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Posts published by “Nicole Kagan”

Ardor in the court: a judge and his toys

If someone asked you to picture a judge’s chambers, you might imagine a room from a “Law & Order” episode, with quilted leather furniture, towering wooden bookcases, and draping maroon curtains. You may see an American flag or thick stacks of tattered law books or portraits of old people in scalloped gold picture frames. 

You probably wouldn’t picture an extensive toy car collection, a secret candy drawer, or a framed 18×24-inch poster of “The Three Stooges.” But then again, you’ve probably never visited the chambers of the Honorable Archie L. Smith III. Because the first time you walk into the office of this judge and clerk of Superior Court, who has over 45 years of law experience (and white hair to prove it), you might wonder whether he shares the space with a third grader. 

On Smith’s wooden desk, a thick stack of papers covered in red annotations is situated right next to a tray full of colorful action figures, among them Snoopy and Smurfette. His deck of business cards, each featuring the great seal of the state of North Carolina, rests beside a tasteful assortment of food-shaped erasers. The wooden plaque with a golden gavel recognizing Smith’s service as president of the state conference of superior court clerks is barely even visible behind his arrangement of magic crystal balls.

And yet, there’s no third grader in sight. Just a gleeful 71-year-old Durhamite who wouldn’t dare take himself too seriously. The way he sees it, if he can refer to his desk as “the command post of the Starship Archie,” why wouldn’t he?

Once you climb aboard the ship, the first thing you’ll notice is Smith’s impressive wall of credentials. A 4×5 grid of various-sized, slightly crooked picture frames, showing off Smith’s degrees, certificates, and awards. It’s not an ego wall, though. It’s a wall of mileposts. 

“It gives me continuity with where I am now and how I’ve come along,” he says. 

Then, thinking that sounds too serious, he grins and adds, “And what else are you going to do with framed things?”

Below the frames, behind the command post, is another desk which holds Smith’s black Lenovo laptop, open but idle. It’s used for “this and that,” mostly communication. But when it comes to questions of the law, Smith much prefers to walk to the glass cabinet a few steps away and pull out one of 30-plus dark green law books, each dedicated to a different general statute of North Carolina. The books are exhaustive, but in his experience, Smith has found they don’t quite cover it all. So, he’s found alternative methods. 

For example:

If you came into Smith’s office to discuss a complicated motor vehicle collision, he may ask you to “hold on a sec” while he pulls two toy cars out of a drawer. “Let’s reconstruct the wreck,” he’ll say.

Archie Smith’s office has the requisite wall of framed credentials. But it also has plenty of knickknacks and tchotchkes. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

If you begin to cry at Smith’s desk while explaining the details of your case, he’ll most likely reach into his secret candy drawer and hand you a Lindor Truffle. “A little chocolate will make you feel better,” he’ll say.

If you find yourself angry in Smith’s office while talking about how somebody wronged you, he’ll grab a gag voodoo doll from another drawer (How many drawers does this guy have, anyway?) and offer you the opportunity to curse your enemy with “flatulence” or “bad breath.”

If you ask him what’s gonna happen with your case, and he’s not quite sure, he’ll grab a translucent crystal ball out of its ornate golden stand on his desk. He’ll hold it in both hands and gaze deeply into it for a while before looking up at you and saying: “I can’t tell you right now how your case is gonna turn out. I would if I could. Been trying to find one of these that works, but none of ‘em do. If I find one, I’ll call you right away.” Twelve crystal balls later, he’s still searching.

And if you were to ask Smith why he does these things, these totally unnecessary but completely charming things, he’ll tell you that he simply can’t help himself. He loves whimsy. 

“You know, some of the things in this office have nothing to do with anything,” he’ll tell you, as though you didn’t already know that. 

He might be referring to the 6-foot tall bonsai tree standing by the window that was given to him 30 years ago when it was just “an itty-bitty desk thing.” Or maybe he’s talking about the literal pile of rocks that sit in a bowl on a shelf.

“They’re little curiosities. I mean, I bet you don’t have one of these,” he says, grabbing a wind-up toy scorpion and letting it inch across the table. “I mean come on. That’s fun.” 

This is the way Smith explains most things in the Starship Archie. 

“Can’t throw that away,” he’ll say.

Or “That tickles the hell out of me.”

Or “Where’re you gonna find another one of these?? You need one of these.”

There are some things so weird, though, even Smith doesn’t know what to make of them; mostly gifts from his granddaughters, or his friend Fred, who “always finds the darndest stuff.” But you can’t throw away a gift, Smith explains, and it would be ungracious not to display one.

Hence, his tchotchkes take up most of the space on his shelves and room in the seemingly infinite drawers of his desk. 

However, there is one surface in Smith’s office that’s empty: a long wooden table just beyond the command post.

If you ask Smith why that is, he’ll tell you that this is where the serious business happens. Opposing lawyers argue over this table. Agreements are reached around it. Civilians’ fates are decided. 

“We can get down to the real juice here,” he says. 

But of course, the table is also used to celebrate staff birthdays, and, during the holidays, Smith uses it to display his “Carolina Christmas tree,” a little plastic evergreen with red tinsel. When there’s no seriousness to attend to, Smith wants this table to serve the same function as “the kitchen table in your mom and dad’s house.”

The same goes for his red leather couch, which he hopes will remind you of your living room sofa at home. And for his two granddaughters, it does. 

Whenever they come to visit, after tiring themselves out with their grandpa’s toys, they’ll inevitably pass out on this red couch. At which point Smith will go into his wardrobe, grab one of his two judge’s robes, and drape it over them as a blanket. The blanket-robe is easily differentiable from the robe-robe. It’s a significantly lighter shade of black, faded and frayed from years of naps. He doesn’t mind though. He only really needs one.

Smith knows that he’s got an unusual number of knickknacks for a county clerk, or anyone for that matter. But he also knows that a little joy can go a long way in a courthouse. And even with all his things, Smith can get down sometimes.

On these rare occasions, he’ll open a drawer at the bottom of his desk, and reach for a manila folder labeled, in his carefully penciled script handwriting, “Things Worth Thinking About.”

It’s filled with old newspaper and magazine clippings, notes from his granddaughters, and printed-out mantras. If you ask, he’ll take some of his favorites out and show them to you. But when you hand them back he’ll say “I’m not tryna be profound or anything” and divert your attention to the new model airplane Fred just bought him.

