Friday, December 09, 2011

A couple of follow-ups on Foundation for the Carolinas

Two quick notes following up on my story last Sunday on the Foundation for the Carolinas' new building:

-- In the story, I quoted from an essay by former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. The essay ran in the Observer, and our version noted that it originally ran (in a longer form) on the Charlotte Viewpoint website. I didn't notice that, and didn't give Charlotte Viewpoint proper credit in my story. Here's the original version on their site.

-- My story also mentioned the mystery of the wrought-iron letters "KB" over the entrance to the building, which used to be Montaldo's department store. Charlotte architect David Furman wrote in to say he thinks the "KB" stands for King Bostrom, a clothing store that occupied the building at 220 N. Tryon St. in the late '80s.

If anybody has more details -- or a different story -- holler and I'll update.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

From the vault: Daisy and Violet Hilton

I spent a little time with a documentary filmmaker Wednesday. Leslie Zemeckis was in town working on her new project, a film about Daisy and Violet Hilton.

If you lived here in the '60s you knew about the Hilton sisters. They were conjoined twins (what used to be called Siamese twins) who were well-known performers for a time -- among other things, they co-starred in the cult classic "Freaks." They spent the last years of their lives in Charlotte. I wrote about them back in 1997. I dug out that story and re-read it so I could at least attempt to make sense on camera with Zemeckis. So while I've got the story in front of me, I thought I'd share.

A story of 2 sisters, together, always
Dec. 7, 1997

Side by side the two sisters walked into the Park-N-Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard on a warm winter day in 1962.

Charles Reid owned the grocery store. He knew what the women wanted. It scared him half to death.

Daisy and Violet Hilton had troweled on the makeup. Red toenails poked out from their sandals. Their hair was dirty and their clothes looked like they had been slept in.

They wanted Charles Reid to give them a job.

They would both work, they said, but Reid would only have to pay for one.

Because of their situation.

They were fused at the hip.

Siamese twins.

They had been in the Park-N-Shop a couple of times that week, buying groceries, and the day before they had called Reid and asked if they could come in and talk to him.

At the time Reid didn't know about the history of Daisy and Violet Hilton.

How they were displayed in freak shows before they were old enough for school.

How they became vaudeville performers who once made thousands of dollars a week - nearly all of it snatched away by their managers.

How their show business career had faded, then crumbled just a few weeks before when their manager stranded them in Monroe, broke and desperate.

Reid didn't know any of that. All he could see was the need in their eyes.

After they called that day, he prayed that night.

Lord, I know you want me to do something with these people. What in the world would I do with them?

What he did was this: He gave them a job. (He paid them both.) He found them a house and showed them a church.

And the Hilton twins quietly spent the rest of their lives in Charlotte, no one but a few friends and co-workers ever knowing that Siamese twins lived in town.

Now, nearly 30 years after their deaths, the Hilton twins are stars again. A new Broadway musical called "Side Show" is based on the Hiltons' show-business careers.

But what the Broadway show doesn't tell is the story of the Hiltons' lives in Charlotte.

The only normal lives they ever had.


Stranded in North Carolina

As they faced you, Violet Hilton was on the left, Daisy on the right. Violet's left hip joined Daisy's right at a 45-degree angle; they moved in a permanent V, like a flock of geese.

They didn't share any organs, but their blood flowed through both bodies. Some people say they shared each other's thoughts. At the very least, they shared instincts.

"They never said Let's go over yonder' or anything like that, " says Charles Reid, who is now 76. "They just got up and started walking."

They were barely scraping out a living as 1961 bled into '62. They had given up show business once before, to run a snack bar in Miami, but the snack bar folded and they ended up back on the road.

They were over 50 years old when they swung through North Carolina in January 1962 to promote the horror movie "Freaks." The Hiltons had appeared in "Freaks" 30 years before, and now it was making a run through the drive-ins.

How they ended up in Monroe isn't clear - a lot about the Hiltons' lives isn't clear - but what is clear is that their manager, who had traveled with them, suddenly left them behind.

They stayed in a Monroe hotel for a couple of weeks, trying to find work. The hotel bill mounted. Finally some businesspeople raised enough money to send the Hiltons to Charlotte. Everybody figured they could blend in better in the city.

Daisy and Violet rented a place at Tanzy's Trailer Park on Wilkinson Boulevard. Soon after, they asked Charles Reid for a job.

They offered to scrub floors, but Reid couldn't imagine what his customers would do if they saw that. He had just one job he thought they could easily do together.

The Park-N-Shop had a long produce section at the back of the store. At the end of the section, there were two counters where people lined up to have their produce weighed and priced.

The two counters ran parallel, but it was easy enough to turn them into a V.

Reid had a couple of conditions. They had to get rid of the makeup and the long nails and the whole show-biz look. And their hair had to be the same color - Violet's was her natural brunet, but Daisy had dyed hers red.

Reid's wife, Larue, took the Hiltons to get their hair fixed and buy some new clothes. The twins bought three pair of skirts they could alter at home, ripping the seams apart and sewing two skirts into one.

Reid gave them two red-and-white checked shirts, just like everyone else at Park-N-Shop wore.

The next Monday they came to work. For the next seven years they worked the same shift, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Most of the people who came through the produce lines never knew their apples and potatoes were being weighed by Siamese twins.


Making a life in Charlotte

After a few months in Charlotte they asked Reid for another favor - help in finding a house.

Reid knew just the place. His church, Purcell United Methodist over on Weyland Avenue, had bought several pieces of land around the church to turn into parking lots. They didn't need all the land right then, and a couple of the lots still had houses on them. After getting the OK from the church elders, the Hiltons moved into a house kitty-corner from the church.

"It had two bedrooms, " Reid says, "but of course they only needed one."

They also needed furniture. Reid made a call to Archie Moore, who ran Clinton's Furniture Co. on Brevard Street uptown. He got them a couch and a bed and a dinette set.

They got a dog, a mixed breed with lots of Lab in him. Leo Wingate used to buy rubber rats - two dozen at a time - for the dog to chew on.

Wingate was a bread salesman for Merita who made deliveries to the Park-N-Shop and got to be friends with the Hiltons. Sometimes he'd be on his route and see them walking to work and pull over to give them a ride. They were tiny - 4 feet 10, about 90 pounds apiece - and they could slip in and out of a car just as easy as you please.

Wingate also went to Purcell United Methodist, where the twins attended from time to time. The church had a do-good box, where they collected money for charity projects, and the twins always put money in the do-good box on top of their regular tithe.

When they went to Sunday school they attended the men's class. Wingate thinks they were more comfortable around men, that women asked too many questions. The Rev. Ernest Fitzgerald, their pastor from 1962 to 1964, figures it was because the men's class was on ground level and the women's was down in the basement.

Either way, they kept to themselves.

"Daisy's the one that did most of the talking, " Wingate says. "The other one didn't have anything to say, except once in a while Daisy would be talking about somewhere she had been, and Violet would poke her in the ribs and say, I was there too!' "

They would chat with customers at the Park-N-Shop, but they refused to do interviews or have their picture taken for the paper. An Illinois doctor known as an expert on Siamese twins came to Charlotte in 1967 to talk to the Hiltons. They turned him down.

Daisy and Violet hated doctors.

"Every doctor that put their hands on them, the first thing they wanted to do was cut them apart, " Reid says. "They could have been separated, even back then. But they didn't want to.

"They said to me, Mr. Reid, we've been together our whole life. We don't ever want to be apart.' "


Taken by the Hong Kong flu

And so they lived, never making a fuss, until 1968 bled into '69. Then Violet caught the Hong Kong flu. And just as Violet got better, Daisy caught it.

They were gone from work for a couple of weeks. The Reids called every day to check on them. If Daisy and Violet didn't want to be bothered, they would take the phone off the hook.

But one day the phone rang and rang and nobody answered.

Reid waited until the next morning - Jan. 4, 1969 - and called every hour. Still no answer. So he and his wife drove to the little house across from the church. They banged on the door and nobody came. They called the police.

An officer came and asked Reid what he wanted to do. Reid asked the policeman to pry open the door.

The rooms in the house on Weyland Avenue were connected by a little hallway in the middle of the house. The house was heated through a grate in the hallway floor.

Daisy and Violet lay dead on the grate.

