Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Go Confidently

From bringing a baby into the world to sending him out into it

By Cassie Bustamante

Eighteen years ago, as I approached the birth of my first baby, a boy, I thought I knew how it would all unfold. Years of watching TV dramas had taught me plenty. My water would break, my husband, Chris, would rush to the hospital from work to be by my side and, after a few hours, I’d naturally push — without any drugs — giving way to a healthy, wriggling, scrunchy-faced newborn. Go ahead and laugh. If there’s anything parenthood has taught me, it’s that nothing ever goes according to plan.

Sawyer was due on August 8, 2005 — one day before my 27th birthday — and, as a first-time mom, I was determined to let it all happen on its own. Living in Slidell, Louisiana, at the time, my friends thought this born-and-raised yankee gal was nuts and called me a hippie. Even my gynecologist, Dr. Lobello, nicknamed me “granola girl.” In all fairness, I showed up to most appointments in flip-flops, a tank top, a bohemian skirt — elastic waist, need I say more? — and hair tucked into a red bandana. But if you’ve ever survived the sweltering humidity of a New Orleans summer, my outfit choice made perfect sense. After all, you can’t just walk around naked, even in Louisiana.

In late July, two weeks before the due date, I waddled into my weekly appointment, dripping with sweat and looking more like Large Marge from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure than the adorable pregnant woman I had pictured myself to be. Dr. Lobello took one look at me and asked, “Have you thought about being induced?”

“What?!” I asked, flabbergasted. “No. Nope. No way. This baby is coming when he comes.”

“Okaaaaaay,” she said knowingly.

The next week, I shuffled back in, legs as heavy as mature tree trunks. Again, Dr. Lobello brought up induction. She pressed on my ankle to show me just how swollen I was, skin stretched as tight as a water balloon before it bursts.

“Fine, I guess,” I said, a little deflated. “Let’s induce.”

A week later, on my birthday, with the help of Pitocin and anesthesia, Sawyer entered the world, no magical water-breaking, “Honey, this is it” moment. But once he was in my arms, it didn’t matter how he’d gotten here. He was here. And Chris and I fell head over heels in love with him.

Now, almost 18 years later, that baby boy graduates from Grimsley High School this month. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a struggle to get to this point. And there were days that I wondered if we’d make it this far.

But our kids — and I mean yours and mine, too — have weathered storms none of us ever had to go through during our high school years. Being a teenager is traumatic enough — hello, acne, braces and regrettable first kisses — but then you add a pandemic and remote learning to the mix? Chris and I were prepared to handle all of the usual awkward moments and hard conversations with our teens, but we had no idea how to navigate through the challenges our kids have faced.

And now, as Sawyer prepares to don his cap and gown, I want him to know how proud we are, as much as this column might embarrass him. We know how hard he’s had to work and we don’t know if our own teenage selves would have made it through the last three years unscathed. And while he probably doesn’t remember the moment he came into this world (for the best, frankly), I hope he’s learned from us that it doesn’t matter how you get to where it is you’re going or if you need a little help along the way. As American naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, one of my favorite books, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” You will land exactly where you’re meant to be.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

A Day Out

Chaos Theory

Drink It Up 

The once-dry Asheboro now has a downtown that overflows with opportunities for dining, shopping and entertainment

By Page Leggett    Photographs By John Gessner

I didn’t grow up in Asheboro, but both my parents did.

My dad played halfback for the undefeated 1958 Asheboro High Blue Comets, and my mom (Asheboro High, class of ’60) was on the cheerleading squad.

My maternal grandparents belonged to Asheboro Country Club, and as a teenager living in Charlotte, I remember complaining about how many weekends and holidays we spent in the former mill town.

How well I remember Daddi-O passing a bottle of Wild Turkey in a brown paper bag to the bartender, who’d mix the adults’ drinks. That went on until 2008, when Randolph County citizens finally voted to allow alcohol sales.

Asheboro’s been the county seat of Randolph County since 1780. It – like Asheville — was named for, Samuel Ashe, North Carolina’s governor from 1795 to 1798. (Ashe, a native of Beaufort, North Carolina, wasn’t born in or near either city — or Ashe County, which also bears his name.)

Decade after decade, only a few hundred citizens called it home until 1889, when the High Point, Randleman, Asheboro and Southern Railroad arrived, bringing with it prosperity and, within a decade, a doubling of the population.

Manufacturing made the city what it was, and the demise of American manufacturing nearly killed it.

Asheboro’s location in the center of the state scored the town a big victory when, in 1976, the conservation-focused North Carolina Zoo (“the world’s largest natural habitat zoo”) officially opened. The zoo, one of only two state-supported zoos in the United States (the Minnesota Zoo is the other), gave the town an economic boost — and bragging rights. But visitors to the zoo wouldn’t have many interesting dining options until that historic 2008 vote.

The zoo broke ground last August on its first major expansion since opening the North American continent section in 1994. Expected to open in 2026, the 10-acre Asia continent will feature animals native to that part of the world, including tigers, King cobras and Komodo dragons.

A culinary destination

Not too long ago, when someone in Asheboro craved something besides a burger from the Dixie, they’d drive to Greensboro. These days, Gate City residents come here for a culinary experience.

Today’s Asheboro is not my grandfathers’ Asheboro.

In fact, the father and son in line behind me at The Table (139 S. Church St.) come from Greensboro. The father tells my sister, Blake, and me that they often come just for breakfast at Dustie Gregson’s wildly popular eatery. He assures us it’s worth the wait.

Gregson, a designer by trade and wife of Randolph County District Attorney Andrew Gregson, had never even worked in a restaurant before opening her beloved spot in 2013. But it was what she felt the community needed.

Her original plan was to open a downtown design studio until, she says, “I realized the community didn’t need a design studio; they needed a place to go.”

In 2012, she’d seen a 60 Minutes segment on dying textile towns that featured Asheboro — the place Gregson considered “the big city” when she was growing up in Sophia. “I wanted to prove 60 Minutes wrong,” she says.

“I thought food was one of the things that could launch this community forward,” says Gregson. She bought a 1925 office building that had once been part of Cranford Mill and went through the historical preservation process to restore it. 

She hired a chef who’s still with her ten years later. “[Chef] Deanna Clement had never worked in restaurants before, either,” Gregson says. “But she had a great palate, and I felt like we could work together well.”

“There are some dishes that, if we took them off the menu, our regulars would kill us,” Gregson says. Look for food she calls “simple and familiar but with a twist” — a turkey sandwich with Greek yogurt sauce or a BLT with a lemon-Parmesan aioli instead of mayo.

“In our bakery, Cristiana Van Eyck makes everything in-house,” Gregson adds. “Like Deanna, she’s been with me from the beginning.” Don’t miss the Gregson-endorsed chocolate pie and cream pie cookies. To fuel our day, Blake orders Morning Greens — a breakfast salad which Gregson says customers resisted at first — field greens topped with bacon, roasted potatoes, tomatoes, avocado and an egg over easy. I go for the Ham & Fig Toastie, a grilled tangle of melted Swiss, shaved hickory ham, spiked with Dijon and fig jam. But our side dishes are the pièce de résistance — the richest, creamiest grits ever to pass these lips.