If you ever do have the pleasure of visiting the Starship Archie, on your way out, after Smith has offered you a parting mint, but before you’ve reached the doorway he might say, “I don’t wanna give the impression that I’m a lunatic, but I just like to enjoy life.” And you might think to yourself: boy, did “Law & Order” get it wrong.

Photo of Archie Smith in the Starship Archie by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

In God they trust: A courthouse prayer group offers a mindful break

In the Durham County Courthouse, a courtroom is a place for trials, arguments and rulings. It’s where attorneys lose cases and defendants receive jail time, a place where people debate, cry and curse. But on Wednesdays from 12:45 to 1:00pm, one courtroom on the second floor becomes a sanctuary for the courthouse staff prayer group. 

To its members, the group is a safe haven – a mindful escape from the daily chaos of their jobs. 

Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans joined 15 years ago as an attorney. Today, she attends every meeting and leads most prayers. 

“It’s like our anchor,” Evans says. “In courts, we see a lot of stuff. It’s very traumatizing, but we always know that we can come here and be rejuvenated to finish the rest of the week.”

In court, God’s name is thrown around as a matter of procedure. Witnesses must place their hand on a Bible before they testify. They swear by God “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but rarely with any religious conviction. The prayer group wants to put meaning back into these words.

It was started in 2001 by now-retired clerk Darlene Pate to unite the courthouse staff. Pate wanted to remind them of their shared faith and give them a space to reflect. 

Each week during their lunch breaks, judges, magistrates, translators and prosecutors borrow the courtroom of Clerk Archie Smith III —a judge and chief administrator in the courthouse— to host their prayer session.

One Wednesday, District Court Judge Doretta Walker comes from criminal court. She just finished ruling on an assault case. 

Courthouse interpreter, Maria Owens, comes from civil court. She spent the last half hour translating for a couple’s custody hearing. She mediated as a mother and father fought over their infant son.

Evans comes from traffic court, where she had a full docket. Her afternoon promises more of the same.

After half a dozen other staff members enter, they arrange the desk chairs from the lawyer’s tables into a rough semi-circle. Sometimes, they turn off the fluorescent lights, letting the afternoon sun spill through the windows. 

These adjustments convert the courtroom from a place of tension to a peaceful oasis.

A small printed packet guides the group. It provides a theme, a piece of scripture and a paragraph or two of insight. 

On October 6th, the theme is “helping one another.” 

“Encourage one another and build each other up… always strive to do what is good for each other,” one member reads. 

Then she asks each participant what they want to pray for.

Darrin Corbin, a District Court magistrate, mentions his stepfather who suffers from congestive heart failure. While Corbin is in this prayer meeting, his stepfather is in a hospital in New York.

Owens would like to pray for her mother-in-law, who recently suffered an aneurysm.

Evans echoes those prayers and adds one of her own: that people will vote in Durham’s municipal primary election. Then she leads a prayer. 

Eyes close and heads bow. Some people rock back and forth in their chairs. They nod, whisper prayers of their own, and hum on beat with the judge’s voice. Every few words, someone offers “yes, Lord” or “thank you, God.” 

When the session ends, participants linger, joking and catching up. They comment on each other’s outfits, especially those of the judges, who are rarely seen sans long black robes. 

“Love y’all,” they say while parting ways. 

In two decades, the group has almost never missed a meeting. It’s lasted through a building move, multiple retirements and now, a pandemic.

As COVID-19 raged through North Carolina, the courthouse stayed open, so the group continued to gather there. Numbers dwindled, but those who couldn’t come sent in prayers from home. Those who did come practiced social distancing. At each meeting’s end, in lieu of parting hugs, they took turns tapping elbows. 

“We never considered not meeting,” Evans says. “We didn’t sit up next to each other, but it was even more important that we gathered and prayed and sought God’s protection together.”

The prayer group is not publicized around the courthouse, but people from all departments show up. Though it is a Christian prayer group, all are welcome. And by gathering during their personal lunch breaks, Evans says, the group avoids any conflict between church and state.

On some weeks, the clerk’s courtroom is full, with a dozen staff filling the gallery. On others, three people may meet. 

Brittany Clinton, an assistant district attorney, started coming to sessions a few months ago. Like most new members, she heard about the group “through the grapevine.” 

In a job where uncertainty is guaranteed, the prayer group gives Clinton something to rely on.

“After we finish each session, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says. “It makes me feel a little bit lighter, like I can go ahead and make it through the rest of the day.”

Walker has attended prayer group meetings for over five years. She’s saved every printed packet, storing them in a drawer at home. 

“I like to pull them out and read them from time to time,” she says. “I can look back and see that my prayers have been answered.”

Evans has had her prayers answered too. For one, her husband, whose medical issues heighten the risks of severe illness from COVID-19, has stayed healthy throughout the pandemic. 

But a prompt in a recent meeting reminded her of one prayer she’s still waiting to see answered. “Think of something you’ve given up on,” it read. “Ask God to show you how He’s still working on it.”

For the past 30 years, Evans has prayed for the violence in Durham to stop. 

“Not to be curtailed, but to totally stop,” she says. 

Her criminal court docket is too long.

In 2020, a record-breaking 318 people got shot in Durham County, nearly a 70% increase from 2019. Though in line with gun violence trends globally, these numbers are hard for Durhamites to hear, especially those who work in the courthouse. 

In this meeting, Evans prays for something to change. After a moment of silent reflection, she unclasps her hands and stands up. Then she turns to Clinton, gives her a light elbow tap, and together they walk into the hallway.

“See you next week,” Evans says. 

 It’s not a question. It’s a promise.

At the top: A group of courthouse staffers meet in their Wednesday prayer group. Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans, seated in the back, often leads the group. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Say his name.’

Traffic court is full. People sit chin in hand, eyelids heavy. Some stomp out of the courtroom, then return a few minutes later. Others grimace, checking their watches and rolling their eyes. And some are not so silent: “What the f—, bruh. I got places to be.” 

It is a recent Wednesday at the Durham County Courthouse, and even Judge Pat Evans wants to get a move on. She sits at the bench in her robe with her long black hair, gray at the roots, pulled tight in a ponytail. She sticks to a script: call a name, hear a case, make a ruling, repeat. 

The defendants don’t stick to the same script. They bring the wrong papers, they go to the wrong place, and they come late, or not at all.

Of those who make it, most accept blame for their tickets, pay a fine, and get out. Few contest their citations, and fewer win.

On this day, Anthony Rashad Floyd chose to be one of the few. And soon, the courtroom would understand why.

Floyd, a Durham resident, arrives at court on time in a yellow polo shirt, black jeans and loafers. He appears to be in his 40s. As he waits in the gallery, yellow light reflects off his diamond earrings.

