Paying it forward with pupusas

By John-Paul Gemborys

On a warm spring day outside the Campus Y, Cecilia Polanco sat in the driver’s seat aboard her food truck, carving up a pupusa with a plastic fork before the midday lunch rush.

Behind her, two little Latina ladies smiled and giggled over a stainless steel countertop as they smacked corn flour dough into thick, round disks. One was Nora Polanco, whom Cecilia called mami, a sweet, soft-spoken mother of four with a round, rosy face and a streak of crimson in her dark hair. The other, a firecracker with short, black hair and laugh lines drawn across her face, was the 61-year-old Victoria Galdamez — otherwise known as tia Vicky. Wetting their hands, the two ladies pinched out balls of dough and patted them into flat cakes before applying a generous dollop of modo, or filling, which on that day was chicharrón con queso (a savory paste made of fried pork and cheese) or frijoles (refried beans mixed with shredded mozzarella). The two sisters then sealed the dumplings and removed any excess dough before flattening them once more to be seared atop a hot griddle. As the rich smell of sizzling pork and cheese wafted through the air, Cecilia stood at the window, taking orders from excited students.

“This is Salvadorian food?” one man asked, his voice barely audible over the hum of the truck’s generator.

“Yep,” Cecilia replied as the two ladies worked behind her, flattening the dough so that it sounded like the clapping of hands. “Do you want the toppings?”

“Sure,” he replied.

She reached for a pile of pupusas set aside by her mother who flipped them hot off the grill — each one was browned and dappled with crispy, black bits. As Cecilia set one on a paper plate, she added a handful of curtido, a piquant slaw of pickled cabbage and carrots, and a squirt of red tomato salsa.

For Cecilia, being the owner of a food truck was never something she had planned on.

“We kind of started talking about it in passing, kind of jokingly that we should start a food truck,” Cecilia said of her mother and her. “Once I started talking about it, I was like, ‘Wow, I really am thinking about this. I do want to do this.’ But it really didn’t become real real until I bought the truck.”

But So Good Pupusas is more than just a business for Cecilia; it’s a mission.

“This is really a means to an end,” she told me. “We wanted to start a scholarship fund for undocumented students. We don’t have any money to do so, so we have to generate it somehow, and pupusas is what we know best.”

Family, tradition and pupusas – a simple recipe but a powerful one. A recipe Cecilia hopes to use to effect enormous positive change.

Journey to the United States

It was 1982 when Jose Alfonso Sandoval left his rural village of La Isla to make his journey to America. At 26 years old, he was leaving behind the only country he ever knew, two daughters and a pregnant wife, but he knew he had to get to America. With his third daughter on the way, he wanted a better life for his children than was available in his village, which at the time had no running water, paved roads or electricity and only offered an education that was equivalent to middle school.

“Everyone there is from el campo. We’re all campesinos — we work in the fields, and you don’t need an education to work in the fields,” Cecilia said. “My dad didn’t really see a future for us there — for his daughters.”

But that wasn’t the only reason, Cecilia said.  “We had no choice but to leave.”

At the time of her father’s departure, a brutal civil war was raging in El Salvador, and her father, a former serviceman, was in danger.

“They were trying to recruit him back into the military, but it was the military against their own people, and then the guerilla forces also wanted him, so you had to choose. If you chose one, you were still fighting against your own people, and if you didn’t join either side you were kind of seen as a traitor to both of them,” Cecilia said.

“My grandmother would tell stories about waking up in the morning to clear dead bodies. And that was just something that happened. Or the military would come, and we would have to feed them. And you already were poor, so what did you feed them?”

In order to escape the violence, her father left. But he couldn’t bring his whole family at once, so he set off on his own, accompanied by only one of his wife’s sisters, to work and send money back home. Before reaching the United States, Cecilia’s father first had to cross into Guatemala and then Mexico.

“There’s a storyline that we tell about how Salvadorians are tres veces mojados,” Cecilia told me. “We say mojado can kind of be translated into ‘wetback,’ but they have different connotations. For us, mojado is just someone who is crossing the border. ‘Wetback’ has a much more negative connotation. So we say that we are that three times because we have to cross into Guatemala, we have to cross into Mexico and then the United States.”

Along his journey to cross three different borders, Jose Alfonso was detained in Mexico and spent some time in a Mexican prison. When he finally got to the United States, Cecilia said he weighed only 115 pounds.

His first time, Jose Alfonso entered the country illegally, and for a whole year he worked.

