Monthly Archives: May 2011

Tales From A Reporter’s Notebook: Politicians I Have Encountered in Unusual Places

Now Playing: Outfit, by Drive-By Truckers. “I learned not to say much of nothing and I figured you already know, But in case you don’t or maybe forgot, I’ll lay it out real nice and slow. Don’t call what your wearing an outfit. Don’t ever say your car is broke. Don’t worry about losing your accent, a Southern Man tells better jokes.”

Last year, I wrote about my brushes with the Notorious – including former House Speaker Jim Black. Before he went to the slammer for political corruption, he used to occasionally come into the Jersey Mike’s where I worked sometimes in Matthews. I won’t lie – I didn’t like him at all. Aside from being a lousy – make that nonexistent – tipper, he was always distracted, self-important and completely unappreciative of the fact that we kept turkey bacon on hand just for him – he liked the turkey and ham club (the No. 8). The guy who ran/owned the joint, Dave, always tried to engage Black in conversation, as did some customers. They got little from him.

So I wasn’t too unhappy when the news of his corruption surfaced.

But reflecting on that reminded me of other elected officials I’d encountered in a 30-year career in journalism. I’ve chatted with all sorts of mayors, state representatives and senators, governors and congressmen. Nothing outside the line of duty though, for the most part. And frankly not very interesting.

But that’s not true in two other cases.

While he was still state treasurer, Richard Moore came to Charlotte and dropped by my magazine, Business North Carolina, to chat with the editors. He discussed the state’s bond rating and why it mattered – frankly, I can’t remember why it does, if it does – and a few other business-centered topics. He was funny, engaging and smart – so much so that I voted for him in the 2008 primary against Beverly Perdue. But he had no idea that we’d crossed paths once before – because if he had he might have punched me in the nose.

As it turned out, Moore, who is from Oxford, a small town north of Durham, was the secretary of crime control and public safety during the time I was in Henderson, where I was editor of the The Daily Dispatch newspaper. A friend and I coached a basketball team at the YMCA, where my son Austin stayed after school. It was a low-stress sort of gig. The kids were only 5 or 6, we mainly just tried to keep them from getting hurt.

Moore’s son also played in the league. Most of the time his mother brought him to games. But not this particular Saturday.

A disclaimer: I’m a man of some quirks – OK, a lot of quirks. One of them is that I can’t stand someone dribbling on the sideline while I’m coaching a team. For one, it makes it difficult for the players to hear any instructions. For another, it can be distracting. Hearing the sounds of the game can help you react in some situations. Granted, for my team, it was probably a good thing when they couldn’t hear Greg and I giving instructions, and these kids got distracted by their shoestrings, so I was probably a little out of line for what comes next.

The first time I asked, I was pretty courteous. “Hold the ball, please,” I said to young Moore. He acknowledged me and stopped dribbling for maybe 23 seconds. Then he started again. Then I started again. “HOLD THE BALL, PLEASE!” I shouted at the kid, who couldn’t have been any more than 8 years old. I’ll give him this; he did stop that time. But I got a scowl from the secretary. Afterwards, I think Greg mended fences – he was the head of the Henderson chamber and it would have behooved him to maintain a good relationship with a politician, especially one who even then had his eyes on bigger things. And for the record, I’d still vote for him over pretty much any Democrat I can think of.

The other state official was another one who was secretary of crime control and public safety. In fact, I think he might have just been appointed to the job back in 1979, which wasn’t long after I started working as a reporter at The Daily News in Jacksonville. I didn’t know much about Burley Mitchell Jr. when I went to cover his appearance in Swansboro. But I’d kind of follow his career as Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to the N.C. Supreme Court in 1982 – he became chief justice in 1994 and served until 1999.

But, as I said earlier, on this night he’d be in Swansboro. I was assigned to cover his appearance and do some kind of story. Sounds like pretty run-of-the-mill reporter stuff, right? No, not so much.

The appearance was at the Swansboro Moose Lodge – the first and last time I’d ever go to a Moose club.

Here’s the thing: There was a huge spread of food, and the Moose (Meese?) were drinking and having fun with the state official. Mitchell ate, of course, but he didn’t drink. But he couldn’t help but be a part of the entertainment for the night. The club had hired a belly dancer – these were simpler times, of course. No one really thought much of it. The scantily clad dancer made it a point to shake her moneymaker – and we ain’t talking her belly here – at Mitchell and his aide and maybe even at me (since I’m telling, I’m not telling).

Afterward he made a few bland but safe general remarks and made his way back to Raleigh. And the Moose (Meese?) kept partying.