Left: Nella Boutique. Right: Collector’s Antique Mall

Making a day of it

Just across Church Street from The Table — behind Positano (an Italian restaurant serving lunch and dinner) is Nella Boutique (130 S. Church St.) — a compact shop with fun and flirty women’s clothes, shoes, Hobo handbags and gift items. Neither my sister nor I leave empty-handed.

Take a left as you’re leaving Nella, walk to the corner of Church and Sunset and look for the black-and-white striped awning. That’s Collective Interiors (113 N. Church St.) and it’s filled with beautiful furnishings — mostly new, but some vintage — lamps, decorative pillows and home accessories. Oh, and the jewelry’s on sale! I’ve already gotten compliments from strangers on the turquoise-and-macrame statement necklace I found.

But it’s not the only place downtown to buy a prezzie or new outfit. Just around the corner, Minkology (150 Sunset Ave.) offers gifts, jewelry, original art, hand-painted furniture, a small selection of clothing and — on select Saturdays — furniture-painting workshops. The cherry on top? An ice cream shop in the back.

We pop in the Friends of the Library discount bookstore (208 Sunset Ave.) and score several new-to-us reads. The volunteer at the front desk actually apologizes that two of my hardback books were $3 rather than $2. “They just came in, so we have to price them higher,” she explains.


Left: Minkology. Right: Sunset Theatre

The bookstore is next door to Sunset Theatre (234 Sunset Ave.), a 1925 Spanish Colonial Revival gem that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Similar to Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre, it shows old movies and hosts plays and concerts.

There’s another theater downtown. RhinoLeap Productions (221 S. Fayetteville St. — pronounced “Fedville” by my parents and other kinfolk) presents original works, stand-up comedy, contemporary plays and musicals. One of its founders, Patrick Osteen, has toured with the internationally admired Cirque du Soleil! 

Several antique shops beckon, including The Flea Marketeers (what a clever name!), Antiques & Geeks Collectibles and Collector’s Antique Mall. Explore aisles of Fiestaware, old record albums, McCoy pottery, china, crystal, silver and Corningware Blue Cornflower cookware, which — if you’re me — you’ll regret having donated to Goodwill once you see the prices pieces fetch today.

More food and — at long last! — drinks


Left: The Black Lantern Tea Room & Bakery. Center & Right: Four Saints

Asheboro has branded itself “Zoo City,” and the N.C. Zoo, indeed, used to be its main attraction. Downtown is now referred to as “Zoo City Social District,” which means you can walk up and down certain streets while sipping your beer or cocktail as if you’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter or downtown Savannah.

We peek in The Black Lantern Tea Room & Bakery (“the best lunch spot downtown,” according to a friend who lives in Asheboro), The Flying Pig Food & Spirits (which some say has the best pizza in town), The Taco Loco (currently closed for renovations, but due to reopen soon) and its adjacent cantina, and Lumina Wine Bar (also serving beer and craft cocktails).

We also gaze through the windows of Magnolia 23, a Southern home-cooking restaurant we’d heard so much about. Alas, it’s closed on Saturdays. But we make a plan to return to see for ourselves why it earned it a spot on The Daily Meal’s list of “America’s 75 Best Fried Chicken Spots.” 

Hamilton’s Steakhouse (328 Sunset Ave.), a dimly lit, old-school restaurant with exposed brick walls and dark paneling, is another spot that came highly recommended.

Late in the day, we meet Aunt Beth and Uncle Sparky at Four Saints Brewing Company (218 S. Fayetteville St.). Although the friendly, award-winning brewery has been open since 2015, we still marvel that we are day-drinking — in Asheboro! — and toast to that 2008 vote.

Four Saints doesn’t serve food, but we see plenty of people who’ve chosen the BYOP (bring your own pizza) option. Several have boxes emblazoned with the familiar-to-me Sir Pizza logo. I crave that thin-crust, round pizza cut into squares that one TripAdvisor reviewer said “took [her] back to the school cafeteria — in a good way.” Sir Pizza doesn’t serve alcohol, so if you want beer with your pie, you have to get it to-go.

The brewery frequently has a food truck outside the front door. On our Saturday visit, it’s Doherty’s Irish Pub fish-and-chips truck from Apex. Should you visit the truck or the brick-and-mortar location, do not miss it’s poutine (gravy-topped French fries) with beef brisket. It is so *chef’s kiss.*

The Four Saints partners plan to open The Pharmacy Craft Cocktails and Distilling in the downtown building (212 S. Fayetteville St.) where Fox & Richardson Pharmacy opened in 1925. The original checkerboard tile floor will complement high-backed booths and low-lit tables, according to partner Joel McClosky. No opening date has been set. Several people we meet mention another coming downtown attraction — Full Moon Oyster Bar.

Everything’s connected

Having seen the down-and-out “before” many times, Blake and I are gobsmacked by downtown Asheboro’s “after.”

Not that anyone’s going to mistake it for Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. “We move at a slower pace, which visitors seem to appreciate,” Gregson says. “We’re confined to a small footprint, so everything feels more connected.”

Indeed, everything (and everyone) feels connected here. We aren’t surprised when our aunt and uncle run into long-time friends at Four Saints. One was an Asheboro native who remembered Coach Lee J. Stone’s legendary 1958 Blue Comets.

With so many options downtown and around Asheboro to celebrate the end of prohibition in Zoo City, we regret not planning to spend the night, especially after hearing about The Getaway, which offers 31 acres of 32 tiny cabins. Each is equipped with a queen bed; a hot shower; private toilet and two-burner stove; pots, pans and dishware; firewood; and S’mores kits. Catch-and-release fishing and nature trails are part of the allure.

And right downtown are two drop-dead gorgeous Airbnb apartments owned by Christie Luckenbach, the designer responsible for the interiors at several downtown restaurants.

Progress hasn’t changed downtown’s small-town charm, which is instantly evident to an out-of-towner — including this one, who grew up thinking Asheboro probably peaked in the ’50s. Boy, was I wrong. Zoo City is worth a visit — and the zoo doesn’t even have to be on your agenda.  OH

Page Leggett is a Charlotte-based freelance writer who loves travel, theater and movies, and has never taken a trip to Asheboro that didn’t involve stopping at Sir Pizza.

Almanac June 2023

Almanac June 2023

June is a daydream; a picnic; a long, sweet song.

Beyond the sunlit meadow — thick with thistle and crickets and Queen Anne’s lace — the grandfather oak has gone moony. Most days, he is patient. Steadfast and uncomplaining. But on this day, when the painted lady drifts past the sea of red clover, he is fraught with expectation. The children of summer are coming.

As they float through the meadow, blankets and baskets in tow, the oak is awestruck. They could go anywhere. Bring their banquet to the altar of some other worthy tree. But they don’t. As they make their way through towering thistle, past bee balm and poppies and raves of day lilies, the grandfather knows: The children of summer will be here soon.

They come singing. Come with just-picked daisies. Come with a spread of luscious offerings:

A palmful of wineberries.

Pickled cucumbers.

Mint, marigolds and beets.

Roasted potatoes.

Dandelion shortbread.

Honeysuckle and homemade mead.

In the shade of the grand old tree, the children sprawl in dappled light, laughing and feasting and giving thanks. For them, hours pass like minutes. For the oak, time stands still.

When you’ve seen as many summers as he has — not to mention all the winters — these are the days you live for. Days of abundance. Days of praise and cicadas. When youth is a state of the heart, each breath is a banquet, and nature gets a glimpse of its own reflection.


Citronelly! Citronelly!

