I was delighted to learn yesterday that Dwayne Yancey has been selected for membership in the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame, class of 2018. He was selected as a journalist, though he has been increasing his stock in recent years as a playwright, one whose plays are being staged internationally and regularly.
Dwayne, a man who gives a whole new definition to the term “scruffy” (and who makes other journalists look less frumpy by comparison), is the editorial page editor of Roanoke’s daily newspaper. He is probably the best ever in that position, certainly the best since I’ve been in Roanoke (1971). His combination of superb writing skill, familiarity with the issues, deep sense of fairness (even to Trump, who doesn’t deserve it), and recognition of what’s important have made his essays a must-read, even though the local daily (owned by Berkshire Hathaway) is not heavily invested in taking political sides–a real shame, I’d say.
His plays, in which he often involves his entire family, have been growing in length, depth, frequency and importance in the past few years. They are quite literally performed worldwide and at any given moment, he will typically have two or three in production. He does that on the side and anybody who has worked with Dwayne will tell you that his free time must be minimal because of the vast amounts of time and energy he puts into his day job. He has always been an embarrassment to his co-workers, who couldn’t keep up his pace.
Dwayne’s book When Hell Froze Over, about Doug Wilder becoming Virginia’s first black governor, was a huge regional hit, but it is as a journalist that he was ushered into the Hall of Fame. We are now teammates in that sense (I was inducted in 2010), so I welcome Dwayne as a new member.
Margie and I proved once again this weekend that the fun isn’t always in the destination, it’s in the going. We took a run over to Alderson, W. Va. by way of Blacksburg (that’s like going from Richmond to Roanoke through Greensboro) and wound up with some pretty dang good stories, seeing the unexpected, eating the wondrous and generally enjoying each other and the people we met.
That’s a mid-winter luxury–getting away from cabin fever–that few of us take advantage of and these short trips to nowhere often pay off far better than we imagine.
Alderson is a tiny town (1,200 people) just west of Lewisburg (The Coolest Town in the U.S., according to one magazine) whose claim to fame is its July 4 celebration, the largest in the Mountain State. We stayed in the Old Victorian Inn hard by the Greenbrier River (nestled quietly in the middle of the flood zone and a few feet away from the C&O railroad track). It was noisy, wet, beautiful, gray and full of stuff that begged questions.
Our host, a 60-ish rumpled and bright-eyed woman named Judy Lewallen, owns the 13-room rental house that’s a bit more than 100 years and another home of 16 rooms up the road a bit. She cleans them both and prepares a superb “cowboy breakfast,” as my mother would have termed the overdone table. She’s also full of stories.
Alderson is the home of the federal women’s prison, the one that housed Martha Stewart for eight months, Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally of WWII infame, as well as the Manson Girls and Squeeky Fromme, who tried to kill President Gerald Ford. Martha Stewart took part in an Alderson cell decorating contest and–gulp–didn’t win it. Judy’s husband, who was mayor of Alderson at the time, judged the contest. He said Mrs. Stewart’s cell, “Just wasn’t the best.” Period.
Judy says the inmates at the prison are primarily white collar federal prisoners and don’t pose a substantial danger to anybody. In the past, they have worked with the community in one way or another, she says.
Alderson is the home for a bunch of lion statues, all inspired because a circus accidentally let loose a couple of lions in the 1880s and Alderson adopted them and their offspring. The lions often wandered around town, scaring the hell out of visitors, but were basically harmless. Alderson still has a lion leash law, one of the few in our part of the world, says Judy.
One of the real pleasures of our little trip was the food. We ate at a little tree-hugger cafe in Lewisburg Saturday at noon and had an expensive, but quite good (and quite small) lunch. I ate my first olive-sized capers and loved them atop a salad of arugula, roast peppers, red onions, smoked trout and pomegranate vinaigrette. The good meal, though, came at Stuart’s, a blue plate special restaurant that features all-you-can eat days with shrimp, barbecue and the like. Margie and I had a taste for barbecue and she went for pulled pork and I for ribs. We scored big. I thought the side dishes (cole slaw and corn on the cob, were pedestrian), but the barbecue was so good that it compensated for any shortcoming.
We were also treated to the world class performance by the woman who may be my favorite waitress of all time, a middle-aged (and quite youthful looking) blonde with an airplane landing light smile and the energy of a kindergarten class. Her name is Kami and even if the food had been awful, the trip to Stuart’s would have been a high point.
