44-year-old muralist paints to inspire the next generation of artists

By Korie Dean

Artie Barksdale puts his can of royal blue spray paint in the pocket of his khaki work pants and climbs down from his ladder.

He walks five paces away from the building, turning around to give him a broad view of his handiwork.

Six days ago, the side of Muffin’s Ice Cream Shoppe on Fourth Street in Mebane was a plain red brick wall. Now, it’s an almost-finished mural of a serene pasture with amber-colored prairie grass under a bright blue sky that nearly blends into the real sky above it.

Under the blanket of last night’s stars, Barksdale used sidewalk chalk and an overhead projector propped up on the hood of his custom woodgrain-painted Ford F-150 to trace the ice cream store’s logo onto the pastoral mural.

Twelve hours later, with the spotlight of the early October sun beating down on him, he’s filling in the logo as if it’s the biggest paint-by-numbers kit a little kid could dream of.

“I think the ‘M’ needs to be a little rounder, don’t you?” he asks his wife, Nicole, who’s sitting at a weathered picnic table to his right.

He doesn’t just think the letter needs to be a little rounder. He knows it.

And before his wife can even answer, he’s walking five paces back to his ladder, climbing up and getting back to work.

Perfecting those little details is an itch that Barksdale, 44, can’t help but scratch. They nag at him, begging for his attention before he can move on to the next brushstroke.

That’s especially the case with this mural.

He’s waited years to paint in Mebane. In some ways, it’s a homecoming, but in others, it’s an introduction.

Most teenagers swear they’ll never be like their parents when they grow up.

Not Barksdale—he was going to be an artist, like his mom.

Where the Artistic Itch Came From

As soon as he could hold a pencil, he was at his mom’s side, copying every line she drew. He couldn’t imagine life without the blank canvases and paintbrushes that filled their small home in Newark, New Jersey. And, more than anything, he dreamed of being a graffiti artist, like the ones he saw when his mom took him across the Hudson River to New York City.

It’s easy to find inspiration with the bustle of city life providing ceaseless muses.

When his mom grounded him one weekend, he locked himself in his room and sketched his own reality. His blank sketchpad turned into a lively cityscape, inspired by the skyscrapers he saw in the city, and he fell asleep wishing he was old enough to take the train across the Hudson on his own.

His Newark neighborhood soon turned into a warzone because of crack cocaine. And when a job opened up for Barksdale’s stepdad in Mebane, the family packed up their lives and headed south in 1988.

Barksdale was 12 years old and Mebane was little more than a dying furniture town. There were no towering buildings like the ones that Barksdale had drawn on his sketchpad. But, there were trees.

As he sat in the woods behind his house on Shambley Road, Barksdale found his new muse: nature.

Over the years, it became a common thread to his portfolio. All around him, he found possibility—in the sap from a tree, in the slow movement of the clouds above, in the orange clay soil below.

He honed his skills at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, studying theatrical set design until he ran out of money for tuition in 1999.

Then, he just kept painting.

His Jesus Mural in Durham

Old, beat-up trucks turned into a mobile art show of velvety smooth camouflage scenes. Weathered buildings around the state turned into vibrant murals. The trees that towered over Barksdale when he was a kid turned into characters with lively faces.

He saw Mebane’s downtown as a blank canvas and pitched dozens of murals to city leaders.

They declined, so he went to Durham.

One night in 2007, he painted a mural of Jesus under a bridge on Alston Avenue. No one had commissioned the work, and working under the midnight sky until 5 a.m., no one saw him paint it. Barksdale disappeared into the early morning, leaving the mural unsigned.

When Durham awoke that morning, the city exploded with chatter and excitement over the mysterious mural.

For 10 years, it remained untouched.

But, in 2017, Barksdale heard that the bridge was set to be demolished. The area was being gentrified and the mural was the latest casualty.

Heartbroken for the fate of his mural and the city he had come to love so deeply, he revealed on social media that the mural was his creation. The post was shared by more than 1,000 people and Barksdale’s inbox flooded with messages of support and personal anecdotes about how the mural had impacted their lives.

Two days before the demolition date, Barksdale went to the mural to touch it up one last time. Unlike when he first painted it, he went in the light of day and invited the community to watch him work, giving them all a chance to mourn the art that had been a gift to so many.

No one joined him that day.

Maybe they felt powerless. Maybe they didn’t know how to help. Maybe they didn’t really care. As he painted in solitude, Barksdale felt his heart leave Durham.

He still continued his passion for painting and creating.

Coming Full Circle with Vibrant Colors

Barksdale and his wife moved to Prospect Hill, just down the road from Mebane. In 2019, he painted one of his most popular works to date: a mural of rapper Nipsey Hussle on North Church Street in Burlington.

Word of Barksdale’s homegrown talent quickly spread to Mebane—and this September, he got the call he’d dreamed of for so long, asking him to paint a mural downtown.

The town that fed his soul as a young boy was beckoning him home.

And now he’s up on his ladder at Muffin’s, filling the Mebane community with vibrant colors and electric energy.

As he’s finishing up the ‘M’ in the Muffin’s logo, a woman in a red Jeep Wrangler drives down Fourth Street.

“It’s gonna be gorgeous!” she yells as she drives by with the windows down.

Seconds later, a father and son walk down the sidewalk.

“Hey brother, looks great!” the father shouts.

Every few minutes, there’s a new audience giving Barksdale praise as he works.

He was gone for close to 20 years, but now he’s back where his heart always wanted to be.

Mebane is his personal blank canvas. He wants to fill every wall with art that energizes the town. And maybe one day, a kid will stop in awe, mesmerized by his work, and he’ll inspire the next generation of artists—like the New York graffiti artists that once inspired him.

Yes, Artie Barksdale has big dreams. He always has.

But for now, he paints.

Edited by Jackie Sizing 

Cancer patients are not the only survivors of this tragic illness

By Molly Weisner

The diagnosis 

Valerie Tú-Uyên Nguyen is a survivor of childhood cancer.

She was not diagnosed with osteosarcoma, but her 13-year-old sister was. Valerie never went through rounds of chemotherapy, but Cecilia did. Accepting IVs and injecting blood thinners – and marveling at the posy of bruises that bloomed – was never part of Valerie’s routine, but it was for Cecilia.

When her sister got diagnosed in March 2013, Valerie was in high school in Northern Virginia. However, instead of homecoming dances and football games, she had doctor visits and coaxed meals through nausea. It was sifting through treatment plans for what science considered a rare form of cancer, but Valerie and her family knew it too well.

Four years later, at 2 a.m. on a school night, Valerie heard a rapt knock on her bedroom door. It was Valerie’s mother saying curtly, “it’s time.” It was the sleep in her eyes that’d be washed out by tears, and Valerie’s “calloused feet [touching] the cold, midnight floor.”

