Saturday, February 26, 2011

A hitchhiker's guide to life's detours

She was probably quite a sight that morning, an 81-year-old woman in her dressiest slacks and bright blue suede blazer, standing on the side of Monroe Road during rush hour – with her thumb out.

Anita Brisbin’s car had a flat tire, and she had a job interview in Cotswold. It was between 8 and 9 a.m. on a Monday, so hundreds of cars passed her heading north toward uptown, green light wave after green light wave, with no one stopping.

Then one woman did.

On Thursday, Anita sat at her kitchen table, with the woman’s business card in one hand, her phone in another. “I’m sure she’ll remember me,” she said.

It would be hard not to. Give Anita Brisbin 15 minutes – about the time it takes to get from Monroe Road to Cotswold – and she’ll guide you enthusiastically through her story. She’s a Staten Island native of French-Canadian ancestry. She's lived in several places before coming to Charlotte 30 years ago with a husband, Robert, who’d had a stroke. He has since died, and her mother, Evelyn Gianna, now 103, is in an assisted living home.

Anita, who was a Realtor for years, has spent her savings on her husband’s and mother’s care. Along with Social Security payments, she needed some extra money. That’s what put her on Monroe Road that Monday.

She had heard the new PetSmart in Cotswold was hiring and decided to give it a try. Her friends raised wary eyebrows at the idea, fretting that maybe this isn’t what you do at her age.

Anita’s response: “People should not be afraid to tackle the world.”

Of course, sometimes the world tackles you, which is what happened on the drive to PetSmart. Anita heard a funny noise, and that became a loud noise, so she pulled off Monroe and saw her tire was shredded. For some of us, that might have been it for the job interview, but Anita doesn’t like to let life decide how life will go. She locked the car and, for the first time in her life: “Put my thumb out.”

That’s when the cars passed her. And passed her. “I was getting annoyed,” she said, back at her kitchen table, but then noted: “I think they were startled. You should have seen me.” And she tilted her head back and laughed.

Which brings up one more thing you should know about Anita Brisbin: She laughs. A lot. She’s had cancer and a mastectomy, and she’s spent her savings on care for her husband and mother. “You can’t go through what I’ve gone through without a sense of humor,” she said.

So she laughs at having to look for a job at her age, and she laughs at walking up Monroe Road in rush hour traffic. And instead of dwelling on all those cars that passed her, she makes a big deal out of the one that didn’t.

“That’s who I am,” she said.

Maybe it’s how you hit 81 without slowing down.

Finally, a sedan stopped, and the woman inside asked if Anita needed help. She drove Anita straight to the PetSmart – and in time for the interview – and wished her luck . She also gave her a company business card and wrote “Nancy” on it, but Anita misplaced it and didn’t remember the business – until the card turned up on Wednesday.

On Thursday morning, Anita dialed the number and explained her story to the voice that answered. A few minutes later, Nancy Hartsell called back. Yes, she said, she remembered Anita.

She explained that she was driving to work near uptown at Hovis Radiator Co. when she passed Anita. Nancy, who is 57, thought about what she hoped someone would do if it were her mother on the side of the road. So she stopped to see if this woman needed any help. “That was really nice,” Anita said.

And: “Thank you.”

And also: “I got the job.”

So the two talked about that and pets and when Nancy might come to visit her there. “Saturdays and Sundays,” Anita told her. Another story to tell, perhaps. Another reason to laugh.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

So maybe Lynn Wheeler was right after all...

About a dozen years ago, Lynn Wheeler was among a small group of leaders who tried to woo the Republican National Committee into awarding Charlotte the 2000 GOP convention.

We came close that time – making the RNC short list but losing to Philly. Officials thought we were a little thin on hotel rooms then, and although they liked our coliseum, they weren’t so hot about it being located miles from our downtown.

Wheeler, then a city councilwoman and chair of the economic development committee, saw that deficiency, too. So she led an effort to get an arena, along with other projects, uptown. Then she angered voters who rejected that referendum package by leading a successful City Council arena vote a year later.

She lost her political career because of it.

But she was right.

“I feel a little validated,” says Wheeler, sitting on her living room couch just outside uptown, which is still buzzing with the news of the Democratic National Convention coming here next year. It’s a big deal – a $150- million to $260 million impact, say studies of 2008 convention cities Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver – and it comes at a time any city could use that kind of jolt.

