Friday, December 28, 2007

An upcoming change (but don't stop visiting)

I'm sharing a sneak preview of my column running in this Sunday's paper:

After a year and a half spent meeting newcomers, hearing their stories and writing columns and blog entries to help them make sense of Charlotte, it’s time for me to move on.

After Monday’s column in the Your Week section (and WCNC report), I’ll be returning to the Observer as an editor – a longtime goal of mine. Many of my Observer colleagues will provide thrice-weekly fill-in columns while a full-time newcomer reporter is named – and I look forward to reading their advice on fun things to do, see and know about this region.

Between e-mails, phone calls and the times I’ve gone out and about, I’m guessing I’ve met several thousand newcomers by now. Here are a few things I’ve learned from the experience:

--The best way to get a newcomer talking: Start with food. You can fill them in on the subtleties of Eastern vs. Western barbecue, while they can introduce you to such terms as “white hots” and the kinds of pie that don’t involve fruit.

--A less popular way: Start with church. Seems folks from many other parts of the country aren’t as accustomed to talking publicly about their houses of worship as we are.

--The easiest way to start a spirited blog debate: Raise questions involving ways the South is different from other parts of the country, particularly the North. (The Civil War seems to be alive and well in cyberspace.). Or just use the term “Yankee.”

--Second-easiest: Write about driving habits, and debate which region of the country has better drivers.

--The No. 1 thing newcomers seek: Ways to make friends and connections in this community. Not so different from us longtimers, eh?

--The accents, food preferences, driving styles and cultures may be different, but underneath, we’re all in Charlotte for very similar reasons: We like the city’s beauty, its location between mountains and ocean, its usually balmy weather, its strong economy, its attractions and amenities. And most of all, its people.

Note the new e-mail address we’ll use to keep up with newcomer inquiries: For at least a while longer, I plan to keep chatting with you guys on this blog. I hope you’ll drop in on the discussion from time to time and keep in touch.

And as you begin your New Year, don’t forget to resolve to keep exploring all the wonderful people, places and experiences this region has to offer.

What are some of your other New Year's resolutions? Please post them here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Newcomers: Don't miss Civics 101

I hope everyone is having a great holiday week! I’m guessing most folks haven’t had time to read their Charlotte Observers faithfully every day, so I wanted to call your attention to an item my colleague Jim Morrill wrote for today’s paper about the next installment of Civics 101.

This is a great opportunity for newcomers to learn about local government. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, it involves classes throughout February and March to learn more about the City Council, board of county commissioners, state courts, the school system and more. Click here to see Jim’s article, or try


And now, a follow-up to my last entry and column on my difficulty in finding butter mints (click here to see the column and butter mint cookie recipe). I got some help from readers, but I didn’t get as many pointers as I thought I might – proving that this delicacy has fallen out of favor at mass retailers. One thing that did surprise me, though, is learning from readers that the candy is traditional further outside the South than I thought.

Here are some other spots you can find them (and I know you’ve still got room after all your holiday eating):

--From Sue Schall in Waxhaw: “Thought you should know you can get them at Cracker Barrel restaurant gift stores. I have enjoyed them for years. By the way I am a ‘transplant,’ Indiana born and bred, and I was raised on sweet tea, fried mush, grits, and anything you could make with buttermilk. My wedding 32 years ago featured the exact menu you described from a Southern wedding - cake, punch, nuts,and butter mints- but I was married on the far west side of Indianapolis, having never been south of the Ohio River in my life.”

--Margaret Hood writes: “Five years ago I found Mrs. Duncan's (Butter Mints) in the Presbyterian Hospital gift shop uptown. Now, Captain Steve's fish restaurant in Matthews on Monroe Road has Parson's Butter Mints (Homemade Style).”

--“Anonymous Yankee” writes: “I'm sorry to disappoint you, but butter mints are a Michigan tradition also. I grew up in the metro Detroit area, and every wedding or baby shower had butter mints. In Michigan, they also come in yellow. I remember as a child liking the creamy, buttery flavor. I believe that butter mints should not be called a ‘Southern’ classic, rather just a classic.”

Friday, December 21, 2007

In search of butter mints

In this Sunday’s paper, I’ll be writing about my recent quest to find butter mints in the stores of Charlotte.

They’re a formerly ubiquitous Southern tradition, usually found in glass bowls at weddings, bridge parties and other special occasions.

I decided to try a cookie recipe calling for crushed butter mints. The candies used to be pretty common around here, but after searching a half-dozen mass retailers, I discovered they’re more rare than I thought. (Harris Teeter and other stores had an alternative called “pastel mints” or “pillow mints,” but trust me, they’re no good without the butter).

