Durham stories

Durham story #1: Last night I came home to a Department of Water Management flyer alerting me to sewer-line tests at the end of the month. Using pressurized smoke, the test was going to flag leaks in the pipelines for repair. If I lived near a pipe break, smoke residue might appear in my house, but I could prevent it by filling my tubs and sinks with water.

Call me a crazy liberal, but: thank you, government, for swooping in and providing us with these sorts of services. Especially since I recently read two unsettling articles about our aging pipelines and the savory stuff they carry.

About $9.4 billion more per year is needed for water and sewer work between now and 2020, according to a study released last month by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Without that, many Americans should prepare for regular disruption of water service and a jump in contamination caused by sewage bacteria, the study said.

…But with the economy sputtering and Congress eager to slash a burgeoning deficit, selling Americans on the need to pay billions more in water bills or taxes to salvage a system they didn’t even know was breaking may be impossible.

“The customer base really doesn’t know,” Hawkins said. “Like when I turn on the faucet, what on Earth is needed to deliver that water? It’s like magic. And then it goes down the drain. It’s like magic again.”

(Billions needed to upgrade America’s leaky water infrastructure, Washington Post, 2 Jan. 2012)

I always get uneasy when I’m reminded that, despite my efforts to be an informed consumer, there are still so many resources entrenched in daily life that I literally never pause to consider. Water will always come out of the faucets, A/C and heating are foregone conclusions, yesterday’s garbage will be carted away forever. Life as I know it is comfortable and tidy. No grossness allowed. (Unless I go to a less developed country, after which I have the audacity to share Roughing It stories like I’ve earned some kind of worldliness badge.)

Which is why it was so striking to see Durham mentioned in the fourth paragraph of a lengthy feature about sewage. Read the intro to the article and just try not thinking about it the next time you take a dump.

“People wake up in the morning, they brush their teeth, flush the toilet,” said Askew. “They think it goes to the center of the earth.”

(Wasteland, Harper’s Magazine, Feb. 2008)

Well, I educated myself about the origins of my food until mindful shopping became both a habit and a central part of my identity. It’s time to do the same in less familiar terrain. Engineers and urban planners, teach me your ways.


Durham story #2: It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, and I’m biking downtown on my way home from a ten-mile ride. Waiting in front of me at a red light are two—how do I say this—textbook hipsters dressed in textbook hipster regalia, followed by me clad in all black. We’re waiting and waiting, and then I catch someone whistling, softly but unmistakably, the theme song to the Wicked Witch of the West. I stare to my left and there’s a couple sitting outside Bull McCabe’s, giggling that I heard them. We grin at each other. The light turns and I head home. I love this city.


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