Reid figures they were trying to stay warm as the Hong Kong flu took them away.

Their death certificates estimated they were 60 years old.

There were 23 flower arrangements at the funeral at Hankins and Whittington funeral home on South Boulevard. The crowd was mostly friends and co-workers; Charles Reid saw only one family he didn't recognize.

They were buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery off Freedom Drive. "It was just like an ordinary funeral, " Leo Wingate says, "except for there being two in one casket and all."

The Hiltons share a tombstone with a Vietnam vet named Troy Thompson, and they have a simple marker in the ground:

Daisy and Violet Hilton


"Beloved Siamese Twins"

It was Charles Reid's job to clean out the house on Weyland Avenue.

The only thing out of the ordinary was a dresser, four or five drawers, and every drawer filled with pocketbooks. And every pocketbook had three or four dollars inside.

"The only thing I can figure, " Charles Reid says, "is that they took lots of taxicabs, and they could just grab a pocketbook on the way out and know there was cab fare in it."

Reid found a bunch of photos and newspaper clippings from the Hiltons' show-biz days. But they were all stowed away. None of their movie posters on the walls. None of their publicity photos on the dressers.

Just a normal little house where two sisters lived out their lives together.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State and the infinite sadness

This story from Penn State is a blood diamond. So many facets, so many different angles, all of them uncomfortable to think about.

There's the hold that big-time sports has on our culture. I say this as a fan: The games matter far too much to far too many. Coaches and stars are our secular gods. Nobody in the state of Pennsylvania was as loved or as powerful as Joe Paterno.

There's the idea of sins of omission. Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach now charged with molesting boys, is the worst villain here. But several people, including Paterno, could have done more to stop him, and didn't.

There's the part that's personal. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski, one of my best friends, has been at Penn State for the last few months, writing a book on Paterno. Now the work ahead of him is so different than he, or anyone else, could have imagined. (He tweeted this from the scene Wednesday night: "I saw a girl crying tonight. When I asked why she said: 'Because everybody lost.'")

But the longer I roll it around, the more this story keeps circling back to one thing: The impulse to protect institutions, even at the expense of people.

Our nature is to build grand things, and to be drawn to them. Giant banks hold our money, stadiums hold our passion, vast churches hold our mysteries. Part of life is the search for something bigger than ourselves, someplace where we fit. When we find that place -- a job, a team, a school -- we often defend it beyond all reason.

Now imagine if you had built one of those institutions. That's what Joe Paterno did at Penn State. He started as an assistant coach there in 1950 before becoming head coach in 1966. That's 61 years in one place, 45 years as the head man, creating a program known for both high academic standards and wins on the field. For decades, Penn State was the model of what college sports could do for its players and for a campus. Paterno did that.

It's easy to imagine that he would refuse to let anything ruin it.

We might never know what was in Paterno's mind, or the minds of all the other people who had information that Jerry Sandusky had molested a young boy in the locker-room showers. But two facts are daggers to their credibility. Not one of those adults called 911. And not one tried to find out who that boy was, and how to help him.

So often, this is where corruption starts. One mistake. One failure to follow up. One moment of fear that finding the whole truth, and telling it, would destroy this beautiful structure that so many believe in.

Good people do regrettable things all the time. You can rationalize almost anything when you believe there's something more important to protect. This is how police departments rot from the inside, and churches collapse, and banks end up bankrupt.

The thing is, those misguided people trying to save an institution end up being the ones who wreck it.

What if somebody had turned in Jerry Sandusky right away? It would've been a brief, ugly story with a short shelf life. But now Paterno is gone, and the university president has been fired, and people have to wonder what else Penn State might have covered up. Everything that took so long to build is wobbling at the beams.

And none of that is the worst of it.

The worst is this: All the sadness about Paterno, about Penn State, about all the students and alumni and fans who love the school, pales against the sadness of that 10-year-old boy in the shower. Not to mention all the other boys who were victims after the adults at Penn State knew what they knew, and did not do enough.

The story is not over. It will grow and change and we will see angles we hadn't thought of. But it seems to me we can come to one conclusion. No institution is worth what happened to those boys.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The cloth of memories

The cotton’s coming in.

I saw it the other day driving up I-85, in the countryside around Kannapolis and Salisbury. We’re a top-10 cotton-producing state – nearly a million bales last year – but most of the farms are way out East. Around here you mostly see little patches off the side of the road, looking like snowfields.

This area has such a tangled history with thread and string and yarn. Our towns and cities grew because of the cotton mills – shoot, Kannapolis was created from scratch as a mill town. Hundreds of thousands of Carolinians made a living in the mills. Then synthetic fibers took out a lot of the farmers. Later on, most of the textile companies went off overseas. We got left with beautiful old brick buildings with broken windows.

To so many families around here, cotton was a personal thing. They got the lint in their hair and the dust in their lungs. They dried themselves with Carolina towels and clothed themselves in Carolina denim. As the mills died out, so did the idea that you could get on with one company and work there the rest of your life. People still love the mills, and hate them, often both at the same time.

Cotton was personal in my family, too.

My mom and dad grew up in Georgia as sharecroppers. Both their families picked cotton in fields other people owned. My mom had to quit school in fourth grade and my dad in sixth. They spent every dry day in the fields. They dragged the heavy sacks of cotton down the rows. They picked until dark.

To this day, when we drive by a cotton field, my mama turns her head away.

But my folks climbed the ladder like so many others. They made it off the cotton field and into factory work. My dad went out on his own as a carpenter. We have always had those possibilities in this country for people who work with their hands. You could make your way through ever-better blue-collar jobs. You could set things up so your children wouldn’t have to work so hard.

That progression is so much different now.

It’s a combination of the economy and evolution. The world is evolving toward more high-tech jobs – jobs that require skill in math, science, computers, electronics. At the same time, our sagging economy is hitting blue-collar workers hardest. Jobs have been washed out from under them like sand around a piling.

A cotton field is a beautiful sight on an October drive. These days, it’s good to see a crop that will help a farmer put food on the table. And cotton belongs here, as part of our history. They even have machines to strip the fields now.

But I still get a little shudder when I look at a cotton field. It’s part of my inheritance.

Cotton is deceptive. It looks like you can just pluck the bolls like flowers. But the plants are low, and cotton hulls are as sharp as thorns. My folks, like so many others who picked cotton by hand, ended up with torn-up hands and bent-over backs.

It was awful work. The only thing worse would have been not having it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Music Wednesday: The Black Keys

Here's a new song by one of my favorite bands, the Black Keys. This dude is not the band's real lead singer. But I think he should be EVERY band's lead singer.

So what are y'all listening to? Send links, reviews, etc.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A candidate for Worst Movie Ever?

If you've watched the NFL or the baseball playoffs lately, you've seen the trailer for this new Adam Sandler movie called "Jack and Jill." If you haven't, stop for a second and watch. You really need to see this.

Let's start with the possibility that any movie could be a five-star movie, but various aspects of the movie could cause it to lose stars. So, based on the trailer:

-- It's an Adam Sandler movie. (Minus 1 star.)

-- It's an Adam Sandler movie where he dresses in drag to play his own twin sister. (Minus 3 stars.)

-- It's an Adam Sandler movie where he dresses in drag to play his own twin sister, and Al Pacino (playing himself) has the hots for the twin sister. (Minus 37 stars, and Pacino has to give back his Oscar.)

Somehow poor sweet Katie Holmes ends up in the middle of it all. We can only assume that Tom Cruise was at home jumping around on the couches, and she said yes just to get away for a few weeks.

Now... it's possible that the rest of the movie could be full of uproarious gags and tender reflections on the duality of the human spirit. But you'd think that if they had any of that, they would have put some in the trailer. Maybe in place of the "Twister with your sister" line.

The truth is, this trailer leaves me a little giddy. Because we might have a new candidate for Worst Movie of All Time.

There are lots of bad movies out there, of course. But to make a run at Worst Movie of All Time, you have to be special. B-movies don't count. Some of them are good, some are terrible*, but they're playing under different rules -- you can't count Arena League records in the NFL.