Three months ago, Floyd was driving down route 70 on his way to JJ Fish & Chicken in Durham for an early dinner. It was 5 p.m. and there was heavy traffic. “Bumper to bumper,” he said. 

On this much, Floyd and the deputy who cited him agree. Beyond that, their stories conflict.

On the stand, Floyd says when his turn came, he put on his blinker and moved into the center lane. Then he says he decided he could wait to eat, so he signaled and merged back out to head home. That’s when Deputy T. Hatch pulled him over. 

“You gotta be kidding,” says a voice in the courtroom as Floyd tells his story. “Can’t believe he took this to trial.”

Center lane violations rarely make it to court. Most people prefer a small fine to a morning in traffic court. Floyd is not most people. 

“It’s about principle,” Floyd said in an interview. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I am not gonna let an officer take advantage of me like I know they do.”

In May 2020, Floyd’s first cousin was murdered in a Minneapolis street by a police officer who pinned him to the ground for more than nine and a half minutes until he stopped breathing. This cousin’s name was George Floyd.

When Anthony Floyd announces this to the court, those listening in the gallery don’t believe him. Some laugh.

“Yeah, right,” says a voice in the back.

Others remain quiet, unsure how to react. 

Anthony says that he and George were “tight.” After George’s death, Anthony went to marches with family and yelled “say his name” with a fist in the air. He has photos of himself the day before the funeral standing with George’s attorney, Al Sharpton, and Joe Biden. 

He’s still in disbelief about his cousin’s death. He’s also more uneasy around police. When Hatch pulled him over, Floyd’s face got hot. He didn’t know why he was being stopped. Hatch told him he didn’t signal when he switched lanes. Floyd replied that he did, and he would fight this in court.

“That’s your right,” Hatch said before returning to his patrol car. 

Floyd knows his rights.

Aside from a speeding ticket at 16, Floyd’s never been in trouble with the law.

“I was on point with everything,” he said in court. “So as far as being behind the wheel, I made sure that at all times, especially since what happened to my cousin, that I follow all the rules. That’s how I know for a fact I used my turn signal. The dashcam footage will show that. Where is the dashcam footage?”

He asks this question 12 times in court. No one gives a clear answer. 

“That’s a whole process,” Hatch says.

At George Floyd’s trial, video was a star witness. Jurors watched film from cell phones, body cams, dash cams, and surveillance cams. Video footage brought justice for George. Anthony wants it to do the same for him, but Hatch doesn’t want to deal with the “process.” It seems that Evans doesn’t either.

Once Hatch and Anthony are done testifying, she rules. 

“Your cousin has nothing to do with this matter,” she says. “The citation stands.”

Anthony stays still for a moment. He turns to look at the people in the gallery behind him, but they avoid eye contact. He looks back at the judge, but she’s moved on. 

When Anthony stands and heads out of the courtroom, people turn their heads to watch him leave. He walks down the hall outside alone, mumbling to himself. 

He talks about the dash cam footage. He wonders if he needs to come back to court. He realizes he forgot to mention the van in front of him that did the same thing. He doesn’t know if he owes or what he owes or how to pay. 

He says he does know he did nothing wrong. He knows that he fought for justice. 

“And it felt good.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that Anthony Rashad Floyd met Joe Biden at George Floyd’s funeral.  They actually met the day before the funeral, which Biden did not attend in person.

The search for Durham’s best side of mac and cheese

At a barbecue restaurant, meat is the main event. But no heaping serving of Durham barbecue — whether pulled, chopped, wet, or dry — can stand alone. It needs sides, be they slaw, beans or something more adventurous. For me, the most important side is mac and cheese, and Durham chefs keep it simple. 

Regardless of the restaurant, the foundation is the same: a classic macaroni elbow—farfalle or ditalini would be sacrilegious—and always well-cooked. Al dente is a foreign concept to a pitmaster. When it comes to cheese, cheddar is a safe bet and powder is a possibility, but there shouldn’t be anything along the lines of an aged parmigiano-reggiano. A few daring chefs will sprinkle in some black pepper, but there’s no place for the likes of lobster or truffle oil, which may be tastefully (or pretentiously) added at a restaurant where plates aren’t separated into quadrants. 

To figure out who does it best, I embarked on a mac and cheese tour of Durham. In two weeks, I visited five barbecue restaurants, reporter’s notebook in hand, and sampled—or, more accurately, indulged in—each version of the treasured side. Here’s what I found.

Backyard BBQ Pit: A Guilty Pleasure

The lunchtime crowd has formed a line to the door at the Backyard BBQ Pit when I arrive. I spend my wait digesting the sprawling chalkboard menu, admiring the graffiti-covered walls, and gawking at the overflowing cafeteria style buffet. 

“What can I getcha, baby doll?” asks my server once I reach the front of the line. The steam rising from the buffet table fogs its plexiglass barrier, so she walks me through the sides in a friendly southern drawl. She tells me that I shouldn’t miss out on the candied yams, which she prepares from scratch every morning. There isn’t enough room in one black styrofoam takeout container for all of her recommendations, so I find myself at the checkout counter with two combo platters and four different sides (candied yams included).

I open the container to find a heaping side of mac and cheese, spilling out of its quadrant and shining with the oily glow of melted cheddar. I reach for my plastic fork, but soon find that this mac and cheese demands a spoon as I can’t afford to have any of the cheesy sauce slip through the tines. 

The star of this dish is the generously apportioned cheddar cheese that envelops the elbows. It mixes with collard greens and sweet potato in the happiest of accidents as the sides begin to blend together, creating new flavor combinations. After polishing off the last spoonful, I notice a small pool of oil where the mac and cheese once rested. Usually this would concern me, but I remind myself that Backyard BBQ’s mac and cheese is not meant to be refined (or healthy); It’s comfort food, and if an ungodly amount of cheddar cheese is required to make it right, so be it.

The Pit: Home Cooked Charm

Once seated at a high-top table with my feet dangling above the floor, my server brings over a complimentary basket brimming with biscuits and hushpuppies and invites me to take all the time I need with the laminated menu. Her friendliness is a welcome counterpoint to the ominous collection of cleavers that adorn the red wall to my right. 

At The Pit, globs of melted, stringy cheese. Photo by Nicole Kagan, The 9th Street Journal

My side of mac and cheese comes congealed in its small white bowl, shaped as if plated with an ice cream scooper. The yellow dome is flecked with black pepper and intermittent globs of melted, stringy cheddar cheese. My mouth doesn’t water, but I pick up my fork and break into the sphere. 