Departing from Cecilia 

When Cecilia died that morning, Valerie would be on the list of the family who survived her.

What, then, did she survive? Maybe it was seeing her sister – who she said was bright and sassy – fade colorlessly into a girl who had too few sips of Ensure. Maybe it was losing an entire future of memories together or never getting blue Slurpees from 7-Eleven again.

“It was chaotic,” Nguyen said. While applying to colleges and preparing to graduate high school, supporting her sister was something few other teenagers had to juggle.

Nevertheless, as a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, Valerie said she is not concerned with the “what ifs.” The 20-year-old biology student uses her platform in Chapel Hill to advocate for cancer research and the loved ones of those diagnosed with cancer.

The lost story 

“Often the story of childhood cancer is one of smiling bald children in sappy television commercials or wrenchingly painful memorials for those who died,” Nguyen said. The story of caretakers and families who fight cancer alongside those diagnosed are often lost. In the medical field, too, the search for the cure is sometimes muddled by ambition. 

“A lot of times in research, people get caught up in really catty things, like who’s first author on the paper, or ‘Is this published in the most prestigious journal?'” Nguyen said. “But it really doesn’t matter. It matters who’s benefitting.”

Nguyen said she remembers sifting through treatment plans for her sister, getting a crash course bedside manner, and hospital etiquette by merely observing. Her intimate experience with healthcare motivates her to be empathetic and keep the patient-centered in every aspect, she said. 

Part of that mindfulness comes from the moments in hospitals that were emotional instead of clinical. In her college admissions essay, Nguyen wrote about being the designated barf-bucket holder. Her sister derided her doctors for letting her parents feed her turmeric pills while more potent stuff was coursing through her veins.

“I think about it a lot,” Nguyen said. “And it’s something I want to make sure no one else feels. It lights a fire within me that won’t be put out.”

According to the American Cancer Society, about 11,050 children in the U.S. under age 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020.

Those are odds Nguyen is willing to fight. Whether it is volunteering at pediatric oncology wards or researching at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Nguyen said she finds strength in working directly with people.

Much of her philosophy on healthcare also comes from lessons Cecilia taught her.

“When my sister was sick, she would always make sure I was included,” Nguyen said. “As a sibling, everyone thinks you’re normal and keep it together for your family. But you’re also a kid; it’s not like you’re supposed to have it together.”

Never forgotten 

Even today, in the quiet moments between reading her favorite Vietnamese poet or getting ready to attend Zoom class, Valerie thinks of Cecilia.

She thinks of her favorite color, blue, and how maybe she would have been a Tar Heel, too.

She thinks of their matching shaved heads after Cecilia cried because she could not style her weakening hair for school dances.

She thinks of the bird feather that drifted into her mother’s car window the day after Cecilia died and how it is preserved forever on her skin as a tattoo with her sister’s fingerprint.

And then it is back to work with equations and solutions, volunteer hours, and cold calls.

“It’s a lot of hard days and good days,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said knowing the sacrifices made by her family remind her to look toward the future instead of the past. She calls herself the daughter of Vietnamese boat people. Her parents arrived as refugees in the U.S. to escape the war. Instead of one that she loved, her mother settled for a job to provide for her family.

“Literally, being here in the U.S. right where I am now is a complete chance of luck,” Nguyen said.

Being outspoken about her life’s challenges to advocating for others is something Nguyen said she had to learn. Asking for help and leaning on others for support — which she said is not often encouraged in the Vietnamese culture — came down to having friends and family she could talk to. 

Finding support

Jeremiah Holloway met Nguyen during their first-year at UNC-CH. The two bonded simply from talking about the things college students manage on a day-to-day basis. 

“I admire how honest and open Valerie is,” Holloway said. “She lets you know her thoughts on things and how she honestly feels.”

Ruth Samuel, a senior at UNC-CH and friend of Nguyen’s, said being able to talk about the burdens students carry is crucial because they are not always visible. Samuel also lost a sibling to cancer, and though she and Nguyen find healing in their academics and passions, the grieving process never truly ends. 

“It’s not just a one-and-done,” Samuel said. “It’s a journey, and it’s a never-ending one.”

However, when Nguyen suddenly became the only sibling, she doubled down in her passions, plodding a way up and out of the grief that could bring her parents with her.  

That is why, Nguyen said, even in high school, she was working internships at the National Institutes of Health and lobbying politicians on Capitol Hill for increased cancer research funding.

“It’s tragic, but I’ve been given a unique experience [to] compassionately care for people in a way that not many people can because they just haven’t been in those shoes,” Nguyen said. “It’s a motivating force for me.”

The academic rigor and competitiveness at UNC-CH do not always acknowledge the purely social challenges that bring its students to campus. Nguyen says she is pursuing a healthy future as a woman in medicine, but it is not about the resume padding.

“I care deeply,” Nguyen said. “It’s not always clear from the universe that I should be doing what I’m doing, but I want to do it.”

Edited by Aashna Shah

American boy: Indian immigrant makes first election vote as U.S citizen

By: Paige Masten

“Do you want to get your citizenship today?”

Today? Deepak Venkatasubramanian blinks, taken aback by the officer’s question. When he arrived at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Charlotte, North Carolina, that morning, it was for the naturalization interview — one of the final hurdles in the naturalization process.

Many applicants experience an additional waiting period between the interview and naturalization ceremony. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, USCIS has largely shifted to same-day naturalization ceremonies in an attempt to minimize the flow of people entering and exiting the facility.

It’s Aug. 18, 2020 — a day Venkatasubramanian, 20, has been waiting for. A day he’ll now remember forever.

Today, he will become a U.S. citizen.

Venkatasubramanian, who studies economics and statistics at UNC-Chapel Hill, is one of the lucky ones. The coronavirus pandemic has created an enormous backlog of naturalization applications, interviews and ceremonies — preventing hundreds of thousands of would-be citizens from registering in time to vote on Election Day.

USCIS, the federal agency in charge of adjudicating citizenship, has said it expects to naturalize 600,000 people in the 2020 fiscal year. But in fiscal year 2019, the agency naturalized 834,000 — about 30 percent more people.

Venkatasubramanian has already passed the English and civics examination, wedged inside a cubicle, separated from the officer by a Plexiglas divider.

From behind the glass, the officer asked him a series of questions, ranging from “What is the capital of your state?” to “What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?”

Now, he stands face-to-face with a tablet, videoconferencing with another officer to review his application — another one of the agency’s COVID-19 precautions.

“Were you ever a communist?” the officer asked.

“No,” Venkatasubramanian replied.

“Have you ever committed a war crime?”

“Um. No.”

But the officer’s most recent question — “Do you want to get your citizenship today?” — is the most unexpected one of all.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I would love to get my citizenship today.”

