Wandering Billy

Hair-raising Adventures

Mullets, hawks and pomps, oh my!

By Billy Eye

“For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow but phone calls taper off.”        — Johnny Carson

Sixty years ago, when I was a wee young’un entering first grade, every couple of months or so, like when a holiday was approaching, my father marched my younger brother and me up to Lawndale Barber Shop to have our heads reshaped, curls cascading to the linoleum in piles, hair buzzed into distant memory on the sides, leaving slightly longer flops on top. Ed Jones was lead barber at this particular clip joint consisting of three chairs inside a glass storefront at the tip of a strip of shops in front of the railroad tracks directly across from Plaza Shopping Center.

“If Hair Is Cut Well It Grows Out Well” was Lawndale’s slogan where, above the silver-capped jar of combs soaking in bright blue Barbicide, was a mounted metal sign from a decade earlier displaying all of polite society’s approved Red Blooded American Boy hairstyles: Flattop, Butch, Crew, College Contour, Little League or Ivy League. There were other, more adventuresome options like the Forward-Combed Boogie, Flattop Boogie and the Hollywood — no way my old man was going to allow any of that city slicker nonsense atop his upstanding offspring. (Although it should be noted that dear ol’ Dad wore his hair Flattop Boogie style.)

Considered a sort of golden age for barbering, in 1962 Lawndale was one of around 70 similar shops dotting the city, 13 downtown. Keep in mind, the population of Greensboro was less than half of what it is today. Four years ago, I counted two dedicated barber shops downtown. Today, as part of a nationwide cultural shift, there are at least seven barber shops concentrated in the center city.

On South Elm, just shy of Lewis Street, is Rock’s Hair Shop, where I spoke with their mane man Grey Dominguez. “When I was growing up we had some of the worst haircuts,” Dominguez recalls of the 1990s. “I don’t think our parents really cared what we looked like. I ultimately ended up going to those Sport Clips types of places.” Nowadays parents are more circumspect when it comes to their child’s appearance. “There are some 10-year olds who walk out of here with better haircuts than I’ve had in my adult life.”

Open in Greensboro since 2018 and offering a wide-open, casual environment, Rock’s delivers what you might call masculine grooming services, plus complimentary craft beer or other beverages with your cut. Your traditional experience with a twist, where they take a much more detail oriented approach to haircutting, along with old school straight razor shaves, beard trimming, vivid or permanent color, and everything else one thinks of from a traditional barber, only with an ABC permit so you don’t have to go looking around for a bottle shop or beer bar to celebrate having your ears lowered.

Rock’s is a “very inclusive and affirming shop” with clients all over the gender spectrum, all races. “We have clients that will bring their laptops and work at the bar,” Dominguez says. “Don’t tell their bosses but they’ll be sipping a beer on a conference call while they’re here.”

While Dominguez is a licensed cosmetologist, “I realized pretty early on into my education that I should have gone to barber school. I guess I really cared about short hair, specifically men’s hair.” Dominguez sees his shop as somewhere “between traditional barber shops and modern salons. We’re sort of a fusion of the two. I actually hear a lot from clients, this is the place they didn’t know they needed.”

While most folks are looking for a practical hairstyle they can dress up or down, some more extreme looks from the distant past are unexpectedly rearing their not-so-ugly heads again. “Mullets, pompadours and hawk styles have snuck back as common trends for sure,” Dominguez notes. “We started seeing a handful of requests for them as early as three or four years ago with a big uptick in the past year or two.” Granted, they’re not the most common style requested, “but they’re frequent enough to not be surprising when someone wants it done.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Gene’s Styling & Barber Service on Spring Garden, across from Scrambled. Frank Dorrity has been stylin’ and profilin’ in Greensboro for 65 years now, 61 of those revolutions around the sun in the same spot at Gene’s, back when a haircut cost a buck and a quarter. “I came here as the fifth barber in 1961,” he says. Gene’s, he says, has been open since 1957: “The tremendously amazing thing is this little 20 x 35 foot room, the entire world has come through here. Every denomination in the world has been through that door right there. And that’s the original door!”

Dorrity is a proud graduate of Winston-Salem Barber School, after 87 years still the area’s finest academy for learning the discipline. As to why he chose to become a follicle butcher, “Well, it was cotton mills, mines or barbering,” he confides. Half joking.

The heyday for straight edge barbering was the early 1960s. “We were doing a lot of business then,” Dorrity says. “A lot of flattops and different kinds of buzz cuts.” In 1964 The Beatles burst on the scene, and over the next decade men’s hairstyles went from styled to wild.

“We called it the hippie days, the long hair days,” Dorrity recalls of the mad, mod late ’60s. “We lost a great portion of our barbers across the whole country, most did not know how to cut long hair and we didn’t have anyone to instruct us, to show us how. When we finally figured it out, we put up a sign that said, ‘Leave it long but let us shape it.’”

Of course, Dorrity and the crew at Gene’s routinely clip kids’ hair, women as well, same as it ever was. Business remains brisk. When I dropped by on a Friday afternoon, chairs were swiveling, phones ringing constantly. “These years have been a real blessing,” Frank says. “I’ve made some wonderful friends and I still have one or two original clients.”