*I worked at a drive-in theater in high school and a couple of summers in college... we specialized in three types of movies: first-run movies after the indoor theaters got tired of them; X-rated movies with all the X-rated parts cut out; and random B-movies. Having seen hundreds of B-movies, I can state without a doubt that the best bad movie of all time is "Gymkata." A spy is sent to a distant country to run through the woods in a game to the death. His special survival skill? Gymnastics. Which comes in handy when he arrives in a village of crazed killers -- and there, in the middle of the town square, is a pommel horse. All I can say about this clip is, well, you're welcome.

So, to have a shot at Worst Movie of All Time, you have to have the money and stars to make a good movie; you have to be trying to make a good movie; and you have to fail totally, utterly, miserably.

About 20 years ago, my friend Matt Brunson had a couple of extra passes for a screening. So I went with Matt and our buddy Joe Posnanski to see a comedy called "Hudson Hawk." It starred Bruce Willis (coming off the first two "Die Hard" movies), Danny Aiello (so good in "Moonstruck" and "Do the Right Thing") and Andie MacDowell (not long after "Sex, Lies & Videotape"). Willis and Aiello were master burglars, MacDowell the love interest... we figured it had a chance to be good.

Instead, for the next two hours, we watched a trainwreck on the screen. What was this movie not? Let me count the ways: Not funny, not smart, not clever, not well-acted, not interesting, not compelling, did I mention not funny? The main thing I remember, 20 years down the road, is that the villainous mobsters were called the Mario Brothers. Like the video games. I had forgotten, until I read the Wikipedia entry, that the other bad guys (there were lots of bad guys) were named for candy bars. Here's part of the plot synopsis:

Kit Kat and Butterfinger take Anna to the castle. Tommy trips Snickers, causing his bomb launcher to shoot a bomb onto his head. Hudson and Tommy escape while Snickers and Almond Joy are killed when the bomb goes off.

Sorry for the spoilers.

Afterward we stood outside in the parking lot, and we could barely talk about it -- it was like trying to review somebody belching the national anthem. To this day no bad movie I've seen has topped it, by which I mean, bottomed it.

But "Jack and Jill" has real potential. There's a moment in the trailer when you see Adam Sandler, in drag, wearing a trenchcoat. I'm guessing, at some point, the trenchcoat comes off. And when it does, Worst Movie of All Time might be in play.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wednesday tunes -- a little Zeppelin, a little Alabama

I'm a little bummed out that the Civil Wars show scheduled for tonight got postponed... so I went looking for some music. Maybe I'll just post a couple of things up here every Wednesday. I'm always running across new stuff.

Neither of these clips are new, exactly -- they're old tunes done in new ways. First up is Michael Winslow, who you might remember as Sound Effects Guy from the "Police Academy" movies and various commercials during the '80s and '90s. I have no idea what he's been up to, but apparently it involves learning the Led Zeppelin catalog. This is pretty amazing.

(Thanks to for putting this out there.)

This other YouTube clip isn't much of a video at all -- it was shot from so far away you can barely see the musicians. But the audio is enough. Here's Ryan Adams (formerly of the great N.C. band Whiskeytown) and Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers) covering Alabama's "Love in the First Degree." If you look closely enough, you can see Adams sporting a Buck Owens guitar.

So what are y'all listening to these days?

Monday, October 17, 2011

A day at the fair

We went to the N.C. State Fair on Saturday, along with (and this is an unofficial crowd estimate) 42 million other people. The state fair is one of the great sensory feasts in all of America -- so much to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Here are a few of the sights -- and a couple of little stories I imagined along the way.

It's a blast to just check out the artwork on the rides... they pay great attention to detail on the art (I hope they pay as much attention to making sure the rides don't fling people halfway to Durham). If we knew aliens would be this comely, I think we'd all welcome our new alien overlords.

Gilding the Lily Dept.: They had deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried Snickers, deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried cheesecake, deep-fried butter, deep-fried Kool-Aid... which, it turns out, is just Kool-Aid mixed into funnel-cake batter. We tried the deep-fried Reese's Cups. I'm ashamed to say, they were really good.

We found the Great Pumpkin.

"Do not feed your fingers to the donkeys" is such an odd way to say "Don't stick your fingers through the donkey cage, dunce." Maybe somebody was inspired by the first-ever "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

It goes without saying that "Toggenburg Goats" would be a great name for a rock band.

What a downer -- to get all the way to the state fair and find out you're only the second-best meat goat.

We ended up outside one of the livestock buildings as they brought lambs in and out. I'm not sure how you get a coat that shiny. Fried Kool-Aid, maybe.

The crab shrimp were better than I expected -- even though you had to devein them AND crack the claws.

My wife tried to cleanse her palate with vegetables. Yeah, those were fried too.

"The World's Largest Gummi Bear sat still and silent. Those puny ropes would never hold it. It waited for the right time. And then it would punish all those people who ate all his little chewy friends..."

"Angie knew her child was... different. He insisted on that Batman costume. And he always rode upside-down in the stroller. But he was a happy boy, as long as she caught him enough mosquitoes to eat."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Observer, Sovacool

Joe Sovacool looked like Jesus and talked like jazz. I had no idea how old he was. Maybe 42, maybe 62. All I knew was that he was the coolest guy in the room. Our newsroom.

Thousands of you heard his voice over the years. If you called the paper looking for somebody, or just to rant at the state of the world, Joe was more often than not the guy who picked up the phone. Charlotte Observer, Sovacool. Or just Observer, Sovacool. We joked that thousands of years from now, when robots ran the earth, Joe would still be there at his desk, soothing the angry robot callers in his soft and low late-night-DJ voice.

Observer, Sovacool.

Joe went and died on us Thursday. (His sister posted the news on Facebook, and I finally learned -- Joseph William Sovacool was 53.) He had been battling lung cancer for a couple of years and then the tumors spread to his brain. He was a little stick of a guy even before he got sick, and the cancer thinned him even more. He lost his Jesus hair. He had trouble with his balance. But he kept working up until a few weeks ago.

Sometimes the place you work becomes home. I'd see Joe outside the office now and then, usually at Thomas Street Tavern, where he'd drink a beer and read a book at the corner of the bar. I know the paper wasn't where he slept. But in my mind, it was always where he lived.

In every office there are one or two people who keep the whole operation from veering into the ditch. They are never the highest-paid people. For years Joe was in charge of the clerks who answered phones, ordered supplies, took obits from funeral homes, kept the copiers running, doled out the mail, and did a hundred other things to make our office go. If you were a panicked reporter in the field (and I've often been a panicked reporter in the field), when you heard Joe's voice on the phone you knew things would be all right. He'd find the editor who had run off to the john. He'd dig out the fax that was buried in the stack. He'd take care of you.

We bonded over Steely Dan. Joe was one of those fans who had heard the Japanese bootleg and the seventh alternate take of the album track. I covered one of their concerts when I was music writer in the mid-90s, and after that he'd send YouTube videos or blog posts he'd run across on the Web. To this day I can't listen to the Dan without hearing Joe talk about them in his hipster patter, man those cats were so tight that night, they laid it out and brought it all the way back...

We've had a lot of heartbreak in our newsroom these last couple of years. Like most companies in this economy, we've let go a lot of good people, and others have let go of us. Every one of those people was a big part of the paper. But no one else was as much a part of our place as Joe. His desk was right there as you walked in the newsroom, and it was so odd these last few weeks to walk in and not see him there. I don't know what it's going to feel like now. I'd just love to hear that voice one more time.

Observer, Sovacool.

Two words. One and the same.

Guest book:   Post thoughts, condolences

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A few extras for Saturday's 9/11 column

Here's some links and such related to Flight 93:

Reader Tim Collie points out that Sandy Bradshaw, a flight attendant from Greensboro, died on Flight 93. Here's a little more about her.

Frank and Linda Guerra, the subjects of my column this morning, work with a nonprofit called 93 Cents for Flight 93. It's raising money for the permanent memorial that opens in Shanksville today, and it also brings together young kids and senior citizens to talk about Flight 93 and 9/11.

Finally, a quick travel note.

Because this trip is taking me to several different places -- Washington, Shanksville, New York -- I'm driving instead of flying. Which means that after I left Shanksville on Friday, I needed to drive to my hotel in Lower Manhattan.

I'm sure there are places in Jersey where I could've left my car for three days and taken the train into the city. But I didn't get my act together enough to figure that out... plus I sort of liked the challenge of driving in New York City.

