianist, nobody could beat me at Track & Field, and I was pretty fucking good at Paperboy as well.

Of course, the bottom fell out of that market (like it does for everything except razors) and it was replaced with a rapid succession of unworthy stores, none lasting for more than a semester, it seemed. Then the coffee craze hit Chapel Hill with the same caffeine-induced mania it hit every other college town, and the property became Judges (an upscale coffee joint), replaced by The Roastery (an upscale coffee joint) and is now being replaced by Jack Sprat (an upscale coffee joint).

Which leads most scientific-minded souls to wonder what Jack Sprat will have to offer that Judges and The Roastery didn’t (macadamia nut syrup?), but us long-timers know it’s just a matter of time before it’s replaced by Dante’s Latt├ęs (an upscale coffee joint), followed by The Frothery (an upscale coffee joint) and Uncle Fuckwad’s Cock Palace (an upscale coffee joint).

O, when will these merchants learn? The only places that will stay on Franklin Street is the post office and the Starbucks. Everything else will drift off into the ether, replaced by places that sell wraps, or smoothies, or juiceries, or trinkets or muffins. And these, too, will pass as quickly as they come.

You can’t get wistful when recalling your times past in Chapel Hill, or else you will be backed over by the Nostalgia Dumptruck. Nothing will ever stay the same. Trees fall, friends are long gone, and if you don’t make some new memories, your old one will start to smell bad. Remain pliable, as it is your only defense in the fickle world of your best recollections.


Franklin St., Chapel Hill, NC – circa 1890

0 thoughts on “lux et libertas

  1. jon

    Funny thing is, I couldn’t remember a single thing about “Chiller” — or that it had been my favorite — until I clicked on the link you were kind enough to provide. Then it all came gushing back to me. So does that prove your Nostalgia Dumptruck theory?

  2. Dave

    I always thought they should name it “Barrel of Coffee” but no one ever listens to me.
    You should call people you have only met once in a drunken haze when you are in town. well, at least your lovely wife should look up her old friend who is now the lovely wife of someone you only met once in a drunken haze.

  3. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Thanks for the post today. I miss Chapel Hill! The last time I visited was a trip with my husband back before our daughter was born — at least 6 years ago. I found myself saying over and over again, “This used to be that” and “that used to be this” and “Where did this building come from?” Occasionally I check out Carolina’s website, and judging by all the new buildings and South Campus construction, I don’t think I will even recognize the place the next time I travel that way.

  4. CL

    I’ve never been there, but I wanted to say that that was so beautifully written. “Tottering on the precipice…” I know I’ve said this a few times recently. I guess it just means I can’t wait to read a book from you. I know, I know, easier said than done.

  5. kevin

    Tom Wolfe was right, you can’t go home again. i lived in CHill from 79 to 86.. I go there now and I hardly recognize it.
    I hated the 80’s there.. that was when everyone started spending a lot of money trying to make the town look as it did in the early 70s…. I think they missed the point.
    I ate at Crooks a couple of weeks ago.. the first time i had eaten there since the first dinner with my future wife. Being from eastern NC, I had to try the BBQ hoping that the current chefs had managed to retain their expertise with swine in the face of haute cuisine. Alas.. I was very disappointed as the local art has been passed on to the Barbeque Joint. I should have gone with the shrimp and grits. Happy New Year everyone.

  6. Aimee

    Ah, Crooks Corner! The best brunch…and definitely the shrimp and grits is the thing to order. Any time I am down in North Carolina (sadly, only every few years), I try to go there.
    Ian, you capture that “can’t go home again” feeling so well. As a Dukie, my Chapel Hill visits were only occasional (and mostly drunken and hazy, but I remember it fondly.
    It may be cheesy and trite, but I hear the song “Carolina in my Mind” in the background as I read this post…

  7. Bozoette Mary

    I feel the same way about College Park, MD. Hungry Herman’s? Gone. The Vous? Gone. The Sixth Sense? The Joint Possession (yup, a head shop)… gone, gone, gone.
    And every succeeding class will eventually feel the same way about their own special places, too. Small comfort, I guess.

  8. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    You know, I was backed over by the Nostalgia Dumptruck during a visit in the early 90’s to Chapel Hill. My good friend and I stopped by Manly Dorm, where we met during our freshman year. The Dorm had been renovated. Renovated so much in fact that my old room no longer existed! The whole first floor was gutted, remodeled, and the room was gone. The room in which my roommate and I laughed, cried, stressed and slept was obliterated. For all I know, Manly Dorm is not a dormitory at all anymore. Perhaps I should refer to myself as Laurie from the Building Formerly Known as Manly Dorm!
    Anyway, I was at Carolina from August 1986 through May 1990. I was there before I had ever heard of a Starbucks, before email, before the Internet, before cell phones. . . I am really feeling like a dinosaur. I think that the whole college experience is so different now! Ugh. When did we get so old?

  9. Piglet

    It’s gotten so that when I go back east to visit my parents, everything other than the house I grew up in is like a foreign country. Zero connection.
    I’ve discovered at last the silver lining of having had a lousy childhood and an adolesence that was one long scream. I don’t have twinges of missing any of it, ever.

  10. Ruby Sinreich

    A.) The Gap left because they already had a new store at Southpoint, not because they couldn’t make it on Franklin Street. But good riddance to them anyway.
    B.) As for Starbucks, this too shall pass.
    C.) I don’t know why anyone thinks we need yet another upscale coffee joint in southern Orange County. There’s another one opening at the corner of Rosemary, Franklin, and Main Street in Carrboro. Why?
    D.) You are not forgotten, Ian. There are at least two or three of us that remember you fondly once in a while when bitching about how much the DTH still sucks. ;}
    P.S. Hi, N’Gai! I miss “dialoging” about Cornel West and bell hooks in AfAm seminar…

  11. Dan

    Actally the Roastery became Strongs which i sapparently becomin Jack Sprat’s
    going back to CH is always a weird feeling


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