A Home Cooked Idea

A Home Cooked Idea

At Home with MACHETE’s Tal Blevins

By Cynthia Adams     Photgraphs by Amy Freeman


Tal Blevins was upfitting a sleekly professional kitchen at MACHETE, a restaurant he launched in 2019 in lower Fisher Park — soon after a redo of his home kitchen, which needed subtle and sympathetic changes.

After Blevins and his wife, Nicole Lungerhausen, moved from California to Greensboro in 2017, they found a lovely Arts and Crafts style home in Westerwood.

Loving nothing more than whipping up one communal supper after another for close friends, their swiftly renovated kitchen served as an incubator and test kitchen for pop-up suppers. The number of guests jumped from 12 to 20 to 40 diners.

Soon guests began to urge Blevins, who was born a Tar Heel, to start his own restaurant. And so, MACHETE, Greensboro’s hottest new boîte (French for a small restaurant, which sounds quirky enough for a “boundary-pushing” eatery) was born, opening to rave Yelp reviews and a James Beard nomination.

“I’d always wanted to own one,” Blevins says about restaurants. But as a young man, that wasn’t remotely the plan.

During his teen years, Blevins, a graduate of Page and UNCG, was interested in tech, sparked while working at Babbage’s, a mall computer store, where he built and repaired personal computers as a side gig. (To older customers, tech savvy kids were a marvel. “We were wizards,” Blevins says chuckling.)


And he loved gaming. Writing about gaming was Blevins’ goal, although he flirted with other interests, including geography, urban planning and music. (He plays guitar and drums as a hobby.)

Initially, he explored all of those interests. His mentor, UNCG professor Keith Debbage, attended graduate school at the University of Georgia. Blevins followed suit, studying urban planning while playing in a band. After all, Athens gave rise to rock groups such as R.E.M., Widespread Panic, the B-52s and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Meanwhile, a contact from Babbage’s had founded a successful video gaming website. 

“GP Publications was headquartered in Greensboro in the ’90s, and then moved out to Burlingame, California,” says Blevins, who had been building quite a successful career as a freelance writer for tech and video game publications. 

The company was acquired and “rebranded as Imagine Media and then Future,” and moved just south of San Francisco, he explains. 

Blevins “eventually moved out to San Francisco to work at Imagine Media for their Imagine Games Network [IGN.com] in the mid-90s at their offices in Brisbane [California.]”

Brisbane placed him “just a few miles closer to San Francisco just outside the city limits. I was the editor-in-chief of the PC games site, then I headed up the content team for many years as the VP of content at IGN Entertainment.”

San Francisco wasn’t only where he found success. He also met Nicole there while she was temping at his office, working at the front desk.   

“Nicole is also a writer,” Blevins adds, and also a gamer like him, explaining how their mutual interests dovetailed. Lungerhausen earned dual degrees in creative writing and theater from San Francisco University. For more than 10 years, she worked as a professional actor in the Bay area. She has published fantasy and science fiction, according to her website, and coaches fellow writers.

Six years ago, the pair decided it was finally time to settle down in Greensboro. Blevins says he also missed his mom and “chief influencer,” Audrey Gant.

The couple liked almost everything about their Arts and Crafts beauty, a standout on the street, and unusual in that it had a quarter acre lot, new garage and a spacious new addition at the rear. The home had the luxury of space, something hard to come by in San Francisco. The original section of the house was over a century old. The sellers, Kelley and Saralyn (who deceased in 2017) Griffith, were only the home’s second owners — Blevins and Lungerhausen became the third.  

“He [Kelley] was an English professor and woodworker,” says Blevins. “He added on the great room. We have cabinets he built here, a table, too, in the great room.” (The great room conversion became key to their pop-up suppers to come.)


Blevins purchased the home in 2017 and soon began improvements. A call went out to a Greensboro contracting firm, Frye Build + Design. 

“We got to work . . . Pam Frye tore the place apart,” says Blevins.  “We didn’t have to do a lot . . . paint and stuff in the rest of the house.”

However, the contractor gutted the kitchen to the studs. The house was beautifully maintained and modernized for a century-old property — it dates to 1920. But there were tweaks in mind, modern conveniences dictated by a love of cooking and entertaining.

The Griffiths had extended the rear of the house in 2010, also creating an oversized custom screened porch behind the kitchen, and a studio space that was later converted to a great room. Both were easily accessed from the kitchen.

“They did a great job,” Blevins says, praising the Griffiths’ renovation, pointing out the parameters of the original house and how seamlessly the new trim and detailing work matches the old. The Blevines respected the original character preserved by the Griffiths.

For the sake of functionality, a few original details had to be edited in the more recent history of the house. A former breakfast nook’s removal opened up the kitchen more during the previous renovation.

Blevins and Lungerhausen took another step, further opening a doorway between the kitchen and dining room. They added a coffered ceiling, which enhanced the original design. 

“We liked that for [the sake of] Arts and Crafts,” Blevins says.

“It was not a wreck by any means, but we had a different…” his voice trails off. 

A different wish?  A different vision, perhaps?

“Yes,” Blevins answers. At the time, he insists they “weren’t even thinking about the future supper club,” which he calls “the pop-ups.”

He adds, “My wife and I are really good home cooks — love home cooking — so the kitchen is always the heart of any house. Where people hang out. Where people talk. Where people have glasses of wine while they’re cooking too. But honestly, we wanted this open concept, too.”

In the very beginning, he says, “We came into it wanting to build a good cook’s kitchen.” Blevins and Lungerhausen reconfigured the kitchen island, allowing for practical changes. “We knew we wanted to turn it (the island),” he explains, “and utilize that window over the sink.  It allowed us to have a secondary sink for prep.”

Aided by Frye, they made subtle but significant upgrades.

“We redid all the cabinetry,” Blevins adds, even though the sellers had redone the kitchen. “It was not to our liking,” he says, pausing, and adds by way of illustration, “laminate countertops.”

They developed a punch list and sketched ideas, considering work space.  The process, he says, was “very visual. [We] drew up several plans.” 

A pantry and coffee bar already existed. The couple added the perk of a Breville coffee/espresso maker.   

Blevins points out the secondary sink on the island and how they moved the main sink beneath a sunny window. Simple changes really worked, he says. “We knew we wanted double ovens,” he says. “And we have a pizza oven outside.”

They added things they’d always wanted in a kitchen: “You know, stuff like pull-out drawers in cabinets. I always wanted a spice drawer. A space for baking sheets and cutting boards. Lazy Susans were installed. We wanted a space, like, for our cutting boards. Having cookbooks easily accessible.”   

Although the “before” real estate images of the kitchen were attractive — the couple hewed closely to the original in the resulting “after” — the focus was creating a more efficient configuration of space. 

Which turned out to be a prescient decision. While the kitchen had not yet figured into their lives in the significant way soon to unfold, the new renovation had made it more functional.

By chance, they met two talented young chefs, Lydia Greene and Kevin Cottrell, while eating at the former restaurant LaRue. Blevins loved their food and suggested experimenting with a pop-up concept here in Greensboro.

The very first pop-up supper gave “confirmation of what our gut feeling was,” explains Blevins. Supper clubs were the new underground culinary movement. And Blevins loved food and dining as much as he loved gaming.

“It began as friends and family,” he says about how his experimentation with a “pop-up” restaurant began.

