Meeting the Neighbors, Episode One: The Broomsman

Jim Richter, broomsman

Listen to this story. Seriously. It’s even better than reading.

At the corner of 10th and Ritter, Jim Richter has a corner on his vanishing little corner of the market.

He’s 77, and he learned to make brooms in high school, at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In those days, blind people learned handcrafts like chair caning and basket weaving and piano tuning. After graduation, Richter says, he applied for upwards of 200 jobs, and in every single case, employers said ‘you’re a nice guy, but …’

At first, Richter sold his brooms door-to-door, but eventually he figured out that people would come to him.

“That looks good in your hand,” he’ll say as he gives you a broom from the teepee-shaped bundle he has tied up neatly beside his folding metal chair.

A guy in a copper-penny Cutlass convertible, big as a Chris Craft, honks as the car floats around the corner and into the stream of traffic on 10th Street. “You know that guy?” I ask, and describe the car.

“Son of a gun, what’s he doing over here?” Richter says, and he laughs the kind of laugh that makes me want to hang out with him all day. “Usually he’s up on the north side. You never know who you’re going to see out here.

Richter gets around, selling at corners and post offices one all over town, and he may be the last guy in Indiana who still makes a living in this old-timey way. To hear him tell it, brooms — and broom corn — were once big here. These days, Texas grows most of the broom corn, he says, and he imports his wares from a sheltered workshop in Alabama.

An older couple pulls over and asks Richter about his brooms. He rattles off the prices, and the woman asks him: “Do you make them?”

“Not anymore,” he says. “I used to, but I have a full-time job just selling them now.” They thank him, and walk back to their car.

“As long as there’s a market for brooms, I’m gonna sell ‘em,” Richter says. “People say ‘Well, you know we see you out here in all kinds of weather and all that, how do you do that?'” I say, “Well, does the Walmart close every time it rains or snows? If you’ve got a good product, and you’re doing a good job of selling it, there are people out there to buy it.”

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A love story in clay: Bill and Jayne Harris

Bill and Jayne Harris are high-school sweethearts who have carved their life’s work together, first in wood and now in clay. Bill, who is also the elected chief of the Catawba Indian nation, creates traditional Catawba pottery, carrying on the family legacy of his grandmother, Georgia Harris. Jayne sculpts clay, making beautifully expressive female characters that represent, as she says, “the strength of the world.”

The Harris’ were first accepted into Piedmont Craftsmen Inc. for their wood carving and are now exhibiting members in clay. They live in Fort Mill, S.C. Christine and I met them one sweet early summer afternoon last year, and their story has stayed with me. I think it always will.

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Rob Levin, artist in glass

An an art form, says Rob Levin, glass is “wonderful, mysterious, miraculous.” Levin has been living and working in the North Carolina mountains for nearly all of his 40-year career, and he’s known for his inspiring use of color and form.

Christine Rucker and I met Rob last summer, as part of our work for a series on crafts artists who belong to Piedmont Craftsmen, Inc., a Winston-Salem based guild, and a guiding light for the arts-and-crafts revival of the past 50 years. Each of them inspires me in a different way, and yet they share a few common traits: determination, passion, and a true, deep sense that they are creating meaning in the world by making art. At some point or another, each of these artists faced the wolf at the door, and each of them found a way to keep making a living through making art. In this material- and security-obsessed world, I’m grateful to have met a few of the risk-takers and the dreamers who offer the rest of us another view of how to live.

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Kind World


Every now and then, I get the chance to help out a radio producer from some faraway place by being their in-person proxy for an interview. I get directions, gather up my gear, and my only job is to listen really hard while the out-of-town producer conducts an interview on the phone. I love these assignments, because I get to be a fly on the wall for what are invariably amazing, rich stories.

That’s how I met Ron Jones, an actor and creator of the Black-Jew Dialogues, a theatre project aimed at advancing our understanding of cultural diversity and confronting our prejudices and stereotypes. Ron moved to my beloved Winston-Salem a few years ago. He met Samantha Turner and Joseph Anders at Krankie’s, a local coffee and cultural hub. Samantha and Joe were in a tough place in their lives, and Ron says he could tell that it wasn’t going to get better. So he made them an offer to share his home, and in exchange they would do things like go to school, get jobs, and learn to apply more self-discipline. This is their story, produced by Michael May for WBUR’s program, “Kind World.”

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First Freedom

Pakistani Christians protest against the suicide bombing in All Saints Church in Peshawar on September 23, 2013.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the geopolitics of religious freedom, thanks to the latest assignment from Congressional Quarterly Researcher.