At first, I’m disappointed by the texture—a graininess in the sauce and overcooked noodles—but then the flavor surprises me. This mac and cheese tastes homemade, like your grandma cooked it for the family reunion (and maybe left it on the boiler a few minutes too long). At first, the dominant flavor is white cheddar: mild, creamy, and subtly salty. But then, a pleasant black pepper kick rises from the back of my tongue, interrupted by the occasional hidden cheddar gob, delightfully chewy and sharp. The mixture of cheeses and spices don’t melt together seamlessly, leaving the sauce separated in places, but this gives the dish character. Like a home cooked meal, you can tell it’s made from scratch.

Picnic: Dorm Room Throwback

Less than 30 seconds elapse between the moment I place my order at Picnic and when I’m handed my mac and cheese in a folded brown paper bag with my name on it. At one of Picnic’s outdoor wooden tables, I open the bag to find a packed plastic deli container, yellow elbows pressed against its clear lid. 

Picnic’s mac and cheese seemed to have spent too much time in boiling water. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

My fork pierces the noodles with ease, a sign of too much time spent in boiling water. Indeed, Picnic’s mac and cheese is meant for the lazy patron, it requires little chewing as the noodles break apart with no effort. The cheese sauce is sticky. It lingers after I swallow, coating the roof of my mouth. Its primary flavor is Velveeta, with a slightly sweet and tangy aftertaste from the addition of pimento cheese. 

Eating Picnic’s mac and cheese won’t be a new or surprising flavor experience, but it will transport you back to the microwavable meals of your college years, and it’s that familiarity that keeps my fork returning to the container. 

Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue: An Afterthought

As the waitress takes me to my table at Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue, I walk past the restaurant’s “wall of fame,” crowded with signed pictures from celebrity patrons, including Joe Biden and the former editor in chief of Vogue. Once in the dining room, I can’t help but notice that I am one of the few patrons without gray hair.  For a weekday lunch, the restaurant’s brown leather booths are remarkably full with regulars who don’t bother opening their menus. My waitress tells me that she’s been working here for over 20 years and serving certain customers daily for just as long. 

Unfortunately, while the rest of Bullock’s feels deeply authentic, the mac and cheese does not. The elbows are cooked well, but the bright yellow sauce that coats them is bland and chalky. Its one-note taste resembles cheddar cheese, but its grittiness and plasticky aftertaste suggests a sauce made from powder. That along with the pasty mouth-feel compels me to retire my fork after a few bites. Bullock’s homey atmosphere and warm service made me want to love their mac and cheese, but it didn’t stack up. The restaurant’s barbeque certainly lives up to its reputation, but the mac and cheese tastes like an afterthought. 

The Original Q Shack: All-Around Champion 

The first thing I note when I walk into Q Shack isn’t the dark red walls or the glowing neon signs or the taxidermied bull’s head. I happen to arrive at Q Shack as a fresh tray of baked mac and cheese is placed into the steam table. I watch, mesmerized, as the server breaks into the cheesy shell with a spoon and transfers hefty, steaming scoops of elbows into paper containers. 

The winner. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

Metal cafeteria tray in hand, I slide in among the lunch crowd on a colorful vinyl chair and carefully consider which part of the mac and cheese I should try first. A crispy bite from the top? A silky forkful from the middle? One of the chewy, cheesy clusters sprinkled throughout? Settling on a surface bite, I dig my fork in and lift it up, watching strings of cheddar stretch and pull. 

The sauce is sticky and tastes sharp and salty with a hint of black pepper. The noodles near the surface have dried ever so slightly so they crunch, while the ones in the middle are soft and tender, but not mushy or broken. No other restaurant achieved this textural variation. Before each bite, my fork wanders above the noodles as I’m momentarily unable to decide how to craft the next one. 

This mac and cheese is so enjoyable, I hardly remember to eat the chopped pork that is intended as the main dish. Once I do, I eat it only sparingly to save room for the rest of the macaroni. 

Photo at top: Q Shack’s side of mac and cheese, with a helping of hush puppies on the left. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘El Sueño Americano’

Fifteen years ago, Edelmar Arnoldo Borrayes Cifuentes immigrated from Guatemala to Cary, North Carolina. He got a job in construction, found a house, and made friends in his local Latino community. What he did not do was learn much, if any, English.

On this day, Cifuentes sits in a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Durham County Courthouse. He wears a black button down shirt with tiny white polka dots, jeans held up by a leather belt and a navy cloth mask. He appears to be in his 40s and has spiky black hair, hardened with gel. He’s short, shorter than his attorney, Aneta Yordanova Paval, who sits before him in the gallery in a maxi skirt and gray sweater. 

He’s here to fight for sole custody of his son, in a language he doesn’t understand, and the translator’s late.

A decade ago, attorneys had to formally request an interpreter weeks in advance. But a surge in demand in recent years prompted the courthouse to develop a better system. 

“Now, it’s like calling an Uber,” said trial court administrator Deneen Barrier. At least in theory.

Cifuentes is texting on his phone when Judge Amanda L. Maris calls his case. 

When he hears his name, he stands, shoves his phone in his jean pocket, and makes his way to the table at the front of the room. His son’s mother, who is supposed to be representing herself, is not present. In fact, she’s in Guatemala. 

As Cifuentes takes his seat, the translator bursts through the double doors and scurries over to his side. She wears a light blue dress and clutches a clipboard to her chest. Paval, relieved, calls Cifuentes to the witness stand. 

He walks cautiously to the front of the courtroom. 

“Please place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right,” the court clerk says, as though she’s said it thousands of times. (She has.)

Cifuentes, though, doesn’t know this string of words. But he sees a Bible in front of him and notices the bailiff motioning toward it, so he takes a guess as to what he should do: He picks it up with both hands.

The bailiff dashes over and grabs the book while the translator frantically whispers to Cifuentes, who runs a nervous hand through his shiny hair. He guessed wrong.

Once the bailiff replaces the Bible, and Cifuentes’ attorney helps to properly swear him in, Paval begins asking questions.

The translator jots furiously on her clipboard as Paval speaks, relaying sentences to Cifuentes before Paval has finished them. Amid the resulting overlap in voices, Cifuentes doesn’t know where to look. He settles for a spot on the gray carpet between the two women. 

Via a complicated game of telephone, the court learns that Cifuentes grew up in Guatemala. There he met his wife, Emilia Gomez Alvarado, and had his son, Bryan, whom he took care of until the boy was three. Then Cifuentes decided to fly to the United States solo to chase “El Sueño Americano.” The American Dream.