Meanwhile I went back to the newsroom, where I enthusiastically told the tale of the belly dancer and the state official at the Moose Lodge – though I’ve never written about that part of the night until today. Maybe a little too enthusiastically.

Because I soon came to be known as Moose around the newspaper. As it turned out, it was the last-but-one nickname I’d ever get, and I didn’t shed it until I left for Gastonia.

And it was all because of a man who would become the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.

“I think it’s about time we voted for senators with breasts.  After all, we’ve been voting for boobs long enough.” _ Claire Sargent, Arizona senatorial candidate (she lost to McCain)


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Sweet Saran-ity … And Other Stuff

Now Playing: Midway Park, by Whiskeytown. “Ride with you tonight, I’ll ride forever. There’s no way to predict this kind of weather. Ashes fall to earth, words are severed, Feathers turn to weighted iron pillars.”

Here’s the And Other Stuff …

* So dook basketball coach Mike Ksfdlksfjsdlf makes $4.7 million a year. I’m of many minds on this. Hey, it’s a private school, and he, like everyone else, is entitled to make all the market will bear. On the other hand, wonder how much the university prez makes (the AP article I read on this stupidly didn’t say, though it did say Krrdfsdkfjsdf is the highest-paid person at the school. I hesitate to call him an employee. I don’t think he works for dook. I think it works for him. And on another hand, he’s a mealy-mouthed, wicked scumbag. There – I said it.

* Haley, one of the contestants on American Idol – I know, none of you cool kids watch it – sang one of my favorite Led Zep songs last night – the fairly obscure “What Is And What Should Never Be.” Which I would have thought Should Never Be. But you know what. She actually did a pretty good job, especially on the bluesy verses. And her dad, Lenny (that’s what I’ll call him, because of his resemblance to the underappreciated Michael McKean), might not have been Jimmy Page but he kinda rocked on the guitar. And of course it lacked the cool back and forth speaker switching of the original. But I gotta say, I liked it. (Though she’s not my fave – I think Lauren is the best.)

* Been holding this one in awhile. Earlier this year, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center announced its new name – the product of two years of work, expected to cost $3.5 million to implement. It wanted to call attention to its growing academic reputation. What’s the new name? Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Yeah, to highlight its academic reputation, it dropped “University.” And kept “Baptist.” Because nothing says we’re at the forefront of scientific discovery like “Baptist.” Go figure.

* Things the legislature has had time to do while putting off reconsideration of extended unemployment benefits for nearly 42,000 Tar Heels: Name NASCAR the official state sport (I’m not making this up). Eliminate lottery-funded need-based college scholarships (not making this up, either). Discuss the need for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages (you get the drill). Decide that cable companies shouldn’t have competition from cities in offering broadband services (Lord knows, cable companies shouldn’t have any incentive to actually improve service).

* Ending tax breaks for Big Oil companies sure sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? Because the oil companies wouldn’t raise prices or anything to make up for losing them, would they? Talk about your empty political gestures.

And now, Sweet Saran-ity.

For the past three nights, I’ve slept with my feet wrapped in Saran Wrap. OK, actually  it is Up & Up Plastic Wrap Clear (which I think is the Bi-Lo store brand) [Correction: I’ve just been informed that’s the Target house brand].

Why? Doctor’s orders.

I’ve been a lucky guy all my life. When I was 19 years old, I destroyed my car, a parked car and a parked truck in a wreck. On the wrong side of the road. I fell asleep. All I got out of it was a reckless driving ticket (later reduced to failure to keep vehicle under control) and bruised ribs. Maybe I shouldn’t say just bruised ribs. They hurt like hell. For months. And even when I thought they were well, they weren’t. As I learned at Carowinds when I tried to shoot a free throw at one of the booths.

The only time I was ever hospitalized was when I broke my arm about six years later. When I fell down in the parking lot outside my town house. It didn’t even hurt when I did it. Though that would change a few hours later. When I noticed that my right arm wouldn’t work. So I got up from bed, got dressed and drove myself to Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville. They operated later that morning, installing a plate, some screws and a pin. But once I woke and vomited on the nurse – the anesthesia got me – I felt fine. It didn’t really hurt much at all. And I got lots of sympathy from it.

I guess the most serious medical problem I’ve had was shingles, when I was at Gastonia. If you’ve never heard of shingles, it’s caused by the chicken-pox virus. I had chicken pox when I was kid. Just a normal case. But shingles is anything but normal. Just ask anyone who has had it. It burns like hell. For weeks. And to this date, at least 23 years later, there are still shingle zones on my body that are extremely sensitive. Don’t get them, and don’t laugh at anybody who does.