“That’s one of the hardest things he had to do,” Cecilia said. “(That) was being here by himself without his wife and his little girls. And the little girl he’d never met.” After one year Jose Alfonso had enough money to bring his wife Nora to America to work with him.

Nora said that the first thing she thought about when arriving was work. “Trabajar mucho para traerlos” she said.

“The first thing she was thinking about was working — working to bring her daughters,” Cecilia translated.

“Mhmmm,” Nora said, nodding.

“That’s the story that they tell,” Cecilia said, “is that when you get here you’re indebted. So you get here to work, to pay off your debt and then save up money to bring someone else over, and now you’ve got to pay off their debt. So that’s how it goes. You have to pay the coyote.”

By the time Cecilia’s third sister turned 4, the entire family had resettled in America, though not yet as citizens . “There was a point in time where we were essentially undocumented before going through the process of seeking political asylum,” Cecilia said.

“I don’t know how — he just did the right things,” she said of her dad applying for citizenship. “Part of that was filling out papers to gain residency — to seek political asylum — he just had to figure everything out. He was so smart in so many ways, in ways that are more than scholarly intelligence. Our situation turned out for the best because of a lot of the decisions he made.”

In 1992 Cecilia Polanco was born in Los Angeles, California — the only one of her sisters to be born in a hospital.

Pupusas and tradition

Cecilia has been eating pupusas made by her mother since before she can remember. Growing up, she said, pupusas were a treat only had on rare occasions.

“We would have them probably a couple of times a year — so not that often,” she said. As Cecilia grew older, her mother began to make them more often, and with Cecilia’s food truck officially opening last March, the treats have become more common but no less special.

“Now we have them really often because we’re working on the truck, but this was something really special that I shared with people to show them a deeper part of who I am,” Cecilia said. “They might know me as their fellow UNC student or know me as a Latina, but what they might not know are the specifics behind that — the diversity within that make me Salvadorian. And so I get to share that to people with food. And that’s really special.”

For Cecilia, it’s important to feed people exactly what she was fed at home. But it can be a difficult learning process for her, as her mother has no official recipe for pupusas.

“She doesn’t measure anything. She tastes everything. By smell, taste and how it looks, she knows if it’s ready. And so that’s what I’m learning, which is probably harder than learning the recipe.”

The recipes can also be time-consuming with a lot of prep in advance. But as a second-generation citizen, Cecilia said she believes the effort to learn her mother’s recipes is worth it.

“Something I worried about when I was younger was not learning to cook like she can cook because I’m in school or I’m working or something like that. But now my job is to learn how she does it, so now I’m going to learn how to make pupusas. I’m going to know how to make them, and I’ll make them for my children and my grandchildren and keep her legacy alive,” she said.

Even so, Cecilia confessed that she still hasn’t mastered the art of pupusa-making.

“It’s hard to get it perfect like that,” she said as she pointed to some of her mother’s crispy examples. “Sometimes mine come out with half of it being dough inside, and the other half the filling’s all spilling out, so it takes a lot of time and practice to get to that level of expertise.”

But with her mother and tia Vicky to guide her, it’s likely that she’ll figure it out eventually. “They’re my two main chefs,” she said as her mother flipped pupusas over the stove and tia Vicky roasted a sweet potato. “I’m really like the sous chef in training. I need (tia Vicky) to tell me, ‘OK, yeah, this is right,’ or, ‘This needs a little bit more of this,’ so that’s who she is,” Cecilia said.

Paying it forward

As the child of Central American immigrants, Cecilia is conscious of how fortunate her situation is in comparison to others.

“There are a lot of families that arrived here just like my family, seeking something better, and because they were Mexican or Guatemalan or from somewhere else, they didn’t have the same path — they didn’t have the same opportunities.”

In December, Cecilia got official status for her nonprofit, Pupusas for Education, which gives out two $1,000 scholarships each year to undocumented high school seniors. Last year they had five applicants. This year that number tripled. One of their scholarship recipients received a Golden Door Scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships for undocumented students in the country. “Her name’s Maria, she is doing really well academically, and she’s vice president of their Latino organization there. She’s just rocking it,” Cecilia gushed over her recipient.

With no state or federal funding, undocumented students have a massive financial hurdle to clear and often have to piece together smaller scholarships, like Pupusas for Education, to afford higher learning.