So, that afternoon, Venkatasubramanian takes the Oath of Allegiance, relinquishing his ties to other countries and giving up his green card forever.

It’s bittersweet. He’d hoped to be surrounded by family and friends on this day — after all, they’re the ones who got him here — but the pandemic doesn’t allow it. Instead, he finds himself alone, accompanied only by 12 strangers who share his same dream: to become a United States citizen.

Afterward, he asks one of his fellow newly sworn-in citizens to take his photo, so that he’d have something to remember it by.

In the photo, Venkatasubramanian is smiling from ear to ear, holding a miniature American flag. Pieces of red, white and blue electrical tape mark a spot on the floor where he’s meant to stand to enforce social distancing guidelines.

As he drives home, he listens to one of his favorite songs: “American Boy” by Estelle featuring Kanye West. But today, the lyrics have a new meaning.

Walking that walk, talk that slick talk

I’m liking this American boy, American boy


A Vote With a Backstory 

Venkatasubramanian, his parents and his older sister moved to the U.S. from India in 2013. They settled in Charlotte, where Venkatasubramanian would begin high school, and then, college.

They moved to the U.S. once before, in 2006. They lived in New Jersey for two years, until the recession hit, and his father, who worked in the mortgage industry, was sent back to India by his employer.

The Venkatasubramanians became lawful permanent residents in 2015. This time around, they knew the move would be more permanent. With a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, it was time to settle down. They wanted their children to attend high school and college in America, sparing them the pressure of the fiercely competitive education system in their native India.

Once becoming a lawful permanent resident, you have to wait five years before you’re eligible to apply for citizenship. So, in January 2020 — as soon as they were eligible —Venkatasubramanians submitted their application for citizenship.

In June, they received notice that their applications were accepted. It was a quick turnaround — most people who apply for citizenship wait much longer.

“My story is one of the easiest stories,” Venkatasubramanian says. “It’s what people think everyone goes through when trying to become a citizen.”


A Vote That’s Unprecedented 

Nearly two months later, Venkatasubramanian casts his vote for the very first time. He remembers the exact date: Oct. 10.

It was much different than what he’d always pictured. He chose to vote by mail, filling out his ballot at his girlfriend’s kitchen table rather than in a voting booth. His girlfriend, Marine, serves as his witness.

On the first day of early voting in North Carolina, Venkatasubramanian drives to the closest early voting site to drop off his absentee ballot in person — it’s the closest he’ll get to the experience he’s always dreamed of. He boasts his “I Voted” sticker proudly.

When 2020 began, he wasn’t sure if he’d get the chance to vote. Now, he’s finishing out the year having done so for the first time.

Venkatasubramanian is evidence of a changing electorate. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, a record 1 in 10 eligible voters in the 2020 election will be immigrants.

Venkatasubramanian spent most of college volunteering for and organizing voter registration drives with NCPIRG, an advocacy group at UNC-Chapel Hill that promotes civic engagement. Since he couldn’t vote himself, it was his way of being involved in American democracy.

For a long time, it was his signature line: “You should register to vote, because I can’t!” Now, the line no longer applies.


A Vote That Matters 

It’s a surreal time to become a U.S. citizen — amid a pandemic, a racial reckoning and a contentious presidential election, when just 19 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with the current state of the nation.

It’s a thought that’s crossed Venkatasubramanian’s mind many times. There was a moment of hesitation when he submitted his application, he admits, but deep down, he knows he did the right thing.

“This is the best thing for my future, but can I really say I’m proud to be an American?” Venkatasubramanian says.

If anything, though, it makes it all the more meaningful. Now, he has a say, a vote, that matters. It’s something he’ll never take for granted.

He keeps his certificate of citizenship tucked proudly inside a plastic page protector. After years of anticipation and waiting, it’s earned a spot among his most prized possessions.

“For a long time,” Venkatasubramanian says, “I was looking through the glass. But now? Now, I’m inside the club.”

Edited By Ryan Heller

Connected by cooking: Goodness Cooks creates in Blue Dogwood 

By Meredith Radford

Every Monday and Tuesday, two best friends cook together in a rented-out kitchen, in an otherwise empty building, preparing fresh and locally sourced meals for their Chapel Hill customers.

Cordon McGee and Lizzie Jacobs started Goodness Cooks at the end of 2019, making healthy, feel-good food for customers to pick up and enjoy at home. They’ve known each other since 2014 and were nutritionists and holistic chefs for many years prior. A love for food, health and cooking brought them together.

“It’s quite a journey to go on as friends to create a business together, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it,” Jacobs said.

They are both self-taught, learning first from cooking for their families and helping heal their own health issues, like food allergies. After years of cooking separately, they decided to come together and start a business to spread their love of food to their customers. 

“We’re passionate and driven in that way too because we know that the foods you eat affects everything – mental, physical, emotional health,” Jacobs said.

After starting in December 2019, their business was built during the pandemic. But they were perfect for it. They created their business around the idea of customers taking their food home and enjoying it on their own time, not in a traditional restaurant.

They started at Midway Community Kitchen, but after it closed they had to find a new, more permanent home. That brought them to Blue Dogwood Public Market in June.

A community of cooks

Blue Dogwood is a public market, meaning it rents out vendor and kitchen space to businesses. Prior to COVID-19 shutdowns, it was an indoor community space. After the pandemic began, it transitioned to takeout and outdoor dining only. 

Doug Bright, a Blue Dogwood project manager, began working with the market in April. He said Blue Dogwood’s thoughtful pandemic plan made him feel confident working there, despite the general uncertainty as to how restaurants would operate safely at that time.

“The people that I live with are really kind of COVID conscious, so I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to be in a place that was acting irresponsibly,” Bright said.

Although Blue Dogwood is historically an in-person marketplace, Bright said, COVID-19 caused it to shift to more of a commissary kitchen model, where it brings in businesses that are focused on takeout. 

The three permanent vendors, Big Belly Que, Rumi Persian Cafe and Vegan Flava Cafe, have also been able to stay at the market during the pandemic. 

Piedmont Pennies is a new addition. Founded by Kenan-Flagler Business School MBA candidate Becca Jordan Wright, Piedmont Pennies launched in August and has been at Blue Dogwood since September, using their kitchen to bake the cheesy, straw-like snacks.

“I came across Blue Dogwood because it’s a convenient location and also I like the idea of being with other food vendors and food stalls and just learning from them and kind of having a community within the space,” Wright said. 

Wright works in the kitchen at nights a couple of days a week, adding to the multifaceted nature of Blue Dogwood’s space. She said that although starting a business during the pandemic made her nervous, she knew that her Pennies could bring smiles to people during this uncertainty.

Similarly, Goodness Cooks doesn’t have a restaurant space – they only need the kitchen. This has helped them avoid the hardship of dealing with closings and capacity limitations due to the pandemic.