His family was supposed to join him after he built a life for the three of them. But, things didn’t go according to plan. In Guatemala, Alvarado neglected Bryan and left him at the age of 10.

Cifuentes describes the dangers his son had to face alone — the crime, the extortion, the gangs — in a raw, shaky tone. The translator repeats his message word for word, but her scripted monotone doesn’t quite capture the sorrow. 

This past June, when Bryan, who turns 18 in October, was finally able to leave Guatemala, Cifuentes saw his son for the first time in 15 years. He moved Bryan into his home, registered him for a local school, and now he wants custody over him. 

Paval is satisfied with her client’s testimony.

“No further questions, Your Honor,” she says.

“Okay, Mr. Cifuentes, you may step down,” Judge Maris replies.

There’s a moment of stillness while the translator relays the message. When Cifuentes walks back to the table, she follows behind him like a dutiful shadow.  

Then the telephone game resumes as Judge Maris states her ruling. Cifuentes stares at her, arms crossed over his chest. He watches her lips move as she says “I hereby grant sole legal and physical custody of the minor child, Bryan Gomez, to Mr. Cifuentes.”

Eyes in the sparsely filled gallery jump over to Cifuentes, expecting celebration. But he remains still. The translator has fallen behind, and she’s not yet repeated the ruling. Cifuentes is the last in the room to learn that he’s won the case. 

When he does, the moment for a dramatic reaction has passed. He stands, gives a gracious nod to the judge and heads out of the courtroom, leaving his shadow behind.

 

Durham restaurateurs struggle amid national staffing shortage

Where chalkboard easels listing daily specials and happy hour cocktails once sat outside local restaurants, their owners now post bold-faced “HELP WANTED” signs.

Durham restaurateurs say they were lucky to survive the worst of the pandemic. But just as they were growing hopeful about reopening, they were hit with an unexpected obstacle: finding cooks, cashiers, dishwashers, bartenders, waitpersons and other workers.

“People are leaving the industry in droves now,” said Wyatt Dickson, owner of barbecue restaurant Picnic. “Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced. That’s the new normal.”

In May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 1.2 million job openings in the restaurant industry, the highest monthly figure since 2000. There aren’t enough people who want to fill those jobs.

“Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced,” Picnic owner Wyatt Dickson said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Picnic, located off Cole Mill Road, needs twice as many employees as it  has right now, Dickson said. With his current low staffing numbers, he can’t open indoor dining or offer full service outdoors. So his customers must order online or at a takeout counter and then bring their own food to outdoor picnic tables. 

Instead of servers and bartenders, this new model requires cashiers, food packers and telephone operators. Unfortunately for these workers, their new roles involve little or no interaction with tipping customers. Picnic’s best servers used to make well more in tips than they would from their hourly wages, Dickson said, so for them working at the restaurant is now far less lucrative. 

To make up for the shortfall in earnings, he implemented a service charge so that when customers pay their checks, the gratuity is already included. 

Customers did not welcome the change. They complained that their meals are more expensive and that their power to decide about tipping has been taken away from them.

“There are people who feel that the restaurants are taking advantage of COVID and adding a service fee. But no, we’re definitely not. We’re just trying to find a way to make it,” Dickson said.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” said Ryan Jones, general manager of GRUB Durham. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

GRUB Durham, a popular Southern brunch spot, is also struggling to make do with fewer employees. GRUB sits on Chapel Hill Street, where patrons fill outdoor tables and a rooftop bar that looks out over the busy road. In the kitchen, it’s even busier. 

“Nobody can get sick or go on vacation now,” joked general manager Ryan Jones. 

GRUB hasn’t been able to accept as many guests as Jones would like because the restaurant simply wouldn’t be able to handle it, he said. In the kitchen, two line cooks are performing the job of four.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” Jones said. “Is this sustainable long-term? Absolutely not.”

A new kind of waiter

While some restaurants have switched to takeout only and shortened their hours in response to the staffing crisis, others have turned to QR codes.

Patrons at Eastcut and other restaurants use QR codes to read the menu, place their orders and make payment, all on their phones. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The introduction of QR codes in restaurants allows customers to view a menu, place an order, and pay their check all from their phones, reducing the need for waiters and cashiers.  

Brad Bankos and Steve Wuench, co-owners of Eastcut Sandwich Bar, were quick to implement the new technology. 

Eastcut patrons no longer choose from the offerings on a floor-to-ceiling blackboard menu inside, because they no longer are allowed inside the restaurant. Now they sit outside and place their orders by scanning laminated QR codes taped to patio tables. 

“There will never be a line in the restaurant ever again,” Bankos said. “The whole flow and service model will look different to people.”

The way Bankos sees it, the QR code system leverages technology in a way that will both save guests time and give them more control over their experience at the restaurant.

Jones is not convinced. He refuses to use QR codes at GRUB. He doesn’t think that finding ways to eliminate the need for employees is the right solution to the staffing shortage. For him, QR codes fundamentally change the experience of eating out, making it feel impersonal and detached. 

“We don’t want GRUB to be a place that just shuffles food,” Jones said. “We want people to be able to come and see each other and interact with our staff. We want to be a neighborhood hangout.”

Dickson feels the same way and said that QR codes are not part of Picnic’s “ideal customer experience.” But if it comes down to using the technology or closing his restaurant, he’ll opt for the former. 

Still, while QR codes may keep things running smoothly in the front of the house, they can’t contribute in the kitchens where help is needed most.

Scraping the barrel

In the midst of this war for talent, restaurants are forced to fight for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. 

Restaurateurs are offering perks that include flexible hours, health care reimbursement, paid time off, and free sandwiches. This help-wanted sign was posted at Devine’s Restaurant & Sports Bar. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Eastcut is one of those restaurants.

When people navigate to Eastcut’s website, the first thing they now see is a bright yellow pop-up ad urging them to apply for a job. The ad lists perks including a flexible schedule, a health care reimbursement program, paid time off, and, of course, free sandwiches.

“We’re trying to just focus on the things that we can control, because the market for jobs right now is really competitive,” said Bankos. “We have to make sure people see us as a great employer.”

In spite of their efforts, Bankos and Wuench still cannot find the number of staff they need to re-open indoor dining at their sandwich shop. Their current business model relies almost entirely on pickup orders. 

“I don’t think the 2019 Eastcut will ever exist again,” said Bankos. “We’re still serving similar food, but the operation has drastically changed.”