That’s no exaggeration, if anything an understatement. What are the odds? I actually know one of those loyal customers that keeps coming back decade after decade. “I’ve been going to Gene’s since my first haircut, before Frank came to work there in 1961,” local raconteur Randy Barnes tells me. “I remember having to sit on the board they used to put across the arms of the barber chair. Back then Charlie Sneed ‘Sneedy’ cut my hair.” Barnes also points out that while the sign on the front window was freshly painted a couple of years ago, the building itself hasn’t been refurbished since the Eisenhower administration.

When I spoke with Frank Dorrity about the new trend in chop shops like Rock’s downtown where you can get cropped, coiffed, then leave half crocked, Dorrity confesses, “We would not want customers to be drinking beer in our place ’cause we want ‘em to make it out the door.” The original door from 1957 mind you.  OH

Billy Eye cuts his own hair as is fairly obvious if you’ve ever met the guy.

Birdwatch

A Rare Bird

Searching for the Bachman’s sparrow

By Susan Campbell

Photograph by Carl Miller

Although unquestionably the most sought-after bird species in North Carolina, the Bachman’s sparrow does not, at first glance, seem very special. But once you search for this incredibly adapted little bird, you will realize how special it is. One of a handful of endangered species in our state, you will have to find the right spot to get a glimpse of this cryptic little creature.

Endemic to pine forests of the southeastern United States, Bachman’s sparrows are only found in the frequently burned, open understory of the Sandhills and inner coastal plain. The best time to locate one is to visit in the spring, when males spend much of their time singing from low perches. Otherwise, the birds are down low, foraging in the groundcover and virtually invisible. A local species, Bachman’s sparrows do not migrate in the fall but rather become even harder to find. As insects become scarce, they subsist on a variety of seeds during the colder months.

Bachman’s sparrows are bland-looking brown and white with just a splash of yellow at the bend of the wing (which you will miss unless you are looking carefully with binoculars). Their song is a beautiful trill preceded by a single note. It carries a long way and is hard to pinpoint, in spite of the volume. And the nest, which is carefully constructed by the female, is an intricate cup of grasses at ground level. Often they will incorporate vegetation over the nest, creating a dome to protect the eggs and young from predation.

These birds are also unique in that they run, not fly, to evade potential threats. They will disappear into thick vegetation and have also been known to evade predators by diving into burrows dug by gopher tortoises — another species restricted to the sandy pine forests a bit farther south. More than anything, they are closely associated with longleaf pine and wiregrass, a plant community type that has become very rare over the last century. Habitat conversion and fire suppression have reduced the forests that they commonly inhabited by over 90 percent.

The individuals of the species were first noticed by one of the country’s most famous early ornithologists, John James Audubon. He chose to give them the name Bachman’s sparrow after his local host for the expedition, South Carolina clergyman John Bachman (pronounced BACK-man). Indeed, many birders have followed in Audubon’s footsteps, searching for this unique, secretive little survivor. Should you do the same, you just might be rewarded with a brief look at one of our state’s most prized inhabitants.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife photos and reports. She can be reached at susan@ncaves.com. 

 

Life’s Funny

What in the Wordle?

How an online game catches fire one green tile at a time

By Maria Johnson

I start with goodbye.

A-D-I-E-U.

It’s a good opener because it contains so many vowels.

Yes, I’m talking about the web-based game Wordle, which gives you six chances to guess a five-letter word.

And yes, I’m hooked, just like the many millions of people who’ve glommed onto the game since it appeared online last fall and became a viral sensation over the winter.

I heard about the puzzle from my elder son’s girlfriend, who made a custom Wordle-like game for them to play virtually on his birthday as they sat on different coasts.

Each of them supplied five words for the other to guess.

I was charmed that she would, and could, create such a smart and intimate gift.

I wanted to know more. So I sniffed out the real Wordle and gave it a try.

I couldn’t get the hang of it.

Then some friends brought up the puzzle in a group text. One pal compared it to the 1970s board game Mastermind, a code-breaking challenge based on colors.

“It’s the same concept, but with letters,” she wrote.

Now I was intrigued.

The next time my younger son was home, I cornered him.

“Do you Wordle?”

“Yep.”

“Will you show me how?”

“Sure.”

A couple of days later, I texted him.

“I got Wordle in two tries.”

“Two?! That’s the white whale.”

Welp, there’s nothing like a little success to spark an obsession.

I dived into the history of the game and found out it was invented by a Brooklyn software engineer named Josh Wardle. Get it? Wordle. Wardle.

Anyway, Wardle, who’s originally from Wales and used to work for the social-news aggregator Reddit, had been noodling with game-making for about 10 years. During COVID, he decided to create a game that he and his partner could play together.

God bless the game-loving lovers of the world.

Eventually, after refining the game with family and friends, the couple decided to put Wordle on their own website with no pay walls and no ads because as Josh Wardle has told several interviewers, they wanted to give people a simple, fun, relatively quick game to play for free.

Do you love these folks or what?

The first Wordle appeared in October 2021.

The number of players grew exponentially. In January of this year, The New York Times Company bought the game for a sum “in the low seven figures.”

For now, Wordle is still available for free, and it has spawned spin-offs galore. Wardle, the inventor, hosted an in-person competition of Wordle, the game, at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, in April.