A summer without mosquitos isn’t a summer. No way around ’em, but we’ve got allies. Citronella, anyone?

Also known as scented geranium, citronella is one of the best-known pest repellents to add to the garden. But there are others.

Basil: Not just for pesto! This fragrant, prolific herb deters both mosquitos and flies. Learn how to trim it for larger yields. 

Rosemary: Likes it hot. Thankfully, the woodsy aroma that we know and love sends the swamp devils onward. 

Marigolds: Easy to grow? Check. Better yet, their lovely flowers attract predatory insects.

Bee balm: Out with the nippers, in with the bees and skippers.

Other plant allies include lavender, mint, lemon grass, catnip, sage and allium. Play around to see which plants work best for your garden. Besides mosquitos, what do you have to lose?


Strawberry Moon

The full Strawberry Moon rises on Saturday, June 3. It won’t be pink, but it will appear golden just after sunset, reaching peak illumination by midnight.

A new moon on Sunday, June 18 — Father’s Day — means clear skies for stargazing. See if you can spot Boötes (the herdsman), Libra (the scales), Lupus (the wolf) and Ursa Minor (the little bear) this month. Bonus points for a firefly constellation.   OH

Home Grown

Home Grown

Zany or Zen:  Me and the Chelsea

Lodging complaints

By Cynthia Adams

It was my father’s idea to book me into the Hotel Chelsea. Yes, that Chelsea — Manhattan’s confounding hotel.

I was 15, en route to meet fellow high schoolers and our chaperones, young art teachers, for studies abroad. This trip, plan B, arose when my mother nixed my being in Ecuador as an exchange student.

“I won’t have it,” Mama insisted. “Something terrible will happen.”

My travel-happy Dad, heavily influenced by a strong dollar and the hope that I would score him a bargain Rolex while we were in Lucerne, suggested Europe.

You may be thinking, the Chelsea! How very cool. But, no. 

The seedy Chelsea was cheap. And so was my dad. Once, on a family trip to Nova Scotia, Dad tried to negotiate with an innkeeper on rates by offering his daughters’ help with housekeeping. Travel on the cheap with a large family reminded me of humorist David Sedaris’ accounts of his father, Lou Sedaris. My Dad, Warren, seemed to be Lou’s brother from another mother.

Rufus Wainwright wrote music at the Chelsea, even naming songs after it, telling Vanity Fair “there was no better address to have in terms of communicating decadent, sad ’20s esprit.”

Dad didn’t know the Chelsea had domiciled the likes of O. Henry, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe (who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again there), Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg plus Arthurs Clarke and Miller. No, he knew none of that. Nor that it was infamous for murders, suicides and misadventure — before Sid Vicious lived down to his moniker, killing Nancy Spungen.

The mood setter for my Chelsea experience was the taxi ride into the city. A grubby driver with two-day stubble on his double chin grinned as I gave the address: “222 West 23rd Street.”

“First time in New York?” he asked. “Southern gal,” he burped out, leering in the rearview mirror, careening wildly. Was he drunk?

The oppressive taxi stank of body odor.

“Welllll…” he drawled, like Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear. “Whar in Dixie? I’m Southern, too.”

I didn’t want to answer, but, well, Southern manners required it — so I mumbled, “Near Charlotte.” He followed up with, “Ever heard of a rapist, little girl?” 

His gray teeth showed as he grinned. “I got charged with rape down in South Kerlina and left.” 

Left? As in escaped? And I was in the rapist’s car.

Staring out the window, determinedly silent, I reviewed my helplessness. What to do? To my infinite relief, he pulled up at the Chelsea, chuckling.

I paid and fled with my bags into the then-seedy hotel, faced with a new dilemma. The Chelsea looked like what my elders called “a flophouse.”

Having escaped abduction or worse, I planned to hunker down in a dodgy room till morning. Before, gulp, taking another taxi ride to JFK. 

I was famished, but not hungry enough to venture next door to El Quijote, which has since been restored, by the way.

Just as well, it happens. Lola Schnabel, daughter of artist Julian, told Vanity Fair about a finding a human tooth lodged in a croquette while living at the Chelsea. 

At sunrise, jumping out of bed, I tugged opened the curtains. 

And froze.

Mere yards away, a slender man on the rooftop was performing a sun salutation. In the nude.

I dragged the tatty curtains closed. As quickly as I could dress, I asked the Chelsea desk clerk for help with a taxi, one driven by a non-rapist. He kindly obliged.

Weeks later in Lucerne, a Rolex saleswoman pulled trays of watches for my (uninformed) inspection, but my budget was $300. She gently suggested Bucherer instead and gave me a tiny Rolex spoon. Dad wore the Bucherer for decades, as if it was the watch he coveted. I kept the spoon.

(Years later, I gasped when actor Keanu Reeves sported a Bucherer.)

I never mentioned the taxi driver, the pre-renovation Chelsea, nor the birthday-suit sun salutation to Dad — who died long before Reeves proved the Swiss saleswoman, bless her heart, had been right all along.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Flying Toward Catastrophe

The real canaries in the coal mine

By Anne Blythe

Many of us turned a more enthusiastic ear toward the chorus of birds in our midst during the early days of the pandemic. With the routine rumble of traffic muted to a minimum, their chirps, trills and full-throated songs offered a sense of solace in an unfamiliar world.

In their new book, A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds, Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal tell us we should lean in and pay close attention. Their calls, or lack of them, their habits and changing habitats herald the health of our environment, write the avid birders and veteran journalists.

The husband and wife team, based in Raleigh, got the bad news out of the way at the start. In the last 50 years, a third of the North American bird population vanished.

“That translates to three billion birds of all sizes and shapes, in losses stretching from coast to coast, from the Arctic to Antarctica, through forests and grasslands, ranches and farms,” the couple writes in the introduction, noting that some birds are transcontinental travelers. “As one veteran biologist, John Doresky, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia, told us, ‘We’re in the emergency room now.’”

The Gyllenhaals might start their story in the ER, but their book does not dwell heavily on a doomsday scenario. Instead, they offer an optimistic outlook as they chronicle the research, new technology and conservation laboratories they explore during two years of cross-country and intercontinental travels.

The grasshopper sparrow and spotted owl serve as their bookends for a wide-ranging story reported with exacting detail about the work of “the ranks of biologists, ranchers, ecologists, birders, hunters, wildlife officers and philanthropists trying to protect the continent’s birds from a growing list of lethal threats and pressures.”

Anders and Beverly got involved with birding more than a decade ago while living in Washington, D.C. They were transitioning from long careers in journalism to “a lifestyle geared toward three Bs: birds, books and banjos, which Anders had played since high school.” Disclosure: One leg of their journalism path brought Anders to the News & Observer in Raleigh, where I worked for him and admired his dedication to solid reporting and storytelling. That commitment is evident throughout A Wing and a Prayer.

They take us along with them on a journey in their Airstream from North Carolina to Florida, through the heartlands to Kansas, and then further west to California, where they store their home office on wheels while they continue their trek through Hawaii.

They introduce us to colorful conservationists in muddy bogs, grassy fields and craggy bluffs while also giving readers a peek inside the offices of pivotal conservation organizations and ornithology labs.

