Bull City Summer

The welcoming face of the Durham Bulls

Posted July 10, 2013

Next to the ticket window at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park is a glass-doored office. If you’ve ever taken the elevator down from the stadium to the first floor or exited through the back of the gift shop, you may have found yourself here, a cool, air-conditioned reception area through which members of the media, umpires, Bulls staff members, players and scouts all enter the ballpark. At the front desk sits a woman in her late sixties with twinkly eyes, a wide smile and a strong Southern accent. Her name is Darlene Clayton, and she’s been working as the Bulls’ receptionist since DBAP opened in 1995.

Darlene grew up in Person County and moved to Durham as a teenager, where she attended Northern High School. These days, she lives in Bahama, a small, unincorporated community in Northern Durham. Her work at DBAP is part-time, a supplement to her 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. job at the downtown Durham police station, where she’s been working for almost 35 years.

During baseball season, Darlene leaves the station and heads straight to the ballpark, ducking upstairs to the press box for a catered dinner before settling in at the front desk. She answers the phones, assists scouts and umpires, notarizes documents, that kind of thing. All in all, it’s a fun gig, and one she does more for pleasure than money. Throughout the game, she watches a live video feed of the action on the field from her desktop computer. She’s been able to meet, and have her photo taken with, Colin Firth, Jeff Foxworthy, and other special guests to DBAP during her tenure at the front desk. And she’s made friends with some of the ballpark regulars; Bobbie and Marvin Wheeler often have her over during the off-season, and they sit and drink beer and eat pizza on the Wheelers’ back deck, looking out over the Hillandale golf course.

Those of us at Bull City Summer have come to know Darlene well. She’s unfailingly friendly as she buzzes us through the office doors, and she recognizes us by face if not by name. I had always assumed that Darlene’s job at the police station was one of obligation rather than of passion, that her work with the Bulls was where her heart truly belonged. I was wrong. When I asked Darlene if I could interview her, she told me to come and visit her at the police station. What I discovered when I arrived at the District 5 substation — a refurbished brick building that houses Durham’s forensics and special operations units, right around the corner from the old Durham Bulls ballpark — is that yes, Darlene loves baseball — but she loves a crime scene perhaps even more.

***

“Look, this is my favorite picture,” Darlene says breathlessly as she gives me a tour around the station, pointing out equipment and a series of framed images hung along the walls. She explains that these are all crime scene photos that have been blown up and reappropriated as office art. So far I’ve been shown images of fingerprints on a Pepsi can and shell casings littered around a murder scene — the candid morbidity of which surprises me — but this photo makes me gasp.

Amid the charred rubble of a clearly devastating car wreck is a skeleton, buried in the debris.

“Look at him. Now that fire was so intense, see, look at that — that burned off his skin. Look at his legs. And this is the seat. Look, it burned everything off of the seat.” Darlene says this casually and instructively, like a docent at a museum.

We move on to the digital forensics lab.

“Okay, listen,” she tells me. “If you ever get in trouble, don’t let anybody have your phone. They can take everything off of it. And most times the digital crimes guy can get by your password.”

“Like, one guy robbed this girl, and he sent her a text and told her he was sorry. He should have never done that,” Darlene warns.

Darlene has a number of “favorite photos” around the station: the car that someone drove right through the side of a house, the small piece of skin found on a gun that was used to identify a suspect, the swollen hand from a corpse. “See, they can tell by the maggots about how long they’ve been dead,” she says.

By the time we reach the room with the drying cabinet, where the bloody clothes from a homicide earlier in the week are drying out before they can be packaged and stored, my stomach is turning — I’m new to police work — and I’m ready to get back to talking about baseball.

But Darlene is as cheerful and buoyant as usual. After the tour, we head to the station’s reception area so she can show off her collection of stuffed animal Tiggers.

***

Out of the twenty-one employees who work at the District 5 station, twenty of them are women. Darlene has been there the longest. The station is filled with leftover decorations from office parties and photos of smiling female officers. Despite my reservations about being around so much, well, death, I could see how the station could be a fun place to work. And Darlene must think so, too — of both her jobs.

“I had my knee replaced at the end of January. I’ve had my shoulder replaced twice. I’ve had breast cancer. I’ve had a double mastectomy,” Darlene tells me. Yet she continues to work two gigs back-to-back during baseball season, and up until three or four years ago, when a flight back from Hawaii was delayed, she hadn’t missed a single game since beginning to work at DBAP.

“Don’t you get tired?” I ask her.

“I do. But it’s not so bad.”

I leave the police station wondering about the link between forensics and baseball. I can’t help but think of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the immense popularity of the whole crime-solving television genre. There’s CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, American Justice, Bones, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, NCIS, Without a Trace… the list goes on. There’s something that appeals to us about this idea of justice, of using craft and skill to find and punish criminals — to triumph, ultimately. The drama is inherent. We want the good guys — our guys — to come out on top, and we want to see how they do it.

It strikes me that each baseball game has a similar appeal. Can a batter hit the opposing pitcher’s fastball? Can the Bulls accumulate enough successes over nine innings to score more runs than their opponent? Will we get the satisfaction of seeing all that hard work and talent pay off with a win?

No wonder Darlene is so excited by both of her jobs. Positioned right at the heart of two classic American endeavors, she has something to root for, morning till night.

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