Blue Monsters in the Bull City
Photo by Kate Joyce.
The Green Monster, a thirty-seven foot wall snatches home runs from hitters like a dragon gobbling up knights seeking fame and glory. It lives in Fenway Park in Boston. I’ve watched this monster vanquish many would-be heroes on Sports Center highlights via ESPN. Like most who prefer blue pinstripes to red socks, I’ve loathed the damn thing. But all monsters are not the same. The Green Monster has a blue baby brother approximately 707 miles to its south and I LOVE this beast. It doesn’t make the ESPN highlights. It’s five feet shorter and ten feet closer to home plate. It lives in a town without a professional basketball, football, or hockey team, and those who come to watch it feast on batted balls are more likely to be found eating barbecue than clam chowder. It lives in Durham, NC. The town tobacco built, where Black Wall Street once flourished, where Ernie Barnes painted, where an impeached president went to law school, where Bud Powell banged ivory keys, where a basketball coach with a hard to pronounce surname beginning with ‘K’ won and wins college basketball titles and Olympic gold medals.
A bull sits atop this beast, no BS. He stares into the eyes of opposing batters, writing the lines of Langston Hughes’ great poem “To Artina” in their brains: “I will take your heart, I will be God when it comes to you.” The batters swing anyway and when they connect, the ball may go up, up and up but not out. Five ounces of cork and woolen yarn covered with cowhide and two hundred and sixteen stitches smack against the blue beast’s hide. The Bull laughs and the ball falls like a teardrop into the left fielder’s glove. It’s good to have a beast in your outfield. Twenty years ago there was no Blue Monster in Durham. The Bull was there, but he didn’t have a thirty-two foot wall to cast his steely gaze from. The monster came to Durham in 1995 with the building of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where it now resides at the intersection 409 Blackwell Street and Jackie Robinson Blvd. It came to kick ass and take names, and we Durhamites come to watch.
The architects of the monster and the ballpark, Populous, formerly HOK Sport, are probably best known for designing Camden Yards in Baltimore. Durham doesn’t have a waterfront, but it does have a few things in common with that hardboiled city, one of them being a bad reputation. The Triangle, as we call this region of North Carolina, consists of Raleigh, the state capital; Durham, the city of medicine with regards to Duke Hospital; and Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina’s main campus. Durham is more diverse than the either of the other two cities and currently has an African-American mayor. It also has the worst public relations people. One would think that no crime at all happens in Raleigh, Chapel Hill or the surrounding suburbs like Cary and Apex. Not the case for Durham, not at all. Make no mistake, the Bull City has its rough spots, but what city doesn’t? In Durham, that’s acknowledged, and folks come together across racial and economic lines to try and find solutions. We argue, point fingers, curse each other out, write caustic editorials in the newspaper, and then we go to Bulls games and root for our big Bad Blue Monster to steal homeruns from the opposite team.
We’ve got an attitude. Sometimes we can go a little too far. There’s been some controversy over some popular T-shirts that read, “I’d rather be shot in Durham than bored to death in Cary.” And while that’s definitely in bad taste, it’s also strategic. Durhamites rarely argue against the Gotham City stereotype because it keeps out the pretenders, the self-absorbed, those who are too lazy to look beneath the surface of things. We are a stubborn folk, like the Bull mascot of our baseball team, like the tobacco plants that once brought us our wealth. We are a city of character and characters, and I pray we will always be that way, as long as grass grows and skies are blue.
If you take your fists and bring them together horizontally with your thumbs extended, you create the symbol of a bull with horns. When you raise this symbol over your head, we call it throwing your bulls up. If you’re driving down Tobacco Road, roll down your window, make the hand gesture, and yell at a passerby, “Bull City, baby!” Mayhaps if you’re genuine in your salute it will be returned by a Durhamite with a smile. I love my city. I went to Jordan High School, got my degree from North Carolina Central University. It’s where I met my wife and where I do my art. It’s where I raise my son. It ain’t Chicago or Boston or Brooklyn, San Fran or L.A. It doesn’t have a Green Monster, but it’s got a big bad blue one with a bull sitting on top of it, three hundred and five feet from home plate, that looks into the souls of batters, takes their measure and, like the people of the town it represents, repels those who come up wanting.