Turns out there’s a whole world of folks who care a great deal about religious freedom and the persecution of religious minorities, and a very robust debate about how the United States should be engaging religion in international development and diplomacy.

“Religious intolerance,” religion scholar Kelly James Clark told me, is as big a threat to global stability “as oil, as nuclear weapons.”

Read the report.

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Listen to Your Elders, Part Two

“If you’re lucky enough to know love, hang onto it,” says Ellen “Lennie” Gerber, “because it’s truly a wonderful thing to have.”

Amen, sister.

Lennie and her partner, Pearl Berlin, got married this year at the synagogue in Greensboro, N.C., 47 years after they fell in love. I wish I’d met them long ago, but I’m sure glad our paths crossed this summer.

There’s a super-cool documentary about them, called “Living In the Overlap.” I hope you’ll be inspired by their wisdom in this short sequence, produced on behalf of the Winston-Salem Pride Festival, but the documentary will give you so much more.

Lennie and Pearl are Grand Marshals for the pride festival this year. If you’re in Winkytown on Gay Pride Day (October 19) go downtown and wave as they pass by in the parade.

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Listen to Your Elders

In a 1965 sermon at Temple Israel in Hollywood, “Keep Moving From This Mountain,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: “The moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”

My conversation a few months back with partners Frank Benedetti and Gary Trowbridge prompted me to think about King’s words. Over the course of nearly 50 years now, Frank and Gary have, in word and deed, demonstrated the courage of their convictions and the power of love and truth, thus helping to bend that arc toward justice. “I am convinced that if we do nothing else but be honest, and be ourselves, we can bring about change. But you can’t do it if you’re hiding, and pretending to be something you’re not,” Frank says.

Frank and Gary are Grand Marshals for the 2013 Gay Pride Festival in Winston-Salem, “Live Proud.” This is just a brief excerpt of an interview conducted for the organization. And if you’re in Winkytown next week, go downtown and be sure to wave at these amazing men when they pass by in the parade.

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Mountain Tango

The Asheville Tango Orchestra

The Asheville Tango Orchestra





 To the world outside North Carolina, Asheville might seem like an odd place to find a professional tango orchestra, but it makes perfect sense to those of us who love the place for its wide-open scene for arts, culture and spiritual adventuring of all kinds.

Michael Luchtan, the musical director of the Asheville Tango Orchestra, found his way here a few years ago from Portland, by way of Mexico, where he was working on an amazing project about the songs of Jose Alfredo Jimenez. The El Musico project explores the relationship between the ranchera music style and American folk and country music, as a way of encouraging cross-cultural understanding.

The Asheville Tango Orchestra is Luchtan’s latest efforts in musical ambassadorship, and it’s wonderful. And meet Patrick Kukucka, whose quest to find and learn to play the bandoneon has given the orchestra the authentic tango sound.

Listen to my story about the orchestra on the NPR program Latino USA.

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Leaning Way In

Vintage Image of the "We can do it!" Rosie the Riveter Poster by J Howard Miller

For the last couple of months, I’ve been fully immersed in the production of a report for Congressional Quarterly Researcher, on the topic of women, work, and 50 years of the feminist movement. It’s a wide-ranging look at social, political and economic change, beginning with President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and extending to the Lean In phenomenon and Hanna Rosin’s amazing book The End of Men.

These projects are like journalism on steroids, and admittedly, even for its scope and size, I had to make difficult choices about glossing over issues I felt were important — particularly issues of race and class.

Read the full report.

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The Wood Guys

Joel Hunnicutt and Brian Bortz, Artists in wood from Michelle Johnson on Vimeo.

Christine and I have been criss-crossing the Piedmont and Western North Carolina for the last several months, dropping in on some of the most amazing, creative and inspiring folks we’ve ever met. I’m happy that you are able to meet them, too, through this project for Piedmont Craftsmen. It’s one of the first — and maybe the first — professional crafts guilds in the Southeast, and it’s been going strong in Winston-Salem for almost 50 years.

Brian Bortz left the corporate world in the mid-90s to strike out on his own as a maker of fine furniture. Joel Hunnicutt ventured full-time into his work making his spectacular turned wood vessels after selling his insurance agency in Siler City. We quizzed them a lot on how their experience in the business world informs their work now.

We always come away from these visits with beautiful footage, great stories, and — for me, at least — important lessons about how to take calculated risks, how to plan your work (and work your plan), how to keep from freaking out in the lean times, and how to keep your sanity when the deadlines loom and things go wrong.