That first pop up was limited to a few. “It was just 12 people at this one table, and then we expanded to both rooms,” says Blevins, nodding to the front of the house. “And then, we said, OK, we have more people. Word of mouth is spreading. Friends of friends, and we had more friends of friends of friends who wanted to get in . . . ”

The original 12 guests were seated in the kitchen and dining room.

Blevins, his wife, his mother and the chefs began doing monthly communal dinners in earnest. “Two nights with 20 people back-to-back every month. Twenty seatings. Everything was Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

Swiftly, it grew to 40 bookings. “And 1–200 people requesting those seats. And when we did a pop-up, it was so unique.”

Though Blevins had always dreamed of opening and owning his own restaurant, he admits, “I would never, ever have done it, without the talent. [Now] Kevin [Cottrell] is the MACHETE head chef, and Lydia [Greene] is the chef de partie.”

Greene and Cottrell were key players in the restaurant named by Cottrell for something he has been fascinated by since he was a child: a MACHETE.

In only the space of two years, MACHETE gained a following. Success came swiftly.

And as strange as it seems for a former game reviewer and tech writer to become a restauranteur, the seed was planted when Blevins became an investor in two San Francisco restaurants that also began as pop-up kitchens. 


One such supper club/pop-up was the genesis of San Francisco eatery, Lazy Bear, which Blevins invested in. (Lazy Bear later became a brick-and-mortar site in the Mission district.) Such innovations had led to a California law change in 2014, legalizing “ghost” kitchens — also known as “cloud,” “dark,” “undercover,” or “commissary” kitchens, California parlance for restaurants that were carry-out only. 

In the absence of dining rooms and waiters, these kitchens proliferated during the pandemic lockdowns. 

As mid-2020 trends changed norms, so had the carry-out model. “Forget ghost kitchens,” Joe Guszkowski wrote in July, 2021, in Restaurant Business. “Some chefs are skirting the industry entirely to serve food out of their houses.”

Back in Greensboro, Blevins and Lungerhausen’s popular supper club, an open secret in a historic neighborhood of artists, professors and students, called to mind the speakeasies of the Roaring Twenties. 

Their chef-prepared, multi-course, eclectic dinners were largely promoted only by word-of-mouth (with a little social media boost, Blevins says). 

But unlike a speakeasy, guests brought their own bottles, and the food was the reason for eager comers.

“We could serve 20 people in there when we had the pop-up,” Blevins muses, indicating the commodious open space comprising their kitchen, dining and living rooms. Over time, the burgeoning crowd of diners expanded to the great room addition.

“The [first] pop-up happened all in this kitchen,” Blevins says. “People would come over, and we would let them roam all around the house.” Pause. Then, “Mom was the host. Audrey Gant.” He pauses again.

“She would always get the biggest applause of the night, when we would bring everybody out, because everybody loved Audrey. And she’s right over here. She passed in 2019, and I have her ashes in one of her old purses.”

Blevins unceremoniously plops the purse onto the kitchen stool beside him.

“So, this is where she would sit, and we would make gin and tonics and drinks for her,” he says, pausing once more. “And so . . . she’s still with us. And she passed, unfortunately, three months before we opened MACHETE.” But during their pop-up dinners, Audrey shared any number of pointers and ideas. “So, she lives on in that space,” he says, referring to MACHETE.

Is there a more important room to him than the kitchen? “There’s no room we would rather spend more time in,” he answers, Audrey by his side. 

“The most beautiful story is the mural on the wall [at MACHETE] . . . for the longest time, the artist was doing cactus and succulents.”

Blevins got into a bit of a battle with the muralist. He wanted something art nouveau — vines, flowers, something a little softer.  The first time his aunt came to the restaurant, she asked if they did the mural because of his mom. He asked what she meant. She explained that his mother’s favorite flower was nasturtiums, which figured into the mural. 

“I almost felt like mom was on my shoulder. A piece of serendipity that means so much.”

“That big bird of paradise that’s in the lounge [at MACHETE]?  That’s Mom’s, from her house. Mom loved a good, boozy martini and basil. That’s why we have a martini with a basil tincture called Audrey’s Little Helper.”

The MACHETE staff informally calls the lounge Audrey’s Lounge.

Audrey is not the only local legend frequenting MACHETE. “The 12 originals who came to this pop-up still populate MACHETE,” Blevins says. “Kris Fuller [owner of Crafted], Wes Wheeler [co-owner of Undercurrent]; Nikki Miller-Ka [a Winston-Salem food writer] . . . all people we knew. Interested in food.”

While Blevins and Lungerhausen eat at MACHETE a couple times a week, they also cook at home. Now the remodeled kitchen is no longer pressed into service as a test kitchen; it is a serene, monotone, pale gray and white space. And the adjoining addition located handily off of it, the great room and an apartment, now serves as an occasional Airbnb.

The couple supports local restaurants, such as Midtown 1618 or Blue Denim; they enjoy takeout at Bandito Bodega or milkshakes at Cook Out.   

A guilty pleasure Blevins openly admits to is a nostalgic meal at K & W cafeteria. 

What does he order? “Chicken pan pie if they have it. I love the country style steak. Mashed potatoes. Fried okra.” 

What might he order as his last supper on Earth?

“It would probably be what my favorite meal was when I was 5 years old. As my mom would tell it: When I was 5 years old, my favorite meal was calves’ liver, squash and spinach. My Memaw would do this great squash with onion that she would cook forever. I would go to our diner in Ramseur and order that  . . . They would say, does he really want that? My Mom would say, ‘Shut up; he doesn’t know there is a food he isn’t supposed to like.’”

Blevins pauses.  “I always enjoyed strong . . . not the right word . . . flavors . . . Nicole?” he muses. “She would probably have tomato soup and a cheese sandwich.”

The next chapter for the culinary couple is soon-to-open Yokai, an Asian-influenced, smaller eatery near MACHETE in downtown Greensboro. Naturally, they’ve already tested it with a pop-up. Game on!  OH

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Resurrecting Hope

A new way of thinking in a new year

By Maria Johnson

I like a soulful story.

So even though this piece will sound like a news story in places, hang on, and I think you’ll catch the spirit. Maybe even The Spirit.

Recently, I heard from a woman named Joyce Powers. Never met her, but I’m a sucker for a woman who tells you that she’s 80, that she does 80 “very well,” and that she wakes up thinking about her current project, like a kid at Christmastime.

The thing that excites Joyce is the fresh approach that her Greensboro church, Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, is taking in response to decades of declining and aging membership, a challenge for many flocks.

The folks at PCOC — they affectionately call the place “peacock” — are chucking the church.

The brick-and-mortar part, anyway.

But they’re hanging onto their idea of what the sprawling Neoclassical Revival building near UNCG should be: a place to meet, to cultivate benevolent ideas and make those ideas real in the community.

Back in October, the church released a request for proposals, calling for detailed pitches on how to convert the 50,000-square-foot structure, which dominates a block of South Mendenhall Street, into a hub of live-work-play.

Joyce and other church members can picture the current sanctuary as a performance space. They see room for nonprofit offices, a restaurant-pub. Maybe senior housing.

And yes, a smaller space that the church can lease back for worship.

They aim to sell the property, with stipulations, to the developer whose plan they like the most.

The deadline for proposals is January 27.

“We think this is unique,” Joyce says. “We haven’t heard of anything else like this.”