When Bankos and Wuench began asking workers to come back as the pandemic waned, they expected some to decline because of health concerns or a newfound preference for unemployment checks. But they were surprised to find that many of their former employees have decided to leave the restaurant world completely. 

“The restaurant industry has always been a tough one to work in, and I think in their time away many people may have found opportunities in what feel like less stressful environments,” said Bankos. 

Before COVID, Eastcut received 30 to 50 applications a week. Now they get around six at most.

GRUB saw a similar dropoff in applicants. 

When their job postings on Craigslist and Indeed stopped being fruitful, management hired a recruiting company to find ready, willing and able workers.

The recruiters have brought in more applications, but 60% of people who apply don’t come to their interview, Jones said. Of those who are offered the job, 20% don’t show up on their first day. 

At Picnic, Dickson says the most frustrating aspect of the staff shortage is knowing how well his restaurant could be doing, if only he could hire more people.

“It should be boom times. This should be a bonanza,” Dickson said. “There is pent-up demand for what I have to offer, but I’m handicapped in my ability to meet it. And that sucks. It’s like there’s money on the table, and we really need it, and we can’t reach it.”

At the top: Restaurants are fighting for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. This sign was posted at Maverick’s Smokehoouse & Taproom. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

New pavement technology kicks technicians to the curb

The city of Durham used to rely on a simple approach to identify the roads that needed the most repairs: a technician driving around the city looking out the window.

Now the city has a newfangled approach: high-tech data collection vehicles with software that can paint a detailed map of the bumpiest roads.

Officials showed off the new vans at City Hall on Tuesday and said they would lead to better decisions about which roads to repair and resurface. The black and white vans, accented with yellow and red stripes, belong to Roadway Asset Services (RAS), a company hired by the Public Works Department to find problematic roads. 

“The vans have got newer, brighter cameras that are going to give us better vision,” said RAS President Scot Gordon. “It’s more of an automated system. It’s more repeatable, it’s more reliable, and it takes away some of the personal subjectivity.”

For the next four months, the RAS vans will cruise around neighborhoods collecting data and images for an online database. 

The vans might seem odd prowling through residential streets with a submarine-like antenna, cameras mounted on the front and the back, and multiple “CAUTION” decals. But Gordon said people will hardly notice them.

“The vans basically get out every day and they flow with traffic. They’re not stopping traffic. They’re not closing any roads. People aren’t even going to know they’re there,” he said.

The vans are scheduled to cover 40 to 50 miles of roads each day, collecting three types of data. An antenna camera will take a panoramic shot of a street with sidewalks, gutters, and street signs included. The back cameras will point straight down at the pavement and photograph cracking or weathering. The front cameras are the “profilers” that will record the smoothness of the road. 

After all 1,497 lane miles of city roads have undergone a “pavement evaluation,” RAS analysts will look at the data and give each street a condition rating from 0-100. Once city officials have these numbers sometime next spring, the Public Works Department will use them to figure out the most cost-effective approach for maintenance. The project is being financed by the city’s annual pavement budget of $7 million.

Clint Blackburn, who runs the city’s pavement management program, says officials will likely opt for a preservation model that focuses on routine, preventative maintenance for all roads rather than the more expensive “worst first approach” that would fix the most problematic roads, but do little in the way of overall maintenance.

“We want to keep our good roads in good shape and then slowly work on those other problematic roads as we have money,” Blackburn said.

Durham residents say they’re tired of bumpy roads. The annual Durham City and County Resident Survey showed that 45% of Durhamites were dissatisfied with road maintenance. They ranked it in the top three issues that should receive the most attention from city leaders in the coming years.

Blackburn said the city’s goal is always to keep residents happy, but they might not see results right away.

“In the long term, we get a lot of great results and that’s going to protect us from wear over time, but at first, it’s kind of a shock to residents because it’s hard to see the change immediately.”

The city tries to educate Durhamites about this work through neighborhood meetings, but COVID-19 has made that difficult in the past year. According to Blackburn, hardly anyone attends the virtual meetings.

“Sometimes we get zero people. It’s hard to get the message out,” he said. 

The city last assessed the roads in 2018 when the Public Works Department hired a contractor with similar data collection vehicles to RAS. (The results of that study can be found online in an interactive map in which roads are colored according to their condition rating. The average rating was 69 and slightly more than 25% of streets are highlighted orange, symbolizing poor condition.)

This year’s analysis should get even more accurate figures because of its use of AI algorithms rather than human analysts, officials said. They are part of a pilot program that will assign condition ratings automatically. Before, analysts had to consult a 98 page manual to identify and mark problems in the roads, now all they have to do is press a button. 

Photo above: Durham has contracted with Roadway Asset Services to use its high-tech vans to assess city streets. The vans are equipped with cameras on the front, back and on an antenna. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

State park rangers fell trees to thwart cliff-jumpers at Eno Quarry

After a series of drownings and broken-bone injuries at an old rock quarry in the Eno River State Park — a beautiful swimming hole enjoyed by Durhamites since the 1970s — state park officials have taken action they hope will prevent future accidents.

This spring, they felled trees to create a barrier at a dangerous jumping spot — a cliff with a 25-foot drop into deep water. 

While they hope to make the four-acre Eno Quarry a safer place to visit, they acknowledge that some visitors are upset about the change.

“I know that it makes people unhappy,” said Kimberly Radewicz, the Eno River State Park superintendent. “But the quarry needs to turn into a purely recreational area, not a hub for daredevils.”

The four-acre Eno Quarry has been a popular swimming hole since the 1970s. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Four swimmers have died since 1993 at the Eno Quarry, which Radewicz calls a “beautiful nuisance.”  In recent years, her office has received calls about broken backs, broken feet and broken ankles. Three years ago, a 15-year-old girl broke four ribs and suffered a collapsed lung after jumping from the cliff and hitting a tree trunk on her way down. 

The Eno Quarry is surrounded by steep banks in some areas and is uniformly around 65 feet deep. The view from its rocky ledges may give the illusion of a smooth landing, but just under the surface of the dark green water lies a treacherous mix of logs and debris. To enter the water, swimmers must either jump from a 12-to-25-foot rock shelf, climb down a rocky bank, or wade in through the only shallow area — where the bottom is riddled with debris and sharp rocks. 

On her routine patrols, Radewicz warns visitors of the quarry’s hidden dangers. 

Eno River State Park rangers warn quarry visitors of underwater dangers. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

“I tell them the quarry is beautiful, but there’s these other things you need to know for your own protection, for your own security and safety.”