Every day, players share their Wordle triumphs and defeats on social media, often with green-and-gray grids representing their attempts in a non-spoiler way.

A player who goes by @iSlutsky recently tweeted, “It’s with great disappointment & sorrow that I inform you of my loss in todays [sic] Wordle. I am heartbroken to have my streak broken and [am] currently entering a dark period of the day. Please send cookies.”

I get it. I have a streak going myself. Twenty-seven games.

I take a sip of coffee and a deep breath.

A-D-I-E-U.

Enter.

The “A” turns olive green, meaning it’s in the word somewhere, but not in the first slot.

I go to the second line, where I’ll get another chance, planning to use the “A” in a different place while trying new letters and fishing for an “O.”

F-L-O-A-T.

The “F” and the “A” turn bright green. Yay. They’re in the right spot. The “O” is olive green, so I need to move it.

On my third opportunity to nail it, I type “X’s” to visualize possibilities.

F-X-X-A-X.

Focal?

Foray?

You could say it’s a toss up. But I’m guessing that “R” is more common in the English language than “C.”

F-O-R-A-Y.

Enter.

Green-green-green-green-green.

Bingo! With three tries to spare.

I wallow in a squirt of self-esteem and a sliver of hope that some mysteries are solvable.

Today, anyway.

And for those that aren’t, there’s always tomorrow.

According to the website, the next Wordle drops in 18 hours, 13 minutes and 24 seconds.  OH


To play today’s Wordle, go to nytimes.com/games/wordle/index.html.

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. You can reach her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Home by Design

House Proud, Hard Core

They don’t want your stuff

By Cynthia Adams

It took a pandemic to convince my friends that their kids didn’t want their stuff. Which is especially cruel, knowing what we have learned lately thanks to millennials out there in increasingly nostalgic Internet Land.

Sequestered at home — albeit beautiful ones — the house proud of a certain age dusted, cleaned, preened their gardens and behaved like the house-proud people they are. House proud in Southern-speak means those who don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink for tomorrow. They buff lipstick marks off wine glasses. They vacuum under the fridge.

But mortality was breathing down our necks during what a writer friend calls “the late unpleasantness,” lingering like an unwelcome houseguest.

Raising the question: When the house proud decamped to Valhalla, who would want their stuff? (In the South, there’s always a lot of stuff: china sets, crystal, flatware, porcelains and photographs. Also, treasured oddities like Grandpa Bingo’s wooden radio.) As it happened, nobody belonging to their family tree agreed. Grasping this truth, my friends nearly fell off a branch.

Three of them persisted. Two kept storage units (!) to store things they no longer displayed. Another tried her ever-loving best to beg her offspring into accepting antique furniture and art.

Still no takers. 

Personally, it hadn’t taken a Swedish death cleanse to convince me of the hard facts, having floated the “Interested, anyone?” question when good friend and attorney Charlie Younce updated our will.

Would anyone want our nostalgic curiosities?

True to the cliché, our loved ones’ silence was deafening.

Seemed minimalism was their new thing. Closets curated by Chairman Mao containing 10 white shirts and 10 black pants. 

Mine bulged.

Nevertheless, I purged, stopping far short of becoming a minimalist. Minimalism forms a disconcerting void.

One reforming pack rat friend reported he wanted to cry after all but emptying his home after staging it for sale. “It’s just awful,” he moaned. “It echoes when I walk across the floor.” This was too much to bear. He yanked it off the market and restocked his bookshelves.

Writers wrote and bloggers posted about people like us using derisive terms. “Maximalism,” a recurring euphemism, barely hid disdain for “brown” furniture, chintz, wallpaper, valances and draperies. If attempting to be kind, they dubbed it “Bohemian.”

Yet Bohemian conjured up tacky bead curtains and tie-dye bedspreads.

That was last year.

Without warning a worse décor term popped up, making me cringe: “granny chic.” Turned out, it was code for a maximalist revival. The young suddenly embraced old fashioned style with a strange fervor, even macrame and spider plants.

Then dropped another term: “millennial chic.” It looked, at least to my eye, exactly like “granny chic,” but, seems it was only a trend if millennials were in on it.

Nobody actually photographed grannies in busy chic interiors only hipsters doing macrame.

And then this appeared: “grand millennial” style. Which means well, I am not exactly sure. It seemed maximalism was being rebranded, better suiting the aesthetic of hip young art directors. Granny chic didn’t quite do the job.

Hence a new moniker started popping up in design pubs and blogs: not old fashioned.

Bold fashioned!

Gah. Suddenly, millennial designer Rudy Saunders promoted all things prep, crazy for needlepoint and Lilly Pulitzer. He loved color-saturated, Dorothy Draper/Greenbriar resort interiors.

Which leads to another, stupendous, design trend: cottagecore.

(Also, I fear, known as grandmacore. Sigh. Seems millennials love their grandmas. And British style.)

Cottagecore, or grandmacore, is what designer Brit Rachel Ashwell dubbed Shabby Chic. Which is what Brit Laura Ashley of twee prints and a lifestyle brand owned for decades, from 1954 until her untimely death.

Now Brit Paula Sutton, a charming British Hill House blogger, is coming on like a freight train, and her Georgian dream of a house made me tear up with, well, happiness.