She credits church member Jim North for seeing what could be. After reading about the Brooklyn Arts Center — an event center and bourbon bar occupying the former St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Wilmington — North visited the site earlier this year. (A story about the BAC appears in the November 2022 issue of this magazine: ohenrymag.com/the-creators-of-n-c-23.)

North told his brethren that he believed a similar transformation was possible here. That’s when Joyce invited input from Dennis Quaintance, who, along with his wife Nancy King Quaintance and developer Mike Weaver, founded one of Greensboro’s crown jewels, Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels. Nancy’s parents were married at PCOC.

Joyce also reached out to David Kolosieki, who heads the local Habitat for Humanity and understands both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds.

Kolosieki became a paid adviser to a church committee that harmonized the vision with PCOC’s history.

From the git-go in 1916, the church — the building was designed by famous Greensboro architect Harry Barton — has been action-oriented.

The congregation hired a nurse to deal with the flu pandemic of the late 19-teens. They fed soldiers who passed through the city’s Overseas Replacement Depot in World War II.

Later, they housed a childcare cooperative, a counseling center, and a preschool for blind children.

Currently, PCOC hosts a day center for physically and mentally disabled adults. It also provides a meeting place for the Greensboro Mennonite Fellowship, as well as Unity in Greensboro.

Thinking outside the box is a PCOC specialty. Church members — about 30 of them show up on a typical Sunday — include a couple of homeless people.

“If someone needs us, we’re here,” Joyce says.

She concedes that church members can’t control everything that happens to the property down the road. Neither do they know whether the changes will draw more people into the fold, or if their numbers will dwindle and die.

Not to worry, she says with conviction.

The congregation likely will use proceeds from the sale to create an endowment that will nourish local service projects aligning with the PCOC ethos.

So either way, the church will live on, just in a different form.

And what could be more Spirited than that?  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Contact her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Simple Life

Simple Life

One Journey Ends, Another Begins

Lessons from the road long ago taken, but not forgotten

By Jim Dodson

In ancient Roman religion, the god Janus was a two-faced chap revered as the deity of doorways and transitions, endings and new beginnings — hence the origin of this month’s name, signaling a moment when we wisely take time to reflect on where we’ve come from and what may lie ahead.

This year, this notion has fresh relevance to me. 

Sometime this spring, assuming the good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise, as my Southern granny liked to say, I hope to finish writing a book that means the world to me.

It’s about the legendary Great Wagon Road, described by historians as the most traveled road of colonial America, the country’s first immigrant “highway” that passed through the Appalachian backcountry from Philadelphia to Georgia, bringing tens of thousands of Scots-Irish, German and other European settlers to the American South, including my ancestors and quite possibly yours.

Joe Wilson, the great historian of American roots music, once estimated that “a quarter of Americans today have an ancestor who traveled the Great Wagon Road. You can still see traces of it, a track across high ridges, a trough through piney woods, guarded by wild turkey and chipmunks, a road that was in use for a century — the most important road in American history.”

Six years ago, an idea nurtured since I was knee-high to a historic roadside marker was born anew. With some encouraging research in hand, I paid a visit to a former Navy engineer named Tom Magnuson who heads up the Trading Path Association, based in Hillsborough, where my own Scottish ancestors arrived in the mid-1700s. Magnuson’s marvelous organization researches and documents America’s historic lost roads in order to preserve and expand public appreciation of them. I figured if anyone could tell me if it was feasible or pure folly to try to find the original roadway and follow it from Philly to Georgia 250 years after the fact, that fellow was Tom Magnuson.

My timing couldn’t have been better. He pointed out that recent scholarship by an army of historians, state archivists, archeologists and ordinary history nerds like me had actually determined the original path of the Great Wagon Road and even posted an exquisitely detailed description of its route through some of the most hallowed places in America.

“The Great Wagon Road,” Tom said, when I mentioned my objective, “is the grandaddy of America’s frontier highways — our creation myth, if you like — one that explains the origins of our national story better than any other. The people and ideas that came down that road shaped the character of this nation, both good and bad. That defines who we are today.”

This was all the encouragement I needed. Not long afterwards, I plotted my route and even purchased my very own “Great Wagon” for the journey — a 1996 Buick Roadmaster Grand Estate station wagon, said to be the last “true” American station wagon before Detroit switched to making SUVs.

I envisioned a pleasant three-week cruise along the winding 845-mile road in which I would encounter all sorts of interesting characters, local experts and fellow Wagon Road flamekeepers who shared my passion for this once lost frontier highway and its unique role in shaping America.

God laughs, as the ancient proverb goes, when grown men make plans.

In fact, the journey took five years and 2,100 miles to complete, in part due to the incredible amount of history, marvelous people and stories I found along the way, but also because a worldwide pandemic struck in the middle stages of my research, knocking me off the road for almost two years.

Certain moments stand out, including meeting descendants of Founding Fathers and Daniel Boone; sitting with a fabled Lincoln historian during the annual reading of the Gettysburg Address; walking Antietam with the National Park Service’s first female battlefield guide; and playing guitar with an Appalachian bluegrass legend.

All told,  I visited with — and interviewed — more than 100 extraordinary and ordinary folks from every walk of life who had their own love affair with the old road.

I cherish their diverse voices on my iPhone recorder because they belong to a wonderfully democratic mix of experts and colorful characters, activists and local historians, thoughtful museum curators, gifted poets and preachers, artists and war re-enactors, history nuts of every political persuasion and kind strangers whose names I simply forgot to write down.

In the end, listening to their stories about an old road that has gripped my imagination since I was a kid standing in front of a huge covered wagon in a museum brought me even closer to the country I love.

It taught me how amazingly far we’ve come — and have yet to go.

Somehow, I think the god Janus would approve.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Sazerac January 2023

Sazerac January 2023

Unsolicited Advice

Prettier, thinner, smarter, tidier, wealthier — you-name-it-er — it’s what we resolve to be in ’23. Or not. We know you’ve got goals for the new year and we’re here to help. We took our editing pen to standard resolutions and improved them. You’re welcome.

Wake up an hour earlier later. Get the sleep you need. Walk into work once you roll outta bed, head held high. Your boss should understand. Just make sure you’ve shaken last night’s cracker crumbs out of your hair first.

Create a savings Tinder account. Who cares how much money you have if you don’t have love? J.Lo ain’t lyin’ — “Love don’t cost a thing.”

Drink more water cocktails. 2023 is the year of the party animal.

Spend more less time with the extended family. Look around you. These people are the source of your gray hair and wrinkles, and likely the reason you’re in therapy.

Exercise more. Welp, we don’t need to edit this one. We only have to exercise once to achieve this goal and then we can put it away until 2024.

Read more books tabloids. You wanna feel better about yourself? The trick is scoping out celebrities’ most embarrassing beach photos. Instant ego boost.

Organize your house CD collection. You may have to rip apart your house first to find it — and your old Sony stereo/CD player. The ‛90s are back in a big way and we can’t think of a more productive use of time.

Spend less money time worrying about what other people think. You do you.

Volunteer your time opinion. Doesn’t everyone like unsolicited advice?

There. We fixed it.