“We’re almost sort of like tunneling under all of that fluctuation,” McGee said. “In a way, we’re not as affected by it.” 

The only change the business had to make was temporarily ending its Eco Program, which involves packaging customers’ food in reusable glass jars. 

The health department has since let them bring the program back. 

They also don’t have to worry much about food waste, like a normal restaurant might, because they only buy ingredients for the orders they have each week.

Their promise of gluten- and dairy-free meals and locally sourced, organic ingredients has attracted a loyal base of customers who rely on them for meals.

“And that’s what we want,” Jacobs said. “To see people resting back a little bit in the week knowing that, OK, I’ve got a really busy week ahead, but Goodness Cooks is going to come and nourish me for these three days, so I’ve got that covered.”

Intentional culinary creations

Every week, McGee and Jacobs think carefully about the menu items they put together for their customers. During the week of the election, they put extra thought toward comfort and familiarity. 

“We’re starting with roasted potatoes and rosemary, just something like, so kind of comforting and grounding and homey,” Jacobs said. “Everyone loves roasted potatoes.”

They included the customer favorite oven-baked thyme, lemon and garlic chicken dish, easily-digestible soups and pumpkin bread. They always include one soup dish on their menu, but they added another after McGee got a text from her mom asking them to include something extra comforting for customers to reach for during a stressful time. 

As another comfort, they added a chai latte to the menu, “spiked” with reishi mushroom, which Jacobs said helps with sleep. 

For McGee and Jacobs, the act of cooking is a special part of the process. Hovering over each product as if it’s their child, the pair work carefully to make sure every dish they create is perfect.

“Every time that I cook or handle a vegetable, I am absolutely blown away by the power of taste and the variety of taste and how nourishment feels,” Jacobs said. “And that brings me a lot of joy, creating and knowing that the food is going to be reached to a wide variety of people, and they’re going to be nourished by these ingredients that comes from, a lot of it coming from North Carolina soil, and farmers that we know.”

Because Blue Dogwood is closed to the public on Mondays and Tuesdays, Goodness Cooks are the only ones there, leaving plenty of socially distanced space for them to prepare meals.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, one employee helps McGee and Jacobs cook while McGee’s mom helps package the meals. Then on Tuesday evenings, customers arrive in the parking lot for the best friend chefs to carefully place the meals in their trunks. Later, another employee helps clean up. 

When McGee and Jacobs finish cooking, they compost their food scraps and take it to their friend, who has a large garden, every week.

“Knowing that all that waste, all that food waste, is going to be turned into a rich compost to then create more vegetables is such a wonderful feeling,” Jacobs said.

Edited by Anne Tate

Chapel Hill tradition screening “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” continues despite Covid-19 pandemic.

By Maeve Sheehey

Fourth-grader Isabel Trumbull wracked her brain for a word that began with the prefix, trans. She was with her reading tutor, playing a game where all the kids had to come up with a different word. One of her classmates had already said “transform” and another said “transportation,” so Isabel said the first thing she could think of: 


Her tutor looked uncomfortable. “Um, can you think of another?” she asked. 

“Transsexual?” Isabel asked. 

“OK, let’s give it one more shot,” the tutor said. 

Isabel heard her mom laughing in the waiting room and wondered what she did wrong. Uncertainly, she tried out the last word she could think of: “Transylvania?” 

Anyone who’s seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” would recognize the grouping of these words from the song, “Sweet Transvestite,” performed by Tim Curry in the original 1975 film. In a normal year, before the pandemic, people would dress up in fishnet stockings and corsets to celebrate the cult classic on Halloween night. For Isabel, now a UNC alumna, the tradition began before she was even old enough to be allowed out that late. 

She remembers sitting on her family’s old green couch to watch the movie when she was about four years old. In fact, it’s the first movie she remembers ever watching. Despite the ample sexual content, the bulk of it was innuendo that went over her head — besides, it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen while selling lemonade at the gay pride parade in Boystown, Chicago.  

“The men in lingerie were more covered up than the assless chaps that were at pride parade every summer,” she said. 

Isabel’s introduction to “Rocky Horror” is not the norm, she’s quick to say, though her enthusiasm for the movie is shared by many. Most fans of the cult classic find it later in life, when they’re old enough to attend the raucous Halloween showings. One such spectacle happens each year at the Varsity Theatre in Chapel Hill, with a shadow cast performance — where actors put on the show right in front of the movie screen — by UNC’s Pauper Players

A horde of students traditionally mobs the area outside the Varsity before it opens, costumes including lingerie, wigs, suspenders and a general lack of clothing. This year on Halloween, the Varsity sat desolate, as it has since March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

UNC students were left without an outlet for their fishnet stockings, and the Pauper Players canceled its 2020 production — but that doesn’t mean “Rocky Horror” went unrecognized. Through home productions, virtual commemorations and personal viewings, the “Rocky” spirit lived on in Chapel Hill this Halloween. 

Finding acceptance through art. 

For UNC senior Kathryn Brown, “Rocky Horror” has been part of life since she was cast in the Pauper Players production her first year in college. She played Dr. Frank-N-Furter, arguably the most iconic role in the film. And though Dr. Frank is typically the least clothed person on the stage, Kathryn said she was the most — that is, at the beginning of the show. 

Kathryn stripped off layers with each song when she felt comfortable. As a plus-sized woman, she didn’t always feel like she could be seen as sexy in the entertainment industry, a world that almost exclusively values a size zero. But during that last number, “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” she stared down the audience, scantily clad, and felt safe in her body for the first time while onstage. 

For Kathryn, “Rocky Horror” is about acceptance — body acceptance, queer acceptance and the acceptance of all things weird. 

“It’s all about communion,” she said. “Like, not in a crisp, Catholic sense — but communion in this merging of energies, this sharing in a safe space, in expressing yourself and loving yourself and loving the people you’re around.” 

A new take on a UNC tradition. 

Even though the pandemic foiled Kathryn’s plans of being involved in a “Rocky Horror” production this year, she wasn’t ready to give up the tradition. That’s why she and her housemates, also self-described theater nerds, projected the movie on the side of their house and dressed up for the occasion. 

Though Kathryn wanted to reprise her role as Dr. Frank, a housemate thought she deserved a turn in the corset — and “Rocky Horror” is, first and foremost, about everyone getting a chance to be whoever they want for a night. And so, Kathryn utilized her already-hot-pink hair to dress up as Magenta, instead.

Though members of the UNC Pauper Players could not take the stage at the Varsity to act out “Rocky Horror” on Halloween night, the student theater company couldn’t let the holiday pass with no mention of the movie. So, the group put together a music video, featuring former cast members of all different graduating classes — not just current UNC students. 