I didn't have a GPS. My cell phone mapped out the route, but it didn't follow along like a GPS does; I had to punch a button to figure out where to turn next. Just as I got into the Holland Tunnel, I got the low-battery warning on my cell. And within two minutes after coming out of the tunnel, I had taken a wrong turn.

Pretty soon I had no idea where I was. The optimist part of me said: It's OK, Manhattan is an island, you can't really get THAT lost. The pessimist said: Dude, you are so screwed.

It turns out that, as far as the biggest city in America goes, traffic on Friday night is not that bad. After 15 minutes of rambling around I found a place to pull over and get my bearings. (For the NYC-savvy among you, I was trying to get to the Battery Park area and ended up going the wrong way on West Boulevard.) The phone battery was way down in the red zone now, but at least I had a new route. I got onto Broadway, curved around toward the street I needed... and didn't see a street sign.

My new rule of New York driving: If you come up on a street, and it doesn't have a sign, that's where you should turn.

Instead I hesitated, then kept going straight. Missing your turn in Lower Manhattan is not just a matter of circling the block. I think I made 11 turns before I finally got back to the street with no sign, turned left... and there was my hotel.

I looked down as I pulled in and my phone had just died.

To answer your questions: I did stop and ask a cop. He said "Hmm, I think your street is over that way," pointing directly behind me.

And I probably don't need to drive in Manhattan again. Although, I have to say, by the time I got there I felt a little like Indiana Jones.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Some extras for today's 9/11 story

(Photo: fragments of the wreckage from Flight 93, part of the 9/11 exhibit at the National Museum of American History)

As always, any one piece I write is only a small part of the story, and that's never been more true than this week. My first column on this 9/11 journey came out this morning. Here are a few little extras to fill out the frame.

Here's the 9/11 collection at the National Museum of American History. This includes items that aren't part of the exhibit I saw Thursday. One thing I didn't mention: The artifacts in the exhibit aren't behind glass -- they're simply set down on tables, out in the open. You can't touch them. But somehow the lack of barriers makes the exhibit more intimate.

For another take on objects from 9/11, here's a New York Times slideshow on things people kept from the World Trade Center wreckage.

And here's one more photo I took at the museum. People who went through the exhibit were able to write a note about what they thought and post it on a bulletin board.

Sorry for the blurry photo. Here's what it says above the heart: "I will pray 4 these families even though I am very young I understand what happened. I hope you continue to do this to help people understand what happened now. I'M SO SORRY."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A 9/11 journey

I'm heading out on the road this morning to tell some stories on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. Maybe you can help.

Our plan is for me to write for Friday's paper from Washington, D.C., where terrorists attacked the Pentagon; for Saturday from Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed in a field after passengers fought the hijackers; and for Sunday and Monday from New York, where at the World Trade Center site, they are rebuilding.

If you know of 9/11-related things I should see in those cities, or people I should meet, drop me a line in the comments or email (You'll get an automated reply that says I'm out of the office, but I can still read your emails.)

I'm looking for people with connections to both Sept. 11 and North Carolina, especially the Charlotte area.

And if there's anything 9/11-related along the way that I need to see or do, let me know. I hope to post here from time to time in between the bigger stories. Would love to hear any thoughts or ideas... even if it's just what you're thinking about now, 10 years down the road.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sad days for 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair

So here's my Ric Flair story. Back in 2004, when his autobiography came out, I wrote a column about it. (I've pasted it to the end of this post.) The column described a lot of the wild parties Flair wrote about in the book. The next morning, my phone rang, and it was Ric Flair. He was very nice. Our conversation went something like this:

"So, Tommy, I've got a little problem with your column. You put a lot about my partying in there."

"Well, Ric, you wrote a lot about it in your book. I took all that from the book."

"Yeah, I understand... but I'm in a little bit of hot water with my wife about it."

"OK... but I'm not sure why she should be mad. Everything I wrote about is in the book."

"Well... I didn't actually show her the book before we published it."

They got divorced not long after.

Aside from family, Ric Flair was one of the most important people in my life growing up -- if you had made me create a personal Mount Rushmore when I was 13, it would've been Flair, Hank Aaron, Sherlock Holmes and Peter Frampton. (Yeah, I didn't get too far with girls.) The Ric Flair I saw on Mid-Atlantic Wrestling was always the coolest guy in the room -- a playboy who talked trash but could always back it up.

But of course that's just TV.

Shane Ryan of wrote a devastating piece last week that details (mostly through courthouse records) Flair's personal and financial decline. We'd written most of it in the paper, one story at a time over the years, but seeing all of it together, it hit like a hammer. I had a hard time reading it.

Flair "retired" three years ago after one last great match with Shawn Michaels. But now he's on TNA wrestling, with a bunch of other used-to-bes and wish-they-weres. He's 62. He might miss the action. He probably needs the money.

Today the news is that he's making noise about suing Grantland... for information that the writer got from Flair's book.

Even with all that, I wish the guy the best. I've never met him, but he's brought me a lot of joy over the years. I hope he finds some of his own.

Here's my column from 2004:

I've just read Ric Flair's new book, "To Be the Man." It's now clear that North Carolina needs some new historical markers.
Here lies the spot where Ric Flair fell down drunk on his kitchen floor while fellow wrestler Terry Funk crawled around the back yard naked, trying to start a fight with a pit bull.
Or: At this hotel bar, Ric Flair wooed a woman by boasting that he had just posed for Playgirl. He hadn't. She married him anyway.
Or: This is the traffic court where Ric Flair discovered that he had committed 82 moving violations in four years.
The problem with most people who write books about themselves is that they haven't done enough to write about.
Ric Flair does not have this problem.
"To Be the Man" came out Tuesday and spent the day in the top 75 at It's written mostly for wrestling geeks (like me).
But there's another layer if you read the book as a Charlottean.
Ric Flair moved here in 1974, spending his first night in an $8 hotel. In the 30 years since, he made it big and so did our town.
Read the book and you realize that Flair's life is the perfect comeback to the gripes people have about Charlotte.
Charlotte, not a party town? You should've been with Flair the night Andre the Giant drank 106 beers.
Charlotte, strait-laced and bland? Our most famous resident has spent the last three decades wearing custom-made robes and slashing his own forehead with a razor blade.
Charlotte, careful with its money? Our guy has personally kept half the IRS in business, racking up $1 million in fines on his taxes.
If you've lived here long, you'll love the local color - Flair runs up a tab at Valentino's, buys his first fancy car at Arnold Palmer Cadillac, hires Bill Diehl as his lawyer.
(His current wife, Beth, gets off one of the best lines, describing their first meeting in Raleigh: "I thought Ric was a pimp. There were about seven women with him, and he didn't look like a normal person.")
He also takes steroids, chugs kamikazes like they're Gatorade, fools around until his first wife leaves him, sells shares in himself to pay off bills, and invites every woman in Baltimore between 18 and 28 to a party at his penthouse.
Dozens show up.
He spends a good portion of the book apologizing for all this - mainly to his wives and four kids. (He doesn't get into his most recent trouble - a lawsuit filed in March by two flight attendants. They say Flair and other wrestlers sexually assaulted and harassed them on a charter flight two years ago.)
But you get the feeling that even though he's sorry that he hurt people, he's not sorry enough to give up all those wild nights.
If you haven't followed wrestling for a while, it's the most real it has ever been.
Yes, the wrestlers still know who's going to win before they get in the ring. But wrestling has lifted its own curtain - everybody admits it's a show, fans know performers' real names, the inner workings of the business are laid out on the table.
Flair (real name: Richard Fliehr) puts a good bit of that in his book. If you want to know what he thinks about why World Championship Wrestling went down, it's here. If you want to know the wrestlers he respects and the ones he can't stand, it's here.
But whether Flair intended it or not, his book is about psychology - and not the kind that makes the fans boo or cheer.
It's about how a guy can do all the wrong things and somehow make you like him. It's about how a performer can get so deep into a character that even he can't tell the difference anymore.
And it's about how you can't sum up any person - much less any city - with a few quick words.
Yep, in many ways this is a pinstriped, tight-collared, Old Testament town.
But sometimes the pinstripes come off. The sequined robe comes on. And our inner Flair comes out.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

REM in CLT in 1981

Canadian music guy Eric Alper posted this on Twitter (he's @ThatEricAlper) today. It's a poster from an R.E.M. show in Charlotte 30 years ago today.