Hazy Destiny

Though the greatest warrior to fight in the Trojan war, Hector did not have much to smile about in Homer’s Iliad. For starters, his brother, Paris, stole the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, from her husband, Menelaus, and started the Trojan war. In no time, Menelaus, along with his big bro, king of men Agamemnon, wily Odysseus and swift-footed Achilles came to Troy to reclaim Helen and Greek honor. Ten years, six months and twelve days later, 676,000 Trojans, by some accounts, had been killed. Hector was one of them, slain by Achilles, who ripped off the warrior’s armor and dragged his naked body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy three times, all while Hector’s father, Priam, and Hector’s wife, Andromache, watched. Achilles then took the body back to his tent so other Achaeans could amuse themselves by mutilating his corpse. Ultimately Priam sneaked into the Greek camp disguised as a beggar and pleaded for his son’s body, which Achilles reluctantly gave him. So why, oh why, does Hector smile on the superb and well-balanced can of Asheboro’s Four Saints’ Hazy Cosmic Punch Double IPA? Maybe because of its 8.1 percent ABV?   — David Claude Bailey

Sage Gardener

Creasy Greens

Three memories stand out from visiting my grandparents’ farm in Madison: biscuits from the warming box of Grandma’s wood stove (slathered with butter and her homemade blackberry jam); the chickens doing their best to get said biscuits away from me; and walking with Daddy down a winding road to pick Creasy greens. Call Creasies what you will: upland cress, mountain greens, winter cress, Barbarea verna — these tangy, pungent greens are much easier to grow than watercress and come up wild where cattle graze. Garden & Gun proclaims them “A Mountain Secret.” Don’t try telling that to my Piedmont North Carolinian father, whose mother would cook them as a spring tonic. “As a critical source of Vitamin C and other nutrients, Creasy greens have prevented scurvy for untold numbers of people through the years,” says the U.S. Experimental Farm Network. “Stories abound of people in life-threatening situations relying on this plant for vital nutrition, from shipwrecked sailors in Europe to enslaved African people in the U.S.” Anna Anders, owner of Anders Family Farms, grows watercress and Creasies hydroponically in Northwest Forsyth County. She sells them regularly at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market. (They’re hard to find in grocery stores.) If you want some of hers, get there early: “They sell out really fast.” Anders says she supplies Creasy greens and watercress to area chefs, who mostly use them in salads for their distinctive, peppery bite. (No less than French President Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden chowed down on some stewed watercress at a recent White House state dinner.) Me, I’ll be tangling my Creasy greens up with some smoked hog jowl for New Year’s Day, when I’ll be hopping my John with South Carolina field peas, a concession to my Lowcountry cookmate.    David Claude Bailey

Window to the Past

Photograph © Carol W. Martin/Greensboro History Museum Collection

Long before Elsa was begging Anna to build a snowman, the employees of Vick Chemical, then known as Richardson-Merrill, were happy to indulge. Thanks to the Greensboro History Museum for this frozen-in-time moment, circa 1967.

Just One Thing

“I have autism,” reads the artist’s statement of King Nobuyoshi Godwin. “I can see trees in my mind and talk with them.” The Angelfish is Having a Good Day Because It’s with the Nudibranch was painted in 2022 and is displayed in GreenHill’s Winter Show, which closes February 15. More than 100 artists who either reside in or have lasting ties to North Carolina are featured each year in the show. “King’s synesthesia and the unique sensibility he brings to his work has, in a relatively short period of time, resulted in an affirmed style,” says Edie Carpenter, the museum’s curator. “The artist combines planar forms in vivid colors — with overlays of repetitive mark-making.” To see more of the artist’s work and read about his artistic process, visit his website at kinggodwin.com. “King is well on his way to a successful career in the arts and has already been included in several museum exhibitions and a two-person exhibition with his mother,” says Carpenter, who adds that works by Godwin’s mother, Yuko Nogama Taylor, are also up in the Winter Show.

Info: greenhillnc.org.

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(December 22 – January 19)

Here’s what they don’t tell you about goat yoga: You become the mat. “What’s the harm in a bit of hair nibbling?” you might wonder. “Even the droppings are kind of cute.” When you’re accustomed to being the goat, it’s easy to see the world in this way. Others are less amused. This month, as you deftly scale whatever obstacles might arise on your path, try not to step on your allies’ toes. Honoring boundaries will get you further. 

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Wear your sunglasses.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

The remedy is within you.

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

Check the mailbox.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

You’ve made your own bed.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Go for the twin pack.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

The eagle has landed.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

You’ll know the red flag when you see it.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

Rule of thumb: Rinse before use.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Move the plot forward.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Someone needs a hug.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

Just take the stairs.  PS

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla. 

Play to Learn, Learn to Play

Play to Learn, Learn to Play

A mother’s lasting legacy at the Miriam P. Brenner Children’s Museum

By Ross Howell Jr.

In the Miriam P. Brenner Children’s Museum, Frank Brenner and I make our way along “Main Street,” a play exhibit where murmuring gaggles of kids, parents and grandparents are scattered.

Some are sitting on kid-sized furniture, others crouching on the floor arranging big wooden blocks of various shapes.

We watch a toddler make her way up steps to an airplane cockpit with a yellow slide. She zips down to floor level, giggling.

Just down the “street,” a boy asks his mother what she’d like on her pizza.

“Mushrooms,” Mom answers.

Her son proudly takes a couple sliced-mushroom replicas from a bin to add to his creation, now ready for the tiny “oven” in the kid-sized “pizzeria” where he’s playing.

You get the idea. The children’s museum is a place for hands-on, experiential learning.

And it’s just plain fun.

Brenner and I continue through the doors of a real kitchen with big appliances and wide aluminum sinks to a meeting room with a wall of windows looking out onto Church Street and the Greensboro Public Library.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what an asset this place was until I brought my two-year-old granddaughter in here,” Brenner says. He describes watching his grandchild happily push her kid-sized cart along the aisles of the little grocery store on Main Street.

“That was the eye-opening moment for me,” Brenner says.

And it turned out to be a major moment for area kids.

The initiative for establishing a local children’s museum came from the late Jerry Hyman, a successful businessman born and raised in Greensboro, the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary and Lithuania.

“Everybody called him ‘Pop,’” says his son, Mark Hyman, who practiced dentistry in Greensboro for 32 years and now lectures nationally on the business of running successful dental practices.

“Pop saw children’s museums in San Francisco and other U.S. cities, and wanted to create one in Greensboro,” Hyman recalls. “But people told him it wouldn’t work.”

Undaunted, Hyman called on the late Cynthia Doyle, a local legend in civic duty, volunteerism and nonprofit fundraising.

“She told Pop to come back in six months,” Hyman says.

Doyle reached out to a network of individuals from the Leadership Greensboro Program. They would go on to serve as the steering committee for a children’s museum capital campaign, led by Doyle. Three years later, in 1999, the Greensboro Children’s Museum opened its doors at 220 North Church Street, recognizing Jerry Hyman as cofounder.

“Pop wanted a downtown location so the museum would be accessible to children from all walks of life,” Hyman continues. “I know he would feel great joy at seeing all the kids playing together there.”

Hyman enjoys going to the museum to sit near a piece of art by Paul Rousso, an internationally acclaimed artist who grew up in Charlotte. The colorful installation, A Piece for Pop, incorporates drawings from each of Jerry Hyman’s children in its composition.

“I see going to the children’s museum as a way to visit with my Dad,” Hyman concludes. “He would always talk about the responsibility of giving back to a community.”