“We’re kind of a drop in the bucket for an undocumented student trying to pay out of state tuition, but we feel that through our mission and the assistance we provide, we’re affirming that students are worth investing in,” Cecilia said.

Cecilia also plans to use her food trucks to allow locals who may not have a legitimate platform to sell their own food.

“I’ve always known of food trucks to be a Latino thing,” she said. “They’ve been at soccer fields, at construction sites for decades in North Carolina. Now illegal food vendors who might sell their food in nontraditional ways like out of their van, at church or at a corner store — there’s been a big crackdown on that community. And they’re majority Latinos, majority-minority — people of color who are selling food.”

In exchange for using her truck, a small portion of the earnings will go toward Pupusas for Education, but first Cecilia says she needs to fine-tune the business model so that it’s worthwhile, and so that no one gets exploited.

Near the end of the day, a woman approached the truck informing Cecilia that she had never tried a pupusa.

“Great, I love being people’s first pupusa,” Cecilia smiled.

“But I already know that I want the chicharrón,” the woman said.


“Uhmm, is that a good amount to get?”

“One’s a snack. Two or three’s a meal.” Cecilia informed her matter-of-factly.

“Then I want two. Can I get one? Hmmm.”

“One pork, one bean?” Cecilia asked.

“Yeah,” the woman said. “Gonna try them both.”

As her aunt and mother shaped pupusas in the back, carrying on a tradition that had been in their family for generations, Cecilia shared that tradition one pupusa at a time, helping other students like herself go to school — students who might one day share their culture with the world as well.

Edited by Alison Krug.


Seeing a solitary spring break? Skip the trip to Asheville

By John-Paul Gemborys

In downtown Asheville, on the seedy edge of the boutique-laden Lexington Avenue, where quaint, little shops like Instant Karma and Cosmic Vision abound, you pretend like dancing at the club is still a fun time.

But let’s be real. You always end up listening to songs you hate, you try to ignore your friend making out with his girlfriend and you pretend like you’re there for reasons other than scoring a one-night stand, which, you might add, has never happened. But you keep on dancing, pretending like you’re having a good time at Tiger Mountain, a trendy bar/club hybrid that plays host to the flannel-coated college kids of Asheville on the weekend and reverts back to an almost empty bar brimming with too many neon lights on the weekdays.

Yeah, honestly, your first night in Asheville, N.C., wasn’t that great. But that didn’t matter; there was still time to find a silver lining in a unique and seemingly vibrant culture.

Asheville: the anomaly

Asheville is something of a paradox. Sure, it boasts plenty of galleries, more breweries per capita than any other place in the country and is home to a college that “graduated 700 yoga instructors last year,” Michael Terri, an Asheville Uber driver tells you. But it’s also a liberal pocket in the heart of conservative western North Carolina, a mountain town that draws tourists for its quaintness despite that tourism gentrifying its down-to-earth character — it’s touted by many locals as a very “diverse” city despite a white population of 79.3 percent being reported in 2010. Indeed, much like it’s slogan to “Keep Asheville Weird,” the city is something of an anomaly.

But it is precisely because of all the weird, paradoxical qualities that the beer in Asheville flows like water, the food is eclectic and the art isn’t half bad. So in spite of a shitty first night, you push through and try to find the pulse of this weirdly unique city.

A lukewarm toddy and an octopus appetizer

The morning after your great time at Tiger Mountain, you decide to get a little hair of the dog at Chestnut, a swanky establishment that serves brunch for around $10.

With you is your friend Joao, a tall, lanky Brazilian dude with a tattoo of a “Star Wars” stormtrooper on his leg, a love of drawing and a penchant for storytelling, which for him is a relish of hand gestures, expressive facial features and the occasional witticism. He has just moved to Asheville, so you’re staying with him, and he’s so excited the two of you will be exploring Asheville together as you spend all your money on food and drinks — for the both of you. Oh yeah, it’s good to have friends.

Having lost your voice the night before, Joao recommends ordering some hot toddies. A concoction of honey, whiskey and lemon served hot — sounds good. But actually, the toddies aren’t all that, and Joao asks the waitress to reheat his, putting on his most elegant asshole voice to say, “This hot toddy is kind of a lukewarm toddy.” After spending about 30 minutes in the bathroom due to a bloody nose that just won’t quit, you come back to the table to see that brunch has arrived — a lox bagel for you and moules frites for Joao. Joao’s garlic-and-white-wine simmered mussels over french fries are scrumptious, but your first time trying a lox bagel is underwhelming — it’s not that tasty, and your sinuses are vacuum sealed. When you pick up the $45 check, you leave feeling not too satisfied.