Which brings me to my feet. I’ve had terrible feet all my life. They’re slow, they’re flat and they have one other problem. My heels. (Some irony there, that a devoted UNC grad would have problems with his Heels.) They’re rough and cracked and terrible. When they split, they get extremely sore.

My latest doctor has plans to fix them. He prescribed a cream to me that I apply twice a day. One of those applications comes at night. When he told me I should sheath them in Saran Wrap. To keep the moisture in and help with the softening process.

And you know what? It’s working. My heels are getting soft and the cracks are going away. It’s a medical treatment that actually works.

The Saran wrap website asks a question about how you use the product. Think they’ll believe me when I tell ’em?

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it. _ Mark Twain

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To Serve and Protect

Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waitress replies, “I’m sorry, monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?”

Today’s post is about – no, not cops – waitresses and waiters. As many of you know, my family recently traveled to Williamsport, Pa., first to see my ailing mother-in-law, then a few days later for her funeral. She was a kind funny woman, and her family misses her dearly already. I’m sure we always will. So please don’t take anything you read in the rest of the post as diminishing the pain we feel over her loss.

During the two trips, we ate in restaurants almost every meal. Now I have a soft spot for waitresses – both my stepdaughters are waitresses. I was enraged when Oprah suggested that people should only tip 10% – what a crappy thing for a rich-as-sin person of no discernible talent to say. And one of the few fights I almost got in was over a waitress’ honor (that’s a tale for another day, however). Bottom line, I like waitresses, and I try to treat them well.

Anyway, the first full day we were in PA – a Sunday – we decided to have a late lunch with my sister-in-law, Sherry, at a restaurant I’ll call THIT, Thank Heavens It’s Thursday. There were Karen, Garrett, Lauren, Nicki and Sherri. I got some sort of chicken dish, I don’t even remember what. My food was good enough, so was the service. Nothing was remarkable. Not at first anyway. It was only when we got back from the trip that something seemed odd. It happened when Sherry got her credit-card statement. She’d been charged more than $60 for her meal – way too much, as she was only paying for her own. That made me look up our bill – we were charged about $17, way too little. And no, it wasn’t just switched around. Neither charged matched up with what it should have been.

Here’s the thing, though. Sherry called and got her’s straightened out. They promised a refund when she came back (and they cheerfully delivered, by the way). I thought that was pretty outstanding customer service. Though as it would turn out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

That night (and no, I’m not going to chronicle every meal), we went to a local place named Joey’s. Karen and Sherry said it had good cheesesteaks. Which was all I needed to hear. The food was good, though it turned out that when you ordered a cheesesteak with peppers you had to ask a second time to get the peppers – and they came on the side. I’m not making that up. But what made Joey’s unique that night (and there’s a reason I put it that way), was our waitress. I don’t know what her name was, so I’m going to call her Hazel, but you could only say she was a broad, in the best sense of the term.

Here’s what happened: I mentioned that Lauren and Nicki are both waitresses, too. That being so, they’re used to people asking for substitutions, etc., on their orders. And they’re now used to asking for them, too.

Not on Hazel’s watch.

We learned that when we were ordering. Lauren wanted some kind of appetizer sampler plate, but she asked to change one of the items. “NO SUBSTITUTIONS ON THE SPECIALS, HONEY!” Hazel said. Then she asked not to have bacon on her potato skins. “IT ALL COMES ON THE SIDE, HONEY, YOU CAN USE WHAT YOU WANT.” Lauren was dumbstruck, which I must say doesn’t happen very often. Hazel finished taking the orders, then went on her way. The food came, and I have to admit it was pretty good. But Nicki, who’d gotten a Caesar salad that had about two pounds of bacon on it, had another request: She wanted a creamy Caesar dressing. “THAT’S THE WAY IT COMES, HONEY,” Hazel thundered, pointing to the cup of dressing on the mound of lettuce and bacon.

On the way back home from the first trip, we stopped at the Red Robin in Carlisle, Pa. (there’s a reason I’m mentioning the chain by name, and you’ll see why later). We had a satisfying meal, with good service. Almost too good. Our waiter kept offering to fill our raspberry ice tea. So did some of the other wait staff. In fact, one grabbed Karen’s glass without asking. Which was fine until we got the check. Garrett got some sort of flavored lemonade, and he’d had a couple of refills. Meanwhile Karen and I were charged for four drinks, Which meant they’d charged us for those refills they’d so aggressively pushed. To tell the truth, I hadn’t even seen the drink section of the menu, so I figured the charge was valid, paid it, and moved on. But when I got home, I looked it up online. Those raspberry teas, like Garrett’s lemonade, were listed under the bottomless beverage section of the menu. So we’d been cheated of about $6.

