Best old-school hip hop to pump in the rod while stuck on I-40
It’s been a long day. You’re headed home after work on I-40 in 100-degree heat. Your air-conditioner has no Freon. You stop short behind an endless, immobile stretch of fuming vehicles just outside of RTP. You’re mad as hell, and ain’t gonna take it no more.

You reach into your glove compartment and fumble through a cluttered sea of audio tapes. You pull out Public Enemy‘s timeless classic, “Fight the Power,” and shove it in your deck. You crank the volume to the max, rip off your suit jacket, kick open the door, climb on top of your vehicle and shake your sweaty ass. (Note: Legal fees not included.)

Best new-school diva to groove to while stuck on I-40
There is another alternative to an I-40 bumper-to-bumper fume-induced meltdown. Her name is Jill Scott. Her debut CD, Who is Jill Scott?, is a masterful and infectious blend of jazz, R&B and soul, therapeutic even to most home-bound postal workers (well, except for that one song, “Gettin’ in My Way,” where she talks about puttin’ some Vaseline on her face and clockin’ home girl in her grill). If, like the title suggests, you’re not hip to this super-talented songstress from North Philly, then run to your nearest record store and scoop it (if it’s rush hour and you’re on I-40, you’re going to have to run–literally). Then, the next time you’re caught doing zero near RTP, pop in your CD, don the shades, recline your seat and just marinate.

Best church marquee
The marquee and rollaway sign define the Southern landscape as much as the Baptist faith does the Bible Belt. Some signs recite passages from the good book and direct drivers down the road to redemption, while others simply allude to future sermon topics and church events. The sign outside Mount Moriah Baptist Church, located off Old Erwin Road between Chapel Hill and Durham, keeps it short and to the point for drivers plowing past at speeds upwards of 60 mph, posing such existential questions as “God is coming; are you ready,” which linger even after the church and sign have receded from your rearview mirror.

Best music in a coffeehouse
Somewhere in the coffeehouse instruction manual there must be a rule requiring that at least one Billie Holiday album be played every couple of hours. So if a caffeine-guzzler is used to hearing and seeing coffeehouse clichés, walking into Raleigh’s Third Place coffeehouse can be a bit of a jolt. You could probably sit in The Third Place all day and never hear any Billie Holiday. Unless it is very early in the morning, a coffee drinker could hear anything from hard-driving punk rock to heavy jazz (of the Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie variety), haunting Classical, or independent rock by bands like Luna and Pavement.

Kirsten Council, who describes herself as a Third Place proletariat slave, says, “The music is completely contingent on who’s working–we have so many musical types that work here.” As a result of this interestingly diverse mix, Third Place takes home the honors.

Best neighborhood park
Despite some newer, safer additions, the playground equipment isn’t anything special: big swings and baby swings, a couple of slides, see-saws, a large grumpy-looking metal turtle and a few springy ride-on toys. But Oval Park, in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood in Durham, is the hub of the neighborhood. People slow down as they pass the park, looking out for their friends and their children’s friends. The bulletin board is a regular stop for parents with strollers scouting around for yard sales, kid-friendly events and real estate notices. The baseball field has hosted regular soccer games, Frisbee-chasing dogs, many generations of aimlessly spinning toddlers, musical performances at FestOval (an annual neighborhood gathering), pony rides, the post-parade Fourth of July gathering, and baseball. Above the field, teams of children have been excavating near the fence, hoping to someday tunnel under Club Boulevard.

It isn’t new or spiffy, and you could break a hip if you trip on those darn sweet-gum balls, but Oval Park has plenty of space for kids to use their imaginations and burn off all that energy. And that gives parents plenty of space to catch up with each other and strengthen those bonds of community.

Best place to get a free meal
Don’t know much about art, but like free food? As many who attend Raleigh’s First Friday Gallery Walk will tell you, First Friday is all about free wine, cheese, crackers, carrot sticks, Twizzlers and M&Ms. Now, that may not exactly be your idea of a square meal, but being the great four-block wide singles bar that it is, no one really gets into splattering “real” food all over their nice threads anyway. The key is strategic planning: Begin at Artspace at around 8 p.m. (you can get good veggies, but alcohol is not gratis), then move on to various galleries within City Market (they only occasionally cough up snacks). Work your way down to LUMP where they’re known to share cake, candy, peanuts and cheap wine. Double back to Hargett Street and waddle up to Permanent Grin and zoom on Wilmington Street to fill in the gaps. Work out a schedule that cooks for you, and by the way, don’t forget to admire the art.

Best shortcut
Ask a stupid question …

In search of the area’s best short cuts, one of our intrepid reporters asked around, only to be stymied with answers that began, “Well, I can tell you about a great one, but you can’t publish it because I don’t want word to get out.” Others took the question off-road, offering time-saving tips ranging from “Shave in the shower” to “Pee in the shower.”

The winner, by default, goes to the route used by said reporter to get to work. Traveling from Chapel Hill to West Durham, this one’s hard to beat: As you leave the outskirts of Chapel Hill on U.S. 15-501, hang a left on Erwin Road. Then head northwest on Erwin until it dead-ends at N.C. 751. Turn right and drive a quarter-mile to get back on 15-501. You’re right at the doorstep of Duke University, if that’s your destination.

This so-called shortcut won’t necessarily shave much time from your commute, but it will take you through fresh forests and foggy bogs–and by some splendid old homesteads. And it detours around the strip-mall blight of 15-501 and the corporate sprawl around New Hope Commons and South Square Mall.

Now that you’re in the know, do yourself, your fellow motorists and Erwin Road residents a favor: Tread lightly, slowly and cautiously as you pass through the neighborhoods, road construction and school zones along the way. EndBlock