A decade after the children’s museum first opened, chef, author and restauranteur Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, a Berkeley, California eatery famous for its role in the farm-to-table movement, came to Greensboro for the grand opening of the Edible Schoolyard at the children’s museum.

The Edible Schoolyard is a half-acre organic teaching garden and kitchen classroom where kids, families and teachers can learn about growing, cooking and sharing fresh, delicious food. In its ecosystem of plants and animals, the garden features vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers, trees and shrubs, as well as worms, pollinators and most recently — a flock of chickens.

In 2015, the children’s museum launched its “Reaching Greater Heights” expansion project. The first installation was an outdoor play plaza that offers a challenging level of problem solving, teaching children how to go from point A to point B with no specified path.

Talk about heights! The plaza includes two European-imported 30-foot-tall Neptune XXL climbers connected by a 25-foot suspended net tunnel. The net and rope structures allow for family members to keep an eye on their kids while they’re playing.

“The kids aren’t scared,” says marketing manager Jessica Clifford, who’s taking me on a tour. “But many of the parents are!”

Clifford has already shown me other features on Main Street, like the post office and theater, and a real police car, plus a Volvo big rig truck, EMT vehicle, and postal van that kids can play with interactively. And she’s introduced me to the hens in the Edible Schoolyard flock.

Now we’re having a look at new indoor installations comprising a hands-on water exhibit — what child doesn’t like to play in the water, right? — and a technology exhibit called “The Growing Place.” These new features add to the museum’s STEAM-based activities, which promote the idea that Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math can all work together to help children learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and innovators.

“When you think about it,” Clifford muses, “there are very few spaces in the world just for children. We adults lose our excitement, but when you come in here, you see the awe in kids’ faces.”

She explains that the feeling is contagious, that you’ll see parents and grandparents transported, acting like kids themselves.

“We bring out the kid in everyone,” Clifford laughs. “You’ll see on the wall out front, it says ‘For children from zero to 99.’”

But at age 22, the children’s museum had hit the proverbial bumpy road. Although it now had generations of enthusiasts, the roof of the 37,000-square-foot museum was leaking and its HVAC system often failed. Those kinds of expensive repairs are beyond the maintenance budget allocations most any nonprofit organization can afford and are not the kind of thing private donors feel especially inclined to fund.

“We couldn’t deliver programming the way we should if we’re worried about the roof leaking, right? Or keeping the building cool or warm?” says Joe Rieke, director of advancement and community.

“We couldn’t focus on education, on interaction, on fun, on play for children and parents when we can’t keep them comfortable, right?” Rieke adds.

Which brings us back to that major moment for Greensboro kids.

Frank Brenner’s father was Winston-Salem philanthropist “Abe” Brenner — as in Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem or 1 Abe Brenner Place, the address of the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts in Greensboro, close by the children’s museum.

So Frank knows something about giving back to a community.

“I had been looking to do something in memory of my mother, to honor her,” Brenner says. “She had a tough childhood.”

Born Miriam Prystowsky in Charleston, South Carolina, Brenner’s mother was the youngest of four sisters in a family facing difficult challenges.

“But it was certainly a happy childhood for all of us,” continues Brenner, the third of Abe and Miriam’s four children. “There were lessons they taught us really early,” he adds. “The difference between right and wrong, and the importance of education.”

Through his good friend, Mark Hyman, Brenner had heard about the children’s museum. Later, he received a phone call from Marian King, CEO of the children’s museum. King is a Greensboro native and, like Brenner, a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill.

“She said, ‘Frank, I’d like to speak with you about what’s going on at the museum,’” Brenner says. “It was good timing.”

After he met with King, Brenner sat down at home with his wife, Nancy.

He explained the needs of the museum, and said, “You know what? Maybe this is the opportunity to do something for my mother.” His wife agreed, and the next day Brenner called King to let her know their decision.

“And it’s all come to fruition,” Brenner adds.

Frank and Nancy made a gift of $1.25 million, the largest single donation the museum has ever received. It was the lead gift in a capital campaign that will reach its goal of just more than $2 million this month.

“The museum is an incredible asset to Greensboro,” Brenner continues. “I believe a place like this would’ve been transformational for my mother when she was a girl.”

So the children’s museum roof and HVAC have been upgraded. Brenner’s family participated in a ribbon-cutting reopening ceremony in October 2022, when the museum was officially renamed and rebranded.

And generations of playing kids and families will now see the name of Miriam P. Brenner, a caring mother, who would have been gratified to have her legacy contribute to the enrichment and happiness of children.

When I ask Brenner about the future, he talks about adding financial programs to make the museum accessible to all kids. While membership scholarships, discounted admissions and provisional free passes can sometimes be made available, Brenner hopes to achieve even more.

Already he’s contacted his cousin, Hal Kaplan, executive chairman of Kaplan Early Learning Company in Raleigh. Kaplan wrote the children’s museum a check for $25,000.

Kaplan told Brenner, “Frank, I want this used for scholarships for kids that can’t afford to get in there.”

“And I’m not going anywhere,” Brenner says. “I love Greensboro. My friends are here and I have grandkids here. And I must admit, I’m a little addicted to Carolina basketball, so I like to be here during basketball season. Greensboro’s home. My mother’s name is on the museum now and I want it to be the lasting, positive place it is for decades to come.”  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributing writer to O.Henry. He’s working on a new historical novel about a group of World War I veterans.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Waffling Over Keto

Too much of everything might result in something edible

By David Claude Bailey

When my Pennsylvania Dutch mother went into the kitchen, forget about “a little of this and a little of that.” Salt was plunked into the pot using three fingers and her thumb. When she seasoned her iconic chicken’n’dumplings with black pepper, you could smell it two rooms away. A pinch was something I got for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. And yet she was a marvelous and adventuresome cook. And I, the apple of her eye, landed not far from the tree.

After marrying my high school sweetheart at 19, I learned to cook because Anne, my bride, had an 11 o’clock class. By the time she got home, the house would be redolent with my inimitable Sicilian spaghetti sauce. (The secret was too much of everything but ground beef, which we couldn’t afford.) “Garlic is a flavoring,” she’d say, “not a vegetable.” Or, “Tabasco is not your — or my — best friend.” It was much later in life that I actually became a reliable cook.

Having lost my job in 2009, I got on as, first, a dishwasher, and then a backline chef, at Print Works Bistro. There, I learned some restraint and how to follow a recipe. Nowadays, I, in fact, do the lion’s share of cooking, with Anne, by far the superior chef, often putting me to shame. Maybe that’s because I haven’t lost my who-needs-a-recipe spirit and, like Mom, still think exact measuring is for sissies.

Carb-conscious, we go on and off the Keto diet — the one where, counterintuitively, you lose weight eating butter, heavy cream, eggs, bacon, cheese and anything else loaded with protein and saturated fat. Meanwhile, we bid adieu to our old friends, sugar, wheat flour and potatoes — which allegedly trigger weight gain and speed the onset of diabetes.

Whatever. Any diet that embraces pork rinds and favors whiskey over beer is fine with me.

