Saturday, June 25, 2011

In one backyard, a growing gift

When Chris Yost moved into her east Charlotte home four years ago, she downsized in most every way. Her square footage was smaller. Her mortgage, too. Pretty much everything, she says, but the yard behind the house.

It's just under a half-acre back there, with a mix of natural growth and grass. Chris initially wasn't excited about having to mow all of that land every week, so she worked weekends until she had a better grass-to-natural ratio.

But one Saturday earlier this year, she found herself instead at a local agency, pressed into duty to teach an English class for refugees. Chris had never thought much about the plights of people like the students in front of her, until she accompanied a friend a couple weeks before to hand out backpacks to refugee children at a nearby apartment complex. She decided then she might could do a little more. Giving can sometimes hook you that way.

As she talked to her English students that day, they told her their stories. Some were from Bhutan, a small, land-locked kingdom at the eastern heel of the Himalayas in South Asia. One of the Bhutanese was the best English speaker in the class, Damaru Baral.

Damaru told Chris he was a farmer, like many of the refugees from the agriculture-heavy country. He once had 125 acres of crops, and he sold the harvest at his small farm store until ethnic cleansing forced him from his land and country. He spent two decades in refugee camps before being granted asylum and allowed into the United States, and he was happy to be in his Charlotte apartment complex with his family.

But like the others, Damaru was a farmer with no land.

Chris felt dismay. She thought of her sizable lot.

"Would you like to use my backyard?" she said.

A few days later, in March, three elderly refugee women showed up at her house with hoes and claws. They squatted and began to dig. Grass turned to dirt, and dirt turned to soil. Soon, more refugees arrived - men and women, carving dozens of trenches in the backyard, planting row upon row of vegetables, stretching to the corners and the back of her lot.

They come at least a few days a week now, four families worth of workers, heading straight for the backyard. Early on, a neighbor called the police when he saw one refugee in front of Chris' house, but now everyone knows about the backyard, and there has been no trouble from anyone. "They are very polite," Chris says. "They are very thankful. I can't understand them."

But she understands this: They are farmers, and they are farming.

"These are potatoes," says Damaru, in sandals and shorts and a blue print short-sleeve shirt. "They come up in month." He walks from row to row, pointing proudly to the cabbage spreading its leaves, the purple buds of eggplants, the squash talking over a couple rows, as squash likes to do.

He stops at one stretch of plants. "Coriander," he says, nodding at the feathery leaves. "We eat a lot of this in Bhutan."

Patrice Ognodo stands nearby, a hoe in his hand. Ognodo runs a Charlotte ministry that helps refugees assimilate here. The challenge he faces is not only finding them a place to live, or helping them learn the language, or helping them be a little less homesick. It also is helping them find worth, especially the older adults, who wonder if their best days have been taken along with their homes. "They need to experience what they have done better in their lives," he says.

That's happening here, with buds and leaves, in row upon row, on this half-acre that's fuller than Chris Yost could have imagined. "I'm just amazed," she says. And: "It's an honor."

Damaru Baral, standing between the lettuce and green beans, talks about the crops he grew on his farm back home. Corn and potatoes and vegetables. "Just like this," he says, sweeping his arm across the backyard. "We are glad," he says. And: "We are happy to have ..." He searches a moment for the words. "Our place."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stuff our dads said - and didn't

Happy Father's Day, everyone. Here's Sunday's Observer column...


The Look. You sons and daughters know about this. It’s the tilt of the head you got when you misbehaved. The flash of the eyes. The lips clenched shut.

I’ve been a father for 10 years now, and my Look doesn’t come close to my dad’s Look. His was versatile, with variations for different levels of transgression. There was head-to-the-right, eyebrows raised for basic bad behavior. If that didn’t work, the head got tiltier, the glare meltier.

And for the bigger things, it was different – not so much a harsh stare, but disappointed that I didn’t get the wrongness of what I was doing, or maybe that he hadn’t taught me to get it.
That was the look I hated most.

Today is Father’s Day, of course, and in our Carolina Living section, we honor dads by having readers tell us about the best advice their fathers have given them. I peeked this week at those submissions – and at some we didn’t have room to print. There were quips and wisdom and combinations of both.

“Don’t worry about your reputation, work on your character,” said one dad. Said another: “If you can figure out a way to get into jail, you can figure out a way to get out of jail.”

Then I came upon Debbie Bateman. “The best stuff my dad says is without words,” she wrote of her father, Stephen Smith.

My father, Bob, like Debbie’s father and many of their generation, is not the kind of man who feels like he has to say something. We talk, sure, at least once a week about what’s happening with him and my mother in New Hampshire, with me and my family in Charlotte. But advice? He’ll tell me what to do with my leaky water heater, and even the bigger stuff, if I ask. Most times, I don’t have to.