The video was set to “Time Warp,” one of the most well-known “Rocky Horror” songs. Members dressed up in makeshift costumes and danced around their houses to the directions in the movie: a jump  to the left, a step to the right, hands on the hips, knees in and, of course, a pelvic thrust. 

Pauper Players Executive Director Maria Cade is used to an interactive show that draws the audience to call out lines at the screen and put newspapers on their heads when it rains in the movie. 

“It’s truly like nothing I’ve ever experienced before in any other form of theater,” she said. 

Even though this year wasn’t quite the same, Maria was glad the company got to celebrate the message of self-acceptance and expression that lies in the movie. After all, she said, it is a “Chapel Hill staple.” 

A celebration of self amid a pandemic. 

Despite early exposure to the movie in Chicago, Isabel saw her first live production of “Rocky Horror” in Chapel Hill. She’d always wanted to go growing up, but there was a curfew for kids out after 11 p.m. on weekends. Plus, as she says, it isn’t the kind of thing you want to go to with your parents — even cool, pro-”Rocky” parents like hers. 

So, her first year of college, she lined up outside the theater on a cold October night, dressed as Rocky in gold shorts and Doc Martens and painted-on abs. She knew the movie, her favorite of all time, well enough to quote it. But there was nothing like seeing it in a community for the first time. 

To celebrate in 2020, Isabel pulled out the gold shorts to wear for the first time since that October night, even though her body “freshman year of college after being a varsity athlete for four years is very different than being in the workforce for a year in quarantine.” 

Dressed as Rocky once again, Isabel sat in her living room and put the movie on. It wasn’t a shadow cast, but she still knew all the lines to shout at the screen. Watching “Rocky Horror” on her own wasn’t the full experience, but it brought her back to throwing toast at the screen in a crowded theater in college, and cuddling up with her parents to watch for the first time at age four. 

“Rocky Horror” is about community for Isabel, and acceptance for Kathryn, and self-expression for Maria. But really, for all of them, it’s about a night of celebrating and being themselves. 

They weren’t going to let the pandemic stop them from celebrating the cult classic that means so much to them. And until live showings of “Rocky Horror” can resume again, they’ll be waiting in antici… pation. 

Edited by Makenna Smith

During an Ongoing Pandemic, Four Friends Find Joy through Community

By Blake Weaver

For four UNC students, their apartment looks relatively similar to what one might expect. A fridge full of Natural Light beer and leftover pizza; textbooks and medical journals on the living room table; and a box of CDC-approved N95 masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer by the door.

Wyatt Cox, Andrew Fregenal, Nick Cooper and Matt Black are roommates and they all are self-proclaimed “clean freaks.” However, they haven’t always been so focused on germs nor do they want to be. Cox, Fregenal and Cooper are paramedics and Black works at an assisted living facility just south of Chapel Hill. For them, contracting COIVD-19 could mean the end of their work and potentially the end of someone’s life.

“I don’t mean to always sound so serious when I talk about the coronavirus,” Cox said. “I helped transport someone to a different facility and she looked at me and said ‘If I get it, I will die.’ We can’t help but take it seriously.”

Each of them starts each day the same. They get out of bed and start their personal coffee maker. They each have their own so they can avoid contamination if one of them is exposed to the virus. They check their temperature while they wait for the cherished “bean juice,” as they call it, to brew.

While they wait for their coffee to cool, they check their bags. They count their masks and gloves to make sure they have extras before sitting down at their desks to attend their classes for the day.

The Origin of Friendship 

Since they were young, all four have had aspirations to enter the medical field. They all met in their introductory Biology course and bonded over their annoying professor and hefty workload. They would sit in each other’s dorm rooms, order a couple of pizzas, and study for an exam that week before putting down their books and picking up their Xbox controllers.

“I’ve heard so often that the medical field is one of the loneliest. That’s always intimidating to students just starting to learn and prepare for it,” Fregenal said. “Having that circle helped to get through the early years of a cutthroat major and it’ll keep helping the further we get into the career.”

A Day on the Job

After the course, the four grew closer and decided to live together in their sophomore year. Cox, Fregenal and Cooper all got jobs at the same ambulance company. They rarely work the same shifts given their varied class schedules, but they all say seeing a familiar face, even for a passing minute, makes working such a hard job much more bearable.

“Because of where we work, it’s never truly the ‘he’s dead, Jim,’ intense calls, more of just transport. It’s still hard though. The precautions and the stress of potential exposure, feeling like you’re covered in disease,” Cooper said. “It’s nice walking in and fist-bumping one of your boys. They’re coming out of the thick of it, so I know I can too.”

When they’re working in the back of the ambulance, their job becomes just wires and needles, blood-pressure cuffs and temperature checks. Sitting in the break room, playing cards, even with masks and gloves on, gives them just a bit of human relief.

Black sometimes wishes he had the same kind of experience working the same job as his roommates, but he’s glad he can still come home at the end of a shift and talk about his work with them, and they’ll actually understand.

“Sometimes I feel like my area in the healthcare field is looked over. I want to be a physician’s assistant and work right alongside these guys, doing the same things, but this is how I want to cut my teeth, helping the people I support,” Black said. “They’re struggling too, and it’s really hard seeing case after case with them. They’re really vulnerable.”

Coronavirus Experience 

Black had COVID-19 over the Summer. He didn’t have many symptoms aside from fatigue, a fact for which he is still grateful.

“The guys were so helpful with that, bringing me food and drinks and continually checking on me,” Black said. “We’d play games from our own rooms while in a Zoom meeting, just so I wouldn’t feel lonely or left out.”

They continued the group Zoom gaming sessions into the Fall, which they all agreed worked wonders for them to relieve stress from their online classes and the dangers from their jobs.

“Regardless who wins the election or if we have in-person classes next year, I can’t imagine things will be the same as before for a long time,” Fregenal said. “I’ll probably always wear a mask and keep sanitizer with me.”

Right now, the four of them are focused on doing their jobs well and making it through this semester’s finals. They try not to worry about next semester because things are continually in flux. However, that’s not always possible.

“I really just want to know what’s going to happen. Not just with next semester, but in general. I want to know when I can actually smile at a patient or not worry that I might be exposing them or my friends.,” Cooper said. “I’m just anxious about it all.”

Until they receive an email from their university, the four of them will keep opening up a Zoom meeting and playing their game, Among Us, together.

Edited by: Luke Buxton

“Nothing to do with what I study”: UNC-CH senior takes gap semester

By Britney Nguyen

As her friends are waking up for classes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Claire Shu is burrowed in the bottom of her sleeping bag, trying not to freeze in her single-person tent in Flagstaff, Arizona. Sometimes, Shu is already hiking trails and scaling rocks even before her friends on the east coast are awake.