Many of these scientists and conservationists could be the backbone for books of their own about trying to stop birds from being added to the list of extinct species. They introduce us to Ben Novak, a scientist in his mid-30s who grew up in North Dakota and now lives in Brevard, North Carolina. After falling in love with the passenger pigeon as a teen, he has developed intricate plans to build a lab in western North Carolina, hoping to use genomics to bring the bird back from extinction.

Not all of the conservation projects are as futuristic as Novak’s. In Hawaii they are about to release clouds of mosquitoes bred in laboratories to combat avian malaria. The goal is for the lab-created male mosquitos carrying an incompatible bacteria to mate with females that, in turn, will lay eggs that won’t hatch. In the process the conservationists hope to save some of the island state’s most threatened native birds. Hawaii, the Gyllenhaals point out, is the extinction capital of the world with 100 of the 140 native bird species having already disappeared. And, in the Southeast, the U.S. military has been heavily involved in efforts to save the red-cockaded woodpecker through controlled burns and managed forests on bases like Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.

While the Gyllenhaals stress that it is often the bigger birds — the bald eagle, the illusive ivory- billed woodpecker or the California condor — that get much of the attention, the smaller birds that hide easily in their habitats need more vocal advocates to save their species.

Their two-year journey, covering more than 25,000 miles, gives glimpses of many different birds including the Cerulean warbler, a tiny songbird that breeds in Appalachia and the eastern U.S. hardwood forests before making a long journey to winter in South America. The Gyllenhaals traveled to Ecuador to see firsthand the conservation efforts to protect the brilliantly colored birds that winter in the mountain forests there.

“We returned home inspired by the work under way to save birds,” the Gyllenhaals write. “We met folks who ruin their knees scrambling along dangerous cliffs, agonize over algorithms, confront adversaries at gunpoint and sometimes get their eyebrows singed off. They welcomed us into their lives for days at a time and shared their hopes, frustrations, and determinations.

Taken together, their experiences help make the case for birds — not only as nature’s workhorses and cultural icons, but as living bellwethers of the environment at a pivotal time.”

If you care about the birds in your midst — those in plain sight as well as those not so easy to see — A Wing and a Prayer is a must read.

“The Three Billion Bird Study stripped all mystery from the troubled state of the hemisphere’s birdscape,” the Gyllenhaals conclude. “There’s still time to respond, but that time is now. It’s clear what steps are making a difference and what will help avoid another half-century like the last one. Halting the collapse of our birds will not be easy. But as the scores of researchers, birders, wildlife experts, hunters and philanthropists are proving every day, a turnaround is within reach if we’ll listen to what the birds are telling us.”   OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

A Fresh Start

A Fresh Start

Morning routines that get — and keep — three professionals going

By Cynthia Adams

A newswoman arrives at work at 3 a.m. An architect seeks to establish a natural flow to each day. An on-call nurse routinely leaves her work after daybreak. Their routines share a singular intention: grounding themselves, finding a rhythm with each new day.

Waking up with WFMY’s Tracey McCain

Tracey McCain’s morning-is-breaking, upbeat smile is familiar after appearing on Triad television soon after her career began. Sure, she could have gone to a bigger market — Dallas was interested — but Triad TV viewers should thank their lucky, local star that she decided to come back to her hometown.

Her first stint at WFMY was the weekend Good Morning Show, later moving to weekdays. She now appears on the Good Morning Show, America’s oldest and longest-running morning show.

Since last September, the program now airs in bifurcated segments, first from 4:30–7 a.m., interrupted by the CBS national newscast, This Morning. WFMY’s local program resumes with McCain from 9–10 a.m.

“You know, I quite enjoy it,” she says cheerfully about the added hour. “It’s a different show format, which allows us to tell the news but also relate to our viewers and each other in a nontraditional way.”

McCain says the key to an early bird lifestyle is her husband, Jaron, who juggles a demanding law practice with parenting. “He’s a great dad, and we’re great partners. I don’t think I could do this with anybody else.”

Jaron, who understands what’s required of his wife’s job, continually earns fresh respect. 

“He tells me every day, ‘I appreciate you so much.’ I don’t think I could do this if he didn’t.” McCain admits that even a morning lark like her requires a choreographed routine. 

It begins with a 2 a.m. wakeup call: “I’m out of my bed and start the process to go from mother-of-the-year to newswoman.”

First, she allows herself one cup of joe — her favorite is Breakfast Blend — light, with cream and a teaspoon of sugar, before reaching the Phillips Avenue station as Jaron, and three young children— ages 2–7 — still sleep.

After nearly two decades, the indefatigable WFMY newswoman, wife and mother says she understands if we feel we know her. Born in Guilford County, McCain graduated from Eastern Guilford High School before earning degrees at the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University.

She launched her career at WSHM in Springfield, Massachusetts, moving to WFSB in Hartford, Connecticut, before finding her way home in 2006.

From McCain’s perspective, being in her hometown in a job she loves validates her maternal juggling act.

As part of a high-profile morning anchor team, McCain must be ready to go before the crack of dawn, no matter what.

“It’s just like the postal service,” she jokes, saying she has driven through every type of weather. “Whether there is snow, sleet, rain, hurricane or a tropical storm.”

All part of the job. 

But she leaves little to chance. In order to get out the door on time, McCain has developed a strict routine that seldom wavers. Hair, makeup, everything is done before walking into the studio. “And I pack my bag and I’m out the door.”

“I’m into fitness. Healthy attitudes and healthy meals. So, I prepackage my meals the night before so I don’t have to think about it.”

Not only meals, mind you, but snacks to power her until the early afternoon. “I make certain I have my necessary amount of water — everything I’ll need.”

There is scarce opportunity to leave.     

“If there’s breaking news — shootings like this week — I have no time.” 

Once settled into a work rhythm, McCain allows herself a second cup of coffee before broadcast, mindful that she will be on live television for the next two-and-a-half hours.

Fortunately, the early hours of the day are her favorite.

“I’ve always been a morning person,” she declares convincingly, although it is nearing noon and she admittedly longs for a quick shut-eye. A radiant smile breaks again. “I’ve been waking up at 2 a.m. for 15 of those [last] 18 years. On off-days, I sleep in until 6 a.m. I can do a lot in an hour before the kids are up — laundry or cook a meal.” Even at rest, she even keeps a notebook bedside for jotting down ideas.

Her evening routine? While getting her kids ready for bed, McCain addresses things like her next day’s wardrobe. “I’ll set their toothbrushes up and go into my closet and choose what I’ll wear. Kids lunches are made.”

Finally, she says, “My night ends after the last child goes to bed. That could be 9 or 9:30 p.m. I have extreme child guilt, like most moms do, because I’m not there for the mornings . . . I don’t want to miss a thing.  So, I want to be there for them.”

Recalling her own upbringing, McCain says, “My parents gave me the best childhood! My mom made dinner every night. I try to do that for my kids.”

She reads with her children nightly, marveling over oldest son Josiah’s thinking and problem solving. Her daughter, Simone, 5, “dances and sings,” McCain praises. Her youngest, Julian, “is super tall, super-fast, he’s like lightning. He wants to be like his older brother . . . If I say ‘the baby,’ he says, ‘I’m not the baby!  Who’s the baby?’” 

At midday, moving into “mom mode,” McCain’s energy falters. Yes, she answers. She is sleep-deprived all the time. 

“I learned how to function with great coffee and naps. Sometimes I’ll take a nap in the carpool lane as I’m getting my child. The teachers know,” she says, smiling broadly. “If they see my car, they know I’m probably taking a nap.”