And it doesn’t happen, this convention nod, without an uptown arena.

“I knew it was the right thing to do,” Wheeler says.

She is a public relations consultant now, but she’s still as connected as anyone else in Charlotte. She’s on the phone each day with power players – and she sells that access, that ability to make things happen. It’s what she liked best about her 14 years on the council and time as mayor pro tem.

She doesn’t miss, however, waking up on Sunday morning to read the paper and, as she says, “see how many ways people could creatively call me a b-i-t...”

Yeah, we remember.

It’s a reminder that the arena wasn’t the sole blow that knocked Wheeler out of politics. She was, a decade ago, as overexposed in Charlotte as someone could be in the old media age. She wasn’t just Lynn Wheeler, Mayor Pro Tem, but Lynn Wheeler, Mayor Pro Tem and former debutante and willing subject of media stories that called her “coquettish” and touched on fashion and hair and once, yes, her bedroom.

Then there was the political mishandling of the arena. It began, she says now, when council members decided to let voters weigh in on a referendum in 2001 that proposed raising taxes to build the arena and several other projects. “We could’ve voted it on our own,” she says, “but we were all chicken, and I was one of them.”

When voters shook their heads at the referendum, Wheeler led the charge the next year for a new plan that included only the arena. This one was different, she says even now, and she’s correct: The new plan said the arena would be paid with a hotel-motel tax, not any taxes on residents, which was the main beef of arena opponents the first time around.

But Wheeler lost that narrative, and when the council approved the arena on its own, she finished last in the next Republican primary. A half-hearted comeback bid in 2005 did no better.

And the arena? It’s done what Wheeler and others predicted it would. It’s brought money from events such as the annual CIAA tournament to Charlotte. It’s been a contributing catalyst for new uptown development that includes the EpiCentre and Daniel Levine’s First Ward project. That development has expanded the property tax base, which benefits not only uptown. “It ripples out through the whole community,” she says.

That was, by the way, another narrative that arena proponents lost a decade ago, the one about uptown growth helping the rest of Charlotte. It’s a tug we come back to often – not just uptown vs. everyone else, but about how and if we want to grow.

Sometimes we don’t make the best choices – the NASCAR Hall of Fame says hello – and some people, for sure, will never be sold on the arena being one of the good ones.

But the woman who sold it the hardest – and maybe lost the most?

“I don’t regret it,” says Lynn Wheeler now. “Not one second.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Prepare, Charlotte, to be toasted - and roasted

To: Residents of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County

On behalf of our fellow journalists, we’d like to apologize in advance for the less-than-thoughtful analysis and reporting on Charlotte that may be conducted before and during the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

It’s a bit of a tradition in journalism for writers and commentators to reflect upon the shortcomings of the cities that host big and important events. The practice goes back at least 30 years: When Detroit was awarded the Republican convention in 1980, Time Mmagazine dismissed the city as “Cleveland without the glitter.”

We’re not proud of that – although it was a pretty good line.

But what we’re trying to say is: Prepare to be trashed, Charlotte.

We know some of you fret about things like this, that our city historically cares a great deal what others are saying about us. Even in our best moments, we tend to want to make sure people are applauding for the right reasons. On Tuesday, when Michelle Obama announced Charlotte’s selection in an e-mail to supporters, the line that got the most attention was one that noted the Queen City’s “great barbecue.” This prompted convulsions of self-examination across the city, including from our mayor, about whether our barbecue was, in fact, great – or if it should be something that defines us.

The answer: It’s not great, but 95 percent of visitors won’t know the difference. And even if it were great, critics from Dallas and Kansas City would harrumph at it.

Because journalists can sometimes be, well, a little snooty.

Really, it’s true.

This is especially so with national media, who tend to take offense when big events require them to be in cities not named New York or Los Angeles. That may be doubly so when those cities are in the South. At the 1996 Olympic Summer Games, for example, writers spent two weeks being horrified that Atlanta was representing our country to a global audience.

“A city with no charm, no grace and no ambience,” said the San Francisco Examiner’s John Crumpacker, who added delicately: “I’ll miss Atlanta like a boil on the butt.”