If it were a normal semester, Shu would be in Chapel Hill finishing the first semester of her senior year at the UNC-Chapel Hill. When the coronavirus pandemic forced universities to move classes online, Shu decided to take a gap semester to do something completely different.

She said the conservation and trail work she’s doing in Arizona has taught her what her economics and English classes at UNC-CH and her life in Chapel Hill could not.

When UNC-CH classes moved online after spring break, Shu felt as if a depression had settled over Chapel Hill.

“It was horrible,” Shu said. “It was not conducive to learning, and all of my friends were talking about how hard it was just to get up and go to class. Having experienced that, even just for six weeks, definitely played a role in me deciding not to go back.”

Her creative writing professors were so inspiring, and in-person and online classes did not have the same level of energy or learning.

At the beginning of June, Shu moved into the house she and her friends were excited to live in for senior year. Knowing that her friends were also miserable with online classes helped Shu think about what to do with the upcoming semester.

“We all decided as a collective not to take classes,” Shu said. “I definitely couldn’t have done it if they hadn’t also decided.”

One of Shu’s roommates, Alaina Plauche, was the first to bring up the idea of a gap semester.

“I was being dramatic then because I didn’t think all of this would actually happen,” Plauche said. “I was thinking of doing something elsewhere but then decided that I would just stay here because it was easier to find jobs that could help me pay rent.”

Over the summer, Shu’s mom, Lisa, helped her look for week-long conservation and trail work programs on the Appalachian Trail since Shu had enjoyed hiking a section of it before.

Lisa was worried that Shu would drop out of college, so she tried to get her engaged in something for the time. Shu wanted to be away for the whole semester, so she started looking into paid longer-term conservation experiences.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with what I study, but it just felt like the right thing to do at the time,” Shu said. “When else am I in my life going to be able to take this time off and do something not really related to my career?”


Hitching the trails

Shu found an AmeriCorps position with the American Conservation Experience that placed her in Flagstaff, Arizona where she is living now.

For eight days, Shu and her AmeriCorps cohort camp on site and work on building and maintaining nature trails. When the cohort returns from camping, they have six days off to explore.

“The eight days, we call them hitches,” Shu said. “The first hitch we did trail maintenance, so we cleaned up around the trail and flattened out the path to make it more accessible.”

Recently, Shu and her cohort sprayed herbicides on invasive species in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Afterwards, she said they returned to their tents looking like Smurfs because of the blue dye they used to spot the invasive species.

On her days off, Shu hikes urban trails around Flagstaff, explores caves and once visited Zion National Park in Utah.

“Zion was the absolute hardest and most rewarding hike of my life,” Shu said. “We got up at 4 a.m., hit the trail around 5:30 a.m. while the stars were still out, which was absolutely insane.”

Shu and her friends hiked around 14 miles for 12 hours as the sun rose around them, highlighting the sandy trails and red rock. She said as they scaled rock faces, they looked up to see mountain goats standing above them.

“When the sun rose, I looked around and was like, ‘It does not feel like I’m on planet Earth right now’,” Shu said. “I felt like I was on Mars.”


Is this the right trail?

Shu is the only person in her cohort of 18 to 35-year olds who is still in school, which is surprising to her.

“Before I came over here, I was telling people I was taking a semester off and everyone was like, ‘Oh, that’s such a good decision’,” Shu said. “I told people I was going to Arizona and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea’.”

But she said she felt nobody else was taking the initiative.

“For a long time, I was like, ‘Is it a good idea? Literally nobody else is doing this’,” Shu said. “I definitely felt like it was right, and it’s proven to be right,” Shu said.

There are times when Shu misses being with her friends in Chapel Hill as she camps under the vast Arizona sky. One 40-degree morning on a hitch, she saw on Snapchat that her house had invited friends over the night before.

“There have definitely been a few times when I feel like I’m missing out,” Shu said. “But honestly, for the most part, I feel like I’m in the right spot.”

Within the first few weeks of being in Flagstaff, Shu and some of her new friends hiked Humphreys Peak, the highest natural point and second highest peak in Arizona.

“I was looking around and thinking that there’s absolutely nowhere else I would rather be or I should rather be,” Shu said.

Shu said part of her feels guilty for taking time off from school to travel, but she also realizes she would not have that opportunity if not for the pandemic.

“I definitely want to have four years of college, and I know that’s not for everyone which is fine,” Shu said, “but I’m definitely set up to graduate, if not in a semester, then definitely in a year.”

Shu said her mother made it very clear that she needs to graduate from UNC-CH.

“I definitely know I’m going to, but there was this weird fear in the back of my head that maybe I find I love it out here and move out here,” Shu said. “I absolutely love it out here, but do I value a degree? For sure.”

For now, Shu is preparing for colder nights in the Arizona desert with her cohort and looking forward to climbing more peaks with her friends.

“I cried when I left Chapel Hill, but at the same time, I had no doubt in my mind the entire time that I was making the right decision,” she said.


Edited by: Evan Castillo

Fair food event lifts spirits after N.C. State Fair cancellation

By Anne Tate

When Dan Goolsby, 65, approached the rows of colorful food stands outside of J.S. Dorton Arena, which wafted the familiar scent of sugar-dusted funnel cakes through the air, he got goosebumps. He was teary-eyed thinking about the fair that he went to multiple times every year for 50 years.

Although the N.C. State Fair was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, fair food trucks and stands opened for 11 days of fried fun on the Raleigh fairgrounds. Hand-washing stations replaced ticket booths and masks covered smiles, but the familiarity of food on a stick and other once-a-year treats kept most spirits high.

The N.C. State Fair Food Event, featuring 22 North Carolina vendors, gave Dan Goolsby an afternoon of normalcy, where all he had to worry about was how long the lines would be. On their first day at the event, Dan Goolsby and his wife, Carolyn, waited in line for an hour for Italian sausages. But that didn’t stop them from coming back – and they planned to go again for a third day in a row.

“The best thing out here is the roasted corn,” Carolyn Goolsby said.

As they ate a garlic chicken pita and ribbon fries, the couple said that they were especially excited for the fair this year. They just turned 65 and planned to take advantage of the free fair admission for patrons 65 and older.

“We were planning on coming every day if we could,” Dan Goolsby said, a dab of tzatziki sauce on his nose.

In all the years they’ve visited, the couple will never forget the electric energy of going to the fair in the morning, cheering on UNC-Chapel Hill against N.C. State University at Carter-Finley Stadium in the afternoon, and celebrating a Tar Heel victory back at the fair in the evening. That, and when Carolyn Goolsby placed fifth in the cross-stitch competition.

They agreed that the fair food event definitely boosted their mood.

