Crashing the Gate

by Brian Clarey

crashing the gate Out and about in Chapel Hill

I’ve got the novelist Allan Gurganus cornered on the front deck of the house by the bar, complimenting him on the dialect style he used in his novel The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, and also his snappy vest which in my opinion looks very literary. He politely humors me before begging off.

We’re in the home of Steven Burke and Randy Campbell in Hillsborough, the town where by Brian Gurganus also lives. The home has a name: “It Had Wings,” which is also the name of a short Clarey story Gurganus will eventually read to the assembled group. And it is also the repository of a Editor magnificent collection of folk-art miniatures — churches, castles, houses, storefronts, schoolhouses and the like, hundreds of them that stand on columns and sit on shelves in the home and its two outbuildings. Burke, a biochemist by trade, offers to give anyone who wishes a tour of his collection before we board the bus back to Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill is a strange place to a guy like me, a graduate of a tiny liberal arts university surrounded by the most decadent city in the nation.

Plus, you know, I’m from Long Island, which I guess means I’d probably feel more at home on Duke’s campus.

And yet here I am, booked in a room at the Carolina Inn, a hotel wholly owned by UNC-Chapel Hill, the former “living room” of the country’s first public university, having drinks on the front porch while a dude in overalls sings an ancient mountain song with a dip in his mouth, eating fried chicken in Carrboro, taking a bus tour through Hillsborough and working various rooms in the region.

I’m here at the behest of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a marvelous group of people who were kind enough to arrange a travel junket of the type I haven’t been on in years: a multi-day excur- sion to show off the best of the region to the travel media who ostensibly will then write glowing reviews in their publications, enticing others to follow in their footsteps. But this isn’t like any other fam tour — short for “familiarization tour” — I’ve ever been on. This one is timed during Pride Weekend in the Triangle, when the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities celebrate their other-ness by coming together for parties, demonstrations and a big parade. And because of this, the press corps assembled here is largely culled from the gay media, flown in from places like San Francisco and Sarasota, Fla. and, yes, even Long Island, most of them affiliated with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.

I am one of the few straight journos here — “straight” meaning that I work for the more or less mainstream press, and also that I don’t like to have sex with other dudes. But both are minor quibbles between my new friends and me.

We have dinner on Friday night at Crook’s Corner, which leans on a Franklin Street corner where a fish market once stood, and where the proprietess was murdered in 1951. The restaurant is reputed to be the birthplace of shrimp and grits, but tonight’s diner bears a church picnic theme: cold fried chicken, grilled cob corn, potato salad and deviled eggs. In between courses I share cigarettes with Matt Hill Comer, formerly of UNCG but now editor of Charlotte’s Q-Notes. Comer’s an old friend, but I make plenty of new ones — the ladies from Asheville, the guys from Long Island, the dudes from Toronto, Dmitry from south Florida, Enrique the temperamental local journalist, and Anthony, the freelance columnist traveling with his friend and photographer Jennifer. They graciously accept my wife and me into their clique as we galavant through Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough.

The gay press, it seems to me, are much better dressed than their straight counterparts. “I think we’re less cynical, too,” Dmitry tells me.

And other notables make the scene as well: state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird; Mike Nelson, who became the first openly gay mayor of a North Carolina municipality when he won the seat in Carrboro in 1995, succeeding Kinnaird, and now serves on the Orange County Board of Commissioners; his successor Mark Chilton, who was the youngest elected official in the state when he won a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council at 21 in 1991.

In Greensboro, where I live, we have yet to elect an openly gay official, though I do have my suspicions. The Pride parade takes place on Saturday afternoon in a light rain, and after an brief afternoon respite the tour bus takes us through Hillsborough to Burke and Campbell’s home where a steady drizzle keeps us indoors, surrounded by all these tiny structures, interesting people, free booze, great food and one of my favorite novelists. Some of the boys will be heading to Raleigh to ride out the climax of Pride Weekend, but the wife and I head for some sushi in Carrboro with Anthony and Jen before making our way back to Chapel Hill and the historic Carolina Inn, a story unto itself.