For dinner that night, the two of you head to Golden Fleece Slow Earth Kitchen, an upscale Mediterranean establishment situated on the lush, rolling hills of Grovewood Village, adjacent to the lavish Omni Grove Park Inn. The interior of the restaurant is warm. It’s not packed, but it isn’t empty either. Music plays, candles are lit and the smell of burnt seafood wafts through the air. The name of the game with this trip is getting drunk off your ass, so you both get Vespers: martinis composed of Gordon’s gin, Tito’s vodka, Lillet blanc and a touch of olive brine.

“I like a nice dirty gin martini that I can trade punches with, you know,” Joao quips over his cocktail.

While you wait, the chef is kind enough to bring out appetizers, on the house. The spread of caramelized onions, olives, grape tomatoes and tzatziki is set on a wooden board and holds you over until you receive the appetizer you actually paid for: wood-fired octopus.

“Let’s just go for it piece by piece,” Joao says as you look over the plate of fennel and charred octopus, “like a shark.” Despite it literally being a blackened tentacle, the octopus is fantastic, and even after the roasted half chicken with pistachio charmoula, burnt Brussels sprouts and slow-braised lamb shank, the octopus stands out as the most interesting and surprisingly delectable morsel of the night. The meal is pricey but good, so after paying the $160 check, you end up leaving the restaurant tipsy and satisfied.

In search of “the real Asheville”

The next morning you continue the lavish affair of alcoholic beverages and good eating with a trip to the Blue Ridge Artisanal Buffet for some Sunday brunch at the Omni Grove Park Inn. When you step into the foyer of the massive cobblestone lodge, you’re greeted by a doorman in a red jacket and top hat and then pointed to the buffet. The brunch is a decadent white tablecloth affair boasting crab legs, shrimp and grits, crab cakes Benedict and mountains of charcuterie. At the window you get a gorgeous panoramic view of the inn’s sprawling golf course and Asheville’s fading blue mountains in the distance.

“It’s all about the view, baby,” Joao proclaims as the hostess seats you. At $40 a head, you’re ready to dive into this Sunday champagne brunch.

“I’m actually quite nervous up here,” Joao reiterates, “I’m gonna get a mimosa.”

However, you soon discover, much to your companion’s and your own horror, that the only champagne to be had is a complimentary flute of mimosa, lest you pay for your drinks at the bar. Champagne brunch indeed.

The food is good, but the modus operandi is foiled, and after experiencing all the decadence of this self-enclosed aerie brimming with wrinkled, white faces, you wonder if this is the real Asheville.

A solitary spree

The next day Joao has to work, so you set off to explore Asheville on your own. You peruse the city, stopping to observe the flashing lights of the Asheville Pinball Museum, hear the five o’clock bell tower at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence and peep some paintings at Woolworth Walk, a store turned art gallery complete with a restored soda fountain. For lunch, White Duck Taco is an excellent choice. Putting their own funky twist on the humble taco, wild flavors like jerk chicken, banh mi tofu and lump crab constitute the menu. Order the Bangkok shrimp or pork belly taco, and you won’t be disappointed. But after eating, it’s definitely time to hit the bars.

At the Lab, otherwise known as the Lexington Avenue Brewery, you know what Asheville is about when you talk to some tourists from Tampa, Fla., who claim they’ve been coming there for six years to escape the heat. Over your pint of golden ale, simply called Bling, you listen as the husband complains about his wife being on her phone too much. After they leave, you soon open a dialogue with a man named Michael Morrison, a cook at the Lab with hair past his ears and a Patagonia snapback hat who claims to live out of his truck and who loses his train of thought constantly. Thank God, you think: a true Ashevillian.

“Dude, those people doing the rowing machine — that really, to me, that’s Asheville right now. Like they were just pushing it. They were just going it for it, man,” Michael says of the culture in Asheville. You ask him if that relates to the development going on, but he claims to know little, saying that he is a “naïve” laborer who mostly pays attention to art and music.

Walking alone in the city, you have the perfect excuse to get blitzed, so after the Lab you stop over at Sovereign Remedies, a pretentious hole-in-the-wall cocktail bar where you order a $12 cocktail called the Forks of Ivy. You almost stay, but the bartender ignores you, and with all the conversations drowning out your own thoughts, you get up and leave, searching for another bar, another buzz.

