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MR. RON - CATERING COOK, HOPE VALLEY DINER 

                  DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

If you know something well, if you do something well, there's always someone who'll pay for it.  It’s a gentle reprimand from Mr. Ron, a friend who knows I’m the pits at self-marketing.  He, on the other, hand?  The master juggler of profitable endeavors.  A catering cook and delivery driver at the Hope Valley Diner for nearly twenty years, he works close to seven days most weeks.  And if that’s not enough, there’s rentals, a few catering gigs on the side and his sweetest deal of all...  online poker.  

 

No way! I say to him.  Poker?  But his face tells me he's dead serious.  He plays every chance he gets.  I ask him about his best moment and he tells me about the game he had four aces, the monster hand, he calls it.  If enthusiasm is any indication of skills, it's a safe bet Mr. Ron is winning.

 

But at his roots, he's a country boy, born and raised in Wake, then Durham county.  Both of us grew up barning tobacco as kids - slinging those giant leaves and sweating like a faucet.  Rubbing that black gum off our hands and him heaving heavy sticks up in the rafters of a sweltering barn.  Still, he says, it was work he was glad to have.

 

Decades later, my five-year-old son is equally glad to have that bowl of grapes a grinning Mr. Ron always slips him.  We walk in the Hope Valley Diner and his little eyes stay glued to that swinging door to the kitchen.  He's waiting.  Waiting for Mr. Ron to come out with the grapes and give him a high five and act like he’s the best kid in the whole wide world.  Waiting for his friend.

 

Same as me.

MR. TIM - TICKET SCANNER, DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK

                DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

 

I’ll tell you more about Mr. Tim later, but for now a quick story about the gift he gave me...by accident.  I had noticed Mr. Tim plenty of times at the entrance to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, always cheerful and chatty as he scanned tickets and waved people in.  The way he bantered with the young staff, the way their eyes respected him.  This guy was someone worth meeting, I thought to myself.  So one night, I struck up a conversation with him.  Eight years he had worked at the ball park taking tickets.  Loved every second of it, too.  And those young kids on the DBAP staff?  He tried to mentor them every chance he got. They were “good kids”.

 

The next time I went to a game, I told Mr. Tim about the BEST OF US Project.  As he listened, I tried to read his face.  His words said he was all-in.  But his eyes said he was gobsmacked.  I held my breath, hoping I was explaining things okay, praying he wouldn’t change his mind.  But he didn’t.  And when we made a plan to take photographs and said our goodbyes, I walked toward the stairs tickled out of my mind.

 

I’ll never forget what happened next.  I was footsteps away and Daz, one of the young boys on the staff, had been standing nearby.  From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Mr. Tim lay a hand on the boy's shoulder. “Did you hear that?” he asked Daz with that cheerful banter of his.  “That lady saw somethin’ in me.”  

 

If I tell you my feet all but glided into the ball park after that, I wouldn’t be lying.  Because I DID see something in Mr. Tim.  But more than that, it meant something to him.  My job was more clear now than ever before.  Imagine what it might mean to him if LOTS of people saw something in him?  Imagine how one photo, one painting, one story could connect us to yet another of Durham’s finest.  Imagine.

 

Mr. Tim never knew he gave me a gift that night.  But he did.  And it’s one I carry deep in a pocket and finger from time to time.  It reminds me to look around.  It reminds me to see.

MS. BLENDER - CASHIER, TARGET

                          DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

 

Ms. Blender peered at me over the glass in the Bali Hai Mongolian Cafe build-your-own buffet line.  “Mash and add,” she coached me, balancing a bowl laden with squished layers of vegetables and shrimp.  “You just get one bowl, ya know.”  Her tone was the same one she used when folks were in the checkout line at Target and forgot to whip out the Cartwheel app on their phone. She was direct, savvy and warm––all mixed up.

 

When I first laid eyes on Ms. Blender, I knew something was up.  On the one hand, her smile was controlled, her eyes careful.  On the other hand, a blazing red flower popped out of what I would soon learn was a daily rotation of hairdo’s.  Nope.  I had a feeling Ms. Blender was loads more than a demure expert on all things discounts.  This lady in red was a firefly temporarily tamed by the florescent lights of Target.  

 

In the months to follow, I learned of her faith, her heartaches, her resilience.  I saw her light up when her son walked in a room, I saw her dolled up to the nines for a weekend event, I brought her Advil when her back ached and she had six more hours behind the register.  I even managed two helpings of her collards and some ridic dance floor time with kids in her family.  But mostly, I learned she is way more than the sassy firefly I first imagined her to be.  Ms. Blender is strong.  She’s a survivor.  She’s a force.  

 

And lucky for me,....she’s a friend.

MS. BECKY - WAITRESS, HOPE VALLEY DINER

                     DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

It's been a minute since I met anyone who loathed photographs more than Ms. Becky.  At the beginning, I envisioned a painting of her and Ellison (her favorite customer) bookending a coffee pitcher and lost in some light-hearted banter.  But wiser gods prevailed and I abandoned the nerves captured in all the coffeepot pictures.  This smile and these eyes are the true Becky. 

She started waitressing when she was fifteen years old in the shadows of her mother, a lifelong waitress.  After that, Ms. Becky worked for a bit in business administration and later, she managed the (now defunct) 501 Diner in Chapel Hill.  Outside of those stints, though, it's been a life of taking orders and delivering food for our Bull City she-ro.  

