The South is woven with small towns. Each with history, good stories and a couple of mysteries. I find myself drawn to these places because of my roots in a small town.
One that I left to find my life in the larger world.
I recently traveled to Hamlet NC with my niece Michelle Murphy who knew of it’s history. The town is perhaps best know for the infamous plant fire that killed 25 workers in 1991. Michelle had met some of the survivors when they toured the North East seeking safety reforms for plants. She wanted to see the actual site of the fire, now only marked by a small monument.
Hamlet looked like a town just barely hanging on, with faded buildings and empty storefronts. The most notable feature was the train tracks running north and south. We were both surprised to learn it was the birthplace for the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane (nicknamed TRANE). I wondered about how much this small place influenced his music and life. At an early age, he took the train north first to Hickory NC then to Philadelphia where he bought his first saxophone.
He played with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, became famous for his own play. That play helped lead to new horizons in music called “free jazz” and “modes jazz.” For a time he fell into dark times fueled by maybe too many dark nightclubs and hotels, spiked by addiction. He rebounded though turning his music toward faith and love for God. It culminated in the album, “A Love Supreme.”
It all took me back to my roots. How small towns linger in you, even if you move away. How when you meet those who stayed behind, you wonder what life would have been like if you had. The foundation of yourself is closer in these places. One you can always come back to. I wonder if TRANE, in his dark times, thought back to his roots and if it helped him blow new notes for his life…
“When you take a photo, always look behind you. The best photo is often there…” Francis Zera, Photographer
The same can be said for city wandering. The 7th Street stop on the Blue Line in Charlotte is where the public market is. It draws you in and is a gateway to walk the city core.
One day I turned the other direction, seeing an iconic building in the distance. Small city gifts awaited the exploring of this place “Behind You.”
As I walked toward the building, a lovely park stretched before me, 1st Ward Park. Expansive and new, it provided a frame for the building I saw in the distance. A modern building with floors jutting out in different directions and an iconic silence about it.
I found it was the UNC graduate building. Perhaps the architect thought of great ideas springing in every direction from the quiet studies there. In the lobby, the Projection Gallery displayed work from the art students at UNC. The sun flowed into the windowed building, warming me from my chilly walk. There I enjoyed a wonderful bagel shop, letting the brightness bath me.
Across the street was a small coffee shop, in an non descript block building, called Layers. It held many small treasures and good coffee. The owner Caleb pushed open one of the shelves to expose his design studio in the adjoining room. Turns out he designed clothing and media. It was great to see this found difference in a city of same.
Walking back to the Blue Line, I spotted an old building with artful texture that captured my camera’s eye. It always pays to look behind…
I hurried into the drug store, just needing one item. Already late for an appointment, I found my way blocked by a girl sitting on the floor with large boxes of sunglasses spread all around. She looked like a supplier restocking the racks. I could have moved around her, but I was in a hurry. Asking her to move her boxes, she got up and politely moved them, smiling slightly in the effort. I gave it no further thought as I passed by without a word. Grabbing my item, I paid for it and walked back to my car. A couple of car rows down, I saw a beat up old blue sedan with boxes and papers stuffed everywhere. The car dents still showing from some minor mishap. It almost looked like someone was living in it. Then I realized it was probably the car of the sunglasses girl, not everyone had my fortunate life. I thought about going back in and apologizing to the girl, but did not. But as I drove away, I carried with me a better lesson of the day...
"I had my art and life, but was always alone without her...."
"My life, full of things often waited for the next thing.
He stood on the corner, with all his belongings in a bag, waiting the for next dream..."
"Few people even noticed it, as they turned the corner toward the glitzy city beyond. Just a small two unit apartment, where I lived..."
Early morning, the windows still dark reflecting the dampness outside. I wanted coffee and breakfast. A cold hard business day awaited.
A man and his young son waited to ordered. The boy suffered a bad disability of some type. I could tell it from his walk and speaking. They sat near me. The father helping his son. The boy wandered toward the play area. The dad watched him closely, making sure the other children treated him right. I turned my head toward the dad, “Nice son you have. I admire how you work with him.”
Bitting his lips he said in a soft voice, “Yes, he faces some challenges.” Then he paused and said, “Its just God’s Well.” Then he looked back at his son playing and turned to me again with a small smile, “Actually, its been God’s blessing.”