At the Thirsty Monk, you find a quieter, darker dive and settle in with a Thirsty Monk Abby Blonde. After polishing this beer off, you order the Thirsty Monk Easy Gose, tying on another one before retiring to your friend’s house for the night.

If the next bar you hit is the Skybar, you might be disappointed to find that you’re the only one there, and on a cold, drizzly afternoon, drinking a beer on a rooftop alone isn’t exactly a fun time. Yes, you do have a great view, but being alone on the top of the world is isolating to say the least. You see skyscrapers being erected in the distance, possibly one of the five new hotels you were told about. An American flag whips solemnly in the breeze on a distant building — a fluttering salute to burgeoning capitalism. You finish off your IPA and get the hell out of there.

For your last pit stop, you hit Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium and order a pint of the Rick’s Pilsner. As excited families chatter around you, you only get drunker and more disdainful. Damned if it isn’t true that you can feel most alone in a crowded room.

All in all, five days isn’t enough time to make a fair judgment of a city, but if this is your first solo trip, maybe skip Asheville. It can be cold and lonesome, and drinking doesn’t always help with that. The locals are nice, but from the bar stool you’re seated on, the culture looks as skin deep as the city’s much touted “diversity.” If you have a group of friends to travel with, it might be worth it, but on an unusually frigid spring break, you’re probably better off hitting the beach. If you’re in your mid to early 20s, you might just realize that food and beer isn’t enough for a good time anymore. Come back when it’s warmer so you can hit the trails, go kayaking or at least do some rock climbing.

Edited by Alison Krug


Even over 40, “tennis should be played with just a hint of anger”

By John-Paul Gemborys

Laurence Isaacs, a tall, vociferous redhead not quite on the cusp of 45, strolled across the baseline of the tennis court, spinning his racket in one hand.

“Nice serve,” Laurence yelled to his opponent on the opposite side of the net. “I didn’t hear as much shit talk earlier.”

“That’s because you weren’t here,” Eddie Blount called back.

Eddie, an older gentleman who was quick on his feet despite the considerable girth age had bestowed upon him, was on serve, and rather than trade verbal barbs with Laurence, Eddie preferred to let his game do the talking.

And his serve was a big talker.

In one fluid motion, Eddie drew his racket behind his head, tossed the ball into the air and then blasted it into the opposite service box, sending Laurence scurrying to the baseline, barely managing a return and pushing the ball back with an arcing lob. Despite its lack of pace, Laurence’s lob wasn’t actually that bad of a shot, and it forced Eddie to send back a lob of his own — only his had slightly less English. Taking the initiative, Laurence poached Eddie’s lob out of the air, swatting it down like a fly and sending it careening into the fence without even a second bounce.

“I just aim at the big red thing,” Laurence gibed, pointing his racket at Dominic Wainwright, the opposing net player who wore a bright red T-shirt.

On that warm Saturday morning on the hard courts of C.E. Jordan High School, Laurence, Dom and Eddie enjoyed a game of doubles that was both casual and competitive. All three of the men had been playing tennis for most of their lives, and now all of them found themselves playing on the same team within the Eno River league in the 40 and over category at the 4.0 skill level (7.0 is a player of U.S. open caliber, 1.0 is someone picking up a racket for the first time) — subdivisions within subdivisions of the national USTA League, the largest recreational tennis league in the country.

For many, tennis is an escape. For some, it’s a passion. And for some, still, it can be an obsession.

Having played the sport for most of my life, compelled by my tennis coach dad, I abhorred the game for many years. For me it wasn’t so much a game as it was a job — a toil on sunbaked courts where you could see heat mirages flicker and dance in the summer. But being so close to something often gives one a warped view. And as I grew to enjoy playing on my high school tennis team, my relationship with the sport grew increasingly complex, blending hate with love — aloofness with respect. To this day I don’t know how I feel about the sport.

So I’ve always been curious about the men who do love it. What draws these recreational (or not so recreational) hitters to the sport in the first place? What continues to make them play? And what is it about the sport that made them fall in love in the first place?

The casual third space

Edward W. Soja, the soi-disant “urbanist” and distinguished professor emeritus at UCLA, theorized that in life there are two social spaces people typically occupy: the home and the workplace. Soja posited a theory that there is a third space, one that blends the disparate social natures of home and work, which people seek out in order to express their own individuality and uniqueness. For Dom and Eddie, that space is on the tennis court.