Keys to her productivity, besides cat naps, are a healthy diet and high intensity interval training. 

McCain so believes in her fitness routine she became a certified personal trainer forming a partnership with AWOL Fitness in Greensboro called “Train with Tracey.” She teaches classes Mondays and Wednesdays at 6 p.m., and Saturday mornings at 9 p.m. “I pour daily motivation into them.”

McCain reminds, “This is a great day to have a great purpose/time and have a great time with great people. I use ‘great’ all the time.”

She makes it a point “to be kind/nice/respectful of everyone, including myself,” she texts after work one afternoon. “And I’m going to love my children from the time they wake up until they go to bed. And love my husband. I’m a positive, happy, person.”

Although her friends call her “superwoman” McCain is realistic. “I’m selective. I cannot do it all.”

“I don’t know why, but for some reason, people think I’m a diva,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m not! I’m so down-to-earth.”

What is most challenging about being a local celebrity?

She responds to actor Rob Lowe saying he likes going out in public, wearing a ball cap and seeing if he is spotted, which he calls “giraffing.”

McCain enjoys being recognized. “If I’m wearing a hat, it’s not because I’m hiding . . . it’s because I’m having a bad hair day. You live in the South! My grandmother said hello to everyone — so I do!”

She relies upon feedback from viewers, but best of all, Josiah. Before Jaron drops him at school, he watches a few minutes of the Good Morning Show.

As if part of his own morning routine, her son calls her every morning, with his own positive affirmation. “He says, ‘Great job . . . you really did a great job!’”

McCain swallows. “I mean, what a sweetheart!

“He’s learning from my husband.”

Mornings with Michael Clapp, Architect and Artist

Michael Clapp has two nonnegotiables in his workday routine: caffeine in a cup and crunch in a bowl.

The 30-something architect and visual artist doesn’t even want to imagine a morning that doesn’t include espresso and at least a few bowls of his favorite Honey Nut Cheerios while he digests the news on his iPad. Maybe, he adds with a small laugh, he’ll have three or four bowls of cereal with milk.

As a naturally slender man, this requires confirmation. But Clapp isn’t kidding.

“I’m very much a morning person,” he says. “I love the feeling of getting an early start to things and hate the feeling of getting up late and having to rush through my morning preparations and out the door.”

A typical morning begins with only two cups of his go-to. An Italian espresso machine is one of the hardest working appliances in his tidy kitchen.

Clapp, a full-time architect with STITCH Design Shop, has worn other hats. He has been a lecturer in the School of Architecture at UNC-Charlotte, while also starting his own firm, Schemata, having earned a master’s degree of architecture at Harvard. His Whitsett barn conversion, “Resonant Dwelling,” appeared in the March 2019 O.Henry. In the October 2021 issue, I wrote “His Father’s Son” about a cabin retreat of his design, a collaboration with his father, who also works in a creative field as owner of an advertising agency.

So, what is his morning routine like? Variable. “So, to speak to your question . . .  it’s complicated! I would say I had a much different morning ritual when just working for myself at Schemata than I do now that I work full-time [in addition to maintaining a few jobs specific to Schemata] for STITCH Design Shop.” 

If there is such a thing as an “ideal scenario,” Clapp describes it as this:

“I’d get to bed at a reasonable hour such that even if setting an alarm, I’d generally be able to wake up naturally around the proper time to allow a slow easing into the day.” He loves taking a quick walk outside before doing anything else. “And in the winter [especially if there’s snow] it’s something that makes such a difference to how the rest of the day goes.”

On weekends, Clapp pulls on boots and heads out for a walk, “even before cereal and news.”   

Yoga helps him “feel more centered throughout each day” when he can work it into his schedule.

Now, with assorted meetings, travel and sundry work requirements, Clapp finds himself lucky “if I can get to the downtown Greensboro YMCA gym before making it to the office.”

The demands of his exacting work and art can complicate his daily rituals. An out-of-the-ordinary day may have him taking an early morning sauna [he’s building his own at home] and sweating a deadline that afternoon. But, when life is in balance, there’s a natural stasis — an equilibrium.

What follows is well-known as “flow state,” which is almost effortless creativity and the ultimate achievement within a well-calibrated day. “Uninterrupted time,” he clarifies, is critical to entering this sought-after, creative and relaxed state of mind. 

“Uninterrupted time . . . that luxury,” Clapp repeats and sighs.

When working, sketching or drafting, Clapp is very methodical. Creatives often report that when achieving the flow state their work is almost unconscious — having attained a mental state from which their work simply flows, hence the term.

All thanks to an equilibrium that for Clapp begins simply and ritually with a leisurely cuppa and a bowl of cereal. While outwardly simple, such things are significant. Clapp is seeking mindfulness and “healthy ways of living habitually.”

There is a fully-caffeinated coffee in his hand although it is late afternoon. No worries, he reassures. He can even enjoy a late-night coffee and sleep deeply. 

And with that, he walks back to his office, returning to put the finishing touches on a project, renderings he says he cannot wait to show favorite clients.

Daybreak reflections with Jessica Smith, R.N.

On-call hospice nurse Jessica Smith lives with an upside-down schedule: Mornings mark the end of her workday — not the beginning. 

Smith works after hours, on call while her family, like much of the city, is tucked into bed. So, the trick for her is to create some semblance of a morning routine during the work week before she, too, finally rests.

As day breaks, mornings often vacillate between peaceful and chaotic — seldom predictable or routine.  And yet, she says, “I’m so thankful for my job. Not everybody gets to experience the full circle of life. I do. How precious are our lives?”

Smith has been at Authoracare Collective for 17 years, working in the Triad “and as far as King, Madison, Mayodan, Sophia, Wilson and Chapel Hill.” She sings as she drives, centering herself.

Her blonde curls, blue eyes and cherubic face resemble a pre-Raphaelite painting. At first meeting, family and patients often assume she is younger, asking, “How long have you been doing this?” 

Smith, approaching 20 years in her job, hopes her longevity reassures. “They say it does.”

“I’m going to be calm for the family,” she says. “Nothing’s an emergency with hospice.” Her equanimity improves her patients’ experience. This requires establishing a routine which helps her find this. 

Her blue eyes reflect this, pools of surprising serenity.     

“If you’re not calm, the family’s not calm. And you have to be the quiet authority.” This propels her through long nights when she responds to calls that take her into varying situations and needs.

So, with each daybreak, the previous night dictates her morning routine. Sometimes, family members are waking up to discover their loved one has died, she explains. Or a patient is nearing the end. Her schedule varies out of necessity. After each night shift, Smith completes patient notes for the primary nurse and social worker before returning home for a brief walk, some devotional time to reflect and then, finally, sleep.

On difficult mornings, coffee must wait. Otherwise, Smith logs 3 miles in the morning, squeezing in a 1-mile walk when it isn’t. She takes Zumba and Peloton classes. Her Yorkie, Lexie, knows exactly how to give comfort when needed after a difficult night.

With years of experience, Smith is exquisitely aware of life stages. She can anticipate a patient’s end of life.

Sensing that death is nearing, she remains even when the family tells her she can leave. “No, I’ll stay,” she gently insists. 

Smith formerly worked as an oncology nurse, seeing patients daily. On-call, she sees many different patients, often for the first time.

While in nursing school, she had to inform her own father that he was dying. “He had the look. That is just one of those things . . . I knew.” 