I love that R.E.M. was considered sort of a disco band with an "irresistible dance beat."

Two questions: Does anybody out there remember this show? And is Scorpio still around? I remember hearing about it when I got to town, but it's been years since I've heard anybody mention the place.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Say something nice

From the brilliant folks at Improv Everywhere. I think we should put one of these on every street corner in Charlotte.

Here's the backstory and some more details.

And here's a similar idea we did on this blog a year ago.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Waaaaaaaay overdue

I took a book back to the library this week. My wife had read it for her book group and thought I might like it. "Love Walked In" by Marisa de los Santos -- "exquisite and stylish," blurbed Sarah Jessica Parker. "I read a few pages and put it aside," says me. We got a robo-call from the library saying it was overdue; I listened to it and promptly forgot.

The book sat on our coffee table for a while, and then on the end table. We stacked other books and magazines on top of it. Every so often I'd see a corner peeking out of the pile and say man, we've had that a long time, we should take it back soon.

Charlotte libraries don't stamp the due date in books anymore -- you get it on the receipt, and that was long gone.

"So when was it due?" I asked the librarian.

She smiled.


Some days inertia feels like the most powerful force in the world, stronger than gravity or anger or love.

How many of our problems would vanish if we just quit doing the same stupid things we do every day? Or started doing the things we keep putting off?

I read "The Family Circus" every morning on the comics page. A lot of people love "The Family Circus" -- we find that out at the paper every time we try to get rid of it. In all the years I've read it, I don't think it's ever given me an honest laugh. But it just takes three seconds. Maybe this time Jeffy will be funny. OK, maybe next time.

Routines become habits, and habits become ruts that run so deep it's hard to see out. When inertia kicks in, your mind clicks over to autopilot. You could live your life blindfolded. You know exactly where to go.

That's why one of the best ways to get out of a funk is to change your routine. It can be as simple as driving a different route to work, or turning left instead of right on your morning walk, or sitting on the couch instead of in the easy chair. Those little changes alert your brain that something new is going on. It makes you more aware. You see the world instead of just passing through.

I teach that idea in workshops. But sometimes you forget your own lessons.

The other night I was on the phone with a friend I hadn't heard from in months, and he apologized -- he said he'd been in "hermit mode." Hermit mode can be a comforting place, especially in times like these. If you're not trying to find a job, you're trying to keep one. And if you're not worried about keeping your job, you're worried that whatever you have won't turn out to be enough.

Sometimes all that worry drags you into a dark place. Other times it just picks at the edges of your life. You let a few things slide. You wander around the upper reaches of your TV channels. You make a list of the stuff you need to do. Wow, that's a long list. Maybe tomorrow.

Inertia is a hand on your back, pushing gently. Sometimes it feels good. But you'll never grow unless you push back.

The book went into the car and the car went to the library. I stopped at the ATM on the way, just in case.

The charge was 10 bucks. Our contribution to the library fund. I tried to explain what happened. The librarian just laughed.

"Happens all the time," she said. "We're all a little overdue these days."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The gifts of Gene Wilson

Another book from Gene Wilson arrived this week. It’s the best mail I ever get at work.

This time it was an 1884 edition of Aesop’s Fables. The cover is peeling off, and the whole thing crackles when you open it up, but the illustrations are beautiful and you can still learn from the morals: Cure a boaster by putting his words to the test. In quarreling about the shadow, we often lose the substance.

Over the past year or so, Gene has sent me half a dozen books. The first couple were on grammar and composition. I thought he was trying to tell me something. But he followed up with an email saying he thought a writer would enjoy books on writing. (He was right.)

After that he sent me a cookbook from colonial Williamsburg – if you ever need to make sweetmeat pudding, I’ve got the recipe – and then a book on English usage, and a self-help book on word mastery, and now the fables. The newest book in the bunch dates to 1957. The rest are much older. James M. Hanna, an early owner of “Parker’s Progressive Exercises in English Composition,” penciled his name inside the front cover in 1878.

I’ve never met Gene. He’s a secret pen pal sending me treasures from the past. When I got the book this week, I spread out the whole collection on my desk. I figured it was time to call him.

Gene is 77. He and his wife, Marcia, live in a house they built 10 years ago out in Rutherford County, between Caroleen and Forest City. It’s old family property. He grew up in the area, spent a couple years in the Army, went off to college. He ended up spending more than 40 years as a professor of psychology, mostly in the university system of Pennsylvania.

He and Marcia have eight cats and five dogs. A sixth dog is living with a neighbor. It got ahold of some of the cats.

When he and his wife were living south of Pittsburgh, he started going to auctions. He found out you could sometimes get a whole cardboard box of books for five bucks. That’s a deal no matter what books are inside. He didn’t look for rare books or first editions. It didn’t matter if the binding was ragged. What mattered were the words.

“I have never written for publication,” Gene says. “I used to enjoy writing letters of recommendation for students. But I love reading good writing, economical writing. That’s one reason I enjoy cookbooks. You find very few adjectives in a cookbook.”

Now Gene haunts flea markets. There’s one in Danieltown, outside Forest City, and a big one in Chesnee, S.C., just over the border. Most times he can get a book for 50 cents. He never pays more than $2. He buys damaged paintings, too. He takes them back home and gets out his paints and fixes them up.

It has been a little grim around the Wilson house. Gene has diverticulitis and has been on a feeding tube; he’s not supposed to eat or drink anything, although he has sneaked in a couple servings of ice cream. Marcia found out last November that she has lung cancer. But they keep running around and talking and reading their books.

Gene knows he’ll never read all the ones he’s bought. He likes the idea of being surrounded by all those beautiful sentences.

Online, we pass good stuff around through links. But there are links in the real world, too – the kind of links you can hold in your hands, the ones that connect you with other people from long ago who burned to get their words out into the world.

There’s a guy over in Rutherford County who has a house full of links. And every so often, he sends one out.

Monday, June 13, 2011

LeBron's loss

I watched the Dallas-Miami game with my buddy Joe Posnanski last night. He, of course, was so elequent about it that I'm probably not going to add much to the discussion. And we both saw what everybody else saw: LeBron James, creator of the Miami dream team, focal point of the whole NBA season, on the floor in the fourth quarter with millions of people watching and a title up for grabs, desperately trying to hide.

He could not give up the ball fast enough. He could not have guarded more passively. (Dirk Nowitzki blew by him on a key basket late in the game and LeBron let him go like it was the lunchtime run at the Y.) In the biggest moments, the man with the tools to be the greatest player in history was the worst player on the court.

I'll admit, I was rooting against LeBron. He dumped Cleveland in a cruel way and started counting off trophies for his new team before they had won anything. The word "comeuppance" was meant for what happened to him in this series.

But it shouldn't have happened this way.

If you're going to lose, LOSE. Shoot 2-for-20. Foul out. There's no shame in failure built on effort. But to shrink from the moment, to so clearly deflate under pressure... that's a different kind of stain. It won't wash out.

Since LeBron was 16 years old, people have told him he was going to be the greatest basketball player on Earth. For the last four or five years, at least, a lot of people have said he already is. When he's great -- making outrageous jumpers, locking down the other team's best scorer, streaking down the court like a cross between a defensive end and a ballet dancer -- there's never been anyone better.

He is King James, the anointed. As he told the Miami fans before the season, the Heat would win "not one, not two, not three..." championships. They would have a roomful of trophies. And he would be the best player on the best team.

But where you truly discover yourself in life is when it goes off-script. The Mavericks were not ready to grant LeBron his destiny. Miami lost a game they should have won, then another and another.

I don't know what's in LeBron James' head. But I suspect he had already played out the movie in his mind. He had already seen the ending, where he held up the trophy in front of his adoring fans. And in the real world, where that was not happening, he simply could not understand.

Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat players kept trying. They knew that you can write your own script on the fly. LeBron acted as if the game were already over. He seemed to decide it was not his time.

And so, instead of playing like a king, he was just another witness.

Friday, May 20, 2011

David Pearson on video

I've got a story on David Pearson in Saturday's special section for Race Week. A lot of modern NASCAR fans don't know much about him, because his peak as a driver was in the '60s and '70s, but many longtime fans consider him the best driver in the history of stock-car racing. (He's second in wins all-time to Richard Petty.)