Best of all? She’s middle aged. With “brown” antiques and cushy pillows and china! And nary a word uttered about grandmas, nor cottagey porn. It’s simply beautiful and cozy.

And, so sorry, kiddos, but it’s too late. The will is already written.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

The Pleasures of Life Dept.

Third Time’s the Charm

Writing life into existence

By Cassie Bustamante

We sat at our homemade paver firepit, the flames tickling the late spring sky as our tweens tossed a frisbee nearby and the dog licked any remaining bits of melted marshmallow from the grass. My husband, Chris, looked at me nervously and said, “OK, I’m going to give you what you want.”

“Right now? The kids are right over there,” I giggled, knowing exactly what he meant. After all, we’d been discussing it for months. And by discussing it, I mean I’d continued to badger him relentlessly with no plans to concede.

After our first attempt — not in front of the kids, mind you — two pink lines appeared on our pregnancy test. In awe, I showed Chris the evidence of our success. “We’ve still got it,” I gloated as we exchanged high fives.

Sadly, a week later, that new life slipped away as quickly as it had begun. I’d had two healthy pregnancies in my 20s. A miscarriage had always felt like something that happened to other people not me.

Over the next year and a half, we continued to try for a third child, with the same outcome each time. Finally, we met with a specialist to get to the root of the problem, and I was put on a new prescription. I left her office confident that the next pregnancy would be ours to keep.

That summer, while my kids volunteered at a local vacation Bible school not far from my favorite bike trail, I pedaled along the dirt path that bordered the canal, listening to a favorite podcast that featured Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, as a guest.

At that moment, if someone had suggested I could find valuable life lessons from a popular cartoonist, I probably would have laughed. But I was a desperate woman on a mission. After listening to his incredible tale of using affirmations to manifest his heart’s desires, I decided to give it a go. At this point, what did I have left to lose?

When those two pink lines teased me yet again, I practiced what I’d learned. In my mind, I pictured myself holding my newborn baby, who’d be due in early April, and imagined how he would feel, warm and snuggly against my chest. I saw Chris standing next to the hospital bed as we basked in the glow of parental love. In my journal, an entire page was filled over and over with the words, “I will hold my baby in April.”

But it wasn’t meant to be. Frustrated by my foolish desire to believe simple affirmations could work maternal magic, I permitted myself to have a major cat-5 emotional meltdown over the cruelty of the universe.

My doctor pointed out there was another route we could take, but I had reached my limit. Mentally exhausted, I made an appointment with her just so that I could thank her and feel at peace with my decision to move on. I threw myself back into creativity and running, activities that had made me who I was before grief had cast its dark shadow.

Not long afterward, during a long run with a close friend, a wave of nausea hit me as we reached the summit of a challenging hill. Assuming I was simply out of shape after taking so much time off, I brushed it off and kept moving. Back at home, I washed the salt of sweat and tears down the drain, allowing my body to cool down, but that queasiness continued.

Ironically, Chris and I hadn’t been “trying” this time around. We’d just found a moment to comfort each other in our heartache and it had led us here to the earliest stages of pregnancy again. Instead of feeling overcome with joy, I actually feared this was just going to be another baby I’d never get to hold.

As it turned out, my farewell appointment with the specialist happened to already be on the calendar. With Chris by my side, we shared the news and told her we would be going ahead with the next type of treatment blood thinners after all. She showed us how to perform my daily injections, wrote me a new prescription and sent us on our way with a due date: May 12, 2018. One day before Mother’s Day.

Nervous weeks turned into hopeful months as my stomach swelled with our growing baby boy. As I lay on the doctor’s table one afternoon in late February, watching my son kicking away on the monitor, she said, “We’re going to have to schedule you to be induced a couple weeks early. Since you’re on blood thinners, we need you to be off them for 24 hours before delivery. Let’s get you down for the end of April.”

I will hold my baby in April.

On April 27, 2018, our family was made complete. Wilder is everything we’d hoped for wrapped up into a feisty, yet adorable, sandy-haired, blue-eyed package that lets him get away with way too much.

As for me, I’m a changed woman, a believer in the power of affirmations after receiving my greatest gift from the universe. And on the days when Wilder challenges me he’s a Taurus, after all I come back to this story and give thanks for my stubborn little miracle who was meant to be mine all along.  OH

Cassie Bustamante manages O.Henry’s digital content and writes and creates our weekly digital newsletter, O.Hey.

Simple Life

The Kindness of Strangers

And the strangeness of some kinds of people

By Jim Dodson

Illustration by Gerry O’Neill

The other afternoon I was making a pleasant run to the garden center during early rush hour when I saw something I’ve never seen on a busy North Carolina street.

While waiting for the light to change at one of the busiest intersections in the city, a woman next to me in a large, luxury SUV began edging out into the heavy stream of traffic crossing in front of us.

At first, I thought she might simply be unaware of her dangerous drift into moving traffic. She was, after all, visibly chatting on her phone and apparently oblivious to blaring horns of those who were forced to stop to avoid a collision. Within moments, however, traffic in both directions had halted. One man was actually yelling at her out his window, shaking a fist.

But on she merrily went, indifferent to the automotive mayhem left in her wake, the first red light I’ve ever seen run in slow motion.