“I told him, it’s not going to be long — Thanksgiving was when he entered hospice care. He looked at me and asked, ‘Do I have till Christmas?’ I said no.” 

Smith’s father died at the end of that November. Her honesty allowed time for important things to be said.

Originally, she studied voice. But by age 26, she discovered her true calling was nursing the critically ill.

As for singing? She is a fan of gospel singer Cee Cee Wynans’ Goodness of God. “I try to listen to it every day and it reminds me of where I’ve been and thankfulness: You’ve made it through.”

Smith often sings for an audience of one. 

“Even patients — and I hope it doesn’t sound creepy — we have patients who are wards of the state and they don’t have family, and they’re alone,” says Smith. “And I sometimes sing to them when they die. Even afterward.” 

“In the middle of the night, they [the family] call because they’re in a crisis. And I make them feel better, but I’m not the primary nurse.” For that reason, she speculates that no one will remember her. No matter.

Her eyes soften. “I’m in service to something bigger than myself. I could go in my pajamas and not brush my teeth and they [the patient and family] would be just be grateful I’m there. Of course, I don’t do that,” she adds. 

Well-dressed, her blonde curls tamed, Smith assumes the mantle of reassuring professional, navigating an incredible journey with families and patients. This journey, according to her, “is some of the most precious times you will ever have, apart from being born.”

It struck her from the beginning that death is a great equalizer. “It all comes down to [my] being by the bedside. I would go to one home in Smith Homes, and one home in Irving Park. And they all end the same way,” she observes.

After a hard night of helping a patient reach that end as peacefully as possible, Smith allows herself time — time to love herself and critique what she can do better, she explains. She sings, too, often unaware she is singing.

On free days, Smith sleeps in a bit. “The only difference is, I don’t go back to sleep after I walk. I try to set aside a little time with Jackson, my son. We sit and talk a lot.”

She remarried seven years ago, acquiring two “bonus” children in addition to her two sons, including a daughter, Krista, who had Type 1 diabetes.

“She was fascinated by death,” says Smith — especially hospice work.

In 2020, 17-year-old Krista passed away unexpectedly in her sleep. 

“It was a good death,” Smith says softly. “Peaceful. There is no better death than that.”

At the urging of Krista’s older brother, Caeleb, the family established the Krista Smith Foundation in support of juvenile diabetes. 

“What helps me is the work I do, and knowing how short our lives are. And that we are living exactly as long as we are supposed to. It has helped me be a better hospice nurse.”

Come nightfall, Smith will do it all again.  OH

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(May 21 – June 20)

A random fact (because it’s clear you collect them): Butterflies taste with their feet. As the social butterfly of the zodiac — and one plagued by an ever-wagging tongue — suffice it to say that Geminis know the taste of their feet. But for every foot-in-mouth moment you suffer, your wit and charm never fail to bail you out. When Mercury (your ruling planet) enters Gemini on June 11, your blundering will subside. In other words: They’ll be eating from the palm of your hand.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Delete the app.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Please remain seated while the ride is in motion.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

Let it be a surprise.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Just add water. 

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Scrolling isn’t a hobby.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

Take a long, deep breath.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

It was already broken.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Don’t spoil your supper.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Exit the hamster wheel.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Butter your own biscuit.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Two words: car karaoke.   OH

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. 

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

On The Record

Any way you spin it, a documentary featuring Greensboro’s role in the Chitlin’ Circuit remains unfinished

By Billy Ingram

“Owning vinyl is like having a beautiful painting hanging in your living room. It’s something you can hold, pore over the lyrics and immerse yourself in the artwork.” – Steven Wilson

Just a short distance from the liquor store — er, the many exciting sights and attractions downtown Greensboro has to offer — is a set of concrete steps at 610 S. Spring Street, stubbornly clinging to relevance below a parking lot and a patch of grass destined for development.

In the ’50s and ’60s, this stairway to heavenly sounds led to what has been described as an inviting domicile fronted by two large maple trees, one of which still shades those steps. That’s where, during evenings and weekends off from his day job at the post office, longtime resident Edward Robbins began dabbling in music production and directing promotional television spots.

In the lo-fi world of the mid-’50s, this audiophile invested in the area’s only multitrack, high-fidelity Concertone stereophonic reel recorder when virtually every 45 and LP album in America was pressed in mono — and would be for years to come. Radio stations weren’t even equipped to play stereo discs in 1954 when Robbins Recording Studio was established in the back of his Spring Street home. The brand that touted “We Record Anything Worth Keeping” advertised not only futuristic technology, but also a grand piano and Hammond organ for backing tracks.

Robbins’ bread-and-butter was capturing church choir recitals and high school band performances, as well as recording local artists attempting to break into the music business. Just a few years later, 18-year-old Billy Crash Craddock laid down his first single, “Smacky-Mouth,” at Robbins’ for Greensboro’s Sky Castle label. Months later, the rockabilly crooner signed with Columbia Records. Also recorded there, the million-selling 45, “Radar Blues” by Coleman Wilson, released in 1960 on King Records.

A decade ago, Doug Klesch’s film project, Gate City Soul, got underway documenting the vibrant East Greensboro music scene with an emphasis on the Chitlin’ Circuit era. “I started realizing that there was this layer of stars and people that we hadn’t heard about,” Klesch tells me over coffee at the new Common Grounds downtown. “Nobody really seemed to have put it all together before.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Robbins Recording Studio was only one of perhaps half a dozen or more recording studios and small-time record labels operating at any one time in Greensboro. “You go in, you pay your 40 bucks and you could record whatever you want,” Klesch says. Around 1960, Walt Copeland began recording and mastering out of his modest home at 4106 Peterson Avenue, relocating in 1964 to the WWll-era Overseas Replacement Depot district before becoming Crescent-City Sound Studios around 1969, located primarily at 1060 Gatewood Avenue.

“Robbins and Copeland were sort of the pioneers around here,” according to Klesch. “Crescent-City Sound, from what I’m told, was state of the art for that time, built on a floating floor. It wasn’t really as mom-and-pop as I would’ve imagined it to be in a market like Greensboro. These guys had a pretty nice little thing going.”

Greensboro R&B sensation and Carolina Beach Music Awards Hall-of-Famer Roy Roberts is one of the central characters in Klesch’s documentary. “Roberts is still alive and performing in his 80s,” he reports. “Bobby Williams — I think he’s still around — he had a band, Soul Central, that was playing a lot. George Bishop died shortly after I interviewed him in 2014.” In the 60s, Bishop corralled a bunch of A&T students working towards a music degree to form The Mighty Majors, who not only gigged around the East Greensboro scene and beyond, but also provided backup for big name touring acts. In the 1970s, Bishop owned a nightclub called The Command Post and later a record store, Mr. Entertainer, on Phillips Avenue.

Owned and engineered by David Lee Perkins, Tornado Records, located at 1712 Farrell Avenue, was one of the more prolific mid-1960s labels here, distributing primarily country and western, gospel, and bluegrass 45s by artists such as the South Mountain Boys, Dewey Ritter & the Panhandle Boys and The Caravans from Chicago. Although the label’s motto was “Another Tornado Hit,” their platters never really charted. Still, a handful have gained cult followings, like “Sensational New Discovery” by The Nomads, a psychedelic/garage rock combo out of Mt. Airy who released their second single, “Thoughts of a Madman,” through Tornado.