“You make good friends,” Eddie said, resting on aluminum bleachers under the shade of a young oak tree. “It’s fun hanging out together, and then if you qualify for states you go on a four-day weekend — everybody gets out of town and has fun, so it’s the camaraderie. And then, you know, the competition’s fun too.” When I asked him, he said there was nothing he hated about the sport. For Dom, his doubles partner, it was a similar story.

“It’s my main social activity,” Dom told me, “so that’s what I like about it. You rarely run into people who aren’t nice.”

Dom is co-captain of the spring team the three men play on, Eno BCK (short for Bullet City Killers). The team, they tell me, won back-to-back state titles in 2011 and 2012 as well as in 2015 in the 40 and over, 4.0-level division before heading to sectionals, which sees the cream of the southeast United States come together and compete for a spot at nationals. Though the game is casual, the men were quick to tell me that it can still be competitive.

“It’s pretty fierce at states,” Dom said. “We’re picking guys from Raleigh and Cary with the intent to go to states and see how far we can go because you go to states, you need such a solid team.”

For Dom and Eddie, they said they both enjoyed the camaraderie and exercise the sport provides. While competition is still a key ingredient, Eddie said the need to win tends to fizzle with age.

“I think, too, the older the league — I think the hardcore ones who are going to be calling lines close are the 18s. You know, they’re still thinking that it’s important in life. The rest of us, you know, we’re just out there to have fun. By the time you’re in the 40s or 55 plus, you’re patting each other on the back and, you know, chatting it up between changeovers, having a good time.”

Competition is everything

For Laurence, tennis wasn’t always recreational, and competition, he said, is always what made the sport fun.

“I am excessively competitive,” he told me. “I have to be competing.”

Laurence is the former men’s high school tennis coach at Durham School of the Arts — he was also my high school tennis coach while I attended DSA from the ninth grade to the twelfth. During those four years, Laurence delivered many impassioned post-game speeches from the front of the team bus, some of unbridled praise for our exceptional play, others of vexation and disappointment.

“When I was coaching you all,” Laurence told me over a glass of sangria after we had retired to Town Hall Burger and Beer, “I would allow not winning to bug me more.”

Laurence eventually left the coaching position so he could spend more time with his growing daughter Ellie.

“I honestly think having a kid has really mellowed me out in a lot of ways,” he chuckled, “but I still maintain that good tennis should be played with just a hint of anger.”

As I polished my California burger off with a swig of ale, the four of us began to wax poetic about past glories and triumphs on the court. Laurence recounted how he went undefeated for two straight seasons.

“So I won 52 consecutive matches across two seasons plus states, plus sectionals,” he told me. “I was fortunate because I had great doubles partners.”

Eventually I asked Laurence what the best part of the sport is.

“Winning,” he replied matter-of-factly.

Making career moves on the court

Not every player I spoke to played the sport strictly for recreation or for a onetime job. For Leo Evans, the sport has been a career. Beginning during the tennis boom of the ’70s and after only playing for a few years in junior college, Leo took his first job as a teaching pro at a resort in the panhandle of Florida.

“I was a little bit of a poser,” he laughed, recalling his lack of experience at the time.

“I really thought I was being hired to be a court maintenance person and maybe work in the shop, but I got there the first day, and he stuck me right on the court teaching.

“My first lesson was with a married couple — newlyweds, you know? A young couple. They had never played tennis before, so it was a match made in heaven.”

Since then, the 61-year-old Leo has worked as a jack-of-all-trades at various pro shops and country clubs. Right now, though, he plays the game nonprofessionally — just for himself.

“I tried a season as the coach of the (C.E.) Jordan High School girls’ team, and that wasn’t very fulfilling,” he told me. “You know the thing is, when you start teaching tennis, quite often that requires you to be teaching when all the players are around to play, you know? And I wasn’t making enough to take up my valuable playing time,” he joked.

As for why he plays, Leo told me that the social aspect is important, but it’s the competition that keeps him coming back.

“I make most of my friends through tennis,” he said, “but, no, still, the absolute joy of playing is the number one thrill to me. If I never met anyone — if I just showed up someplace and just played tennis and never saw ’em, I’d still play. And I’d probably still play as much as I do. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I started a little late, but I still have the same interest and joy of playing that I had when I picked up a racket 37, 38, whatever it was years ago.”