Atlanta, of course, did its part to live down to the criticism. Transportation was a disaster, and volunteers were ill-prepared. “The Redneck Olympics,” people called it, which was only slightly worse than “The Glitch Games,” which is what the BBC called Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games after organizational mishaps that included buses not being able to make it up the hills to ski events.

To be fair, regular folks seemed to have a fine time at those events – at least the Atlanta Games, which I attended.

But journalists can sometimes be, well, a little picky.

No, seriously.

You might see this in more subtle ways in the next 18 months. Writers will note how Charlotte has made some great strides toward being a city like theirs, or they’ll rave about how Charlotte has two or three restaurants they’d go to back home – if, you know, all the good ones back home had a two-hour wait.

Or, there’s a possibility that our city won’t be julienned at all, as happened with Denver, which was widely praised during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Coincidentally, Denver and DNC officials arranged for free neck, shoulder and finger massages all week in the media room.

In the end, though, Charlotte is burdened with the easy targets of geography and history, which will prove too tempting for some to pass up. Because as all of us know, it’s easier to poke than praise. (We’re looking at you, commenters.)

So again, Charlotte: We’re sorry, in advance. We hope you focus instead on the compliments that surely will come more frequently. And if that’s too difficult to do, there’s always another option:

Imagine how bad they’d rip Raleigh.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Can Charlotte live up to its moment on stage?

It was two sentences, sent to an e-mail list of Democratic officials and supporters.

“Charlotte is a city marked by its southern charm, warm hospitality, and an ‘up by the bootstraps’ mentality that has propelled the city forward…” wrote Michelle Obama Tuesday morning, announcing that Charlotte was getting the 2012 Democratic Convention.

“Vibrant, diverse, and full of opportunity, the Queen City is home to innovative, hardworking folks with big hearts and open minds,” she said.

Two sentences, probably typed by a speechwriter.

But it felt good, no?

Today, the home team gets a big win and some good headlines. The Hotels are booking, and the city is buzzing, and hardly anyone is groaning about politics or costs or that doozy of a commute the first week of September 2012.

Tomorrow, everyone starts looking at us more closely.

You know that moment after you finally get that promotion, or you land that job you bad wanted? Not the fist-in-the-air moment, but the one right after, when you think: “Holy (insert word here), now I have to do it.”

Well, now we have to do it.

This is the stage Charlotte has longed for – bigger than a golf championship or basketball tournament. The world will be pulling into our driveway for a week in 2012, and it’ll be reporting on everything it sees.

A lot of it will be big-picture stuff – how this once-formidable banking city is searching, and perhaps struggling, for a new vision. Or how this New South city is dealing with the seeming resegregation of its schools. Conservatives will wonder aloud how that Democratic leadership thing is working out for us. It won’t always be comfortable.

There also will be plenty of small-picture stuff, and in some ways, it’ll be just as important. Bloggers and critics will dissect our restaurants and public transportation and nightlife and traffic, and much of it will be done in the context of geography and stereotype. We’ll either be a Southern city that’s grown up, or a Southern town not ready for the big time, y’all.

We’ve had some good practice – the 1994 NCAA Final Four and, more recently, the ACC Basketball Tournament and the annual CIAA Tournament. But DNC 2012 will dwarf those, in size and scope. Some numbers to digest: The NCAA gave out about 1,700 media credentials for its men’s Final Four in 2010. Total media for the 2008 DNC: 15,000.

“This is a huge step,” said Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, which is responsible for planning and promoting uptown’s evolution. Smith is confident, of course, because leaders have spent decades preparing for this kind of moment, investing in hospitality assets and infrastructure. “It is a natural next step,” he said. “It’s part of our progression as a city.”

It seems a long while since we’ve thought of Charlotte that way. The economy has beaten us down and taken one of our bank headquarters, and like in other cities, our home values have plummeted and our schools are in crisis. Just this Monday, a sad parade of economists spoke at the annual City Council retreat, warning that it will be years before Charlotte climbs back to 2007 job levels.

But today, instead of wondering how we’ll recapture our swagger, we’ve had it handed to us – in the form of a test.

An “up by the bootstraps” mentality. Vibrant, diverse and full of opportunity.

Two sentences, sent to the world. Not something that overcomes our challenges, but a reminder that we’ve long been a place that meets them.