Lower-energy, but still fun

Bryan Farr, 35, came to the fair food event to enjoy “some unhealthy but comfortable snacks.” His favorite fix: the deep-fried crab ball stuffed with melted pimento cheese. He missed some aspects of the fair, but seemed content sitting in the afternoon sun eating his gourmet pumpkin spice funnel cake.

“It’s all about the food. Food is number one,” Farr said. “But I don’t mind risking my life on a fair ride.”

Without the blinking lights of rides and the music amplified from game booths, the event seemed to have less energy than the lively crowds of prior years, Farr said.

“I think from the mood of the pandemic, people are quieter these days,” Farr said.

Away from the lengthy lines, Christina Lane, 37, and Josh Menzone, 32, watched four-year-old Aria climb over a 200-pound watermelon and a 500-pound pumpkin. They were disappointed about missing the fair, but figured they’d grab some food because, “it’s obviously the best part,” Christina said.

“Did you like what you ate so far?” Lane asked her daughter.

“Uh-huh,” Aria replied, scaling the pumpkin.

Aria didn’t get to see her favorite part of the N.C. State Fair – the pig races – but she seemed satisfied with her corn dog, french fries, and the prospect of a candy apple and some cotton candy.

“It’s definitely not the same,” Lane said. “But it’s nice to just be here doing something different with the family and not have to worry so much about COVID and everything because it’s so spaced out and it’s not crowded.”

“I actually enjoy it like this, there’s nobody here,” Menzone said.

“He likes it better,” Lane replied, laughing.

COVID-19 concerns

When UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Leighann Vinesett, 19, arrived at the fairgrounds on a date with her boyfriend, Brandon Conquest, 22, she felt like she had stepped back into 2019, before the pandemic began. And she wasn’t happy about it.

It was a Saturday, the lines were huge, and people kept taking their masks off to eat, she said. It felt like the regular State Fair and Vinesett didn’t feel safe.

“Do other people here feel that? Did anyone else feel anxious or was that just me being paranoid?” Vinesett asked. “Honestly, I thought it was terrifying.”

Vinesett skipped the crack-n-cheese-stuffed smoked turkey leg and left without buying any food.

Ragin’ Cajun owner Chris Wrenn, 50, also felt the familiarity of pre-COVID-19 life. But he liked it.

Each day, Wrenn looked out from behind the plexiglass barrier of his stand and saw something “close-ish” to normal. He saw people smiling with happy kids on their shoulders, wearing little masks and holding corn dogs and candy apples in both hands. Behind him, his staff skewered lightly breaded alligator tail and fried jalapeño bacon pimento cheese fritters to dip in Cajun ranch sauce. Every day, these specialties fought for fan favorite.

Although the event only lasted about a week and a half, the income from Ragin’ Cajun helped Wrenn beyond keeping his business afloat. His only daughter is getting married in December, and the fair food money helped with the dress shopping.

“It’s been good to be out here and generate some income to give her the wedding that her mom and I want her to have,” Wrenn said.

A chance to “reach a hand out” to those in need

Wrenn didn’t just give back to his family. Every vendor at the event contributed $100 to donate to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina for Food Lion Hunger Relief Day.

“We’ve got to remember that one of the biggest things we can do right now, I think everybody can do, is to find somebody you can help,” Wrenn said. “Just reach a hand out, no matter what color or political affiliation.”

Fat Boys BBQ owner and pitmaster Bobby Scott, 55, was very excited about the $2,200 donation – and to show off his 14-foot-long meat smoker, equipped with a 12-foot smokestack.

“Everybody says, ‘That looks like an atomic bomb,’” Scott said.

Usually, Fat Boys wouldn’t need to bring the smoker on-site, but during the event they couldn’t cook the meat fast enough. It was the busiest Scott had ever been in his career, he said.

He was shocked that the crowds were so big, and he was worried about a COVID-19 outbreak being traced back to the fair. But he appreciated that most people wore masks and seemed to be social distancing.

Despite his fears, he recognized that most people wanted to get out of the house. And he was glad to see new people.

“COVID turned everything for everybody upside down,” Scott said. “This one event has turned it back right side up for me.”

Edited by Natalia Bartkowiak

People bring families, beliefs to polls, some for first time

By Brittany McGee


A woman sits in a lawn chair next to the white door, waiting for people to exit the brick building, so she can offer “I voted” stickers that have been conspicuously absent during this election cycle.


A young man and woman stand at their post, which is a table filled with colorful flyers under the large blue tent next to the sidewalk that leads toward the building. Blue and white campaign signs stick up in the ground in front of them.


“Would you like a Democratic sample ballot?” they ask voters as they pass the table.


Next to the blue tent is a smaller table. An older man in a “Make America Great Again” hat chats with the woman sitting with him. They just finished putting together their own display, complete with their own predominantly red campaign signs.


“We just wanted to come and make our presence known,” said the man. He greets everyone at the Carrboro Town Hall polling site.


All the canvassers, poll watchers and poll workers have been on the frontlines, watching the increase in young people and African Americans early voting, which experts indicate can potentially impact the results of the 2020 election.


According to TargetEarly, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast almost 640,000 ballots, and African Americans cast more than 920,000 in North Carolina through absentee ballots and early voting in 2020. These numbers are a significant increase from 2016, during which these groups cast around 400,000 and 700,000 respectively.



‘She knows the power in voting’



Diamond Blue makes her way past the man in the MAGA hat, politely accepts a ballot from the young woman under the blue tent, continues down the sidewalk and up the steps into the building from which four Black Lives Matter flags flew.


Blue was too young to vote in 2016, but she’s always been a politically charged person. Raised in Southern Pines until she was 13, her parents ensured she was educated on the key issues.


They raised her to be proud to be Black, teaching Blue to be firm in her morals and beliefs. She was raised to advocate not only for herself, but those in her community, too. Her mother regularly made her watch the news to see what was happening in the Obama Administration as a child.


“This is so important for you to see,” Blue’s mother would say. “A Black man running the country.”


When she was a child, Blue decided she wanted to be president like Obama; he was the only one who looked like her.


She wanted to be an example of what Black women can do. Though Blue is older, she holds to the importance and value of using her voice. She knows she wants to get rid of Trump, she knows she wants better policies for Black Americans and she knows the power in voting.


Because of her convictions, Blue is part of a demographic of voters who increased vastly from the 2016 elections to the 2020 elections.



A change of mindset


At the same polling site, Julia Yates leans against a bicycle rack holding the sticker she received from the woman sitting in the lawn chair outside the white door. She is joined by her friend, Ian McKeown, who had just finished filling out his ballot.


Both grew up in Onslow County, where Donald Trump prevailed by a 35-point margin in the 2016 election.


Yates and McKeown have spent their time at UNC-Chapel Hill learning about issues that weren’t discussed in their homes growing up. McKeown has been studying white supremacy, and Yates is a religious studies major.