For an instant, I wondered if I might have somehow been teleported to Italy or France where motorists seem to regard traffic lights and road signs as simple nuisances, a quaint if daunting European tradition of civil indifference to les autorités that evolved across the ages.

Having motored across all of Britain and most of France, Italy and Greece, I long ago concluded that driving there is both a blood sport and national pastime, an automotive funhouse to be both enjoyed and feared. When in Italy, for instance, my operational motto is: drive like the teenage Romeo with the pretty girl on the back of his Vespa who just cut you off in the roundabout with a rude gesture insulting your heritage. It’s all part of the cultural exchange.

But here in America, at least in theory, most of us grew up respecting traffic laws because we were force-fed driver’s education since early teen years, programs designed to make us thoughtful citizens of the public roadways. (Quick aside: I have a dear friend whose teenage son has failed his driver’s license test — God bless his heart — for the fifth time, which must be some kind of statewide record; I’ve helpfully suggested she immediately ship him off to Sorrento, Italy, where he’s bound to find true and lasting happiness, a pretty girl, a nice Vespa scooter and no annoying driver’s test to complicate his life, rude gestures optional.)

All fooling aside, in cities across America, officials report that traffic accidents and automobile fatalities are approaching record levels. Some blame the COVID pandemic that has had the world so bottled up and locked down, presumably entitling folks behind the wheel to make up for lost time by driving like there’s no tomorrow — or at least no traffic laws.

In my town and possibly yours, is it my imagination or do more folks than ever seem to be blithely running stop signs, ignoring speed limits and driving like Mad Max on Tuscan holiday. Running a red light in slow motion may be the least of our problems.

The armchair sociologist in me naturally wonders if America’s deteriorating driving habits and growing automotive brinksmanship might simply be a symptom of the times, part of a general decline of public civility and respect for others that fuels everything from our toxic politics to the plague of violence against Asians.

Whatever is fueling the road rage and social mayhem, the remedy is profound, timeless and maddeningly elusive.

I saw the fix written on a sign my neighbor planted in her yard the other day.

Spread Happiness, it said.

I found myself thinking about my old man, an ad-man with a poet’s heart who believed kindness is the greatest of human virtues, a sign of a truly civilized mind. My nickname for him was Opti the Mystic because he believed even the smallest acts of kindness — especially to strangers — are seeds from which everything good in life grows. “If you are nothing else in life,” he used to advise my older brother and me, “being kind will take you to wonderful places.”

This from a fellow who’d been in the middle of a World War and experienced first-hand the worst things human beings can do to each other. He became the kindest man I’ve ever known.

In any case, Opti would have loved how a timely reminder of his message came home to me during another challenging automotive moment.

On a recent Saturday morning, after setting up my baker wife’s tent at the weekend farmers’ market where she sells her sinfully delicious cakes and such, I set off in my vintage Buick Roadmaster wagon to a landscape nursery on the edge of town to buy hydrangeas for my Asian garden.

On the drive home, however, I blew a front tire and barely made it off the highway into a Great Stops gas station before the tire went completely flat. I had no spare. To make matters worse, my cell phone had only one percent of a charge left just long enough to leave a quick desperate voicemail on my wife’s answering service before the dang thing went dead. The old Buick, of course, had no charger.

I walked into the service shop whispering dark oaths under my breath at such miserable timing, asking the personable young African American clerk if she could possibly give my phone a brief charge. I even offered to pay her for the help.

Her supervisor emerged from the office. When I explained that I was running errands for my wife when my day suddenly went flat, she gave me a big grin. “Bless your heart, child! Give me that phone!”

I handed it over. She shook her head and laughed. “You’re just like my husband. I can’t let that man go anywhere without him gettin’ into trouble! That’s husbands for you!”

Just like that, my good mood returned. Outside, a few minutes later, the tow truck arrived. The driver was named Danny Poindexter, a big burly white guy. He was having a long morning too. We dropped off my car at the auto service center and he graciously offered to drive me home to get my other car. It was the second surprising act of kindness from a stranger that morning. As we approached my street, I saw my neighbor’s pink Spread Happiness for the second time.

“What kind of cake do you like?” I asked Danny.

“Carrot cake,” Danny replied. “I love carrot cake.”

He dropped me off at home and I drove over to the farmers’ market and picked up a piece of my wife’s amazing carrot cake, phoned Danny and met him at a Wendy’s parking lot near his next job. He was deeply touched by the gesture. “This just makes my day,” he said, diving straight in.

I then drove back to the service station across town to pick up my phone — now fully charged — that I’d managed to forget in all the unexpected mayhem of the morning. I even offered to pay the ladies for their kindness to a stranger.

They simply laughed. “Oh, honey, that’s why we’re here!” said the manager. “I’m just glad you remembered to come back for your phone, so I didn’t have to chase your butt all over town!”

I drove home to plant my new hydrangeas in a happy state of mind, making a mental note to take the kind ladies of Great Stops my wife’s famous Southern-style caramel cake just to say thanks to strangers who are now friends.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Omnivorous Reader

Generational Trials and Trauma

Can the genetic past also be prologue?