Regardless of the relationship that each player had to tennis, I discovered that beneath the thin veneer of experience, all of the men shared essentially the same reasons for playing. For each one, they all needed a competitive outlet. If it wasn’t tennis, some told me, it would probably be basketball — only basketball can be a killer of joints, and as Leo told me, tennis “is something I can compete at until I get ancient — like I am now.” All of them also claimed to have made their closest friends on the courts.

And after playing a long match, they all agreed that nothing soothes the aches like a cold beer.

Edited by Alison Krug

‘Don’t call me cool’: Bull City hip-hop artists craft their own sound

By John-Paul Gemborys

Soxs pulled up to the studio on 112 Hunt St. with his friend Raheem Royal, better known by his stage name, Defacto Thezpian, riding shotgun. After they parked, the pair stood outside the car for a moment. Defacto Thezpian spat a few bars a cappella while his girlfriend sat in the driver’s seat, the scent of lit marijuana drifting down the block.

Defacto Thezpian is a local Durham hip-hop artist. The self-proclaimed, “schnozy” emcee was there to put the finishing touches on his latest project, “burgundyskylines,” and had invited me to come and observe the process.

But in the recording booth of GMMc Digital that day, the rapper got stuck behind some bars.

The rhyme scheme was simple enough, matching multisyllabic jewels, such as cummerbund, mumbling, sustenance, humbling, scuffling, buffering and so on. But there was a snag. The issue was at the center of this sophisticated multisyllabic rhyme scheme. The word “sustenance.”

“SUSTENANCE!” he cried out comically at one point, heard only through the microphone in the isolated recording booth. “SUSTENANCE!”

So he did another take. And another. And another. The same beat played again and again, the same lyrics, the same booming bass. At attempt number six, he could have been satisfied, but he wasn’t. At seven, the delivery was less muddy but still sounded weak.

“It doesn’t sound as strong as the rest of the track,” he said. It wasn’t until attempt number eight that the “schnozy” rapper was satisfied, content to move on to another verse, another sample, another ad-lib.

Durham is home to many artists like Defacto Thezpian: rappers who take pride in the craft, who eschew the modern obsession with image and marketing and continue to put the art before all. With such festivals and opportunities as the Beats and Bars Festival in 2016, Moogfest, which came to Durham in 2016, and the DURM Hip Hop Summit, which began in 2012, the Bull City hip-hop scene is on the come up.

Being a native of Durham myself and a hip-hop geek to boot, I decided to explore this burgeoning subculture, interviewing local artists to find out about their latest projects, hear what inspires them and discover what it takes for small-town Southern artists to break through in an already oversaturated market.

‘I’m an artist’
Uncertain of where to start, I went to the one expert I knew, my old running mate Michael Jones, aka Jones Michael, aka DJ Know Question.

Jones is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the culture. When I asked him what he does, he said, “Basically I create products. I’m an artist — I create clothes, I create posters — any sort of visual art.”

He’s also “a DJ and a producer and a rapper and a singer.” Even his sweatshirt was emblazoned with one of his illustrations, a graphic of a man with bulging eyes and a ridiculously wide-open mouth — a hallmark of Jones’ unique drawing style. The piece, he said, is called “Brain Melt.

Jones told me that he’s been making music seriously for eight years but that his real start was much earlier. “I recorded my first rap in third grade,” Jones told me. His dad, who played jazz in college and is currently a music teacher at Culbreth Middle School in Carrboro, helped him along the way. “I was like, ‘Dad I got this song,’” Jones said. “And he was like, ‘Oh you wanna record it?’ So he gives me this generic beat — like it’s not even a rap beat — and I hopped in my dad’s studio and recorded it.”

By the eighth grade, inspired by the likes of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, he told his dad he wanted to start making music, so his dad threw him a Casio keyboard and a drum machine. Today Jones makes music in his spare time, posting a new song to his SoundCloud almost every day, along with original artwork for the month he calls “Jamuary.” He also DJs under the alias DJ Know Question at such venues as DaNu’Gen Entertainment Cafe and Bull City Cigar Co.

When I asked him why he does music, he told me it’s for the love. “I’d rather just create, man — and then create enough so that people like it and that people want to pay me for it. I don’t need to be on the cover of a billboard. I don’t need a world tour.”

To break through commercially, he told me, the answer is simple. “You really gotta be yourself because that’s the only thing that’s gonna sell,” he said.

“You’re not going to get anybody with artwork like this. You’re not going to get anybody else that has this sound.” His next project is a record called “New Clear Energy.”