Karen was livid. She took my receipt and said she’d call the next day. Again, the customer service was great. They immediately acknowledged the mistake and said they’d credit my debit card for the overcharge within four or five days. Actually, they did it the following day. Here’s the thing though: The amount they refunded was about $8.50 – more than we actually were entitled to repay us for our drinks, yet not enough for it to have covered Garrett’s, too. Still, we appreciated the effort and resolved to have no hard feelings about it.

A few days later, we headed back up for the funeral. We decided to eat at a restaurant I’ll call PearBugs, which is not its name but is in the Neighborhood. Because that’s what I called it last year when I had this experience. We were in Radford, Va. It was my first time in a PearBugs since I’d gotten the bolt. We had a great experience this time, mostly because of our waitress, Kelly. Turns out she was from Sanford and was waitressing until she could start vet school at nearby Virginia Tech. I wish her all the best.

Once we were back in Williamsport, we went on a family dinner – we had Austin with us this time, in addition to Garrett, Lauren and Nicki – with Sherry, her husband, Darryl, and her daughter Carley. We were at some fancy Italian place – I can’t remember the name, only that it was loud but good. But the best part came when our waitress, also named Kelly, asked where we were from. When we said Charlotte, she responded, “Great. I’m from Texas and I want to move to Charlotte.” That kinda begged the question of why she was in Williamsport, but we didn’t pursue it.

Then there was our return trip to Joey’s to give Austin a chance to experience it. Which he did. The food, for whatever reason, wasn’t good this time. I got a stromboli, and I just didn’t care for it. It was dry and tasteless. It was Saturday night, and there apparently was an open-mike night because we kept seeing people headed to the bar in back with guitars. Then I heard it – the most god-awful version of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” that I could imagine (oddly enough, we heard the original on the radio on our way back home the next day, so I was able to get the taste out of my ears). But the funniest part of the night came when two locals, Austin named them Slim and Big, sat in the booth right next to ours. Both were heavily tattooed, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and they threw f-bombs around like Coach K on those rare occasions when a blocking foul gets called on dook. Or any foul, for that matter. Finally, Big, who despite being that was wearing a not-very-flattering wifebeater, called Slim a dumbass. Slim, aghast, pointed to the boys and said, “Hey, there’s kids around. Watch your language.”

So much for the service part of this post. Now here’s the protect part:

On the way back home, we stopped at a Red Robin in either Mechanicsburg or Chambersburg, I can’t remember which. What I do remember is our waitress, Tamara. She took great care of us during the meal, and we got back on the road pretty quickly, even though it was a busy Sunday. Because we really wanted to get home as soon as we could. In fact, I wanted to get home so quickly I left my debit card in the check thingy. Which I didn’t realize until we were three states away, around Harrisonburg, Va. Obviously, we couldn’t turn around at that point. But I still had my receipt, so I had the phone number. Karen called and talked to a manager there, who had the card on his desk – Tamara had turned it right in – and said he’d mail it to us the next day.

Well, Thursday came, and no card had come. I was pretty worried, so I called again. I got the guy, his name was Sam, and he explained he’d taken the address down wrong from Karen. Turned out he’d transposed a couple of numbers in the zip code. Anyway, he promised he’d call FedEx when he hung up to come make a pickup and overnight it to me.

And you know what. That’s just what Sam did. I had my card, safe and sound, by 10:30 the next morning. The folks there had protected me, he’d lived up to a promise and Red Robin had earned a fan for life.

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Hole in My Heart

The following guest post is by my wife, Karen.

Two weeks ago today, my mother died. When people have asked me how I’m doing, I’ve said okay. Until now, I thought I was. But I’m not.

I have a hole in my heart.

I miss my mom in ways I never thought I would. When I hear someone else mention their mom, I am jealous that I will no longer have that story to tell. When I hear something funny or interesting that my mom would like, I then remember that I’ll never have the opportunity to tell her. Because of my mom’s death, I am really missing my dad, too, who died 21 years ago. I guess it’s because my best memories of them were as a couple and us as a family. I am missing my security blanket and my safety net. I didn’t ask my mom for much, but I knew she was always there to help me if I needed it.

My husband’s parents are both gone, too. It is a daunting feeling to be left with no parents. It reminds me that (hopefully many years from now) we are in line to be next. I worry that it will happen to someone else.

The healing will take a while. People who have lost their moms tell me that eventually, it gets better. But it never goes away. It shouldn’t.

What is paining me right now is the reactions, or mostly lack of, from others. I guess I expected something more, or something different.

