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Posts published in “A Durham Moment”

A Durham Moment: Lighting up the night

It’s dinner time in downtown Durham when Michael Youakim drives slowly past the glass facade of Pizzeria Toro, instantly grabbing the attention of everyone inside the restaurant. His silver Lexus is covered with Christmas-themed lights, stickers, and wrapping paper, as well as a miniature plastic pine tree strapped to the roof with more lights. Customers and waitresses pull out their phones to take pictures.

Enjoying the crowd’s reaction, Youakim stops the car. This quickly results in angry honking from the drivers behind him, but he doesn’t care. The 31-year-old Uber driver lowers the windows, blasts the music, and pops his door open so he can dance for his audience.

Though it’s only the first week of December, buildings and plazas all around Main Street are covered in twinkling lights. So far it’s been a slow month for his business; partygoers and young socialites are Youakim’s primary demographic, and he suspects they prefer to stay home in the cold.

He gets a rider request from the Durham hotel, only a few blocks ahead. On the drive over, pedestrians point, laugh and take pictures, which is exactly what he wants. “It’s about making people laugh, giving them something to look at and just smile about.”

Kim and Dave Bingel, 30 and 35, emerge from the lobby and hesitate for a moment before climbing into the Uber. In the backseat, they find wigs, glasses, a Minion stuffed animal, and two tablets installed with a classic Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Kim instantly puts on a blue curly wig and picks up one of the remotes. “I haven’t played this since I was twelve,” she says.

Youakim asks them for song requests, points out where the water bottles are, and plays around with the level of the bass. “Best Uber ever?” he asks.

Dave, Kim’s husband, who is also playing Nintendo, agrees. “Best Uber ever,” he says.

After leaving Kim and Dave at their home in Colonial Village, Youakim drives around the dimly-lit neighborhood waiting for another request, the lights from his car illuminating the street. It’s only 8 p.m., and the Uber app predicts there won’t be much business until 10. He slows to study some red Christmas lights on the sides of somebody’s driveway.

He has always loved lights and their ability to make things brighter, happier. His sneakers have light-up soles. His car is filled with an array of illuminated items, including a neon sign in the back that says “Lit.” “I’m catering to the people who are going out and trying to have a good time,” he says. “The ones who see me and think, I need to be in that Uber. It may look cheesy, but I just want to make people’s day, get them hype, prepare them to go have fun in my own city.”

A Durham moment: ‘Let’s get the birds’ (They’re from Butterball.)

Standing in front of a bright blue Butterball truck, Mark-Anthony Middleton declares that Durham doesn’t measure its greatness by the size of its buildings, the cuisine of its restaurants, or who’s playing at DPAC.  

What matters, the City Council member says, is how it treats the most vulnerable residents.

Outside Urban Ministries, near some of the city’s public housing, Middleton is presenting 200 turkeys to organizations that feed the hungry. Seventy-five of them and 345 pounds of sandwich meat will go to Urban Ministries.

“Let’s get the birds,” says Middleton, vapor coming out of his mouth.

Less than a week before Thanksgiving, Middleton tells the small gaggle of reporters and onlookers that nearly 17 percent of Durham residents live in “food insecurity.” More than a dozen onlookers dressed in ragged clothing across the street listen intently.

Middleton then reads a proclamation from Mayor Steve Schewel, declaring Nov. 16 to be “Butterball LLC Triangle Donations Day” in Durham. He warns that if he slurs a little, it’s because of the cold.

Without slurring, he proclaims that Butterball, the nation’s largest turkey producer, makes more than one billion pounds of “healthy, wholesome” turkey per year.

“We own this holiday,” says Butterball representative Ron Tomaszewski, vice president of human resources. “To be recognized specifically for it is outstanding.”

Formalities over, it’s turkey time.

There are three pallets of boxed turkeys in the back of the refrigerated truck. (Did we mention the turkeys are Butterballs?) Volunteers heave and push the cardboard boxes to the edge and load them in carts.

Betty Finoh, a social worker, loads one of the carts with frosty turkeys.

With the help of two other people, she pushes the cart up the curb, but it gets caught in a rut and nearly tips over. They rescue it and push it a few feet further to their car.

Donning a bright blue Carolina Panthers hat and sparkling earrings, Finoh loads the back seat of a sedan with 30 turkeys. There are so many she’ll have trouble looking back through the rear view mirror.

“This is great,” Finoh says. “We can put food on the table for people who can’t afford it.”

(Photo by Ben Leonard)

A Durham moment: ‘It’s my civic duty’

For Halloween, Gunther Peck and his family planned to carve pumpkins. But his 12-year-old daughter had a different idea. How about they make a spooky sign? So the family got a big sheet, some glitter and colorful paint. They hung the banner over the entrance to their home in Trinity Park.

It said, “Vote! Before it’s too late.”

***

At eight o’clock the next morning, Peck, a Duke public policy professor and volunteer for Durham for Organizing Action, pulls into the Durham bus station in a teal decade-old Subaru Forester. It’s abuzz with people carrying briefcases, others pushing strollers, most wearing puffy coats and knit hats as they stride toward their bus. He grabs his clipboard, stuffs his keys in his jeans pocket and walks to the circle where the buses line up.

Gunther Peck in front of his Trinity Park home. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Most people avoid making eye contact with the enthusiastic, bespectacled professor. It’s clear that he wants something from them.

“Hi, sir, are you planning to early vote?”

“No.”

“Ma’am, early voting is going on right now. Here’s some information about where and when you can vote and what’s on the ballot this year.”

“I already voted.”

He does a lap around the bus station. No takers.

Finally, Bobby Haynie, a veteran with a salt and pepper beard and only a few teeth left, approaches Peck and announces he’d like to vote.

Peck, who has a rugged look but warm eyes and a gentle voice, explains the deal: he’ll drive Haynie to the Board of Elections to cast his ballot and then drop him off wherever he wants.

Haynie agrees and gets into the passenger seat of Peck’s car. The 69-year-old is wearing a San Antonio Spurs cap and white sneakers.

During the ride, Haynie peruses a sample ballot while Peck explains what’s at stake, from judicial positions to constitutional amendments.

“I’ll tell you why I’m here,” Peck says. “Our voting rights are in danger. There is a proposed amendment to the constitution requiring a photo id that would make it a lot harder for many citizens to vote.”

He’s been volunteering to drive people to the polls during early voting. Over the course of the 18-day period, he’ll drive dozens of Durhamites.

Haynie says he tries to vote every election. “It’s my civic duty.”

He understands civic duty. He was drafted and served in the army in the ‘70s. Since then, he earned a degree from North Carolina Central University and now works at a real estate development company downtown.

After he votes at the Board of Elections office, Haynie ambles back to Peck’s car. He keeps his “I Voted” sticker tucked inside the pocket of his well-worn, mustard-yellow jacket.

As they pull out of the parking lot, Peck asks, “What was your best vote? The one you’re most proud of.”

“The back page — all of the amendments,” says Haynie. “I didn’t think they need to start screwing with the constitution.”

(Top Photo of Gunther Peck and Bobby Haynie by Katie Nelson)