I watched these clips as part of reporting the story and thought you might like them.

Here's one of the most famous finishes in NASCAR history, as Pearson and Petty battle on the last lap of the 1976 Daytona 500.

Here's the end of the '74 Firecracker 400 in Darlington, where Pearson puts a tremendous deke on Petty at the end.

And here's a two-part interview with some classic photos and footage... check out the smooch he lays on some young lass about 4:45 into part 1.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What it means to be a pro

At first I felt sorry for the guy. Edwin McCain was the entertainment at the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction dinner Wednesday night, and by "entertainment," I mean "somebody to sing a few songs while everybody else digests dessert."

It could not have been less of a rock and roll event. Most of the men wore ties and most of the women wore dresses. The whole point was to welcome the new Hall of Fame class and tell a few stories before the formal induction on Monday. It was a nice time, but the average age of the crowd was somewhere north of 50. Maybe 60.

Edwin McCain grew up in Greenville, S.C., and hit it fairly big not long after his friends in Hootie and the Blowfish hit it really big. You've probably heard him if you've been to a wedding in the last 10 or 12 years -- his songs "I'll Be" and "I Could Not Ask For More" are now just about as standard as the Electric Slide. For me, he has always fallen in that vast middle of the stuff I hear on the radio -- not bad enough to change the station, not great enough to turn it up.

So he comes out at the Hall of Fame dinner and I thought, OK, at least this is a pleasant way to make the next 10 minutes pass.

"I love coming to events like this. I get called Mr. McCain all day," he said. "The only other time I get called Mr. McCain is, 'Please get out of the car...'"

We laughed. And he had us.

One thing I think we forget, because we have access to so much greatness, is how much it takes just to be good. I remember going to the gym at the University of Georgia one day in the '80s and watching Gerald Crosby, who was starting for the Georgia basketball team back then but never played a minute in the NBA. He was shooting jumpers, 20 feet or more from the basket. It was half an hour before he missed.

On Wednesday night it took about 30 seconds to figure out that Edwin McCain is better than anybody you know, anybody you've ever seen busking on the street or playing at open mike night.

He played "I Could Not Ask For More," and "I'll Be," and an Anders Osborne song called "Lucky One." It was just him and his guitar, but that was enough to fill the big ballroom. Somewhere in there he strung out one long note with his voice, then floated to another without taking a breath, and his back bowed with the effort.

I'm pretty sure not a single person in the room came to see Edwin McCain. But at the end of the last song he got a big ovation, and as it died down it suddenly swelled again, as if the crowd decided they hadn't appreciated him enough.

He could've put 80 percent into those songs and nobody would've minded. The check would've cleared. People would've moved right on past him in their minds, and maybe when they heard "I'll Be" at the grocery store they would've thought, I saw that guy somewhere, he was pretty good.

So many people wake up every day wanting to be professional musicians, or professional writers, or professional athletes, or professional anything. Here's the secret: Talent is part of it, but it's not nearly all. What makes a professional, more than anything, is the will to do your best and the guts to keep showing up.

Edwin McCain's got talent. But what I'll remember about him is that, on a night that had nothing to do with him, he gave the crowd 10 minutes of everything he had. He showed up, and he was a pro. That's a lot more rare than you think.

World's greatest rain delay

Clemson and Davidson were supposed to play baseball Tuesday. Instead there was a long rain delay. And so the two teams decided to make their own entertainment. I can't imagine the game itself would have been this good.

Hang in at least to the 3:00 mark for the curling.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dorothy is free

Sometimes the universe keeps you awake for a reason. At 1:07 this morning I was on the computer, piddling around with a couple of projects, when this message arrived on Twitter:


It turned out to be true, and joyous.

Dorothy is my friend Dorothy Parvaz, who had been detained in Syria, then deported to Iran, and was held for 18 days. I wrote about her when it first happened -- how brave and tough she is, how strong I knew she'd be. But when you don't hear anything, you start to think the worst. A bunch of us who knew Dorothy happened to be gathering last weekend, and though we were there to reunite and celebrate, her absence left a hole we couldn't quite fill.

This is the first time someone I know has gone missing. I can't imagine what it's like for a parent whose child has disappeared, or a military spouse whose other half vanishes halfway across the world.

Dorothy was lucky. She had lots of friends -- journalists with connections, people with social media skills, colleagues all around the world. I don't know if any of that made a difference. But it felt good to try.

There's a lot of catching up to be done. Her fiance comes first, and then the rest of her family, and somewhere along the line those of us who count Dorothy as a friend will get to hug her neck. There's also some explaining to do. Dorothy hated having her photo taken, and I'm not sure who draws the duty of telling her that a gigantic photo of her appeared on a video board in Times Square. Maybe it's good that we have a little lead time.

This whole episode got me thinking about friends. I've never been good at keeping up with mine. I've collected a few good friends in every town and every job, and we love it when we see one another. But I've never been good at picking up the phone and calling, and I always seem too busy to visit. Facebook helps. But it's not a friend's voice in your ear, and it's not a friend's smile in your eyes.

Dorothy was in a crisis, and her friends stepped up. But our friends need us in the moments in between troubles, too. And we need them.

Thanks for all your thoughts and prayers for Dorothy. And thanks for giving me this space to worry and celebrate. We'll get back to our previously scheduled local news, I promise.

Now: call somebody. Or make plans to stop by.

Don't wait.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Miracle on the Hudson survivor, plus some Monday links

Happy Monday, everybody. I'm back at work after a few days off... got a few good pieces in the works, including one related to Race Week, one for the end of the school year, plus a few to be announced. Holler with other ideas.

In the meantime, here's some good stuff I ran across in the last week or so:

Ric Elias of Charlotte was one of the survivors of the Miracle on the Hudson flight two years ago. He recently spoke at a TED conference about how the experience changed his life. It's a short talk -- about 5 minutes -- and worth watching.

    Robert Krulwich, host of the great radio show Radiolab, gave the commencement address to the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley. His advice is geared toward journalism students, but it's good for anyone looking to find their way in an uncertain job market. Plus he talks a lot about Charles Kuralt. Worth your time.

    Dan Barry of the New York Times has a touching story about Rick Welts, president of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, who decided it was time to reveal that he's gay.

    Our friend Dorothy Parvaz, who I wrote about the other day, is still being held -- she was deported from Syria to Iran. Please keep her in your thoughts.

    And finally, if you haven't seen the New York Post's recent headline on Osama (warning: slightly offensive but definitely hilarious), take a look.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A new workshop at Queens

I've been doing writing workshops at Queens University for a while now. They're a lot of fun, at least from my end -- we've had lots of good conversations, and I haven't talked anyone into a deep sleep yet.

(I spoke to a big class at the University of Georgia a few years ago, and about 10 seconds after I started talking, two girls in the front row fell asleep. I apologized to the professor afterward. "Not your fault," he said. "They fall asleep every class.")

I've got a new workshop next month on the personal essay -- we'll talk about how to discover what you ought to be writing about, and how to go about writing it. It's a two-session workshop on June 4 and 11. Here's how to sign up. If you have any questions, drop me a line.

Here's a short video clip from an earlier class. It features my dulcet voice, which my friends have described as "obscene phone caller in training."

Cindy Thomson in concert

One of my favorite stories of the last couple of years was about Cindy Thomson. Cindy got laid off and decided to chase her dream -- she wanted to be a jazz singer. So she set out to do it, and I got to write about it.

Now Cindy has a concert coming up on Saturday, and you should go.

It's an intimate show, in a cabin on Mandarin Boulevard (near Monroe and Sharon Amity roads). Cindy says there's room for 50 people. She'll be singing with Jim Riley (guitar) and Ron Brendle (bass).

The show starts at 7:30. Tickets are $15 (free for children under 12). Reservations are required. If you're interested, email Cindy at and she'll set you up.

You can sample or buy Cindy's CD, "The Sweet Things in Life," here at CD Baby. But music is better live. Go check it out.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

My friend Dorothy

It's strange to see a friend turn up in the news. I've done this for a living long enough to know that no story completely captures a person -- it's a snapshot, and all you can hope is that you framed it right and the colors are true.