By Stephen E. Smith

Is it possible to predict and thereby alter an individual’s spiritual destiny by analyzing emotional frailties that are inherited genetically from long-forgotten ancestors? That’s the question at the heart of Jamie Ford’s novel The Many Daughters of Afong Moy.

Afong Moy was the first known Chinese woman to immigrate to the United States. In 1834, she arrived in New York City and was exhibited as “The Chinese Lady.” Americans, most of whom had never seen a person of Asian heritage, had immense interest in her language, her clothing, and her 4-inch bound feet. She toured widely in the United States, appearing on stages in major cities on the East Coast. She met President Andrew Jackson and was employed for a time by P.T. Barnum. But her popularity waned in the 1840s, and there’s no record of Moy after the 1850s. She was, however, the first Asian woman that many Americans had seen in the flesh, and her appearances influenced perceptions of Chinese women and culture long after her disappearance from the American theatrical scene.

Ford fleshes out the unknown details of Moy’s life, and although there’s no evidence that she had children, her fictional descendants and their trials and traumas are the subject of his novel. Their stories, especially their emotional sufferings, are explained by using the theory of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, which is, simply stated, the transmission of epigenetic information through the germline — a theory which will, for most readers, immediately beg the question: Do the emotions we feel influence our genes and those of our descendants?

Online sites explicating transgenerational epigenetic inheritance abound, but Ford offers his own simplified explanation in his Author’s Note (which conveniently relieves him of having to craft an awkward explanation in the text of the narrative): “Take a moment and think about your own family, their joys and calamities,” Ford writes. “Do you see similarities? Do you see patterns of repetition? Rhythms of good and bad decision making? Cycles of struggle and triumph?”

It’s a tenuous thread upon which to base a novel. While the inheritance of epigenetic characteristics may occur in plants and even in lab mice, the extent to which it occurs in humans remains unclear, and readers are likely to harbor doubts as to the theory’s validity. Might not the transgenerational theory be an attempt to escape our problems in the present by blaming them on distant ancestors? What could be easier than attributing our personal troubles to the dead? And how far into the past might this psychological necrophilia extend?

Nevertheless, Ford has crafted an intriguing novel that’s contingent on the reader’s acceptance of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, a term which surely sounds impressive and therefore has enough intellectual import to entice the curious. If the novel is a protracted exercise in illustrating by use of example, there are interesting stories to be told, and Ford does a workmanlike job of telling those stories.

He explores the lives of six generations of the Moy family — Afong Moy, Lai King Moy, Fei-jin “Faye” Moy, Zoe Moy, “Greta” Moy and Dorothy MoyAnnabel — and although each character is adequately developed and the narratives interestingly interrelated, the two primary storylines involve Afong and her mid-21st century descendant Dorothy, Washington state’s former poet laureate, who is channeling dissociative episodes that are affecting her mental health.

The novel opens with Faye Moy, a nurse working with the Flying Tigers in China in 1942, who unsuccessfully attempts to save the life of a wounded pilot. After his death, she examines his personal belongings, which include a pocket watch with a newspaper article that features a photo of her — a photo she’s never seen and has no memory of having been taken. On the back of the newspaper article are written the words “FIND ME.”

Moving forward from that intriguing clue, the narrative jumps to 2045 and Dorothy’s life in Seattle, where the city is besieged by the adverse consequences of climate change. The world of the future, for better or worse, manifests itself all around her, as when a computer-generated elevator voice chats with her: “Good morning, Ms. Moy. You’re up awfully early. Might I offer you direction to a nice coffee shop or patisserie? I could summon a car for you”; or when Dorothy recalls her doctor’s explanation of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, “How each generation is built upon the genetic ruins of the past. That our lives are merely biological waypoints. We’re not individual flowers, annuals that bloom and then die. We’re perennials.”

And so it goes with Afong’s “daughters”: in 1927 Zoe Moy is a student in England at a school run as a pure democracy; Lai King Moy is quarantined in San Francisco in 1892 during a plague epidemic and a great fire; Greta Moy is a contemporary tech executive who creates a multi-million-dollar dating app, etc. These narrative transpositions culminate when Dorothy overcomes her psychological inheritance via a plot twist that borders on science fiction/fantasy.

If this seems confusing, well, it is, and readers will be required to focus their full attention on a plotline that is crowded with characters and frustrating complexities. When the episodic storylines finally come together, readers who have bought into the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance theory will likely experience a sense of completion. Skeptical readers might well feel they’re the victims of a 350-page shaggy dog story.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy will be in bookstores in June.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

Short Stories

Short Stories

Ready, Set, Play

They are at it again. On March 26, Nido and Mariana Qubein hosted the grand opening of their much-anticipated children’s museum in downtown High Point. The four-acre site at 200 Quebin Ave. welcomes children and families to explore 75,000 square feet of hands-on exhibits and programming.

Attractions include Kids Point, a kid-size town modeled after High Point where children explore working at a veterinary clinic, a restaurant, a furniture design studio and more. Mars Academy invites children to travel through space to start their own Mars colony and explore the red planet’s terrain. The Hall of Mysteries is an eclectic home and laboratory offering clues to multiple mysteries visitors solve. There’s also a Big Kid’s Arcade, a STEAM Lab (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math), a vertical climber, an outdoor adventure area, a theater and a double-decker carousel.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, with admission $10. The facility also offers annual memberships, gift cards, birthday parties, programs, field trips and professional development for educators. Info: QubeinChildrensMuseum.org.