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Liz Spear: Thread of the Story

Meet Liz Spear, one of five artists that the river partners (or, as some of our fans now call us, ‘the dream team’) are meeting and featuring as part of Piedmont Craftsmen Inc.’s 50th anniversary commemoration. Never mind that I feel kind of like a shy kid kicking in the dust in the dugout, watching an all-star batter knock an inside fast ball across the left-field fence. I mean, Christine, Phoebe and I get to hang out with some of the most gifted and visionary artists working in the Southeast today. I love that they’re incredibly patient with us when we haul our gear into their work spaces and set up shop for the day.

But I digress. Artists like Liz inspire us with their commitment to craft, their exquisite attention to detail, their willingness to trade the promise of a regular paycheck for the satisfaction of creating works of art. Work that dazzles. Work that makes us laugh. Work that keeps us warm. Work that opens a doorway through which we are invited to enter and dream.

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All in a day’s work

Photo by Christine Rucker

Photo by Christine Rucker

Life is taking me some pretty amazing places these days, some of which require special gear (see photo).

Christine Rucker, Phoebe Zerwick and I are at work on yet another cool project, one in which we get to drop into the lives and workplaces of professional craft artists. Last month we visited with Joel Hunnicutt and Brian Bortz at the shop they share in downtown Siler City, N.C. Joel makes spectacular built and turned wood vessels with finishes that dazzle the eye. Brian is a fine furniture maker whose designs are Art Deco-inspired but take Art Deco to an entirely new level. Stay tuned to this space for their story … coming soon.

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The Sweet Spot


I’ve been pretty slack about posting lately, but cut me some slack: I’ve been busy making things, and thinking, and making my way through the post-employment landscape that’s pretty much the story for millions of Americans.

But I’m taking inspiration from this story. Winkytown’s first department store, which enjoyed its original intended use for only three years before closing during the Great Depression, may in fact have been saved by the Great Recession (which also had a role in decimating American newspapers, as well as all kinds of other traditional industries).

If all goes according to plan, the Pepper Building may find new life as an essential part of our little tobacco town’s downtown revitalization. It’s only taken 15 years — about as long as the building has sat empty at one of the most important intersections in downtown.

Patience is a virtue. Patience coupled with determination is a force of nature. And luck? Well, luck is a pretty nice thing to have on your side, too.

Listen to my latest radio story for more.

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Unsolicited Testimonial

Story of My Life website

Story of My Life website

For the record, I am not being paid anything to endorse, the slick little HTML5 website building tool I used to create a site for our project, “Story Of My Life.”

I’d been wanting to play with it for a while, ever since my friend Jake told me about it.

It’s a great option for the code-impaired, or for when you need to build something on the fly. It is a little futzy if you’re trying to build lots of pages and align lots of elements just so. It’s all visual, no coding, but that has a downside.

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Undocumented drivers

Erick Renteria

Erick Renteria

UPDATE: On Thursday, March 21 the N.C. DOT said it’s scrapping the pink-striped design.

It’s been a long time since I had the pleasure of producing a story for a national radio program, so it made me really happy when my friend Leda Hartman called to ask if I’d do a story for Latino USA, the NPR program where she works as an assignment editor.

Since President Obama announced a change to federal immigration policy in June, allowing so-called “Dreamers” to apply for relief from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, states have been deciding what to do about issuing driver’s licenses to DACA immigrants. Some states, such as Arizona and Nebraska, have said they won’t do it at all, but most states are handing out ones identical to those that every other driver gets. Not North Carolina.

The previous Democratic administration kicked the can down the road right before the November election, when the DMV administrator said the state wouldn’t issue the licenses without a ruling from the Attorney General’ office. In January, the AG’s office gave the green light to licenses, and new DOT secretary Tony Tata, a Republican appointee, announced that the state would start issuing them. But they won’t look like everyone else’s — they’ll have a bright pink strip at the top, and at the bottom, the words “No Lawful Status.”

Immigrants and their advocates objected to the licenses as an unfair invasion of privacy that could set up DACA recipients as targets of discrimination and harassment. After all, to be covered under DACA is to have essentially the same legal status — for at least two years while it’s in effect — as any other legal immigrant to the U.S.

Our story explores the issue. It’s a huge challenge to compress all the nuances into a 6-minute radio story, but I love the challenge. I hope you like the story, which features Greensboro resident Erick Renteria. He and his immigration attorney filed a suit in Guilford County Superior Court after Erick was denied his license. Shortly after the suit was filed, the DOT announced it would begin handing out the special pink-striped licenses.

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