Visitors frequently do not realize how deep the swimming hole actually is, and that there are no lifeguards, Radewicz said. After she shares her insights and statistics, they sometimes reconsider their plans to jump or swim without life vests or rafts.

The Eno Quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. In later years it filled in naturally with water, and visitors soon followed.

The quarry was originally on private property, and locals would trespass to swim, fish, or cliff jump. When people started to get hurt, the property owners at the time, the Coile family, took action.

“They put up barbed wire, they put up barriers, and people would tear them down,” said Radewicz. “It was a very popular place for people to go. I’ve heard stories that they hired a guy with a .22 rifle to try to keep people away.”

Eno Quarry swimmers on a July afternoon. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

For 29-year-old Durham native Todd Fox, the Eno Quarry and its infamous jump have been a reliable weekend destination for more than 13 years. In fact, Fox’s parents met while swimming there, when they were teens. 

After seeing the felled trees on a recent visit, he was devastated.

“They massacred [it],” Fox said. “All that history gone … years of experiences my son will not get the chance to have.”

Quarry visitors walk about a mile from the parking lot, using the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The Eno Quarry became part of the state park in 2003. The superintendent at the time, Dave Cook, foresaw trouble and tried to ban swimming there altogether. He put up a fence around the jump spot, but outraged swimmers dismantled it, and Cook and his staff eventually revoked their ban. Unable to effectively prohibit swimming, they decided they would simply discourage it. 

To reach the quarry, visitors park at the Cabe Lands Access parking lot off Howe Street and hike about a mile on the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails, navigating under trees and over streams to reach a clearing in the woods. The trail is marked with signs that warn against swimming in the deep water with its submerged hazards, and against jumping or diving from the quarry’s steep banks.

The signs are meant to prevent accidents, but they aren’t a guarantee.

The earliest reported drowning at the Eno Quarry was in 1993. In 2007, 18-year-old Ian Creath drowned while swimming far off shore. Seventeen-year-old Lamont Burt Jr. died in 2015 while swimming just below the jump spot. Nicklaus Brown, 18, drowned after jumping from the cliff and failing to resurface in 2019.

Under former superintendent Keith Nealson, the state park’s response to fatalities focused on increasing quarry patrols and constantly reminding the public of its dangers. Visitors often laughed off his rangers’ warnings, Nealson said.

Nealson and his staff discussed putting up another fence, but they didn’t want to repeat Cook’s mistake. For a while, whenever people called his office for information about the swimming hole, Nealson resorted to saying “we don’t have one.”

Kimberly Radewicz, Eno River State Park superintendent. Credit: NC Division of Parks & Recreation

“When you reach a point where you can’t manage people, you have to find creative solutions,” Nealson said in an interview.

The Eno Quarry makes up just one-tenth of a percent of the state park’s property,  but it is the source of 70% of all emergency calls and citations, he said. 

“The hardest part of managing the entire state park was that quarry,” Nealson said. “On a typical summer weekend, it would be unusual if we didn’t respond to at least five or six incidents there.”

Radewicz knew she needed to do more, especially now that soil erosion is making all entry points increasingly precarious. After she was promoted from park ranger to superintendent in 2019, she channeled her new authority into safeguarding the swimming hole.

When the state park closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, she leveraged the time to brainstorm solutions before reopening. The existing warning signs were not enough; fences can be climbed or destroyed; and a swimming ban is impractical to implement and enforce.

“We would have to have rangers down there 24 hours a day,” Radewicz said. “We don’t have those sorts of resources here.”

Rangers felled trees to block access to a 25-foot cliff. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

She settled on felled trees as the best and most natural option. In February, Radewicz got permission to drop the first round of trees over the jump spot. More trees were felled there in May after teenagers continued to jump, finding gaps in the original barrier. 

So far this year, the Eno River park office has noticed a decrease in emergency calls and injuries.

“It seems to be doing great so far,” Radewicz said. “I have high hopes.”

This is particularly good news given the area’s recent surge in visitors. According to Radewicz, Eno River State Park broke one million visitors for the first time ever last year, ranking it the fourth most popular park among the 41 in the state.

Regulars have noticed how much busier the park is this year. 

“It gets so crowded that it’s impossible to even park there,” said Zachary Keesee, 22, an avid quarry cliff jumper since high school.  “It’s not just locals anymore. People from all over the state come, and nearby college students come in big groups.”

Keesee likes meeting new people and doesn’t mind the increase in visitors, but he’s not sure they’ll continue to come with the jump spot destroyed.

“[The tree barrier] doesn’t only ruin the jump, it ruins the spot where everyone sits and hangs out,” he said.

Park officials briefly tried to ban swimming at the Eno Quarry. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

On recent visits to the Eno Quarry, Keesee has seen groups of teenagers immediately turn around and leave after seeing the jump spot barricaded.

While some visitors are unhappy about the new efforts to block cliff-jumping, other quarry visitors say they were never interested in the jump to begin with.

“We didn’t go there for an adrenaline rush,” said Konsta Anttila, who has been a few times with his wife, Elaina. “It was more about having a really relaxing time in a better alternative to a public pool.”

Jump or no jump, many visitors can still be found at the quarry on a summer afternoon — hiking, picnicking, fishing, reading in hammocks, or floating in the water on colorful rafts.

This is Radewicz’s vision for the Eno Quarry.

If safety issues arise again, she said she’ll go back to the drawing board to find new solutions. But for now, she will dedicate her time to improving the trail around the quarry, making it more sustainable. 

Keesee said there are still some smaller banks to jump from, and he wouldn’t be surprised if some committed visitors attempted to “dodge the trees” and make the big jump anyway, but he will err on the side of caution and instead try to find a new spot. He regularly does this by scouring Google Maps for small bodies of water nearby that seem swimmable and then checking them out in person. Sometimes he scores, sometimes not.

Still, he said, he has yet to find a spot that beats the Eno Quarry.

The quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Even Fox, who was devastated to find his jump ruined, said he will continue to visit the quarry. 

“Even though they messed up my favorite part of the quarry, I will definitely be going back,” Fox said. “It’s still a really nice, peaceful walk through a beautiful part of the woods. Plus, there are waaaay too many memories.”

At top: Felled trees block access to 25-foot cliff at the Eno Quarry. Photo by Nicole Kagan, The 9th Street Journal

For more information about the Eno Quarry, gate times and access points, visit ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/trail/quarry-trail or call (919) 383-1686.