Walter Grady, a local impresario and independent music producer, launched several record labels throughout the 1970s, specializing in funk, soul and gospel recordings under the names Linco, Cobra, Graytom, Grayslak and Witch’s Brew. Produced by Slack Johnson, Electric Express recorded “It’s The Real Thing — Pt. I” at Crescent-City Sound for Linco. That instrumental track was quickly picked up by Atlantic Records’ subsidiary Cotillion for national and overseas distribution and spent four weeks on Billboard’s Top 100, peaking at No. 81 in August of 1971. “It was probably the biggest hit that came out of here as far as anything that went national. I want to say it was No. 13 or 14 on the Billboard R&B national chart,” Klesch says. He adds that the 1963 song, “Mockingbird, by Greensboro’s Inez and Charlie Fox, was, “probably the biggest national hit that wasn’t recorded here.” That tune was famously covered by Carly Simon and James Taylor 10 years later, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard pop singles chart.

Doug Klesch’s fascinating documentary remains incomplete but largely finished. Around 45 minutes of Gate City Soul can be found in three parts on YouTube. It’s the only comprehensive history of East Greensboro clubs and performers ever attempted, paused until someone can jump in to navigate the murky music rights legal maze. “I knew this from the beginning, but it became a reality the further I got into it,” Klesch says. “A lot of these recordings were bought up by companies whose business model is to sue anybody who samples them.”

Coincidentally, my buddy Jeremy Parker operates a recording studio out of his home where he lays down everything from punk to pop. It happens to be positioned just about a hundred feet from the steps that once led to Robbins Recording Studio, lo those many decades ago. A reminder that every generation has a potential to forge their own golden age.


In Passing . . .

I still haven’t fully come to grips with Natija Sierra Salem’s recent passing from complications due to a car accident that had occurred months earlier. Only 23 years old, tentatively blossoming into womanhood, she was one of those rare individuals who’d run up with a warm embrace whenever we bumped into each other, always thrilled to see me.

She was a tender ingénue with an arid sense of humor, eyes lit brightly, barely concealing a shadowy undertow. I say it often — and it’s true — the good die young, which speaks volumes as to why I’m still upright. There’ll never be another you, Salem. On that, everyone warmed by your smile can agree. I suppose one day life will begin to make sense, but it won’t be this day.  OH

Billy Ingram’s new book about Greensboro, EYE on GSO, is available wherever books are sold or pulped.

A New Dawn on Sunset

A New Dawn on Sunset

A couple breathes life into an old downtown Asheboro building

By Cassie Bustamante
Photographs by Amy Freeman 


Right: Photograph by Lauren Brooks of Hello Cheetah Photography and Monclay, LLC Media

In the heart of downtown Asheboro sits a three-story, brick building that, over the last 100-plus years, has housed, among other things, a post office, a doctor’s office, a tailor, a clothier and even a photography studio. Now, thanks to designer Christie Luckenbach and her husband, Eric, the Sunset Avenue structure they’ve dubbed “The Commerce Building” is home to The Taco Loco as well as five modernized apartments, including that of the Luckenbachs.

Their own home, which takes up a majority of the top floor, is a perfect balance of sleek modern lines and time-worn patina no professional faux-finisher could duplicate. But it wasn’t even close to move-in ready when they originally purchased the building.

It was a glorified “pigeon roost — just nasty,” Eric recalls of the entire third floor. But Eric knew that Christie could make it into something special. “That’s the beauty of her talent.”

Eric knew immediately he wanted to purchase the building after visiting it with its then owner, former Asheboro Mayor David Jarrell. But “he did not want to sell it,” says Eric, who countered: “If you give us a chance, we will do it right. And we’ll spend the money. We had it in our minds that we wanted to invest in Asheboro.”

While the Luckenbachs, both born and raised in Asheboro, had not previously considered themselves property developers, their close friend, Jen Parrish, challenged them to “put the money where their mouth is.” After spending much of their 32 years together traveling, Christie and Eric felt ready to apply what they’d seen in cities all over the world. “We’re just always looking at buildings and what you can do with them,” says Eric, blue eyes full of wanderlust. “That’s kind of our fun in a way.”

Finally, with Mayor Jarrell’s blessing and Parrish’s encouragement, the Luckenbachs bought 134 Sunset Avenue in January of 2018 and started making plans to recruit a dining establishment that would anchor the first floor before working on the rest. As huge fans of The Taco Loco, a popular dive on the outskirts of town at that time, the Luckenbachs set their sights on bringing the restaurant downtown. Christie got to work designing the entire space with The Taco Loco in mind to show its owners what was possible for their business.


Christie says the inspiration for the eatery’s eggplant-colored walls paired with green accents came from a photo of bright, vivid guacamole ingredients. The choice of purple became a sizzling debate between the couple, but, in the end, Christie won. And her designs lured The Taco Loco to The Commerce Building. (The Taco Loco is currently closed for renovations and due to reopen soon. Its adjacent cantina remains open.)

“Without her drawings,” says Eric, who has come around to the purple, “it probably never would have happened.”

The biggest perk? “We eat it all the time,” says Eric. “Last night!” they say in unison.

And, of course, the restaurant owners are happy customers as well. “It’s completely changed their lives,” says Christie.

Once The Taco Loco was in place, Christie began designing the top two levels, which would eventually become five apartments — three on the second floor and two on the top floor, including what they call the “premiere” apartment, their current residence.

However, the original plan was to claim the entire third floor for the couple and their two sons, Beau and Ben. But during their renovation process, life threw them a curveball that changed their plans — and their lives — forever. In July of 2020, 14-year-old Ben Luckenbach passed away suddenly.

“Brilliant child, just brilliant,” recalls Eric of his younger son, Ben, who was working towards being a master level chess player.

“Playing chess blindfolded! I said, ‘Ben, you really gotta rub that in?’” adds Christie, her soft freckles crinkling as she laughs.

Despite suffering through a parent’s worst nightmare, the Luckenbachs, feeling bolstered by the empathy and support of their Asheboro community, remained strong and pushed through the project. “It was a really good distraction,” says Christie. “In all the bad,” adds Eric, “you gotta keep going forward.”

The couple adjusted their plans and decided instead to split the top floor into two apartments, a one-bedroom intended for 21-year-old Beau and their own two-bedroom.

With the help of Trollinger Construction, Christie worked to maintain as much of the original footprint as possible throughout both the second and the third floor. “It’s easy to demo,” she says, “but it’s expensive to build back.”

She salvaged anything she could. Original wood floors have been refinished throughout, with Christie keeping some of the quirky characteristics created over time, such as burn marks made by a tailor’s iron on the second floor.

In the couple’s own apartment, a long rustic beam operates as a shelf. Is it original? Not exactly. It’s been fabricated from a first floor joist that had suffered water and termite damage. Recovering what they could, they simply repurposed the rescued pieces.

While some features aren’t original, they are purposefully of the era. Christie, who has a self-proclaimed “door fetish,” knew she wanted six-panel doors throughout, but “they became popular as headboards and became really expensive.” Luckily, she “caught wind of this house being torn down on the corner of Park and Church.” After some investigating, it turned out the owner was a former client who gladly gave her all of the doors — enough for this project and another, plus some to spare.

In the studio-style living space, original exposed-brick walls and arched windows lend a historic atmosphere while sleek light fixtures plus a cozy Italian leather sofa afford modern comforts.

