Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in a new book, “Carolina Writers at Home.” The essay by Dorianne Laux about the home she has with husband, Joseph Millar, is reprinted with permission from The Hub City Writers Project.
My husband and I moved to the neighborhood of Five Points in Raleigh seven years ago. I remember looking up the meaning of the naming of the town and found that many cities have a Five Points area, named so because of the five roads that converge at a single point. Five Points is often one of the oldest parts of town, the center from which other towns grew. In other words, a star, which is why so many of our neighbors have tin stars, usually painted red, nailed to their houses or front doors.
The most infamous Five Points was in lower Manhattan, immortalized by Herbert Asbury and Martin Scorsese in “Gangs of New York.” Dickens visited that Five Points and wrote “all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.” There is a Five Points in Alabama, where in 2010 the population was 141. Denver has a Five Points, which used to be the toughest part of town, but has been more recently taken over by the city’s computer geeks looking for a place to park. Pennsylvania has thirty-one. There are six in California, where we lived for years, and our former state of Oregon has a Five Points where some of the most difficult hiking trails landslide into one spot. Sometimes it’s merely a junction on a map; other times it is composed of lively neighborhoods such as this one.
We traveled here from Eugene, Ore., where we taught for years, me at the University of Oregon, and my husband at Oregon State. And though we were both originally from the East Coast, neither of us had ever lived in the South before. We imagined the city of Raleigh to be urban, forest of tall buildings and miles of cement, but what we found was similar in many ways to Oregon. Both have loads of fir trees. In fact, I soon discovered that Oregon and North Carolina were constantly exchanging first place for Christmas tree sales and exportation. And like Oregon, North Carolina can boast areas of old-growth woods. Both are close enough to the ocean to make weekend visits. Both have impressive mountain ranges. Much of the flora and fauna is similar, and the neighborhood we live in here could be mistaken for a neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., another place we called home for many years.
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But we love where we live now. Because it’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in Raleigh, the trees are even older and quite magnificent. In our backyard we have one of the tallest trees on the block, a shaggy red cedar, which houses a squirrel couple who seem to mate frequently. We are zoned for chickens and so we’re on the yearly coop walk. But because we essentially live in an old-growth forest, there are also hawks and owls. One day the crows would not stop caterwauling. We looked out the window up toward where they were circling and saw a dead chicken, half-plucked, on our neighbor’s roof, spread-eagled and wedged into the base of the chimney. A hawk must have snatched it up and dropped it there, either because it was too heavy to carry higher, into the trees, or because it was an easier place to land and partake of its giblets. One dusk, as we were walking toward our back door, we heard a swoop and whoosh – more the sudden absence of air than a real sound – which to our delight and awe we realized were the hush-plush wings of an owl.
Who would not want to create art in, and out of, such a place? On Sunday noon, while the Hayes Barton Baptist Church bells toll, we take our walk around Roanoke Park. Later, children besotted by sun or mud, fallen leaves or new snow, forsake the earth to fly on the swings or climb plastic slides. Young and old practice at basketball or ride bikes. A couple sits on a curved metal bench painted a bright unearthly blue and shares lunch. We often see one of our favorite denizens, an Asian man we’ve never spoken to because he walks backward up the slope and around the bend, toe to heel, his hands in his pockets, his eyes half-closed. When we get back to our modest home we take off our shoes and sit down with our notebooks, me on the brown couch in the enclosed porch, Joe in his teal easy chair, and gaze out the windows at a pair of cardinals, bickering on the perch they’ve claimed: an arched lattice up which climbs vines of yellow Carolina jessamine.
And because we are poets, we have introduced poetry to our neighborhood by way of a poetry box. We brought it with us from Oregon, where the idea was born. It’s patterned after those brochure holders realtors use to advertise a home for sale, except that ours is handmade of sturdy wood by a craftsperson and has a small liftable roof decorated with two silver birds made of flattened tin. We choose a poem by one of our favorite poets and place around ten copies in the box above a handwritten sign that says: Take One! When the box first appeared, people would stop to take a peek, probably curious about the price of our house. Instead, they would see a short poem. Many would start to read it, then look around as if worried someone might see, then continue to read. Often, someone would take one, but only after again looking around to make sure no one was watching. Slowly, over the span of the week, all the poems would be gone. We’d choose another, place ten in the box, and the cycle would begin again. After some time, the neighbors began to depend on their weekly poem. We’d get notes in the empty box, asking us to please keep the poems coming.
So we’ve made Five Points our home, on this small parcel of earth within the City of Oaks where it seems all things converge: the low whistle of the Norfolk Southern which runs below the park, the train shaking the floors of the small shotgun houses balanced on the lower slopes near the tracks; the oversized dreams of developers’ contemporary mansions casting their shadows on the wide streets; the shouts of children from the elementary school corralled by chain-link; the nearby Rialto Theater’s blue neon marquee where they run the same movie for weeks; the TGIF night crowds that throng to Lily’s Pizza, spilling out the open door, the smell of fresh bread and burnt cheese mixing with the perfume of gasoline; the café tables of The Third Place where people still read the newspaper with their morning coffee, and a good dog always sleeps at the end of a leash.
Meet the Authors
▪ 7 p.m. Oct. 16, Up Front Gallery in Durham, with Bronwen Dickey, Dorianne Laux, Zelda Lockhart, Meg Reid and Rob McDonald.
▪ 2 p.m. Oct. 17, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, with Bronwen Dickey, Jill McCorkle, Daniel Wallace, Meg Reid and Rob McDonald.
▪ 7 p.m. Dec. 4, The Regulator in Durham, with Bronwen Dickey.
▪ 2 p.m. Dec. 5, McIntyre’s at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, with Rob McDonald.