I didn’t get my screw-up–and every trip has at least one–but I drove more than 100 miles out of our way to get to Alderson because of my refusal to read directions and the planted notion that Alderson was south of Roanoke. That’s because I used to white water raft in West By God and in order to get to the Lower New, we went by Blacksburg and west. Alderson is closer to Covington (north of Roanoke) than it is to Blacksburg (by a lot). But it turned out to be a fun drive on a day when we didn’t have a damn thing else to do anyway.
On the way back, we tried to get into the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, but were denied admission (my car is not a Cadillac), so we went over to the old railroad terminal, which is now a Christmas store and Margie loved that. Great stuff inside.
At Clifton Forge, we were treated to the parked steam engine 614, which carries passenders and is apparently owned by the Greenbrier, since its lettering says so and since it’s dark green. One of the prettiest trains ever, I’d say.
Picked up my embroidery this morning in Salem (it was late by three days, thus preventing me from wearing it to the writers conference this past weekend, but, hey, it’s here). I’m satisfied with it, except that the light blue of “Emeritus” doesn’t show very well in a photo. It’s clear enough in person, though.
This is Captain Emeritus, my favorite ex-wife’s take on me being the new Director Emeritus of the conference. Christina has always been the funny one.
My buddy Marj Easterling of Big Lick Screen Printing made up a batch of these Snowflake T-shirts–I hope with me in mind–and I picked one up today. It was too small, but I’ll get a bigger one tomorrow (I hope).
“Snowflake” is a term the far right uses to denigrate those of us on the left because to them it indicates we are sensitive, kind, thoughtful, progressive in outlook and … well … everything they are not. I like it a lot and will proudly wear it (if I can get one big enough).
For the second year in a row, the Roanoke Women’s March was big, robust, enthusiastic and, frankly, joyful. This is a movement unlike any I’ve seen before because its anger is layered with a positive coating that is broad and deep. It is a movement of action, not just words (witness the overturning of Virginia’s government in the last election).
There was even a positive sign from those most directly responsible for the discontent among American women these days: Republicans. A group of Republican women set up an information table at the rally and talked positively to anybody willing to engage them. I was deeply impressed by the creativity and courage of these women, something I would not have respected. My friend Roland Lazenby said, “That’s how conversation begins” and with conversation comes solutions.
Here is some of what the march–which drew a crowd I’d estimate as 30 percent larger than last year’s 3,500. I’d say it was between 5,000 and 5,500 and there seems to be general agreement on those numbers from those who were there. Most of the news media in the Roanoke Valley seem hesitant to estimate beyond “thousands.” At least there’s that. Last year a TV station estimated 700.
The following story was written as a sidebar for a magazine piece on the History of Sex. The main story was cancelled because … well, sensitivity in an era of sexual uncertainty. I thought it worth a run, though, so I’m putting it up as a blog post. Marj Easterling is an impressive woman on many fronts and she is gaining bona fides as a genuine leader of the women’s movement in Roanoke.
It was a couple of generations ago that married people could not occupy the same bed on TV and god help anybody who uttered the vulgar “pregnant” out loud.
In 2017—and for quite a few years before that—we have had suburban women meeting at Tupperware-style parties where the items on sale are sex toys. And nobody’s embarrassed.
Marj Easterling, a tall, statuesque, impressive woman, who owns Big Lick Screen Printing and works as a dental hygienist, used to be one of the women selling vibrators, bondage whips, strap-ons, creams, ointments and cock rings (among many others) at these parties. It is an industry worth $15 billion, same as the chiropractic medicine, spa, recorded music and plastic surgery industries, for example.
Marj, who grew up in western Bedford County, was an exotic dancer for 10 years prior to her sales position, working elegant clubs in places as diverse as New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Alaska, Russia and Japan. She was never a hooker, though “some of the girls had sugar daddies. I never did.” Often, she says, in some of the better clubs, “I’d spend the entire evening with my clothes on, just talking to a man.”
But she had two sons (Dorien, 13, and Julien, 21) and finally needed to be more settled than globe-trotting and returned home. The stripping (sometimes for the mob), she says, often resulted in “stupid fucking money” and the pay for home sales of the sex toys was, and remains for those involved, quite good.
Along the way, she has been an inveterate college class-taker, a woman in love with education.
Her dancing started at 19 when she wrecked her car and got a job—temporary, she thought—to pay for repairs. “It was the hardest thing I ever did,” she says. “I was exposed and vulnerable and I couldn’t dance my way out of a wet bag. So I just walked around and people gave me money.” She never danced in Roanoke because “there were a lot of shitty clubs here.”
“The places I worked were strict and high-end,” she says. “You couldn’t have purple hair and you had to cover your tattoos. I wore a $400 evening gown” two decades ago. “Hooking would have cut off the money supply, so almost nobody did it. … We mostly worked conventions.” For 15 years, she worked the exotic dance circuit “walking around,” engaging in conversation, sometimes “wearing a bathing suit and never taking it off.”
