Aug 032008

For a number of years now, I’ve subscribed to This allows me to download one book and have one subscription program per month. These are a great way to pass time while on the road, especially on long trips.

The most recent book I’m “listening to” is David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames. It’s a collection of essays on the banalities of life. I was listening to one of his essays this past week during a drive to St. Pete, and it stirred up some wonderful memories about a place I lived during a difficult time.

In his essay, Sedaris talks about an experience he had living in a rooming house in Chapel Hill, NC when he was between attending school. He talked about the “character” of the place resulting from its age, and especially about the eccentric owner/landlady with whom he shared a fun relationship.

I seem to have a knack for finding apartments that have at least something “cool” going for them. Not too long after moving to Greensboro, I wound up sharing a really cute house with two other very interesting guys in a great neighborhood next to a park. The first time I lived in Tampa, I lived in a great old one-bedroom four-plex three houses up from Bayshore Blvd. right at the bay, and three blocks from a great little shopping/entertainment area. Even when I moved to Dayton I had a decent apartment with an exposed brick wall in an older complex where nearly every gay person in town had lived at one time or another. I even had some fun neighbors on one side.

GrayCourta But the apartment I think I will always remember with the fondest memories was Gray Court Apartments in Winston-Salem, NC. It was comprised of three very old three-story red brick buildings with 53 studio, one and two bedroom apartments situated right on the edge of downtown at the intersection of two main streets (5th and Broad). Although old enough to still have steam heat with radiators and no central air conditioning, the place had a waiting list. Despite its age, the buildings were well kept. The apartments were fairly large with the small closets of the 1940’s when the buildings were built, great hardwood floors, and 10′ ceilings.

There’s the old real estate saw about “location, location, location,” and Gray Court has it. Right behind the apartments was one of Winston-Salem’s neighborhoods of older restored homes. This was a very eclectic part of town, and I thoroughly enjoyed evening walks down through the neighborhood. looking out the front, one was looking into the southern edge of downtown, and it was about one-third of a block to the large Methodist Church I attended (modeled on Duke Chapel).

One block southwest brought you to a five-way intersection with a little restaurant district. There was a great inexpensive diner, a nice bar with an outside patio, and an upscale restaurant. And just a few steps down the fifth street was the main gay bar in Winston-Salem.

The owner of the apartments lived in one of the apartments, and it was maintained by Harold, the maintenance man. Harold was a great guy, and I quickly figured out that your place on the waiting list had more to do with what Harold thought of you than when you applied. Armed with a recommendation from a friend already living there, I met with Harold and turned on all the southern charm I could muster, which is no small amount.

Even with Harold reminding me of the waiting list, I got a call just two days later. They just happened to have both a one and a two bedroom apartment available. Now this was around 1992, so things were certainly less expensive, but I was able to splurge and get a very large two-bedroom apartment for $225 a month on the second floor front of the center building on the left. Even in 1992, that was unheard of.

I made it without air conditioning for one summer, but I came home from a business trip one Friday in August of the second summer. It was miserably hot, and they were paving Broad Street right in front of the place. I went out and bought a small window unit, and installed it. It managed to keep that whole apartment cool. On cold days, I remember hanging my towel over the radiator in the bathroom when I got in the shower. That was my first experience with a “towel warmer,” and I gotta tell you, that was a great feeling getting out of the shower and wrapping up in that toasty warm towel.

But even with the great location and the character of the buildings, it was the residents that made it such a great place. With the possible exception of a college dorm, I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere where I felt a greater sense of community. After just a little over two years of living there, I knew most everyone in the three buildings by name, and they were a fun and interesting bunch. It was Sedaris’ talk about his landlady and their relationship that reminded me of the sense of place I had while living at Gray Court.

Right under me lived an older widow. (There were several widows living there, and a few older couples.) I remember us taking our mail from the boxes at the same time one day, and she had a mailer from a dating service. She busted out laughing, and held it up for me to see and said, “Think they could set me up with a date?” I assured her she’d have no problem finding a hot date on her own, to which I was treated to another great laugh.

Another first floor resident was a retired professor from Salem College. She threw the best parties in the complex. She had an old library card catalog in her living room. She purchased it at the college when they were switching to a new computerized card catalog. She loved to tell the story of the looks she got from the blue-haired librarians at the college when she brought in a liquor bottle to test the fit. You see, she didn’t have it full of index cards, but used it as a bar. It worked great. Each bottle had it’s own drawer, and the little slide out work tables served as a great place to mix the drinks.

The place was full of gay people and couples, and a few young straight couples. In the apartment behind me was a gay guy who was an elementary school principal, and directly across the hall turned out to be an old acquaintance from my days at Appalachian State. Not long after I moved in, a Bryan John Masters moved into one of the other buildings. This gave the mailman no end of problems.

One of the years there I threw a New Year’s Eve party. I dropped an invitation under the door of every apartment in the place, and most everyone at least dropped by for a few minutes, young and old, It was one of the best parties I think I ever hosted. Not so much because I did a great job, but because it was such a great mix of people.

I remember hunkering in for a couple of cold snowy weekends with a big pot of chili and a stack of movies. That old radiator heat could not be beat for keeping you warm and cozy. I remember during one ice storm a lot of town losing power, but we still had ours, so a friend spent a couple of nights with me…and it was like a teenage sleep-over.

During the time I lived there, just prior to moving to Tampa for the first time, I went through some rough financial times. Had I not been living in a place with such low rent, I don’t know how I would have made it, but thank goodness I was there…not just for the rent, but also because of warmth and comfort I got from the sense of “home” I felt while living there. It was a place of quiet calm for me.

According to the web, it appears the place is still there. I’m surprised it hasn’t been bulldozed in favor of an office building, but I’m glad to know it is still there, and I hope the people who live there now are finding that same sense of community that was so much a part of the place when I lived there.

What was your favorite place to live?

  2 Responses to “Gray Court Apartments”

Comments (2)
  1. John, these are wonderful reminiscences–worthy of a short story. I hope you’ll keep developing them.

    I especially loved the detail about the retired lady professor with the filing-card liquor cabinet. There is something quintessentially Southern-lady about that story.

    It reminds me of a story the mother of a chaplain told me when I was in college. She was a grand dame of the Mississippi Gulf coast.

    She told me she and a friend had gone to a hotel someplace (Atlanta?) and realized their gin was running low. So they went out and got a bottle.

    A lady discreetly conceals her gin bottles, so they brought it into the hotel in brown bag inside a mesh string bag. As they got to the elevator, something malfunctioned and the bottle dropped onto the floor and smashed.

    The chaplain’s mother said that she told her friend, “Just keep walking, eyes ahead, as if nothing has happened.” And that’s what they did, leaving the incriminating evidence behind on the floor.

    A lady must have her liquor. But she mustn’t display it.

  2. That is definitely very Southern behavior. I can absolutely see that happening.

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