Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes from the Other Side of the Tracks
By Daphne Athas
Eno Publishers; 243 pp.

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You would think it would be easy to locate Daphne Athas’ house: She lives on Daphne Court, after all. But there’s no street sign, and to get there you have to trust that the narrow gravel lane that appears off Hillsborough Street in Carrboro leads you to a residence and not into woods cascading into the abyss.

We found her, though, with only one U-turn necessary. As the car rolls gently in between the trees, handcrafted houses come into view. It’s here that Athas and her blue-collar, intellectual friends of the 1950s built her base, a modest home surrounded by trees and tucked away from downtown. Since moving to Chapel Hill with her Greek family in 1938 in search of the “Athens of the South,” she has spent the majority of her life here in Orange County.

She walks to the U-shaped edifice where she says she found Hestia, the Greek goddess of hearth, home and family, so we can take her picture. She apologizes, self-deprecatingly, for being an “antediluvian” subject. She’s referring not to the period in the Bible before the flood, but to her age, 86, and sings a Porgy and Bess tune, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” by way of explanation. “Methuselah lived 900 years,” she bellows. “But who calls that livin’ when no gal’ll give in, to no man what’s 900 years?”

But it’s her experience that drew us to Athas in the first place. Her view of Chapel Hill and Carrboro has been interrupted three times: for an education certificate from Harvard, a post at the Office of War Information in Washington during World War II and travels through Europe.

Athas was treasured by her creative writing students at UNC for her wit and creative idiosyncrasies and noted for Entering Ephesus, a Chapel Hill-inspired novel of 1968, Crumbs for the Boogie Man, a book of poetry, and Gram-o-Rama, a textbook of modern-day grammar exercises.

She knows a good story, even before she knows she’ll write it. “I just knew I knew things that other people didn’t know,” she says of her latest book, Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes From the Other Side of the Tracks, which covers the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism and the present.

Finally brought out by Eno Publishers, Athas’ latest work is full of local tales that wouldn’t be told unless she told them. No one else would have quite the detail that comes from having lived them. Her family downsized from a sprawling Massachusetts home to a Merritt Mill Road shack when they lost it all in the Depression. She grew up with the daughters of Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She remembers Richard Wright and Paul Green as they adapted Native Son for the stage. She befriended Junius Scales, who later became the only American imprisoned for being a member of the Communist Party.

But even more so than her unique life story, Athas stands out because few are courageous enough to give a naked view of a town and region fond of romanticizing itself.

“Myth is the basis of this place. The Old Well is a myth. Gimghoul Castle is a myth,” she says, referring respectively to the tale that if you drink from the Old Well on the first day of class, you will receive A’s, and the legend of a love-inspired murder at the castle.

“Everything was funny, everything was sophisticated, Southern good old boy witty. Nothing is as simple as the crap they put out.”

But Chapel Hill, full of myth and town characters, made the perfect backdrop for a young writer, she says.

“I loved what society was, in a strange sort of way,” she recalls.

Most of the content in the new book was written in the ’70s and ’80s and published in local newspapers. It was only recently that Athas, who lectured at UNC for 31 years before retiring in 2009, realized, at the prodding of students and colleagues, that her articles could become a book. She was surprised that so many readers responded, more than she had ever heard from about the novels she had already published, and began the difficult task of tying them together and updating them to include such recent changes as the Greenbridge development and recent tragedies, such as Eve Carson’s murder.

The book is not intended as a memoir, and essays are loosely tied together and able to be read separately. Still, the stories carry the arc of Athas’ six decades of local experience, crystallizing her point of view as a poor literary artist who grew up on kidney beans and stolen books.

“We were book-crazy because there was nothing else,” she said. “We had to even steal money to get to the movies. It was exotic, but we were subversive. It was very adventurous.”

The book is filled with historical photos proving her point. Take, for instance, the front cover, where Athas’ outstretched thumb attempts to flag down a ride from a passing truck.

She recalls Carrboro being viewed as “a horrible umbilical cord unto Chapel Hill,” noting that the streets were dirt, the tin roofs cracked and the sidewalks eroded. “Fitch’s lumber pile dominated the town, so we climbed it in bare feet to feel the pulse of hell,” she writes. “[W]e inhaled the Carrboro of dust and dogs.”

At Chapel Hill High School, Carrboro students were called “truck kids” because they were bused in and fell behind professors’ kids, merchants’ kids and country kids in the pecking order. She contrasts that with today’s “Paris of the Piedmont,” which she says, “clops on the fence between commercial strip development and bohemian gentrification.”

She tells the story of Ab Abernathy, the owner of the original Intimate Bookstore (“Ab, censored out of memory, is the great Chapel Hill secret waiting to be discovered”). Abernathy, who worked alongside William Faulkner, was hauled before a Senate subcommittee investigating Communist printing facilities because he was suspected of using the store to spread propaganda. She also writes about Horace Williams (“he personified the unlikely mix of money-shrewdness and idealism, the special legacy of Chapel Hill to the world”), the deceased philosophy professor whose name adorns the local airstrip and the tract where Carolina North is planned to be built. And many readers will be startled to learn the history of Crook’s Corner: Decades before it was a flagship restaurant of shrimp-and-grits cuisine, it was a fish-and-nut stand operated by Rachel Crook until she was murdered in 1951. The crime has not been solved.

Sometimes critical but always loving, Athas lifts the veil and offers a historical perspective she hopes will draw in young readers. “I didn’t write this book just for old people,” she says, often quoting old works and expressing amazement that some college students haven’t heard of James Baldwin and other literary giants.

As her former student Will Blythe, a prominent magazine editor and author of his own cultural study of the region, To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever, writes in the foreword, “She manages to puncture self-satisfied swoonery more appropriate to booster clubs and tourist brochures and replace it with a legend at once more precise and miraculous. This is quite a trick.”

A trick, and a treat.