Still, we missed the comforting carbs of waffles, pancakes and biscuits for breakfast. So one Sunday morning while Anne slept in, I decided to surprise her with Keto-compliant crêpes. After browsing a dozen or so gluten-free recipes online, all requiring exotic ingredients (tapioca, millet, sorghum flour, potato starch and what the hell is teff?), I started rummaging around in our pantry. Anne had bought some almond flour and coconut flour that she baked into marvelous cakes, so into a bowl went a quarter cup each. I found some brown rice flour and white rice flour, so two more quarter cups were tossed into the mix. I had no idea what xanthan gum was, but had seen it online and we had plenty, so in went several heaping tablespoons. After beating eggs and milk and butter together, I added the ersatz-flour concoction and ZAP!

The result was a thick slurry that I could have picked up with the immersion blender and carried to the compost heap. And that’s probably what I should have done. Worried that my little handheld appliance might short out or be absorbed by the blob, I poured in more milk, some cream, water. RRRrrrrr. RRRrrrrr. RRRrrrrr.

But the blob simply grew and started wiggling threateningly.

I dumped it into a bigger bowl and took a wire whip to it with the idea of beating it into submission. I doused it with more and more liquid until the blob loosened up, no longer adhering to what I was whipping it with. I extracted a hunk from the quivering mass and tossed it in the frying pan. Even after flipping it, the gelatinous glob refused to flatten. When I pressed down on it, the blob squirted a gob of creamy stuff at me.

Not yet willing to give up, I cranked up the waffle iron, thinking of it as a submission chamber. The blob hissed. It sizzled. And made fairly decent waffles! Especially when served with ice cream and chocolate syrup.

Mom would have been proud.  OH

O.Henry’s contributing editor, David Claude Bailey, is known for his kimchi milkshakes. 

Home Grown

Home Grown

Love of the Pastel Service

The world’s a more colorful place when we don’t say what we mean

By Cynthia Adams

My immigrant husband has always had a soft spot for the postal service.  Since arriving here from Johannesburg, Don has marveled at the fact that American mail is delivered in a reasonable period of time.

Not so back at home, he will say, shaking his head, giving a warm smile as the postal truck pulls to the curb and delivers mail. When working at home, he is always prepared to step outside to say hello.

In South Africa, by contrast, mail can — and does — disappear.  If the post arrives, it won’t be swiftly. We finally abandoned sending his family birthday and holiday cards. “Back home,” he says, snow, rain, heat and gloom of night can and will stay couriers from their appointed rounds. 

He so admires American mail’s superior service that he makes a point of knowing carriers by name. Kevin is “a great guy,” Don says.

The men and women of the USPS were among his first friends in a new country.

“They pick up stamped mail right from our door!” Don marvels with genuine pleasure. “They didn’t in South Africa.”

Our first Christmas together presented a little culture shock to him, too, as presents piled up beneath the tree. His Christmases had always been more austere.

“A little something for everyone,” I explained, defending perceived extravagance.

Soon, Hershey’s Kisses appeared, piled beneath the tree. The reason? “So the postman can have a little something!”

Following a move across town, we observed Shirley, our new mail carrier, endearing herself to every dog on our block by dispensing doggie treats.

Shirley was so beloved by neighborhood hounds that howling commenced the moment the mail truck appeared. She doled out biscuits at fences and front doors as doggies up and down the street yelped with anticipation.

Don contributed to the cause, leaving Milkbones for Shirley. One pre-Christmas morning he wrote a check.

“Who’s that for?” I asked. 

“Our pastel loady,” he murmured.

“For the dog treats fund,” he scribbled in the memo line.

Our what? He repeated absentmindedly, “Shirley,” he said, “our pastel loady.”

I clapped my hands in delight. Through a misfiring of a brain synapse, postal lady became pastel loady

A spoonerism! 

Tangled, inverted words and phrases were dubbed spoonerisms, thanks to Archibald Spooner, a brilliant, colorful intellectual. The legendary Oxford professor and chaplain apparently amused his students and congregants by unwittingly switching parts of words

A classic example was when Spooner misspoke during an interview, declaring “the weight of rages will press hard upon the employer.” He meant to say, “the rate of wages.”

Another misstep by Chaplain Spooner: “It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.”

Spooner’s student was denounced by the Oxford don for tasting two worms, rather than wasting two terms

One mystifying Spooner quote more Harry Potter than Oxford-speak? “You will leave by the next town drain.” (Rather than “the next down train.”)

In 1930, Spooner conflated “conquering kings,” spluttering out “kinkering congs.” Clearly, people could not wait to hear what his brain would produce next.

Even though his gaffes were widely quoted, and doubtlessly misquoted, Spooner remained good-natured. When he retired from public life, Oxford became a duller place. No more colorful clunkers.

Likewise, when the very popular Shirley retired from the pastel service, neighborhood dogs slumped, tails drooping. They went into a collectively silent, grousing funk for weeks.

Our terrier, Kip, eventually stopped gleefully racing along the fence line at the sight of each passing mail truck.

There was a sad reckoning: A fine pastel loady had passed from daily life. Missed by canines and customers alike, the world grew less colorful, a much grayer place.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

All Roads Lead Home

All Roads Lead Home

Five young professionals return to the city that raised them

By Cassie Bustamante

Photographs by John Gessner

Sometimes it takes a wild adventure in a faraway land to appreciate what’s been under your nose all along. Just as Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, The Wizard of Oz, has to be whisked away via a tornado and led on a magical adventure to the glittering Emerald City, many of Greensboro’s rising young professionals have followed their own yellow brick roads, only to discover that they “had the power all along” to find what they were seeking, right where their journey began.

Cecelia Thompson, executive director of Action Greensboro and creator of Boomerang Greensboro, acts as our city’s very own Glenda the Good Witch, helping those who wish to return home to Greensboro land safely and securely. While it takes more than the click of one’s heels, Thompson tells us that Boomerang concierge Erin Sherrill is there to make connections, set up realtors and provide resources that roll out the emerald carpet.

“Greensboro’s a small enough town that you run into people you’ve helped make those connections,” says Thompson. “To see them settled, happy and thriving in Greensboro, that’s the goal.”

We spoke to five recent “Boomerangs” who, aided by Thompson and Sherrill, have come back to Greensboro, seeing for themselves that their greatest desires are right here in their own backyards. After all, there’s no place like home.

Do you know someone you’d like to recruit back to Greensboro? Let Boomerang Greensboro help by referring them here: boomeranggso.com/boomerang-referral-form.


April Albritton

The assistant to Greensboros city manager hopes to boost the fortune of young citizens

April Albritton stepped onto UNCG’s campus as a prospective student and suddenly understood what love at first sight was all about. After growing up in Charlotte, she knew the lush campus, friendly students and accepting faculty would make her feel at home for the next four years. Upon graduating in 2006, this young professional with a heart full of wanderlust craved change and cultivated a career in college athletics that would take her all over the country. But three years ago, Albritton (pronounced ALL-Britain) returned to Greensboro to plant roots without letting go of her sense of adventure.

As a UNCG undergrad, Albritton managed the men’s basketball team while studying kinesiology (the study of the mechanics of human movement and how physical activity and sports affect us). She doesn’t consider herself an athlete, but loves that sports “bring people together” no matter “what socioeconomic background” they come from. During her three years as manager, the team became her second family and some of the players remain her best friends today.

Despite the strong bonds she formed at UNCG, Albritton “couldn’t wait to get out.” When an opportunity to be assistant director in a Seattle university athletic department came her way, she took the leap. That “rainy and gloomy” city left an imprint on her heart and she still travels back once a year, but eventually left for a job in Charleston, S.C., followed by Long Island, N.Y.

