Dystopian Durham


“I’m really sorry to have to tell you this,” my manager at a Portsmouth hotel told me in March, “but I have to cut hours. It’s nothing personal.” And just like that, I morphed in to an unemployed older dude. Still a graduate student at UNH Durham (even though I will be completing my MFA on Zoom), still an Army Reservist (even through the drill dates are pushed to the right, and conducted virtually), still a sports fan (although with March Madness cancelled, I am conjuring up YouTube videos of past college basketball tournaments and sports documentaries), still a supporter of the undergraduate students here (although I have to stand back a safe distance when I meet their parents and wish them well, as they stream back to campus to pack their things and leave again). I am still all these things, and yet, I feel as dysfunctional as when I was 17 years old and needed to decide what I was going to do with my life.

I begin my days now with the usual early wake up, 5 a.m., as I do not want to sleep in when I haven’t been working and become a couch potato. (I have remained in Babcock Hall, gratefully accepting an extension of my residency here as UNH Housing is reaching out to help those who are inconvenienced by the pandemic.) I shower, shave, and visit Aroma Joes on Main Street, which is gratefully staying open during the crisis. I talk to the friendly baristas through a large plexiglass panel hung from the ceiling. Take out only; while I wait for my coffee and light breakfast, I enjoy conversing with the girls and then go outside to sit and eat. I find several likely spots, as dining areas in Durham are closed. While Dimond Library stayed open, I would sit at those tables outside of Zeke’s and have my breakfast or lunch there. When the library and other buildings closed up for good, I found concrete benches in front of DeMeritt, and also outside of Hamilton Smith. When it’s raining, I have stood to eat under the clock tower of Thompson Hall.

Durham has not exactly been a ghost town; far from it. Every day, and especially on the weekends, families with kids and dogs enjoy walking tours of campus. Bicyclists and students on rollerblades and skateboards make use of downtime by getting exercise in the mostly beautiful spring weather. Construction continues at Spaulding. Still, I walk by institutional college buildings now closed, the darkened windows of Hamilton Smith, Kingsbury Hall, the Memorial Union Building, and Murkland as others watch me, the olde whyte guy who misses the energy of the students here during normal semesters.

Before Kingsbury locked up for good, I went in and did a slow walk through the corridors and visualized the fun classes, interesting professors and nice young people that I had for classmates during my undergraduate years. I found room N 121 open on the ground floor, the room clean and orderly, as if my Core Concepts in Anthropology (ANTH 511 – 01) of fall semester 2015 was about to start. And yes, I sat in my same old seat and thought back to the neat lectures by Dr. Marieka Brouwer Burg as she illustrated the importance of respect between cultures. My mind wandered the corridors of memory.

My heart goes out to seniors who were not able to finish their college years in a normal fashion, spending time with friends here. My hope is that there will be arrangements for a nice live graduation event later this year.

In depressing and uncertain times, I like to rise above anxiety by doing something proactive, so lately I have been helping three days a week at the Cornucopia Food Pantry, located at the Waysmeet Center in Durham. I find that putting a smile on someone else’s face can alleviate the challenges in my own life. Chuck, Alissa, Clio, and other UNH students and volunteers have been working hard, coordinating relief to the local community. Any students who are local with their families are encouraged to reach out to the Waysmeet Center if they are having any food insecurity issues. (Visit www.waysmeetcenter.org for food pantry hours and info or call 603-862-1165).

Another resource that students remaining here should be aware of is the Student Relief Fund. https://www.unh.edu/student-life/student-emergency-financial-assistance-fund?fbclid=IwAR3_lxYluAEstEoVscPqExKZAN2R0LQ9ufQh82o3kCnAeLe86jAvLHXo5eA

I have to say that I am impressed by the support of the university professors and administrators here in Durham. During early morning walks or runs on campus, I have seen President Dean, Dean Ted Kirkpatrick, and others arrive early to work and support students. Maintenance crews at our college are hard at work every morning. UNH Dining makes sure remaining students have no food insecurity issues; also, the workers at Stillings are supportive and friendly every day. As I finish up my Writing MFA, the support of Jovana Milosavljevic-Ardeljan, Caroline Kanaskie, Dovev Levine, Dean Cari Moorhead, and others at the UNH Graduate School cannot be overstated, as they have helped myself and other students with our Graduate Research Conference projects, as well as the Three Minute Thesis competition.

On Tuesday, April 28, a massive caravan of support streamed by Babcock Hall and other spots on campus. UNH administrators, professors, alumni, and their families drove by with handmade signs of support, exuberantly communicating their support of students finishing this dysfunctional semester here. It was a cool thing for them to do!

In the absence of live sporting events to follow, I have been watching old videos on YouTube of teams such as the Boston Celtics of the Larry Bird era. ESPN is doing two episodes a week of The Last Dance (on Sunday nights from 9 to 11 p.m.) It profiles the final championship run, in 1998, of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and is very entertaining to sports fans young and old.

I am trying to remember a time in my life that was similar to the COVID-19 situation, and really cannot draw a parallel. It is truly challenging to all of us. It has the dysfunctional feel of the days and weeks after 9/11, however that was a man-made tragedy while this is more of a crisis of nature. Like my deployments in the Army (three separate times to Iraq between 2003 and 2011), it seems to bring out the best and worst in people. At the same time the UNH community is helping others with online support and volunteering, I watch news each night of protests and long food lines across the country, as people’s nerves are stretched to the breaking point.

A popular truism is that “whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.” I encourage all the great young people here at UNH to network and support each other, and to stay gainfully employed with schoolwork and potential future research. And helping others is a great way “out of the woods.” Make some record of these times for posterity, as a monument to your own strength, and to use as a template for future challenges should they happen again in your life.

I look forward to the day, and it will arrive at some point, when UNH Durham is alive with the energy and positivity of a traditional academic year. The news on television tonight had locale authorities outlining the initial stages of reopening the economy. If everyone uses good judgement and looks out for one another we WILL get through this.

Stay strong, Wildcats! You’re the best!

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