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One afternoon several years ago, I was meandering near a vacant lot south of the Durham County jail that had been scraped clean for the construction of the new courthouse. Scattered in the brown grass were shards of pink paper. The pattern of the tears mirrored one another in the way we used to cut snowflakes from construction paper in grade school.

I noticed there were letters on both sideson the front a typed intake form from the jail, on the back a handwritten note in pencilso I sifted the pieces from the dormant blades of grass and took them home. Once I puzzled it together, I realized the note had been written by an inmate weighing the pros and cons of being in jail.

I love to walk. There is no distance, given enough time and money, that I would not attempt to travel on my two short legs. During my expeditions, my eyes always scan the ground for interesting detritus.

Over the years in various cities, I’ve harvested from the streets love notes, a crushed metal cash register, playing cards, homework, a child’s Christmas list, photos, a yellow medical bracelet that said “fall risk,” an empty bag that had held emergency food rations, moneyabout $100 all toldand a kitten.

At night I empty my jeans pockets of ephemera and look for clues to how people live. That’s the theme of this new column, Urban Archaeology: a record of found objects, photos, overheard dialogue, poignant scenes; the small, everyday true moments that define life in the Triangle.

This article appeared in print with the headline “He shall be released.”