So let me share a few snapshots of my friend Dorothy Parvaz, a great journalist who was taken into custody by the Syrian government last Friday.

My wife and I met Dorothy while we were at Harvard University in 2008-09 on a Nieman journalism fellowship. Dorothy came from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where she wrote editorials.

Dorothy hates having her picture taken. We put together a little yearbook for our group, and all our photos are in it -- except for hers. So she's going to be really ticked that there's a whole slideshow of her out there on the web.

Dorothy's a citizen of the world -- her mom is American, her dad is Iranian-Canadian, and she holds citizenship in all three countries.

She likes a good cocktail. She's always stylish, usually in various shades of black. Her eyes can throw daggers. But when you make her laugh you feel like you own the world.

During the year we were in Cambridge, Dorothy's paper up and died on her. The Post-Intelligencer went from a print edition to online-only. Because the printed paper still brings in most of the money, the P-I laid off almost all its staff, including her. So in the middle of what was supposed to be a glorious break, she was set adrift. We sought her out and hugged her neck. She was strong and tough that day. Still is.

After our year was over she went to Europe to be with the man who is now her fiancé. She got a job with Al Jazeera English and had recently covered the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It's not clear why Syria detained Dorothy. But as another friend of hers put it:

"Protestors are standing up to a violent authoritarian leadership. Troops are rounding up hundreds of people and taking them away. Innocent people are being killed. These are the things conscientious journalists care about. These are the things Dorothy cares about."

In my field, the best of the best head into trouble as everyone else is heading out. Two combat photographers -- including one who grew up in Fayetteville -- were killed in Libya just two weeks ago. The worst I get on an average day is a nasty email, but many in our tribe are truly brave.

You can keep track of the situation on a Facebook page set up for Dorothy, or on the Twitter hashtag #FreeDorothy. The Committee to Protect Journalists is also on the case.

I don't talk too much about other journalists or the job of journalism on here. Thanks for indulging me this one. We love Dorothy, and miss her, and hope she comes home soon.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Sept. 11 and Deborah Tourloukis -- then and now

This is a three-part post. The first part is a new piece that I'm posting online now and will be in the paper Tuesday morning. The two parts that follow are my original stories on Deborah Tourloukis from 2001 and '02.

Deborah Tourloukis was about to go to bed when the news came on TV. Osama bin Laden had been killed. She couldn’t watch. And she didn’t sleep.

She couldn’t watch because she knew they’d show footage of the World Trade Center collapsing on Sept. 11. And she didn’t sleep because she was in the north tower when the first plane hit.

“Last night I just sat there and cried,” she said Monday. “It was tears of joy. It was tears of sorrow. It was a real mixed bag.”

In 2001, Deborah was working in accounting for First Union Bank in Charlotte. She was in New York to train other bank employees. She was on the 47th floor of the north tower when she felt the impact and the building swayed. She called her daughter and said I love you over and over into the phone. She thought it would be her last chance.

Deborah and a co-worker went down all those stairs together, passing firemen going up. They had just made it out of the building when the south tower crumbled. They huddled as huge chunks of debris barely missed them. They staggered to their feet and kept walking. They were two blocks away when the north tower fell.

(That co-worker’s name is Dzavid Kahari. He’s Muslim.)

I wrote about Deborah back then, and again a year later. I checked in with her Monday to see what she thought about bin Laden’s death, and to see how she’s doing now.

The great thing, after all these years, is to hear her laughter. She didn’t laugh about bin Laden, although she’s entitled. She laughs because so many things in her life are going well.

Long divorced, she’s engaged again at age 51 – she and her fiancé, Gene Rash, plan to get married in 2012. Or maybe 2013. There’s no hurry. It’ll be her second marriage and his third. He calls her Trip. She calls him Sequel.

Her daughter, Demetria, had Deborah’s first grandchild – a girl named Persephonie – on April 21. Her son, Brian, took a job in her honor. He’s been working for the New York City Fire Department since 2005.

She still lives in Mount Holly. She still works for the bank, although First Union morphed over the years into Wells Fargo. She’s in the auditing department. Her co-workers know about her and Sept. 11. They came to her desk Monday morning to check on her. She was fine.


Two things still give her problems. One is fire alarms. When Wells Fargo runs a fire drill, she has a buddy to help her get up and out.

The other thing is sudden storms. She was in St. Louis on Good Friday when weather sirens went off all over town. Deborah had what she called “a post-traumatic stress moment.” She called her hotel’s front desk in a panic.

“Are we being attacked?”

“What?” the clerk said. “No, it’s a tornado.”

Deborah might have been the only person in St. Louis relieved that it was just a tornado.

Back in 2002, she was scratching herself raw in her sleep. She doesn’t do that now. Back then she thought or dreamed about Sept. 11 every day. Now it just crosses her mind once in a while. She goes to New York three or four times a year to see friends – she grew up in Brooklyn – but she hasn’t visited Ground Zero in five or six years.

Every Sept. 11, she goes to a memorial service early in the morning, by herself. A few years ago she decided to buy herself a little something on that day, to mark another year of survival. Most years it’s something cheap. But last year she needed a car, so she bought a Honda CR-V.

She did spend a little time in her sleepless Sunday night finding out how bin Laden died. She noticed that U.S. officials carried out his funeral according to Islamic traditions.

“The U.S. still respected the Muslim beliefs and customs that he claimed to live by,” she said. “And yet he showed no compassion for others’ lives or beliefs.”

She used to speak to churches and social groups. Getting up in front of those people and telling her story helped her heal. Talking to a therapist helped her heal in different ways. She doesn’t feel the need to talk about Sept. 11 all the time anymore. But she doesn’t mind when people ask her about it.

“It will always be a part of my life,” she said. “I respect that. I don’t want anyone to forget.”

Story #1 from the archives:

Published 9/21/01

Deborah Tourloukis is afraid of the dark.

Ten days ago she kneeled on the floor under a co-worker's coat as the World Trade Center crumbled around her, turning the whole world into a blackness she can't describe.

Now she's back home in Charlotte, uninjured, alive. But four of her co-workers at First Union are missing. Two of them were just ahead of her. Another was right behind.

She sleeps with the light on.

And when she is awake, every so often something trembles at her core.

"It's almost like my brain is defrosting, " she says, "like it's remembering the things I can't remember yet. My hands start to shake. I cry and can't stop.

"I've only had one bad episode today. I allow myself one a day."

Deborah does accounting for First Union - she checks stock and bond accounts to make sure what customers spend matches what they trade for.

She went to First Union's New York office last week to train employees. She flew up Sunday, a day early, to see family - she grew up in Brooklyn, and her son lives in New York.

Anyone visiting the World Trade Center on business had to have a temporary ID card made. Deborah still has hers from Sept. 11. In a way, her story is frozen on that card:

Her picture.

The designation 1WTC, for Building 1, the north tower.

The number 47, for the 47th floor.

That's where she was at 8:48 a.m., when the first jet hit the other side of her building. The impact made the tower sway. She looked up, out the window, and saw the strangest things in the air above her. Blankets. Briefcases. A notebook, fluttering.

She thought it was an earthquake.

She called her boss in Charlotte. He told her a plane had hit the tower. She called her daughter, Demetria, a student at Belmont Abbey.

Deborah could think of only one thing to say. I love you. I love you. I love you.

One stairway was already jammed with people. Somebody found another. The stairs were only wide enough for two people at a time.

Soon they had to go single-file - the firemen were coming up.

Deborah and the others moved aside as the firemen brought down the injured, the burned, a blind man.

Somewhere around the 17th floor, one of Deborah's co-workers stopped. She said she needed a fireman. Deborah doesn't know what was wrong. That was the last they saw of her.

Finally they came through a doorway where a fireman stood. "Make sure you have a buddy!" he shouted. Deborah grabbed onto a co-worker: Dzavid, pronounced like David.

She remembers going through a turnstile and a revolving door, then turning left and walking down a shopping corridor between the two towers.

That's when the south tower collapsed.

"We looked back, and there's no other way I can say this - the debris chased us, " she says. "The smoke came in and rolled over us. All the lights went out."

Steel, stone, glass crashed around them. So many pieces big enough to kill.

Deborah slipped and fell. Dzavid huddled beside her and held his coat over both of their heads.