Another new addition is the floor-to-very-high-14-foot ceiling gas fireplace that quietly displays dancing and mesmerizing flames, and, according to Christie, “does put off heat” while creating a calming ambience.

In the kitchen, European style stainless appliances pair with dark cabinetry and black granite countertops and slab backsplash with white veining and hints of taupe and brown. It’s a modern chef’s dream kitchen — and Eric loves to cook.

But the best feature in the main living space has got to be the location and the view. From their apartment windows, Christie and Eric can see and hear — what some people might consider a bug, not a bonus — the train going by. “It’s awesome,” says Christie. “We’re like children.”

Eric interjects, “This has not gotten old!”

And when downtown Asheboro hosts its summer concert series, can they hear that, too? “Yes!” the couple exclaim.


“They’ll have like a Fleetwood Mac cover band and you can just open the window and you’re a part of it,” says Eric. “It’s awesome — so awesome,” adds Christie.

Tucked away from the main living space, the two bedrooms boast original beadboard walls with layers of old crusty paint that create nostalgic appeal. “I don’t think they did any repairs on these walls so they’re a little rough, but I love it,” muses Christie.

Outside of their apartment door is another space with beadboard. Here, both the walls and banister are painted black with exception to one exposed brick wall and one taupe wall. “That’s original because I knew I would never be able to duplicate this patina,” says Christie of the latter. “It’s incredible . . . but don’t touch it!” Why? Well, for one thing, it hasn’t been painted in decades so as to preserve a little signature from former Mayor Jarrell’s granddaughter, left there when he owned the building.

Opposite the “autographed” wall, a collection of rustic antler mounts brings a touch of their former country home to the city. “Beau and Eric harvested those off of our farm,” says Christie. “I just imagined them being on that wall. It’s modern, but natural.”

The Luckenbachs refer to this hall outside their apartment’s door as their “foyer,” originally created and intended to be shared with older son Beau, who planned to live in the one-bedroom apartment adjacent to theirs. However, two days before the big move, Beau expressed his doubts. Christie recalls Beau saying, “I don’t think I can move into the city.” She adds, “He loves four-wheelers and side-by-sides.”


With the growth Asheboro is experiencing, it wasn’t hard to rent out Beau’s apartment, which went in an “instant,” just as the three units below them did.

Although he’s not living right beside his parents, Beau visits often these days. In fact, with their convenient location in the heart of Asheboro, “He’ll call and say, ‘I am getting ready to drive by,’” says Christie. “And we’ll run to the window and we’re waving at each other!”

Photos of Beau’s little brother, Ben, as well as mementos and reminders are also sprinkled throughout the apartment and even in the rest of the building. On the second floor, an original miniature door in the wall opens to a tiny cubby, which holds a memorial to the Luckenbachs’ son. On top of that is a chess piece, a white knight. “Because he was like a knight,” says Christie.

And right outside their apartment door on the wall, a trio of artwork makes up a little gallery dedicated to Ben. There’s a sketch of Ben being welcomed into Jesus’ arms, a gift from Christie’s hairdresser. An old wooden chessboard that Nic, one of Christie’s favorite workers, unearthed towards the tail-end of the renovation, hangs below the drawing. When Christie arrived at the site and saw it leaning against a wall, she couldn’t believe it. She asked Nic to protect it and make sure it did not get thrown away. She looks at the board, her brown eyes filled with tears. Knowing that the chessboard had been in that building throughout the renovation process, Christie vocalizes what it meant to her: “Ben has been with us the whole time.”

The last piece hanging in the trio on the wall was created by Nic and his wife, Morgan. It’s a wall hanging featuring two black-and-white rainbows, one inverted, to represent the circle of community. Specifically, for Christie, it represents “how we’re giving back to the community that had given to us when we lost Ben.”

And the Luckenbachs hope to keep on giving back to Asheboro, a city that raised them and carried them through some of life’s biggest challenges. “It kinda goes back to our friend Jen,” Eric says of the friend who encouraged them to invest in their hometown. “She has a saying: ‘You can’t change the world, but you can start right where you are and start making changes.’”  OH



Playing a Cheerful Tune

The Carolina wren sings from dawn to dusk

By Susan Campbell

“Chirpity, chirpity, chirpity, chirp.”  Or is it “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle, tea?”  Or maybe “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheese?”  Regardless of exactly how it sounds, this bright, cheery song belies a small and drab bird — the Carolina wren. This diminutive critter is rufousy-brown with banded wings and tail. The thin, decurved bill is well-equipped to probe nooks and crannies for its favorite food: insects. Not only do they flit around in trees and vines looking for caterpillars, but they will clamber around on windows, doors and porch furniture for spiders and flies.

Common throughout the Piedmont year-round, Carolina wrens, the state bird of South Carolina, are frequently overlooked — until spring, when their songs can be heard echoing from forests and fields to neighborhoods here in central North Carolina. And a rarity among songbirds, both males and females sing, providing double pleasure. In fact, sometimes they can be heard in duets, advertising their territory, vocalizing repeatedly, any time from dawn to dusk.

At this time of the year, Carolina wrens are a common sight as they seek a protected spot to construct their nests. They frequently prefer houses, sheds or something else manmade over vegetated habitat. Though it may seem foolhardy to us, barbeque grills, bags of potting soil, an old coat or hat may actually provide a perfectly suitable nesting spot. The female will carry in small leaves, pine needles, grasses, moss or even feathers of other birds to create a large, bulky cup nest. She’ll finish it off with a partial roof to hide the eggs and young more effectively. Wrens don’t seem to mind people coming and going, a seemingly welcome trade-off for the protection humans provide from predators. Peek into one of their nests and more likely than not the female or brooding young will just stare back at you.

Sometimes nesting adults demonstrate great resiliency, or even cunning, in adapting to manmade structures. More than once, a Carolina wren female has chosen a nook on one of the trams that circle the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro as a nesting site. The nesting adults sit tight as the vehicle bumps around the property during incubation. Once the young hatch, adults who leave the nest to find food simply wait for the tram (and nest) to return to the parking area to feed their young.

It should not be surprising, then, that these resourceful birds will find their way indoors during spring. If they can, they will squeeze under a door or through a cracked window in order to use the corner of a shelf in a shed or mudroom of a house. When fledging day arrives, the parents simply call the young from the nest and show them how to slip outside. Be prepared for the whole brood to find its way back in and crowd into the nest to roost for days, or even weeks, thereafter.

Each winter I get calls about mysterious critters sleeping on high ledges or porches and carports.  Described as small brown balls, these unidentified sleeping objects almost inevitably turn out to be roosting Carolina wrens. After a yawn or two, wrens tuck their heads under their wings to roost, puffing themselves up and looking decidedly unbirdlike. They may also spend the night hunkered down in a potted plant or basket, frightening the daylights out of anyone who, next morning, comes upon them unaware.

Every year around the holidays, I’ll get a call or two about an unexpected Christmas guest. Seeking the warmest spot they can find, Carolina wrens often decide to huddle up in someone’s Christmas wreath. When subsequent visitors open the front door, the wren instinctively flies toward the brightest light — inside the house, occasioning merry and sometimes frantic holiday antics as everyone shares their favorite scheme for getting the bird back outside where it belongs.

So, if you have ever noticed these birds before, you should not have to go too far to find one — unless it finds you first.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at