by Peggy Payne
photograph by Robert Willett
We met in 1954 when I was 5 years old and went to visit – all by myself! – my twenty-something aunt, a single girl with a job in the big city. What I remember: the sun porch at her apartment in a big old house on Blount Street; the busy crowded urban feel of Fayetteville Street rushing past me; a Belk’s with a cafeteria inside, which we didn’t have in Wilmington; the art museum snack bar where I spilled Aunt Betty’s coffee.
On this trip, I decided most of my future, though I hadn’t realized it until now.
How it happened: While I was there, Betty got a phone call from a man who wanted to see her that night (this particular man caused a ripple of excitement through the household). So two of her friends took me for a long, long sightseeing ride. The key moment: The car entered a traffic circle, and as the entertaining gossip flowed from the front seat, I looked down a connecting avenue to see a swoop of hill and, at the end, an immense lighted castle of a church. What could this be? Duke University, said one of the front-seat friends.
A school? Well, this was the school for me. We were riding through Durham, but I didn’t know that. It was all Raleigh to me.
Twelve years later, as a Duke freshman, I would make my next visit to Raleigh proper. I was again in a back seat at night, double-dating with a boy whose girlfriend was at Peace College. Once again, I looked down a long stretch of road to the lighted columns of Peace’s main building. This time I felt I was looking at a night-lit Tara. I came to town another time or few before arriving to stay, once to the Angus Barn restaurant, once to a party at the apartment of an N.C. State student, where I glimpsed a boy I’d known in high school looking entirely grown-up and heading happily to a back room with two chilled glasses of white wine. Raleigh had started to feel faintly thrilling in an older-than-school-days way.
Indeed it was romance of my own that would keep me in the Triangle area after graduation in 1970, and that lingering would outlast the romance and ultimately make me a Raleighite.
After a misadventure as a student teacher, I was, instead, about to become a Raleigh newspaper reporter, much more to my liking. Mid-spring, I put on what I viewed as a grown-up ensemble (which the editor would later tell me was the shortest skirt he’d ever seen; no school rules for me!) and went to the News & Observer building. In the elevator, I asked the nearest person where to apply for a job. “Second floor,” he said. So that’s where I went. Turns out the second floor was not home of the morning paper I was familiar with, but instead housed the afternoon paper, The Raleigh Times, which I had never heard of. I had the job by the time I’d understood what I’d applied for.
And so I moved to Raleigh to live and work full-time, an adult and a proud new Raleighite, in spite of the itchy awkwardness of my first six weeks. Like Aunt Betty, I was a “single girl in the city,” though I was arriving about the same time as the women’s movement and soon would drop the titles of Miss and girl. My first address here was a wide-porched tourist home on Hillsborough Street. Early mornings before work, I’d walk to Baxley’s diner – I didn’t know then that it was a Raleigh institution – and sit at the counter, swigging a tall orange juice to prepare for the day. The Raleigh Times turned out to be the better place for me to work. The staff was a small feisty band of friends, gleefully competitive with the N&O, with terrific esprit de corps.
One mid-morning I set off to cover the governor’s press conference – a heady assignment only weeks into my new adult life. I found myself walking the few blocks to Gov. Bob Scott’s office with N&O editor Claude Sitton and Raleigh Times editor Herb O’Keefe. Towering in heels between them, I felt like a gangly, intimidated young giraffe. Claude said he’d heard there was a room in one of the nearby old houses filled with nothing but stacks of News & Observers. “Oh, I have a room like that,” I glibly offered and got a laugh. Happily running for Queen of the World, I felt genuinely sorry for my friends who didn’t work for the Raleigh Times.
But the truth was my rooms were full of novels, not news. I’d never paid attention to government before starting the job; having been fortunate in life, I’d blindly assumed everything was working all right. Thus, politically you could have called me conservative, ignorant, pig-headed, or all of these. Raleigh and reporting and hanging out with reporters quickly changed that.
Education was added to my beat just in time for desegregation of the local schools in 1971 (Broughton had been a white high school when I taught there a year earlier). I was no more prepared to read a Supreme Court ruling and write an interpretation of the effect on Raleigh (in less than two hours!) than I was to be an astronaut. But I covered the nights of public hearings, the uproar, and the relatively smooth process of integration here. Once the big story was over, I decided to get out of hard news, where I didn’t belong.
So I quit my job and became a freelancer, which might seem a bold move but wasn’t since I came from a family of the self-employed. I rented a tiny office ($36 a month) downtown in the Odd Fellows Building, subletting half to another writer. The space was just wider than the two windows that provided us a gorgeous view of sunset every day over Raleigh’s western treeline.
During the ’70s, I married, lived at the then-wooded north edge of the city, unmarried and moved back inside the Beltline, to share with two women an old townhouse in Raleigh’s liberal heart: Cameron Park. I was single again in the city. As one might refer to a pod of whales or a covey of quail what I had then for nine complex years was a turbulence of gentleman callers. Where there is government, there are men; my initial romantic vibes about the place were right.
Twice between romances, I considered moving to New York, a place that glows for me like the Duke Chapel. I’d never meant to stay in this small-ish, not-exotic, nothing-too-fancy city. But my roots here had grown deep, and New York was expensive and travel writing could always take me on the road. Besides, I didn’t want to lose the damp crickets-and-frogs feel of a Southern summer night. The moment I made my decision for the second and final time, I was out for a late evening run, just back from a few days in midtown Manhattan. A streetlight shone white against the dew on the massive shrubs along the edge of the road. Hardly any sound other than my footfalls. But it was the feel of the air that decided me; the warm humid weight of it felt fertile, rich. I thought to myself: Guess I’m staying.
I fell in love and got married again, to Raleigh psychologist Bob Dick. We met at a book launch party for Angela Davis-Gardner’s first novel. By then, I had begun writing fiction.
Of course Raleigh would show up there; my new novel Cobalt Blue has crucial tense moments in a senator’s office; my first, Revelation, takes place in a church like Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist.
My marriage threw a major twist into my relationship with the city. I moved in with Bob, 40 minutes from town in a log house in the woods of adjoining Chatham County. In short, I became a commuter, because Raleigh wouldn’t let me go. Most days I come into town to write and to work with other writers, leaving behind a stereotypically writerly setting, quiet, solitude, etc. I love our rural home, my garden, and kayaking at nearby gorgeous Jordan Lake. But to get work done I need to put on my go-to-town clothes and take the long ride back to the place where there’s traffic, noise, gossip, news, people to eat lunch with.
For a while I was part of a group of novelists who met for lunch at the Brownstone. One day someone brought a guest, a French woman, a Raleighite originally from Paris. One of our number inquired how she happened to move to Raleigh. “Romance,” was her one-word answer, though she pronounced it rrrohhmanhhs. In France, she had met a man from here . . . and so on. With a straight face, her questioner said, “I guess a lot of people move from Paris to Raleigh for romance.” We laughed.
And yet: I remember my first visit as a 5-year-old, excited and bedazzled by the traffic of Fayetteville Street. Nearly 60 years later, I still am roused by the city view as I ride into town on South Saunders Street.
It’s a complicated relationship, of course, this business of Raleigh and me; because the place isn’t New York and it isn’t Paris and I didn’t set out to stay here. But looking back now, I think I rightly can call it a romance. In fact, I’m sure I can.
Peggy Payne is the author of novels Revelation and Sister India. Her latest, Cobalt Blue, was published in March.