But when her dad got sick, Albritton moved back to Charlotte, which eventually led her to a fundraising position for a Carolina Panthers player whose board she still sits on.

Four years after her return to North Carolina, UNCG called and said there was a position for her if she was interested. “I absolutely wanted a chance to go back to the place I love that started everything in my life,” she says.

In fact, shortly after her return, she knocked off a bucket list item and bought her first home, citing Greensboro’s housing affordability. “I’m making a commitment to stay down South, to stay in North Carolina,” she says. “I thought I had one more — maybe a Chicago in me — but I’m actually really happy here. And that’s a good feeling.”

After two years as director of Spartan Club, a chance to work for the City of Greensboro popped up. Although still heavily involved in volunteer work at UNCG, Albritton left her job there to take on the position of assistant to the city manager, Taiwo Jaiyeoba (TY-woh JAH-ye-aw-bah). The two had “developed a really good rapport” when a mutual friend connected them so that she could give him the scoop on Greensboro after he relocated from Charlotte. When he reinstated the assistant position, she applied.

Sports remains a huge part of her life and she holds tight to the dream of one day running an NFL team or becoming a conference commissioner, but it’s that community aspect of athletics that reverberates through everything she does in her current role. Her “passion project”? Seeing Greensboro develop into a dynamic creative, cultural and economic magnet that would boost the fortune of its young people.

Having lived in Seattle and spent a lot of time in some of America’s hippest urbanscapes, doesn’t Greensboro get a little boring? With lunchtime walks to LeBauer Park, a steady stream of shows at the Tanger Center, UNCG athletics to cheer on, giant chocolate chip cookies from Revolution Mill’s Black Magnolia Southern Patisserie and live jazz during Wine Wednesday at Double Oaks B&B, Albritton finds the city far from dull.

But it was the 2022 NC FolkFest that marked a defining moment. Headliner George Clinton was the favorite artist of her late father. When Albritton heard he was performing, she prepared for rain or shine and ventured downtown. “I actually caught the sunglasses he was wearing during the concert, and then snuck backstage and got a picture, too . . . These are the things you can do in Greensboro.”

With so much to explore in her own backyard, Albritton is excited for even more to come. “My commitment is to watching Greensboro grow,” she says. While work at the city is often about long-range planning, she adds, “I want to stick around and be part of that before I say, ‘What’s next?’”


Ethan James

A YouTube carpenter builds a home base in Greensboro

Ethan James knows all about what it means to be a one-man show. When it comes to content creation, scripting, filming and editing for his successful YouTube channel, The Honest Carpenter, everything you see has been done using only his own two hands. Though he lacks a team of coworkers, his online community consists of over 674,000 subscribers. And when it came time to establish a base for his operations, he heard the siren — perhaps it was Minerva — of his alma mater calling him back.

At age 13, James began working for his father in the Raleigh and Wake Forest area where they lived. “My dad was a builder and he was also a carpenter’s son,” he says. Even with the trade running deep in his veins, he vowed to never become a carpenter. He also recalls once telling a friend, “If there’s one thing I can absolutely swear to you up and down, it’s that I will never have a YouTube channel — ever.”

In 2000, James began attending UNCG, where he majored in English. During his time there, he worked at the defunct Borders’ chain of bookstores while still working construction for his dad when he was home during breaks. “I’m book obsessed,” laughs James. “In my ideal life, I’d be an author, not a video person.”

His love of books led him into McKay’s — then Ed McKay Used Books & More — to look for work after graduation. Ironically, it was his construction background that earned him the job since McKay knew he might have use for someone with his abilities on staff. One day, due to the burden of hefty textbooks, a set of bookshelves collapsed. James made repairs and “pretty soon they pulled me off the sales floor and I did handyman stuff for them for a few years.”

With that experience under his tool belt, James decided, after all, to go into carpentry on his own, landing him back in the Raleigh area, where he stayed for seven years. Which of course means, he concedes, “I’m a third-generation carpenter.” He also teamed up with his father to create a consultancy business and started making videos to market it. But the videos took on a life of their own and The Honest Carpenter channel was born. “I never intended any of this,” says James, referring to his YouTube success. “It was an accident — a fortunate accident.”

Because of his self-made career being almost entirely online, James can live almost anywhere as long as he has a shop studio space, which he found at The Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship. Greensboro has everything he desires, plus the community feel and welcoming energy he craves. “There’s just a vibe here and I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else, so I came back.”

Now that he’s back, he finds himself often at one of his favorite spots, Tate Street Coffee House, writing and editing, just as he did during his studies at UNCG.

These days, he’s creating videos to speak out about a major concern — the missing next generation of builders — including one titled “Where Have All the Carpenters Gone?” He’s distraught about the lack of messaging reaching younger audiences. “There is no Bob the Builder anymore . . . they cancelled it.”

But James, who has published five fantasy books for kids already, has big dreams and a plan to solve that problem.

A few years ago, he introduced a cartoon character —  fittingly named James the Honest Carpenter — on his YouTube show. James’ ultimate goal is to find a willing publishing partner to meet young audiences where they are, bringing forth the next Bob the Builder type of franchise, with a show and graphic novels that will “help kids become aware that the world they’re walking in was actually built by someone.”

If anyone can make that happen, it’s James. As he’s learned throughout his journey, “Doors open when you least expect it,” and one should never say never.


Afika Nxumalo

A singer-songwriter tunes into himself in order to help others

Every morning since moving into his Burlington fixer-upper on Lake Cammack in June of 2021, Afika Nxumalo (pronounced New-MALL-Oh, with a click incorporated for the “X”) pours himself a mug of fresh brewed coffee, steps off his back deck into a shaded backyard abutting the shore and takes a moment before starting the day. For this singer-songwriter — who once penned a song called “Morning Depression” — it’s a welcome change from the small space living and busyness of Brooklyn, New York.

Now his morning routine consists of affirmations, some of which are written on mirrors throughout his home, as well as the meditation to “see what God is trying to tell me before the sun comes up.”

Nxumalo, who grew up in Greensboro and was once part of local hip hop groups The Urban Sophisticates and Phive, has spent almost a decade in Brooklyn and London launching his solo career. Eventually, this “Grimsley kid” landed himself a spot on NBC’s Songland.

When he was first in talks with producers, the plan was to use a song titled “Neverland.” But as Nxumalo can only assume, the infamous Leaving Neverland documentary came out around that time and the song was dropped. He didn’t hear from Songland’s producers for a while, but at his birthday celebration with friends that year, he chose to raise a glass and give thanks for making it that far.

As he’s learned throughout his life, when he lets go of the outcome, the universe responds. Just two days after that toast, he received an email that the show wanted to use another song, “Chosen.”

“If I had one song in my entire catalog that I would like the public to know me by,” he says, “ . . . it would have been that song.”

Whoever won the episode would have his or her song played on the trailer of Hobbs & Shaw, a Fast & Furious spinoff. He didn’t win, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “Chosen” caught the ears of Warner Brothers and it was used in the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah.

Nxumalo says that if he’d had the chance to sit down with God and was asked to choose which trailer he’d prefer his song accompany, his answer would have been the one he got. “God, you know me!” he exclaims.

What a gift he was given, he muses, to be recognized for a song that expresses who he is an artist. And now he hopes to share that feeling with other aspiring singer-songwriters. “I really hope all artists get to have some form of the universe saying ‘yes’ to them in that way,” he says.