 

When I asked her what might surprise her customers to know about her, her response was quick..."Golf!". She plays every weekend and when the weather cools off, she sets her sights on another outdoor pasttime–snow skiing!  (Golly Ms. Becky...Who knew?!?)

So what does a steadfast, humble, hard-working gem like Ms. Becky dream of when she's not in the diner or putt-ing through the weekends?  "Working on a farm in the mountains", she says.  "Growing organic vegetables, maybe even alongside one of my sons, who is already living that dream."

Becky...may YOU get every dream you dare to wish true.  And a tip jar filled to the top, too.  You deserve it all.

JONATHAN - CONSTRUCTION WORKER

                     DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

Meet Jonathan, a Bull City construction worker and saver of all things discarded.  (Like these old fan blades and some stair banisters he found at the dump.  A few screws and some paint and voila!  A garden dragonfly!)

 

I met Jonathan when he and a couple of other guys were doing some work at our house.  He was the quiet one.  At 6’5”, Jonathan sports some fierce facial hair, loads of tattoos and a ruby red dermal piercing on his cheek.  He’s the kind of guy who’s well acquainted with sideways looks.  “Yeah,” he nods, “Cashiers DO usually reach under the counter when I go in a convenience store.”

 

And yet.  

 

The day I photograph him for the BEST OF US Project, he apologizes for his hair being longer than usual.  “My buddy’s in barber school,” he explains.  “He needs 3 inches to cut for his final test, so…”  I stand by his truck, waiting for him to dig out the fan blades and a drill.  I’m struck that he would do such a thing for a friend.  But then a decal of  family stick figures on the back windshield catch my eye and in that simple moment, I am reminded once again of why I asked this unassuming, woefully honest, camera-shy guy to be a part of the project.  Jonathan is yet another Bull City someone we should all know - not for who we think we see.  But for who he IS. 

 

Thanks, Jonathan.  You’re awesome, dude. :-D

NICK - NAIL TECHNICIAN, LA VIE NAIL SPA

           DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

 

I remember everything, Nick tells me, recounting his family’s earliest days in the United States nearly three decades ago.  No beds to sleep on, no cups to drink from, but mostly...no ONE. They had come here through a sponsorship and landed on the west coast.  But thankfully, friendships beckoned from the east and they made their way to Durham, North Carolina.

 

Nick tells me about his elementary school experience here in the Bull City…the inability to communicate, to learn.  But there were two teachers, he tells me. They believed in me.  Thanks to them, Nick found his footing, conquered English and the foundation was laid.  He went back regularly to thank them both until their retirement a few years back.

 

Today Nick is a single dad of three, a caretaker for his parents and sole provider for his family.  His days as a nail technician are long and he’s had his share of relationship woes.  But it’s hard to miss the calloused strength this life has handed him, yet the relentless belief that the best is yet to come.  Like an endless cycle of resilience and gratitude vignettes. 

 

We had nothing….we were lucky.  Years of marriage lost….three children gained.  Heartbreak…new Love. 

 

And Nick, the valiant climber through it all.

 

Not too long ago, I got an Instagram comment from his young son in response to an in-progress image of Nick’s painting.  That’s my dad, it said.  He’s really hard working and supportive to our family and his friends.   

 

To Nick’s son, I say this:  May you grow up to be like your Dad.

 

To everyone else:  Take that moment to know who’s in front of you. It'll be worth it.

 

Thanks for being a part of the BEST OF US Project, Nick.  I’m honored to know you, my friend.

Check Back Again Soon.  More To Come.

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HERBIE - HAIRDRESSER, CARMEN CARMEN SALON

               DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

 

Herbie is a hairdresser at Carmen Carmen Salon and an Aveda trainer, but his dream is to have his own shop one day. A shop that welcomes everyone and fosters connection (Herbie’s passion!). When that day comes, I would be so honored to paint an image of Herbie living his dream. But until then, I’ve not been able to put my heart into painting him working for someone else, knowing all he envisions.

Which presented me with a conundrum. Because, see…Herbie is perfect for THE BEST OF US PROJECT. Not only is he humble, unassuming, steady and (omg!) resilient, but he is an incredible advocate for the Bull City, namely for young boys of color. When I look at him, I see someone who is quietly going about this incredible life and yet…where’s the celebration?

In November of 2018, Herbie texted me a photograph of his son playing a blue guitar. It was a “check this out” text, in that he and I have sons almost the same age. I was struck by Christiaan’s puffy blue coat and the way his left hand cradled the neck of the instrument with something beyond a kindergartener’s skill. The intense expression that said, I WILL PLAY THIS. Much like his laser-sharp father. (Herbie, too, is serious about lots of things.) I downloaded the photo, marked it as a favorite and left it there for the next eleven months.

As you all know, I haven’t historically included kid paintings in the BEST OF US PROJECT. To date, all the images have been of community friends working their magic - painting nails, cooking, ticket scanning, all that. But after years of wondering how best to include Herbie, I decided for this one time, the right image to paint was not of my friend hard at work in someone else’s shop. The right image to paint was of a boy who is Herbie’s heart. And moreover, a boy who HAS Herbie’s heart.

Thank you for being one of the best of us, Herbie. Thank you for calling me “sis”. I’m so happy to share your story with folks in this place you love so deeply. May they all come to know you as I have. And may I get to paint for your family again one day…when another big dream comes true.