Hello, Hamilton

It might be quiet uptown, but downtown is thrumming with the sounds of history being retold through hip-hop. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning show, Hamilton, hits the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts April 6–24. Don’t miss your shot or you’ll be crying in your tea, which you hurl in the sea. Info: TangerCenter.com.

Makin’ Waves

Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, with the covalent bond being artists concerned about the planet — and its reliance on water.H2O is GreenHill’s newest exhibit where you can check out Bryant Holsenbeck’s mammoth waterfall, made up of disposable water bottles, or his meandering stream of plastic culled from the ocean, then catch his comments on Wednesday April 13, at 5:30 p.m. Later in the month, at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, Will Warasila will discuss his photographs of people living in the shadow of Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, where 12 million tons of coal ash are being cleaned up. And every Tuesday from 1–2 p.m. at LeBauer Park, GreenHill artists/instructors will host water-inspired art activities for children and their families. Water you waiting for?
Info: GreenHillNC.org/H2O.

Kudos to . . .

Our friends at Machete, at 600-C Battleground Ave., have been named semifinalists for a 2022 America’s Classic Award for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. Any wonder? We don’t think so. With an exquisite plate selection from beef tartar to whole fish to heirloom carrots (to die for) in a chill atmosphere, the restaurant’s creative cuisine is as cool as its vibe.

Stars on Ice

There are a lot of things we like on ice, like scotch — and world-class figure skaters. The 2022 Stars on Ice tour glides into the Greensboro Coliseum at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20. Catch recent Olympic gold-medalist Nathan Chen with a skate squad of skill as they salchow, axel, lutz, loop and flip — things we can’t even do on dry land — their way across the arena. Info: GreensboroColiseum.com.

 

Wandering Billy

Child Star

Brody Bett’s ascent to fame began
— you guessed — in Greensboro

By Billy Eye

In 2016, when Brody Bett accepted the role of the Grand Duke in the Community Theatre of Greensboro’s production of Cinderella Kids, he had no way of knowing it would set him on a path where, a couple of years later at the ripe old age of 8, he would be circling the nation singing and dancing his chili pepper heart out as the star of two big time Broadway-touring musicals. Oh, and he has a supporting role in one of the most highly anticipated motion picture thrillers of the year, at least for moviegoers here in the Gate City.

The film is Tethered, a dark, psychological thriller produced by Greensboro-based 4 Leagues Media, a consortium of local filmmakers, writers and technicians who’ve banded together to produce nine short films since 2014 and, this year, their first full-length feature.

“We always had aspirations to shoot a full-feature film,” producer/writer Jeff Cox says. Tethered is based on 4 Leagues Media’s 2017 short film of the same name. “So, by the time we began shooting Tethered, we had learned a lot about production, funding and all of that kind of thing along the way,” he says.

Directed by 4 Leagues partner Daniel Robinette, Tethered was shot at Red Wing Farm, a 400-acre hunting refuge and equestrian facility outside of Thomasville — where nary a car nor airplane could be heard. “We feel like we’ve created a little world that wasn’t like anything you’ve seen on film,” Cox says, “which is tough to do with a limited budget.” This means they can’t do the sort of computer      generated imagery or special effects available in Hollywood. “We had SAG [the Screen Actors Guild] involved so we had their regulations we had to follow, which was fine.”

The producers sought out advice from other creatives around the country who’d made feature films that ultimately found an audience. “We kept hearing we needed a name actor attached to it before distributors would even look at it,” Cox says. “One of our executive producers knew Alexandra Paul [Lt. Stephanie Holden on Baywatch] and sent her the script. She was game and signed on with us.”

Without having seen the film before press time, I can’t vouch for it, but the poster and the trailer are spot on; they got that right. It’s telling also that North American theatrical and streaming rights were immediately snatched up by Gravitas Ventures, a major distributor whose current release is the Pierce Brosnan film, The King’s Daughter. As a result of that hookup, Tethered debuted in select theaters on March 18 with video on demand via iTunes and Amazon before heading to one of the streaming platforms, according to news sources.

That’s an astonishing feat when you consider this is a low-budget indie shot in pastures and woods. But honestly, nothing terrifies me more than the idea of being isolated in the hinterlands — the trees have eyes!

In the leading role is Walkertown native Jared Laufree, who portrays Solomon, a tormented, sightless youth at the mercy of some mysterious entity lurking beyond the nearby tree line. By all accounts, Laufree’s performance is riveting. “In high school, I joined an acting class called Actors Group in Winston-Salem,” he says of his previous experience. “And I did that for four years. Since then, it’s kind of been snowballing.” Asked to describe his character, “The first word that popped in my head was lonely but then I also wanna say he’s strong too. Very strong, very brave, courageous.”

Jared Laufree also was the lead actor in the short film Tethered. “He did such a great job and got so much praise,” Cox says.  “Alexandra Paul saw the short and suggested that Jared play the lead in the feature. He did an outstanding job.”