He owns a carpet store in New Hampshire, and when I was growing up, I’d get to go out with him to measure houses and meet customers. I watched, like many sons and daughters, how he treated people at work and at home, what he said about them, and what he didn’t say.

I learned that you show up five minutes early to every appointment. You don’t take advantage of people. If you make a mistake, you acknowledge it and make it as right as you can. And if a Boston sports team is winning, you never call him before the game is over and say, “Looks like we got this.”

I forgot about that last one recently. I could almost see The Look coming through the phone.

Debbie Bateman knows about this, too. Her father, Stephen, is a quiet man, she says. He asks questions instead of offering answers, but she’s never had difficulty knowing what’s important to him. And on those occasions she forgot, he had a Look, too. “It’s hard to describe it,” she says, laughing. “But you know what it means.”

Eventually, yes. My dad coached me one year when I played Little League in my small New Hampshire town. The town field had little fencing, so if you hit the ball to the bushes that marked the end of the outfield grass, it was a home run. I’d never come close to those bushes, until I caught hold of a pitch one day when I was 12. My dad, who was doing double duty as an umpire in the outfield, didn’t turn in time to see the ball land past the grass. But he had to make a call. Double, he said.

Not long into my protesting the injustice, he met me with a look. Not the one for misbehaving, or the one for really misbehaving. It was that last look, the one that wondered why I didn’t get it. And right then, I did: There was no other call he felt he could make.

That understanding didn’t come from some big cloud break of perceptiveness. It was because I knew enough about my father, that even if he didn’t get everything right, trying to do so was important to him. Pretty much everything flows from there with him.

So today, we officially remember and celebrate and appreciate. “I treasure his wisdom,” Debbie Bateman says of her father, and if we’re lucky, we get to feel the same, whether it’s the dads who tell us what we need to know, or quietly remind us that we already do.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Uptown's safety image facing an uphill fight

By dusk, the place changes. The workday crowd has come and gone from the Charlotte Transportation Center, filing on buses to be taken out of uptown. A new crowd has replaced it, coming off those same buses to hang out with a menacing, and growing, group.

Nooooo,” says Christina Cannie, standing with a coworker. “I don’t like to come here later.”
She is waiting for a bus to take her home from a shift at Showmars. She is here most weekdays, usually before dusk but occasionally later. That, Christina says, “is when people just start acting crazier.”

We’re talking about uptown safety again this week, and once again, our lens is pointing toward the transportation center. This time, it’s because of a Memorial Day weekend disturbance that ended with more than 70 arrests and one fatal shooting that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say appeared gang-related.

City officials, including Police Chief Rodney Monroe and Mayor Anthony Foxx, have tried hard this past week to find the right combination of acknowledging the problem and assuring us it’s not really a problem. The situation was never out of control, they’ve said, and uptown ultimately remains a safe place.

It’s a tricky sell, but it’s important to center city. No one believes uptown is crime-free, but businesses need people to have enough comfort to visit restaurants and museums. For most of us, that comfort comes in knowing where – and where not – to be.

That’s how it works with the places we live. People most uncomfortable with Center City Charlotte are often those who rarely visit and see a unfamiliar, perilous landscape. People who work uptown or live nearby know it’s not nearly that threatening, with the exception of a few places at the wrong times. And even in those places and at those times, people learn what to avoid.

“You just stay in here,” says Christian Stephney, at one of the 20 bays in the open-air transit center. Christian has lived in New York and Philly and says it’s much safer in Charlotte, but when she’s waiting for a bus, she stays far from that crowd of young men outside the center’s northeast corner. “It’s better here,” she says.

Lately, however, the predictable has been less so. Across uptown, Johnson & Wales students were victims of three armed robberies next to campus this spring. Complaints are coming in, too, about safety on light rail trains and stops.

And last Saturday, the unrest that was concentrated around the transit center also spread blocks away. Visitors told stories of having to run – and not knowing where exactly to go. Suddenly, there was no place to be comfortable.

We’re hearing more of those uptown stories, it seems – and seeing more of them in scary Internet videos. CMPD statistics, however, show that safety is getting better, not worse, since 2007 at the transit center and in uptown, which continues to boast some of the lowest raw crime numbers in the county.

And yet we have last weekend’s melee, along with a similar incident five years ago, each of which bleeds into the perception that uptown is turning bad on regular nights, too. And with all of it comes the prospect of more people concluding that, you know, there are some pretty good restaurants in South Park, too.

What’s the answer for uptown? Some officials are talking about strengthening a toothless curfew law that fines parents whose children are out late. Foxx talked this week about parents, ministers and neighbors needing to step up – a sentiment that may be true, but sadly has proven more wishful than probable.

Others would like to move the transportation center and its problems elsewhere, which might satisfy center city business but leaves us facing another question: Are you OK with crime so long as we know that it’s that’s it not where you plan to be? It’s one more uncomfortable thing to consider in an uptown that’s suddenly full of them.