I finally found them at Reid’s Fine Foods in uptown Charlotte, which is more of a specialty retailer than a full-service grocer.

I’m sure they’re available at other specialty stores, but it made me sad to think that a taste that reminds me of home has gotten so hard to find.

Read on Sunday if you’re interested in seeing the cookie recipe; meantime, please clue me in if you’ve found this delicacy anywhere else, and let me know if there are any other hard-to-find traditional foods you’ve been looking for, and maybe I can give you a tip or two.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lesson learned: Always check out your handyman

This is a difficult blog entry for me to write.

It’s a story that reflects poorly on me, as some of my more feisty posters will no doubt quickly point out. It isn’t particularly newcomer-oriented, though newcomers are more likely to risk finding themselves in a similar situation. But it’s a story with a lesson that could help others avoid my mistake, so I’ve decided to share it.

I’m a homeowner who occasionally needs the help of an experienced handyman – I own no power tools, if that gives you an idea of my lack of skills. About six months ago, I had a fairly urgent need for help when my ceiling sprung a leak. There was a handyman in standing in my neighbor’s driveway that morning, taking a break from doing work on my neighbor’s garage, so I asked him if he could help me. He fixed the leak, and did a nice job.

After that, he painted my place, and changed some door hardware and light fixtures. Then came a backsplash in my kitchen. Though he was occasionally erratic about when he showed up, his work and his prices were good. I felt his experience with my neighbor was recommendation enough, so I never checked him out.

When I decided to renovate a bathroom – the biggest project yet – his bid came in much lower than the other contractors I talked to. So I gave him the job.

After two months – a full month longer than anticipated – and with the job still only half-done, my handyman and his helper buddies disappeared.

He left his key ring, with van keys and his housekey, in my home (apparently he left in a buddy’s car the last day he was there). He left all of his equipment in my bathroom – hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars’ worth of power tools, fully stocked toolboxes and more. And he disconnected his phone.

At first, I thought he was just being erratic as he had been before. But after a week with no word, I was seriously worried. I thought he might be in trouble, injured or dead. I had no other way to reach him. I checked area jails and hospitals and found no record. So, I talked with a police detective and he said it would be appropriate to file a missing persons report.

I did, and before I even returned to the Observer building, I received a call from the patrol officer who visited his last known address. His brother was there, and assured the officer my handyman was fine and not missing. And, someone in the rental office at his trailer park told the officer my handyman had a history of drug use and binges, and that a binge is the most likely explanation for his vanishing act.

There was more: I learned my handyman has a criminal record that includes an arson charge.

So, for nearly two months, I gave a substance abuser with a fairly long criminal history a key to my home and the freedom to come and go with his buddies while I was at work. I have access to Nexis here at the Observer; I could have checked his criminal record in 30 seconds, for free, and avoided ever being in this situation.

Needless to say, I feel extremely stupid. And incredibly lucky that nothing happened to me or to my home that can’t be fixed. Nothing has been stolen; in fact, if he never tries to claim his equipment, I may come out ahead on the deal. I’m changing the locks and, as usual, faithfully using my burglar alarm.

I’m hoping that by sharing this, others will remember to thoroughly check out anyone doing work inside their homes.

Here are some tips on how to do that, thanks to one of our librarians, Sara Klemmer:

The public can go to the courthouse in his/her county and do the searching on the computers there for free.

Also free: NC Dept of Correction:
Search by name or ID number for public information on inmates, probationers or parolees since 1972. This system allows users to view and download any/all public information from the Department of Correction database for convicted offenders. Also includes information on inmate releases and escapees.

These sites may charge for records:

People finder:

Public Record Finder:



If anyone else out there has some more commonsense safety tips to share, please feel free to post them here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do Northerners and Southerners decorate differently?

The North vs. South debate has reared its head in the pages of The Charlotte Observer once again – and this time, you can’t blame me.

It seems some contributors to the Observer’s “The Buzz” section on the editorial page feel there’s a difference in style of Christmas decorating between Northerners and Southerners. This debate has spilled over into our Letters to the Editor.

Apparently, multicolored blinking lights and multi-themed yard decorations are more common in Northeastern states, according to buzzers. I also recently heard a Northern transplant complaining Southerners “don’t really decorate for Christmas.” Today's Buzz had an interesting conjecture: "My theory: Southerners display white lights because it reminds us of snow. Northerners use colored lights because white lights don’t show well on snow."

