"Why can't the Hispanics," asks the lady, "knuckle under to our culture the way other races did?"

Aren't I the lucky one? To come from a country with that "marvellous transportation system"? Ignoring the hiccup he has provoked, my neighbour at dinner in Raleigh, North Carolina, continues to defend his city's absolute dependence on the car. Fewer than 300,000 residents over an area of 110 square miles, and wide avenues of seriously detached houses with the obligatory rocking chair on the front porch. No one wants a light railway - how do you get to it? Maybe those luxury coaches that serve Starbucks coffee and show satellite TV - they might work, his daughter reckons. That weekend, queues form for gasoline as cheap as $1.14 a gallon, down from the "nightmare" high of $1.60 in May. And why not take the car, when the traffic flows easily and the air is so sharply, transparently clean?

I'm here to research my next novel, but my generous hostess, Jackie, is offended at my intention of hiring a car. Don't I like her driving? She is scandalised at my next suggestion that, one afternoon, we should take a taxi to visit the nearby town where her late husband, Bud, founded a knitting mill in the 1960s. Taxi? You must be mad. Behrous, Jackie's tenant, a handsome young Iranian engineer, gives me a sympathetic smile. No one takes cabs, he says. They're really expensive - everyone has a car or, if they don't, they get a friend to drive them. Next morning, Jackie's friends at the coffee shop are appalled. Now I'm up against not one but four Jewish grandmothers. You can't do this, it's crazy; let Jackie drive you. Use the money to buy her dinner instead. Buy us all dinner instead. No, I say, it's 96 degrees outside, Jackie is (how do I put this?) past 75, she has done me so many favours already and I want her to enjoy the journey, point things out to me. Eventually, I refuse to leave the table - "Dear," they hiss, "Dear, please. We've outstayed our welcome" - until I get my way.

"Charter" schools are big in Raleigh. They are smaller than a high school, with a greater sense of accountability, reduced class numbers and increased parental involvement - like going private without paying, one mother remarks. The state pays an amount for each child educated, and provided parents can find a site - such as a disused office - and beg or borrow second-hand furniture and equipment, off they go. With more than 10 per cent of children educated at home, there are already state programmes for sport, homework and so on. But there's private-public tension, too. Developers are offering land for schools so that they can include education in their new homes prospectus. But should it be just another add-on, like multi-room stereo?

Go further up the education ladder and you find that the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has the highest concentration of PhDs in the world, thanks to the hi-tech Research Triangle Park, founded here in 1959. All the big companies are here but, as in Silicon Valley or Boston or Seattle, there's been a downturn and large-scale lay-offs. One cellular equipment provider has just shed 30,000 jobs nationwide. Retailers likewise. Telephone calls begin tentatively - "Did you hear about Circuit City? Is Bob still OK, honey?" In the relative calm of NC State university, where the economic cycle is just something you illustrate with diagrams, there's a vast, airy textile college. I visit an academic there, who turns out to be one of six expat Brits in the department. After business, we discuss religion. He claims "what faith are you?" always crops up among the first half-dozen questions in a conversation with a North Carolina stranger. Along the road, the shades of church outnumber the flavours of home-made ice cream at Cream'n'Bean.

Elegant southern ladies invite me for "scotty dogs" - a hot dog with chilli, slaw and cheese, an implausibly seductive mush eaten off paper plates at a plastic table in the bowels of the Crabtree mall. A side order of crisp linen suits, graceful language, sharp wit - and a sudden bitter edge of politics. Integration, bilingual education . . . these are no-surrender issues. Why can't the Hispanics knuckle under to the dominant culture the way earlier immigrants, other races, did? The most sophisticated of the group leaves me with a piercing question, which at first I take for a joke. Do I believe in angels? Because last weekend at her Episcopalian church, there was a sudden, unexplained fire, which scorched an entire room, leaving only the legend "Jesus loves you" untouched on the wall. Honey, how else would you explain that?

So there we are - the Jew, the Ba'hai and the lapsed Catholic. The three of us are variously squatting or lying on the floor in Jackie's kitchen, trying to figure out why her oven has suddenly lost its spark. Outside, as if to spite us, the fireflies wink in the towering thicket of turkey oak and hickory that runs up to the back deck. Next morning, seraphic Behrous touches the front of the oven and, unbidden, the flame reappears. A miracle.

Whirring through old copies of Raleigh's News and Observer on microfilm, I find brief mention of a professor's daughter, Constance Lever, from Durham, England. In the summer of 1961, she was charged with "incitement to riot of armed negroes in Monroe County". The tone of the reporting was "what's this girl doing poking her little English nose in, stirring up trouble?". Do you read the New Statesman, Constance Lever, 40 years on? What was that July like?

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