The lake house he’s living in began as a plan to form an artists’ retreat, a “Muscle Shoals type of spot,” where he could cultivate songwriters, but when his Brooklyn landlord began rent renegotiations, he decided to make the move into the property.

Now, he’s got his sights set on bringing his knowledge and expertise to the local community through Pop College, his music education company that he dubs “The World’s Only Ivy League Songwriting School.” His workshops — which he hopes to host at Revolution Mill or Transform GSO — would include songwriting for artists, songwriting as team building for businesses and even songwriting therapy, a format he’s led before in New York.

The songwriting therapy model works so well, he says, because it “has a latent effect of turning something so painful into something so beautiful” and connection is built upon “shared identity and shared experience, but especially if that shared experience is shared suffering.”

As he looks out onto Lake Cammack, a head full of visions for his future, he says, “I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching out here, like, how do I want to spend my life?”

Almost answering himself, he says, “All I have to do is be me and that’s my unique selling point. Ya know, that’s it.”


Brandi Nicole Johnson

All roads lead back to Greensboro for this leadership development expert

From the time she was a little girl, Brandi Nicole Johnson was clear about what she wanted from life, to the point of planning her own birthday parties a year in advance. She’s a natural leader who knows what she wants and doesn’t settle for less. In fact, it’s that strong sense of self that first landed her in Greensboro in 2005.

An only child from Butner, Johnson dove into her college search with “really weird requirements.” She knew, “I didn’t want to share a bathroom . . . and I really preferred to be in a room by myself.” UNCG, it turned out, ticked off many of her boxes, and although she didn’t get a room to herself she was able to room with someone she knew, a fellow Girl Scout.

During her senior year at UNCG, Johnson had an opportunity to do a work study with the community organization, National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad, which ended up launching her career in leadership development.

Unfortunately, illness took Johnson back to Butner for a few months, but she once again returned to Greensboro, this time with a full-time job as membership services manager for Girl Scouts Carolinas Peaks to Piedmont. She’d grown up in the organization and, over the years, has earned several accolades and awards which she attributes to how she came to understand how important leadership is.

“It’s in the [Girl Scout] commitment of making the world a better place,” says Johnson, “and I think for the world to be a better place we need to have better leaders.”

After a year-and-a-half at Girl Scouts, what Johnson thought was her “dream job” opened up at the Center for Creative Leadership. She’d first learned of the organization as a college junior and had “made it my mission” to one day work there, so she applied. While she didn’t land that role, the hiring manager was so impressed that she called Johnson and told her about another position that hadn’t as yet been posted. “Interested?” she wondered. “Heck, yes,” Johnson replied.

After spending much of her career at CCL, a role she’d dreamed of taking on — executive director — took her back to Butner. She left Greensboro for what she now calls “the most painful career experience” of her life.” After growing the organization and leading it through tragedy, she says, “I was tired, so I took four months off.” She watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, binged on Chick-fil-A waffle fries and finally said to herself, “Brandi, you need a job. You gotta figure this out.”

Never lacking gumption, Johnson founded her own people development brand, Estella Elaine (named after her grandmothers). She’s also worked for Red Hat, WeWork — she notes, “before we saw the documentaries on Apple TV!” — and DoorDash, all while still running her own business and working in an on-call capacity at CCL.

With her last corporate role, Johnson was supposed to move to New York, but relocation never came to fruition. Now, Johnson says, “many companies are saying the future of work is flexible” and she decided to take advantage of that.

Johnson began to weigh living options and found her way back to Greensboro, citing the cost of living as a big draw. She now works out of the comfort of her home. Plus, she says, “The people here have a different vibe. There’s a warmth that I love.”

In 2021, Johnson purchased her first house, a four-bedroom, which she jokes that she never needs to leave, surrounded by an abundance of her favorite restaurants that will deliver right to her front door.

And, as a bonus, the Gate City is ripe with opportunity for Johnson to put her skills to work. “I can see me becoming more of a philanthropist, getting involved in venture and whatever that looks like here, really thinking about how do we invest in talent development and growth in a meaningful way.”


Elijah Cone

A Crooked Media big city dweller seeks a more rounded life

Like many young people who are born and raised in one place, Elijah Cone couldn’t wait to venture out into the world upon graduating from Greensboro Day School in 2010. After living in the cosmopolitan cities of both New York and Los Angeles while beginning what would turn out to be a successful career in digital media, he ultimately chose to return to his childhood roots for lifestyle opportunities that could’t be found elsewhere.

Shortly after YouTube emerged as an online platform, Cone, then a teenager, learned how to edit video on his computer, tapping into a “trend that has only accelerated in the last 10 years.” Interest piqued, he earned a degree in film, cinema and video studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Since graduating in 2014, Cone has worked for both the NBA and Fox Sports, editing and producing video, but it’s his current role as Crooked Media’s director of digital development that enabled his return to Greensboro to be closer to his family.

As the fifth hire at Crooked Media, Cone has been with the brand and worked in its Los Angeles headquarters on podcasts such as Pod Save America almost from the inception. But in 2020, he says, the pandemic “made remote work a necessity for a lot of places and for my company for a long time,” which meant he could work as easily from Greensboro as anywhere else. “The [film editing] industry has changed so you can do it anywhere with your own tools.”

With a soon-to-be bride — also from North Carolina — by his side, he made the decision to move cross-country back to Greensboro in search of a more “rounded life.” Los Angeles offered “so much to do and see,” but Cone and his fiancé, Daixi, knew they wanted to start a family. Envisioning life with small children in California, he says, “You’re in this big, expensive city that’s great, but you can’t really experience it.”

“My hope for my life in Greensboro is much more family — not just starting my own,” says Cone, who recently bought a home with his now wife. He looks forward to spending time with his parents, Ed and Lisa. “My mom went through a very long battle with cancer and now she’s on the other end of that . . . [My dad] was there taking care of her. It feels like they’ve been through a lot.” Being back in the city where he was raised might one day, he says, provide the perk of “getting free childcare.”

While Cone has spent more than half of his career with Crooked Media, he says, “I have a great relationship with the hosts of the show [Pod Save America] and people that work at the company, but you can never tell.” If things changed tomorrow and the company wanted him back in Los Angeles, what then?

“What makes me confident I could continue to be successful is connections outside of Greensboro, people I’ve met and people who know what I can do, what my skill set is,” Cone says, adding that he could probably work remotely for one of them. “But I also know that there’s this path for potentially bringing what I do to people here.”

With Greensboro’s growing entrepreneurial spirit, Cone recognizes that he could start his own business that would benefit other small business-owners. “Giving people who are super talented around Guilford County an option to stay here and not have to go out of state would be great.”

But he also wants to give back “in the most literal sense, in the charitable, volunteer work capacity.” Cone, who is the great-great-great-nephew of Moses Cone acknowledges how Greensboro has been “incredible” to his family. Reflecting on his time away, he says, “It feels kind of selfish to get all the great things from this city, then pack up and leave.”

Plentiful parks, quality of family life and opportunities for business and philanthropy are just some of the reasons Cone felt the pull back to Greensboro. “Look, if you have a great option of living in a place like this where your life is well rounded,” says Cone, “why not try? Who knows if it’s the right call, but I am comfortable taking that bet.”  OH

Cassie Bustamante is managing editor of O.Henry magazine.