‘You gotta learn tunnel vision’
The next artist I met is a relative newcomer to the game. His stage name is Ducee’ DropTop, and he welcomed me to his home with warmth and a Backwoods cigarillo.

Describing his style as “mellow-hype trap,” he released his first record, an eight-track project called “#BoostUP,” in December. One of the singles he put out for the tape, “Wit It,” has over 11,000 views on YouTube. When I sat down with him, he told me a key to success in the game was keeping a tight circle of like-minded individuals and focusing on his goal.

“You gotta learn tunnel vision, stay focused on what you do and at the end of the day, let the haters hate,” he said. “You can’t get strung up into that negativity. Negative people, I don’t want you in my life. I practice positivity.”

The next artist I spoke to is a veteran on the Durham scene, a rapper and producer who recently moved to Charlotte. He goes by Alex Aff.

He told me about his first tour this past December, the “Aff & Friends Tour,” a five-stop circuit through Raleigh, Wilmington, Virginia and New York ending with a show at the Pinhook in Durham.

When it came to advice on how to succeed in the industry, Alex talked about being organic. “I think the problem with a lot of artists is that they try too hard. I understand the mentality as an artist. You want it so bad, and you’re trying so hard to get people to pay attention. When I think from the fan’s perspective or the person’s perspective that isn’t an artist, you can see that they’re forcing it, and that makes you more resistant to gravitating toward their brand, their craft, whatever they do,” he said. “How I get attention is by being as natural as possible and being as myself as possible. I think that’s really the only way I can stand out.”

His latest project was an album called “Forever.” He recently put it up on iTunes.

‘Don’t call me cool’
Defacto Thezpian was the fourth artist with whom I was fortunate enough to spend some time. A lyricist and wordsmith, he explained the meaning of “schnozy” to me in the studio. “When I was in high school, dog, I made up words all the time. That was the word I stuck with the most. I used to tell people, simply, I wasn’t a cool dude. I was that person everyone knew, but I wasn’t cool. I wasn’t a jock,” he said. “But I like that I can still be cool and not be those people. Don’t call me cool because ‘schnozy’ fits me so much better.”

Being around him, it’s obvious that Defacto Thezpian is a natural showman. When he attended Hillside High School, he was an actor. It’s where he gets his name. At Hillside he was in 12 school productions  and took on roles such as Chad Danforth from “High School Musical” and Willy Wonka. He started taking music seriously in 2012, although he began recording songs his freshman year of high school in 2006.

“It wasn’t until after I got out of high school and I started doing open mics and seeing that I had a platform to perform that made me start wanting to take it more seriously,” he said. In 2013 he had his first headlining show at the Pinhook in Durham. He told me that he didn’t start doing music as a full-time gig until June 2016. He estimates he’s done about 200 shows. He’s also played at festivals like A3C in Atlanta, the Beats and Bars Festival in Durham and Youbloom in Los Angeles. On April 11 he’s opening for Alex Wiley at Kings Barcade in Raleigh.

‘Music chose me’
The final artist I got to chat with was 26-year-old Danny Blaze, native son of Durham, N.C. One of the first questions I asked him was how he got into the game.

“I started playing with it when I was 14 in the ninth grade. I would kind of write little things here and there. I would hear J Dilla instrumentals and try to freestyle. I was horrible,” he said. “I didn’t take it seriously until 2010. I was in this group with Dinero P. We were in a group called The Koolest, and I was in that group literally until June of 2015. So I’m pretty fresh out of that. And, yeah it was weird, man. It was hard kind of starting over — I was almost afraid to give it another go.” But he did and is currently working on his next album, “Punk Ass Dan,” which he anticipates will drop either this fall or summer.

When asked why he does music, Danny Blaze said, “Man, it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, to be quite honest. Like I’ve been decent at everything else in my life as far back as I can remember. I kind of feel like music chose me. I don’t feel like I have much other choice. And I love it.”

When I asked him if there were any issues that his music addressed, he said, “Yeah man, ‘Punk Ass Dan’ is going to be a really dark tape. It’s not really like anything I’ve put out so far, and it’s definitely going to address pretty much everything wild going on these days like police brutality to this wild election. I wouldn’t consider myself an artist if I didn’t. Hip-hop is being the CNN of the hood, as Chuck D once called it, and I feel it’s our duty to uphold that. And it’s not even the hood anymore. It’s the world, period. We have social media, so the world is so much broader than the hood these days. So I definitely have to address those things. It’s very important to myself.”

Edited by Alison Krug