It’s a demanding role, “because I’m so angsty myself,” Laufree says. “I liked the opportunity to get all that out.” As for continuing to pursue acting roles, “I really want to be a screenwriter. I feel like that fulfills me more right now, at least in my life, than acting.”

Playing Young Solomon in Tethered is the aforementioned Brody Bett. Thinking back to that initial role in the Community Theatre production of Cinderella as a first grader, “I loved it so much that I actually did six shows in a year,” he says. “I did five more with Community Theatre of Greensboro and one for Triad Stage.”

As an 8 year old, he commandeered one of the leading children roles (Jack/Michael) in the Broadway national tour of Finding Neverland, a high-flying musical attraction whisking him and his mom across 43 states, touching down in 102 cities in a 10-month period. Bett is what they refer to in show business as a “triple-threat” — that rare entertainer who can act, sing and dance
. . . all at once if need be. Come to think of it, considering he’s mastered five instruments — keyboard, ukulele, drums, organ and guitar — Brody’s a quadruple-threat, a potential Sammy Davis Jr., this kid.

“After Finding Neverland I got an agent out of New York, then another Broadway national tour playing the leading role ‘Charlie’ in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory,” Bell tells me. When the shutdown happened in March of 2020, he and his mom were dispatched home.

How to channel all of that energy, enough to light up an audience of thousands of theater-goers night after night? “My agent asked me if I wanted to do voice-over tryouts, so we set up this amazing recording studio in our house.” For the last couple of years, Bett’s been laying down tracks for Disney and Netflix, and he’s the singing voice of Gil in Nickelodeon’s effervescent preschooler Bubble Guppies.

It was during this period that Bett was cast as Young Solomon in Tethered, which began filming in January 2021. “My character is a sweet young boy who always tries to please his mom,” Bett says about his part, the younger version of the lead. He was paired with Alexandra Paul, who played his mother. “I can’t say enough nice things about her. It was such an honor to work with her.”

Stage and film acting are separate crafts, similarities notwithstanding. “I think I enjoyed film acting a little bit more than stage acting,” Bett says. “I got to meet so many new people and be in front of the camera, which is something I always love to do.” Having trod more boards, in short pants mind you, than actors three or four times his age, seeing himself on the big screen, “was pretty surreal, I have to say. Yeah.”

Asked to return to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last year, Bett declined, preferring to remain home, concentrating on his burgeoning voice-over career, which is proving very lucrative for this now 12 year old. “Maybe, if I do anything with film,” Bett imagines, “I’m probably going to be a composer or the score writer.” Nothing’s stoppin’ this kid!

Producer Jeff Cox is optimistic about the future of local filmmaking. “We’re just a little niche company that’s trying, long-term, to bring back filmmaking to North Carolina,” he says. “A lot of that activity moved to the Atlanta area because the state got rid of the [financial] incentives and tax breaks. The more prevalent it is, the more incentive for the state to bring some of that back. We thought this movie turned out really well and obviously Gravitas Ventures thought so too.”  OH

Billy Eye is a former Hollywood movie poster artist. Most recently, he featured prominently in the upcoming 2022 European documentary Devil on Wheels, which chronicles Steven Spielberg’s first motion picture Duel.

Ogi Sez

Ogi Sez

While our “Winter of Discontent” has lasted eight full seasons, I truly believe that hope is on the horizon. I’m sensing a rebirth, a renewal, a reawakening that goes beyond seasonal. Yet, what better time than April being a transition month is there to shake off the shackles, divest the doldrums and breathe in the beauty? So, let’s go dancing in the moonlight, singing in the sunshine and letting the music keep our spirits high.

• April 7, Haw River Ballroom: Not long after “Americana” became au courant (circa ’95), Todd Snider ambled onto the scene to perfectly define the idiom as a nonmainstream mixture of folk, alt-country, blues, acoustic funk and all things East Nashville. He immediately became the Americana poster boy and remains so today. To say he is a revered figure would not be a stretch.

• April 8, Ziggy’s: Back when the original Ziggy’s was packin’ them in nightly, one of the prime packers was guitar whiz Keller Williams. And it does my heart good to see that both are still alive and kickin’. Yes, the reborn Ziggy’s is now in High Point, but all that means is a shorter drive from G-boro to see Keller kill it.

• April 14, The ArtsCenter (Carrboro): Apologies for sending you down the road, but when the show is James McMurtry, I trust you’ll forgive me. Few singer-songwriters dare be mentioned in the same breath as Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt, but McMurtry has earned the comparisons. The son of famed novelist Larry McMurtry, he comes by it honest.

• April 19, Greensboro Coliseum: Where do you start in describing the career of Sir Elton John? It literally gives me chill bumps thinking of the impact he has had, not only on pop music, but on the music industry as a whole. But, yes, after 50 years, he really is saying goodbye to Yellow Brick Road and snuffing out the candle in the wind, but not before a Greensboro appearance.

• April 22-23, The Crown: This show originally was scheduled for last October but, well, you know, that thing that refused to go away . . . I feared that it would not be rescheduled, but the gods of music have smiled down on us. Bus Stop (Evan Olson, Britt “Snuzz” Uzzell, Chuck Folds, Eddie Walker) was H-U-G-E throughout the ’90s, arguably the biggest band ever to come out of Greensboro. The Crown was wise to schedule two nights for the reunion.