Then came Tasteful Treasures, a big name in sex toys. “I was an independent contractor,” she says. “Had to buy the party kit and set up parties in people’s homes. The company was strict about presentation. The philosophy was, ‘You can do anything tastefully.’” There “is a difference between porno and art.”
From the beginning, the attitude was informational, not judgmental, and women reacted positively to the presentation. “It was empowering and educational,” says Easterling. “When I first started, people were shocked. Some of the women didn’t even know their own (anatomical) parts, let alone the physiology of getting from Point A to Point B” sexually. She presented workshops that helped educate.
Now, she says, “Sales is sales. I learned to read people as a stripper. They wanted conversationand entertainment. I think it taught me to be successful, helped me acquire boldness.”
Her company, she says, was bought by Love Links and “the No. 1 distributor in the U.S. lives in Roanoke. There are a bunch of groups here” still meeting and still selling toys. Still making a lot of money.
“These professions,” says Marj, “paid my way through college and prepaid a college fund for the boys. They supported [us], paying for karate, trips and classes all for my kids.” As any mom would want to do.
Marj has strong opinions on sexual harassment and has developed a strong defense simply by exhibiting a powerful presence. This is from another piece I recently wrote, which was omitted from the published story.
Marj says the sexual harassment began almost as soon as she reached puberty. “A neighbor offered me money to take off my shirt and a math teacher said it would improve my grades” if she cooperated with him.
She says she’s had “three stalkers, one of them a woman.”
“It is a rape culture, though people deny it. Social media is a market place. I send a friend an innocuous message and get 200 messages with two [penis] pix back. It is a constant dodge and parry, not just physically, but also verbal.”
Marj says she doesn’t have to endure sexual harassment often “because of the way I carry myself. I don’t dress provocatively” and she is self-confident, assertive and “I don’t look like an easy target. I look like I won’t take any [harassing]. The last person to get harassed doesn’t look like an easy victim.”
The beat goes on at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. This year, its 11th, Liz Long took over the reins as director and I moved to Director Emeritus (which I had to learn to spell) and the feel was slightly different, but just as good.
Liz brought a whole different group of ideas and colleagues to the conference and pulled in Writers Digest’s Jane Freidman as keynote speaker and teacher of one of the classes. Jane, who lives in Charlottesville, was a smash. I believe her to be as good a keynote speaker as we’ve had in the 11 years of the conference.
It was a long day (and night) with full classes, a lot of networking and–for me–a true joy. (And, hey, the food was great: breakfast for lunch with biscuits and gravy; the only time during the year I allow myself that.)
Hollins University’s annual Festival of New Works is always a highlight of the dark days of winter and this year’s performances have already been called “the biggest and most ambitious collection of new plays we have ever attempted.” That sounds Trumpian, but Todd Ristau, who said it, is a man who knows his stuff—he’s the director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins—and he knows excellence.
All of the shows in the Hollins/Mill Mountain Theatre collection are in the Waldron Theatre (across from Fire Station No. 1) in Roanoke. You can order tickets here. “Ouija” is Jan. 19-21; “COLD” is Jan. 27; “She Made Space,” is Jan. 28; and “Absence Makes the Heart” is Feb. 1-4.
Says Todd: “Four full productions [have] already [been] recognized for excellence … with regional awards. ‘Ouija,’ by Maura Campbell is a remarkable script about the love of two sisters and the triumph of redemption over regret. Under Bob Moss’s direction, this play is also astonishingly beautiful.
“‘Absence Makes The Heart,’ by Sean Abley, is a fast paced, modern re-telling of ‘The Red Shoes.’ It’s funny, sad, and so good! I’ve been itching to direct this play for two years. Last year, I directed ‘COLD’ by Ben Jolivet and I’m incredibly proud of the work we did on that show—we are bringing it back for one performance. I’m delighted audiences will have another chance to see it.
“Meredith Dayna Levy is perhaps the most successful playwright at Hollins, with dozens of productions and national awards. Her play ‘She Made Space’ is also getting a revival this year and everyone who has ever loved someone should see it. It is as courageous, funny and full of love as the playwright herself.”
Today is Margie’s 63rd birthday and Mama Nature greeted her at wake-up with a blanket of snow, more falling rapidly.
It’s been a good month or so for my sweetie. Her hours have been adjusted at work to give her nice breaks of four days at a clip every couple of weeks. She deserves that because she’s so very good at taking care of residents (she won’t let me call them “old people”) at Warm Hearth Village in Blacksburg.