From growing up here, I’ve found that certain houses go all-out, some don’t decorate at all, and most homes are middle-of-the-road, with a lighted tree peeping through a front window, a wreath on the door and perhaps some lighted candles in other windows or some icicle lights on a railing. Giant inflatable Santas and snowmen (and one Hannukah dreidl I’ve seen) are scattered around. Colored lights do seem less common than white lights.

On the few occasions I’ve traveled at Christmastime (which is rare because most of my family is here), I haven’t noticed a dramatic difference, so I’m hoping you guys will fill me in. If you’ve lived or traveled in the North, do you think there’s a difference in holiday decorating between the two regions? Or is this just a misperception by a few folks?

(And I’m sure I don’t even need to warn you to hold off on the name-calling, as those comments will quickly be deleted).

Monday, December 10, 2007

An ode to Charlotte's roads

Who was W.T. Harris? Where was Sardis? What’s the Community House?

Turns out, lots of folks out there want to know more about how Charlotte’s oft-confusing roads got their names.

After I wrote Sunday explaining four examples of the area’s more colorful road names (including the three above), I’ve received a flood of inquiries on other local road names, from Tom Short to Margaret Wallace. I’m in the process of researching some of the explanations, and I plan to follow up soon.

I can use your input. What other roads’ names are you wondering about? Or, do you know a colorful story behind a road name in your area? Please post here or e-mail me.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this poem composed by reader Richard Quadrini, who was inspired to write it from his own experiences trying to find his way around Charlotte's roads:

Went out one day to make my way with mind and body sound
Full tank of gas and map in hand, to the eastside I was bound
But roads were bent and streets changed names, Queens Road went round and round
Turned this way once, then back and forth, getting lost I came to fear
So I asked a cop if he would stop and show a way more clear,
He shook his head and said instead, “You can't get there from here!!”

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A matchmaker for newcomers?

I might be able to add the title of "matchmaker" to my many job duties soon.

In many of my columns, I print mini-interviews with newcomers about why they moved here, and what insights about Charlotte they've gained, i.e. "Jane Smith, moved here from Providence, R.I. in September, living in Dilworth, recommends joining Young Affiliates of the Mint as a way to get to know the community."

Turns out, at least three times that I know of, someone has seen one of these interviews and tried to track the person down to ask for a date. (I never give out anyone's contact information, but if someone asks to get in touch with someone I've interviewed, I will pass a message along and give the subject the option of sending a reply).

I'm not aware of any of these cases leading to long-term success stories, but in general I salute the initiative of people who act on their interest (so long as their behavior does not graduate to the stalker-ish).

To me, it's another testament to the fact that family-friendly Charlotte can be difficult for singles looking to meet people. I've certainly heard from many people in this category since I started this job, and several of the articles in Living Here magazine were crafted with the goal of giving suggestions on how to meet people (click here and here to see some).

I'd love to know if anyone out there has any fun stories of how they found romance as a newcomer to Charlotte. Did you meet someone by joining a new group, or visiting a new place - or reaching out to someone you saw in the newspaper?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Local holiday traditions

It’s time once again to start exploring Carolinas holiday traditions, and I have several tidbits to share.

--First, here’s a little-known tidbit that I find fascinating as a native Charlottean. Turns out our city’s namesake, Queen Charlotte (1746-1818) is credited with having the first documented Christmas tree in England, at Windsor Lodge on Christmas 1800. “She actually re-introduced the custom of the Christmas tree to Britain from Germany following the Puritan regime which had banned Christmas altogether,” wrote Marion Redd, who commissioned Queen Charlotte ornaments several years ago.

A limited supply of the German-made glass ornaments are still available through the Mecklenburg Historic Association, as I wrote in Sunday’s article.

--Next, another follow-up to that article: I left out the Mint Museums, which have sold Queen Charlotte and Queen Charlotte Crown ornaments for over 17 years. The brass ornaments, $15 each, come with information sheets and have been longtime year-round bestsellers. They’re available at both museums: the Mint Museum of Art at 2730 Randolph Road, 704-337-2037, and the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, 704-337-2061.

--And finally, when I wrote Monday about Charlotte’s longstanding Singing Christmas Tree tradition from Carolina Voices (a personal favorite of mine), I learned there’s another act in town.

A reader notified me of the third annual South Charlotte Singing Christmas Tree, performing this weekend (Dec. 7-9, 7 p.m.) at Pineville’s Stough Memorial Baptist Church, 705 Lakeview Drive. Tickets are $10. More information is at

What other local holiday traditions are you curious about? Let me know.