“I’ve spent the last four years unlearning the conservative crap I’ve been fed all my life,” McKeown says with eyes rolling.


McKeown and Yates say that through their studies, they are more politically aware of and exasperated by the white supremacy and misinformation that has been circulating throughout the country.


The two have made two promises to themselves and each other: first, get Trump out of office, and second, stay an active voter for life.



‘Voting is a family affair’



14 miles away in Durham, the vibrant atmosphere is starkly different from the quietly active feeling at the Carrboro Town Hall.


There’s a full parking lot at the South Regional Library. A DJ is blasting early 2000s era hip-hop and R&B music. A green tent is set up by the Black Youth Project 100 where young activists are handing out information, water and candy in front of a sign that reads “Unapologetically Black.”


An artist is next to them, observing the action and creating images of Black faces.


A Democratic poll watcher asks everyone leaving the library if they had any issues voting.

Republican poll watchers from Washington D.C. stand awkwardly away from the crowd, politely joking about being assigned to a Democratic hotbed.


A young man in a yellow shirt with a clipboard assist people in cars inquiring about ballot drop-offs or curbside voting.


For this group of people, predominately Black, voting is a family affair. Parents bring their young adult children to vote.


To set an example, other parents bring their kids who are too young to understand. 28-year-old Norman Jones II brings his infant son, Kayson, for the first of what he promises to be a lifelong tradition. For them, not voting won’t be an option.


Like his mother did, Jones is setting the standard for his son.


Jones grew up in Washington, D.C. where he was surrounded by politics. He moved to North Carolina to attend North Carolina Central University. Though he majored in political science, he ended up working in the financial sector after graduation.


He came up in the Obama era and admittedly became complacent. However, he recognizes the importance of not only voting, but staying politically active between elections as well.



Biggest issues on each ballot differ



Many of the voters here are disillusioned with the political process, but still believe it was important to come out and vote anyway. Against the backdrop of months of protesting for Black Lives Matter, police brutality and white supremacy are the biggest issues on the ballot.


“We need to create and provide platforms to truly look out for our best interests and those in our community because we can’t always depend on politicians to do it,” Jones explains.


For some voters, the COVID-19 pandemic and economy are not at the forefront of the ballot.


Mother and daughter Gerri Self and Elisha Turrentine, who came to vote together, have always been active voters. For Self, 56, COVID-19 is not her main issue this election.


“We have to survive COVID, but we have to survive the police, too.” Self says, her voice hard.


Back in Carrboro, Blue smiles proudly, showing off her sticker.


She is young, but engaged. She might be the type of voter Kayson will one day grow up to be. She knows what the news has been saying about the turnout for people like her, and she is optimistic. But right now, she’s just celebrating finally being old enough to make a difference.


This is what her parents taught her.


They taught her to vote.



Edited by Annelise Collins

‘Us against the world’: couple endures homelessness amid COVID-19

By Jake Schmitz

At 7:30 a.m., Tony and Davina Edmonds wake up in the tent serving as their home, located deep in the bamboo woods surrounding Interstate 40. It’s raining, which usually means this will be a “low” day for them. They carefully step around the booby traps Tony has rigged using skills he learned during 13 years in the Army. Then they eat breakfast and pray before doing what they’ve done for most of the past month – panhandling.

Tony and Davina stay on opposite sides of U.S. Route 501, known as 15-501, and panhandle there for roughly 12 hours daily. They’ve chosen this strategy so they can interact with people coming from both sides of I-40. They also have a constant view of each other, helping them ensure mutual safety from drivers – and other panhandlers.

“Because there are some shady people out there, I want to keep my eyes on her and make sure she’s okay,” Tony says.

A “good day,” which they attribute to drivers’ benevolent moods, means the Edmonds make between $200 to $300. They then use this to rent a motel room off of the highway. They wash their clothes, shower, sleep in a bed and enjoy other everyday comforts that have become luxuries.

On a “low day,” as Tony calls it, they’ll make between $10 to $20. On these days, they grab dinner and return to their tent, which they call “The Shire,” a reference to Lord of the Rings. Regardless of how bad they’re feeling, they never take a day off.

“If you’re in a bad mood you just don’t make as much money,” Davina says. “It doesn’t do any good just sitting around and sulking like, ‘Why me? Why me?’”

‘You don’t look homeless’: harmful stereotypes

At four p.m., Tony, clad in a neon construction vest, has made about $30. Davina, on the other hand, has hit her “little goal” of roughly $80 for the day, so she’s checking on her husband before they get dinner. The couple’s three-year anniversary is on Oct. 31, and their life together has never looked like this.

Tony is an Army veteran with a degree in marine biology, and Davina is a professional hairdresser. When the pandemic hit, Davina’s hair salon closed. Tony never received his veteran benefits, which can take anywhere from three to five years to deposit, so the couple was forced out of their home. It’s been hard for them to grapple with their homelessness considering their job credentials and experience.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘You don’t look homeless,’ and I thank them,” Davina laughs. “A lady asked me the other day about my nice Ugg boots, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I bought them six years ago. Six years ago, I had money. What do you know?’”

Tony says a few of his Army friends have also recently become homeless, but it’s still been hard for the Edmonds to come to grips with their new life. It’s been especially difficult dealing with negative stereotypes cast upon panhandlers, like assumptions of widespread drug and alcohol use. The Edmonds say they keep to themselves and try to maintain a distance from the other panhandlers scattered up and down 15-501. They often refer to them as “these people.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Are you going to go buy drugs?’” says Tony. “A lot of these people use drugs and stuff, but we’re just using it to feed ourselves and just live,” Davina adds.

‘God’s got our back’: faith and love provide strength to carry on

Despite all of this, Tony and Davina agree that their relationship has never been stronger, and they depend on each other’s support more than ever. They spend their entire day in the same place, always keeping an eye on one another. They also take breaks for meals together every day.

“If we can get through this, we can get through anything,” Davina says. “We rely on each other, and it really is us against the world. And, of course, God’s got our back.”

They cite their faith as a major reason why they’ve been able to endure homelessness. Tony’s handmade sign reads in bright orange and blue text, “ARMY VET Looking for work Anything Helps may God Bless everyone.” They trust in God to provide for them and firmly believe that he will deliver them from this eventually.

“We’re very, very grateful for all the blessings we receive,” Davina says. “God will provide,” Tony chimes in.

For the Edmonds, this is a temporary gig, and they’re treating it like any other job they’ve had. They wake up early even if they’re feeling bad, eat three meals daily, avoid distractions and spend their money wisely. Because of this structure, their relationship and their faith, they’re hopeful – at least for now.

“If you come and see me six months from now and I’m still here, I might say different,” Tony says. “But, I’m pretty sure we’re going to figure something out,” Davina adds.

Edited by Ellie Heffernan