A man, a dog and a scooter

On a Thursday afternoon in Durham, traffic begins to slow on West Main Street as drivers gawk and smile at a cherry red Vespa. Pedestrians turn and pull out their phones to take a photo of the odd spectacle in front of them. They need a picture because otherwise their friends may not believe them. 

This is what they see: A man and a dog riding a scooter. 

The man has Ray-Bans and a thick brown beard. The dog, strapped to the man in a K9 backpack, is a brown and white collie wearing bright red goggles and a colorful tulle collar with sequined stars. 

As they ride, the man stays focused on the road ahead, but the dog, Miss Betty White, seems very aware of the paparazzi. Her tail wags under the nylon pack that secures her to the man’s back. She turns and tilts her head slightly, striking a pose. 

In a year of turmoil and doubt, the sight of a man and a collie on a Vespa evokes a momentary burst of joy. For David Cunningham and his 14-month-old dog, it is just another ride. 

Cunningham, a 43-year-old bartender, grew up in Ohio surrounded by dogs. They were just some of the many beings running around the house with him and his six siblings. Since moving to Durham almost 20 years ago, he had always wanted a dog of his own, but never had the time. That changed when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, West End Billiards, the bar where he works, closed, and Cunningham found himself alone with little to do. He found Miss Betty White in a kennel in Lexington, N.C. 

A registered emotional support dog, Miss Betty, as he calls her, lifted him out of his quarantine blues. Since then, Cunningham’s buddies have told him he’s become a calmer, friendlier guy. 

“She’s the best thing to happen in 2020. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.” He then adds, “But if she did, she would gnaw on it.”

A peek in her closet

Off the scooter, they spend their evenings together, often dining at outdoor restaurants, or just watching “The Call of the Wild” on Cunningham’s couch. 

Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

Along with her diet kibble, Miss Betty gets a steak dinner once a week and a daily dog-friendly ‘pupcake’ or donut. Every Tuesday night the pair hits a local restaurant for date night. While Cunningham orders off the menu, Miss Betty snacks on a dairy-free peanut butter cup from her favorite dog bakery, Oliver’s Collar. 

“She likes Reese’s just like her dad,” Cunningham says.

She earned her name because of her distinctive fur and as a tribute to the legendary actress: “With her big ole white mane like that, I was like, it’s gotta be Betty White. But there’s only one Betty White, so I insist people call her Miss Betty White.”

True to character, Miss Betty gets dressed up before an outing. A peek into her closet reveals dozens of outfits and accessories, complete with sequins, pom-poms, and ruffles. She has a rainbow tutu, denim overalls, and her “naughty Santa Claus outfit,” named because it is slightly too small and “her booty sticks out,” according to Cunningham.

Though luscious, Miss Betty’s shiny coat comes with a price. It has made vacuuming a crucial part of Cunningham’s daily schedule. That, along with her anti-shedding shampoo, ensures that his couch and cargo pants aren’t completely covered in dog hair.

Cunningham walks Miss Betty at least a half-mile four times a day, they go to the dog park once a week, and on the weekends they take hikes around the Eno, the Duke Forest, or the Al Buehler Trail. Miss Betty also has regular doggy-dates with her best friend Jack-Jack (a “little beagle lookin’ thing”) who lives in the neighborhood.

Miss Betty White’s active lifestyle keeps Cunningham in shape. He says he’s lost weight since he’s gotten her and developed a tan from being outdoors so often.

“Damn I’m beautiful”

She isn’t always as sweet as she looks. When she gets restless, Miss Betty can misbehave. On one such occasion a few months ago, she chewed up the molding around Cunningham’s door. 

He put her in a crate when he left home after that – until his guilt became too strong. Then Cunningham discovered the Furbo, a remotely operated camera that lets you see, talk, and toss treats to your dog when you’re not home. It’s even got an infrared camera so he can see Miss Betty in the dark.

In between customers at the bar, Cunningham will open the app to find Miss Betty White “laying up in the window sill like a cat.” He’ll use the microphone to get her attention, and then shoot a few treats onto the rug for her to find. 

Drivers often swerve to take photos of Miss Betty White. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

She has become something of a local celebrity. During their scooter rides, drivers often swerve to take photos to post. To Cunningham’s surprise, Miss Betty’s fan club stretches beyond Durham. He said she’s been recognized in Hillsborough, without the scooter.

For fans who want to keep in touch with Miss Betty, she has her own Instagram page. 

One post reads: “I love my human!!! Steak and eggs for breakfast…was not expecting that.”

“Bathed, nails trimmed, and brushed…damn I’m beautiful!!!!!” says another.

Cunningham grins.“I’m that guy. I used to make fun of those guys, but now I am one…I show my dog off like she’s my girlfriend or one of my kids.”

One post of Miss Betty as a puppy sitting in the grass is Cunningham’s favorite. He’s thinking he may get it as a tattoo.

Their scooter rides always end the same way. After parking the Vespa, Cunningham removes his helmet, exposing his bald head. Miss Betty gives him a joyous lick.

Every ride ends with a joyous lick. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

Schewel won’t seek reelection as mayor

Mayor Steve Schewel announced Thursday that he will not seek a third term.

Saying that he had “struggled mightily with this decision,” he told a news conference that he is ready to focus on family and some new priorities.

“I’ve been in local elected office for 14 of the last 17 years. Frankly that’s enough. . . I’m ready for something new. I’m only 70 years old so I’ve got a lot of future ahead of me.”

He said Durham is in good hands with the new city manager, Wanda Page, and he wants to leave the job to someone else so he can focus on a new granddaughter on the way. “I want to be there to help her parents and to be with her fully and completely and I’m very excited about that.”

He said he’s also “looking forward to having dinner with my wife every night.”

Schewel was first elected mayor in 2017 and won reelection in 2019. He had previously served six years on the City Council. In his campaigns for mayor, he has promised to focus on affordable housing, livable wages, equitable transit systems, police reform and LGBTQ rights.

He is probably best known for leading the city and county’s aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Durham became the first municipality in North Carolina to adopt a stay-at-home order and mask mandate. 

Schewel is the founder of Indy Week and has taught in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

He said he’s loved his time as mayor. “I’ve been very very lucky in my life. I’ve been able to do a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed, and nothing that I’ve enjoyed as much as this.”

Schewel was asked if he had any advice for his successor. He said, “Durham is a rough and tumble political town, and you’ve really got to be able to roll with it.”

This story will be updated.

Photo at top: Steve Schewel announces he won’t seek reelection in front of City Hall. Photo by Nicole Kagan | The 9th Street Journal