Don’t get me wrong; I really like social media. Facebook has reconnected me with people from many years past and brought me closer to those that I only get to see occasionally. I’ve also developed some great Facebook and Twitter friendships with people I have never met in person, but know through mutual friends or interests. That said, I was overwhelmed at the number of people who reached out to me electronically during my mom’s illness and after her death. It was warm and comforting when my smart phone was my constant companion.

But I guess I was looking for a Hallmark moment. You know, someone dies, you send a sympathy card, you stop by the house, you make a personal phone call, you give me a hug at work. Many of you did, and it meant the world to me.

I just don’t understand why the rest of you didn’t. The ones I thought I had close, personal relationships with, not just electronic ones. The friends I would help in the middle of the night. The people I would give my last dollar to. The extended family that I hoped would reach out.

I realize that death is pretty icky. People either want to talk about it (mostly older people) or they want to run from it, glad it wasn’t them. I realize that everyone has their own lives and agendas: kid’s sports, new babies, surgery, work, relationship issues. I realize that what is happening in my life is pretty inconsequential to your own.

I have a birthday every year. I have a bad day every few months. I have exciting news once in a while. I don’t care if you acknowledge any of that stuff. But my mother – the only mother I’ll ever have – is only going to die once.

Maybe you don’t quite know what to say. HINT: Say anything. It’s better than nothing. Maybe you’re giving me time and space. What you don’t realize is that my days have a lot of space now that I’m not constantly on the phone with caregivers and my sister and making arrangements. There’s too much space right now. And no one is trying to fill it.

I was hopeful, even certain, that my mom’s death would strengthen my own relationships. But I feel like it has distanced many of them that I was counting on to help me get through this. I’m hurt and I’m angry.

See, I know that you know. You’ve posted “Sorry about your mom” or “I’m drinking my third cup of coffee this morning” or “My dog is wearing a party hat.” You don’t hide on social media. And if you’re not on social media (and obviously not reading this), I know someone told you.

They say funerals are not for the dead. They are for the living, for us to grieve and remember. They are ceremonies to help us move forward.

Even if you never knew my mom, you know me. And you know me well enough to know that I’d be there for you if it were your mom. You wouldn’t have to ask.

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A Splash of Insight

“Honey, why are you so wet?”

Those were Karen’s words as she came through the door last night. It was a simple question, but it had a complicated answer  – one that wouldn’t fully reveal itself for several hours.

It had started yesterday afternoon, when we had spoken by phone. She had planted some flowers, tomatoes and basil Sunday, then discovered that the hose in the back yard didn’t work property so she’d had to use a watering can on them. Anyway, she asked Monday if I’d either fix the hose, move the curly hose from the front yard to the back or go get a new one.

Fair enough. Shortly after we spoke, I went out back and spotted the problem. The back yard hose is a flexible one. Which means it is just flexible enough to kink up at any turn without really providing advantages other than being easy to carry when you need to move it. Which we usually don’t. Karen had cleared the kinks she saw Sunday but inevitably clearing one causes another – it’s really a crappy hose, to tell you the truth. Anyway, I cleared a couple that had popped up and successfully watered the flowers, vegetables and spices in the back yard. Problem solved, and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Three or four hours later, I decided to water the flowers out front. Shoulda been easy. There’s a curly hose out front that’s always been much more reliable than the flexible one. There was, of course, a flaw. Several of them. The curly hose had at least three leaks that sprayed me big time before I could shut it off and replace it with a harder one I’d gotten last year.

I was soaked. My shirt and shorts were wet, my hair was dripping, I had water on my glasses.When Karen got home, she figured I’d gotten wet in the back yard. No, I explained, I’d taken care of that hours before. The problem was the holey curly hose.

She smiled. And that could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t.

After we’d eaten, we settled down in the living room, to watch a little DWTS – I don’t care if it isn’t cool, I like it, and I can’t wait for DanceCenter tonight. During a commercial, I stood and made a confession.

“Honey, I didn’t just get wet this afternoon because of the holey curly hose.”

“Oh?” she said, knowing something bad was coming because I hadn’t told the whole story immediately.

“See, when I went out front to water, the holey curly hose wasn’t hooked up.”

Up until last year, it was always hooked up. Because it was curly and wasn’t holey and didn’t take up much room. But I’d bought a sprinkler last year in an effort – largely successful – to improve my lawn. And hooked it up to a harder hose that could stretch where I needed it to go. And left it hooked up.

“I just turned the water on, and the sprinkler came on, and it got me two or three times before I could get the spigot turned off.”

She laughed, Garrett howled and I felt better, though pretty embarrassed.

And I resolved, from now on, to look before I sprinkle.

“Humor is the affectionate communication of insight.” – Leo Rosten

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