A plate glass window from the Gap store in the corridor shook loose and fell on top of them. Somehow, it didn't break.

Before they left the 47th floor, they had wet some paper towels and stuffed them in their pockets. Now they put the towels over their mouths. Deborah didn't want to move. She thought she'd fall in a hole. But Dzavid made her get up and walk.

Out of nowhere, someone appeared with a flashlight. They went down another level, everyone linking hands, until Deborah smelled fresh air.

They had made it two blocks down the street when the north tower fell.

Deborah says two co-workers were just up ahead when the first tower collapsed. A third was just behind.

All three are missing, along with the woman who stayed on the 17th floor.

Another nearby co-worker, Tom Canavan, dug his way out. A photo of him, his head covered in blood, appeared in People magazine.

Deborah got home Saturday night. She wants people to know that not all her heroes are in New York.

First Union got her and other survivors everything they needed. Friends keep her on the phone eight hours a day.

She hasn't felt like going out, but Thursday morning she went and had her nails done. A tiny flag ribbon is painted on each ring finger.

She'll try to go back to work Monday. She's a little nervous about it. But she has so many people to talk to, so many people to thank.

First on the list is the co-worker who covered her with his coat and led her out of the darkness.

Deborah says he saved her life. And she wants people to know who he is.


Dzavid Kahari.

He's Muslim.

Story #2 from the archives:



Published 9/11/02

Some mornings, Deborah Tourloukis still wakes up rubbed raw.

She dreams about the World Trade Center and she scratches herself. Always the same spots. The inside of her right knee. The back of her calf. She doesn't know why she scrapes those spots. But they stay sore and bruised.

In her dream, it is dark and she is stuck and she is clawing to get out. In her sleep she reopens the old wounds.

At 8:46 a.m., exactly one year ago, the first plane hit the World Trade Center. To this day it's still not clear how many people were inside the twin towers. Some recent studies estimate as few as 10,000 - plus the firefighters, police and rescue workers who went in the buildings to help.

Roughly 2,800 died.

The rest are in a club whose enrollment will never grow.

The survivors club.

Deborah Tourloukis of Mount Holly still has her membership card. It is a day pass to the World Trade Center's north tower, marked Sept. 11, 2001.

She was on one of her regular trips to train employees at First Union Corp.'s office. At a farmers market outside the building, she bought a ham-and-cheese quiche and a loaf of banana bread to share with her co-workers.

She joked with the security guard, took the elevator to the 47th floor.

And then history happened.

In the months since, she has told her story to a line of strangers on the front porch of her childhood home.

She has told her story to a flight attendant who started to weep when he discovered who she was.

She has told her story in an empty bar because the owner wanted to hear, because he lost a son in the terror she survived.

She's 42, divorced with three grown kids. She still works her same job in accounting, although First Union has now merged with Wachovia. She never imagined a life where so many people would want to hear her story.

But with each telling she feels the story's power. The power to help others feel what it was like. The power to heal her raw places.

This morning, Wachovia will hold a Sept. 11 memorial service. Deborah put it together. She has worked extra hours, gone in on her days off, to make it right.

At one point, she thought the service might give her closure. But there is too much blocking the door.

So, instead, she has swung it open.

She tells her story.


Glad for the darkness

"I've got two props - my water and my tissue, " she says. "I just may cry."

She is talking to the Gaston County Extension and Community Association, which used to be a homemakers group but now discusses all sorts of issues, usually over coffee and brownies.

Deborah wears a dark suit and a Mickey Mouse American-flag pin. On the table next to her is a display case with a shard of glass and a hunk of stone. Her brother, a New York City firefighter, got the glass and stone from ground zero.

Deborah is new to public speaking. She doesn't build to dramatic pauses. She doesn't pull her words into a theme. It just spills out.

"I called my boss in Charlotte and told her I thought there was an earthquake. She said, 'Get out; a plane has hit your building.' I made a call to my daughter Demetria. She was ironing her clothing. I said, 'Demetria, a plane has hit. I don't know if I'm gonna come home.' "

But she did. She went down 46 flights of stairs and then under the building. She passed burned bodies, exhausted people who decided to stop, firefighters heading up.

The rescue workers told her to buddy up with someone. She found a co-worker, Dzavid Kahari, a Muslim.

When the south tower fell, they huddled on the floor and Dzavid covered her with his coat. A plate-glass window fell on them. Somehow, it didn't break.

They made it outside.

Two blocks from the north tower, a photographer was trying to fit the awful scene into her camera. She snapped a picture of Deborah and Dzavid as they walked by. Deborah's hair is thick with dust. Her eyes are cast in shock.

Minutes later, the north tower perished.

Five of her co-workers died. Two had been just ahead of her. One had been not far behind.

Deborah thanks God for all the smoke that day.

"The darkness was a gift, " she says. "It was hard enough to hear it as we came through the building, but it's a gift that we didn't have to see. It made it hard to breathe at the time. But I believe it made it easier for us to live today."

The women in the crowd are dabbing their eyes with paper napkins. Deborah has already had to stop three times. But she doesn't want to leave everybody sad.

"I'm from Brooklyn, and most of my family is still up in New York, " she says. "But I've been down here eight years and it's been a wonderful thing for me. Thank you so much for listening. Sharing it with other people makes it lighter."

She likes to share inspirational quotes, like this one from Mary Gardiner Brainard: I would rather walk with God in the dark than go alone in the light.

She believes in it.

She also carries a flashlight in her pocketbook. And another in her car.


A story told over and over

Word got around the old neighborhood. Debbie's here. The one who was in the tower.

Deborah sat on the front porch of her childhood home on East 34th Street in Brooklyn. Her sister Denise owns the house now. Deborah had come to see family. Now she saw half the neighborhood, lining up down the street.

"Just about everybody there had lost someone, or knew somebody in the neighborhood that did, " she says. "It always started off with, 'How are you doing? How's North Carolina?' And then they would come in with the other questions. The ones about 9/11."

Every so often, something like that happens. Denise called after visiting a Sept. 11 exhibit at a museum on the USS Intrepid. She was looking at a strip of photos when one stopped her cold. It was the picture of Deborah and Dzavid. No one had known the picture even existed.

And so in January, Deborah found herself looking at an exhibit where she was one of the featured characters. A stranger, a visitor from France, stood next to her. "That's me, " Deborah said. And she told her story again.

She went back to New York to look for a place for her daughter's bridal shower. She stopped at a bar they had thought about. The owner's son had died at the World Trade Center. "I was there, " Deborah said. "Are you sure you want to hear this?" He was. And they cried as she told her story again.

Once in a while, someone is rude or creepy, wanting to know if she saw any severed heads. Deborah just cuts the conversation off.

But most of the questions are simple. Most of them aren't even questions. They're pleas. Tell us where you were. Tell us who you saw. Tell us what it was like.

The more she tells the story, the more she remembers. The quiche and banana bread came back to her just the other day.

It's like vacation pictures, she says. You can show them to people all you want. But it's not the same as having been there.

Not the same at all.


Making gradual progress

For the first couple of weeks afterward, she slept in a spare room with the TV on for company. She turned it to Nickelodeon because she knew it wouldn't show any horror movies.

She took Ambien to help her sleep, saw a doctor about the nightmares. As she talked to him, she scratched her left shoulder without even knowing it.

She can look at photos from Sept. 11, but not TV footage. She can't take the sound.

She has been back to ground zero four times - most recently, last week for a Wachovia ceremony. When she gets near, she smells the smell from that day. An acid smell. None of her friends can smell it.

And still, every day, she gets better.

She has decided not to put up with people who make her unhappy. This has led to a couple of hard conversations, one with a family member, one with a co-worker. But she came away refreshed.

She calls and tries to cheer up Dzavid, who has a hard time talking about that day. She goes home from work at a decent hour.

She will speak at the Wachovia service this morning. But there also will be a choir, and people reading poetry, and a slide show, and a toll of a bell for those who died.

All over this country, in places all over the world, people will stop for a few minutes to remember that Sept. 11 belongs to all of us, that all the stories of pain and fear and hope blend into one big story.

Everyone's story.

And tonight Deborah Tourloukis will go home, and maybe she will scratch herself raw in her sleep, and she will get up tomorrow morning and put on some skin cream and start a new day.

Her story.