Our Sidewalk Chalk

I spotted it on the way back from an early morning Food Lion run this past weekend.

A woman stood at the foot of neighbor’s concrete driveway. She was smiling, reading something, but I couldn’t really tell what. So, later that afternoon after a beer-and-bread run down to Bestway, our seven-aisle neighborhood grocery, I drove another two blocks to see what she saw.

I stopped and read. Then, I remembered. On Friday, on our neighborhood listserve, someone encouraged neighbors to write inspiring messages with chalk on our driveways and sidewalks.

So, I stood there, pulled out my iPhone and took a photo.

Just what I needed. Seems like the woman I saw earlier needed it, too.

And what did we see? That’s below.


Nice. Now, to the news.

As of this past weekend, nearly 330,000 people worldwide have contracted the invisible killer we know as the coronavirus.

More than 14,000 people have died, with most of them being from China and Italy. Here on our side of the Atlantic, where “shelter in place” and “social distancing” have become part of our everyday vocabulary, the coronavirus has infected more than 31,000 people and killed nearly 400 people as of Sunday.

And those numbers, we hear, will only go up. A lot.

As we all know, 45 likes to call it the “Chinese virus” because it originated from China. Seems he always has to blame somebody for his incapacity to lead and his capacity to lie.


It doesn’t hide the fact that our new invisible killer has created the biggest public health threat since the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish flu. That killed 50 million people worldwide, with 675,000 in the U.S. No one wants to see that happen again. So, everyone is scrambling to find ways to fight what we can’t see.

Congress wants to pass to a $2 trillion economic stimulus bill. That’s the biggest stimulus package in our country’s history. That’s a lot of zeros. And right now, that ain’t happening.

Meanwhile, hospitals want to make sure they have enough beds, masks, ventilators, just everything, to treat to sick. Right now, the doctors, nurses and everyone else on the front lines of this crisis are worried about what will happen if they don’t get what they need.

They’ll be forced to play God — or the Grim Reaper. With the equipment that they have, they will be forced to pick who will do die and who will not.

Here in Greensboro, N.C., my adopted hometown I call GSO, we’re close to becoming like California, Louisiana or New York.

We hear constantly that we could go on lockdown any day now, and we won’t be able to leave our house except for trips to the grocery store or the pharmacy.

In a press conference Monday afternoon, our governor said no to “shelter in place” – for now.

So, as our drumbeat of dread grows, some folks in my neighborhood grabbed pieces of chalk this past weekend, turned sidewalks and driveways into their own personal canvas and began to draw.

It’s gotta be kids. It was beautiful. And it came on the first weekend of spring.

Everywhere I walked, I saw the handiwork of our neighborhood chalk artists.

I found a rainbow in front of by Lindley Elementary.

That’s above.

I found a pair of recognizable song lyrics on Camden Road. You know ’em.

That’s below.

beatles -- john

One from John.



Another from George. The “Here Comes” is there below the frame. Really.

Then, a block from my house at the corner or Tremont and Sylvan, I found a litany of how-to-pass-your-time ideas cross-stitched across a sidewalk.

Here are some:




All good ideas, right?

Of course.

It’ll help settle our nerves, and we get to think about something other than what’s next. Because no one knows what’s next. Everyone is dancing on a razor blade.

It reminds me of growing up in Charleston, S.C., my hometown, where humidity enveloped everyone in the slow sizzle of those Lowcountry summers. You could walk out the door, especially from an air-conditioned house, and it would hit you like walking into a furnace. You couldn’t shake it, and when you stayed outside, it hung on you like some kind of hair shirt.

Our coronavirus hangs on us, too. You can’t shake it. You can sense it almost everywhere you go. And there’s no better place to sense it — to see it, hear it and feel it — than walking into your local grocery store.

Right after daybreak on Saturday, Kath and I drove to a Food Lion a few miles from our house. We wanted to stock our  pantry for our potential lockdown. Right away, I knew we faced some kind of serious.

All we had to do was walk in.


The bread aisle at the Food Lion off West Market in GSO.

I stood in the back near Aisle 3, and with my arms draped across our grocery cart, I took it all in.

The bread aisle was bare, all the chicken and beef were gone, and the toilet paper and hand sanitizer had vanished from the shelves like some trick of magic.

But this wasn’t magic. This was fear. People were scared. That shouldn’t surprise any of us. Consider these two numbers: 2.2 million and 1.1 million.

Computer models created by researchers at Imperial College in London show that 2.2 million people will die in the United States if we don’t do anything, and 1.1 million people if we do what we’re doing now. These very models were the very things that convinced the White House to get real serious about the serious.

Now, think about those numbers for a minute. Then, let’s go to Texas, the Lone Star State.

If 2.2 million die, that’s like losing all the people who live in Houston, our country’s fourth largest city.

If 1.1 million die, that’s like losing all the people who live in Dallas, our country’s ninth largest city.

william wan

William Wan

William Wan has had to think about those numbers a lot.. He’s the health and science reporter for The Washington Post, and he’s talked to loads of epidemiologists and other experts for his work.

He talked about it Friday on WaPo’s podcast, “Post Reports.” I caught it Saturday afternoon. I was walking our family’s dogs, Strider and Ross – I’ve been doing that a lot lately — and 10 minutes in, as GSO’s West End Place slopes into the bubbling creek and leafy hardwoods of College Park, I heard this:

“This is why we need to act because as urgent as things feel right now, I don’t think they’re urgent enough to be honest.

“A lot of the experts we talked to in the hospitals, I think there is a lot of frustration that America – at least parts of America – doesn’t realize what is happening and how bad this could be and how we all need to move much quicker than we are — or a lot of people are going to die.

“As I was hearing all this, I think there was a decision — for me at least — that it was OK for us to paint an accurate picture. This is what the models show. We all need to get into gear.

“And we’d rather be wrong in saying some of the worst-case scenarios — and them not come  true — instead of being right and (waiting until it’s) too late in preparing.”


It’s enough to make you hunker down, storm a grocery store for supplies, buy loads of ammo, watch Esquire’s new list of feel-good movies on Netflix and dismiss everything you hear.

But time out.

We can’t just wear a mask, spend our lives six feet away from everyone else for the next few weeks — or months — and remember to sing some tune for 20 seconds to make sure we wash our hands long enough.

Take Brian Clarey. And Doug Davis.

Brian wrote.

Doug played.

And we’re all better for it.


The tools of a weekend artist

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was running the region’s alt-weekly TriadStyle, a local waiter with shoulder-length hair walked in carrying a portfolio of clips. From what I remember, he was wearing his nightlife uniform — black pants and white shirt — and he kept the stories he had written in a black portfolio as big as a lunch tray.

That was Brian.

When I first met him, he was quiet. Hard to believe, right?

He brought in clips from his days – and nights – of writing freelance for two alt-weeklies  in New Orleans, the city of his alma mater and his lively, Oh-my-Gawd spot as a bartender and freelance writer.

What I read had energy. Verve. And it was funny. So, I hired Brian, and he became TriadStyle’s nightlife columnist. Several times, I had to reign him because he was always taking chances with his writing. I did love that. But our publisher? Not so much.

I’ll save those stories for later.

Anyway, in the spring of ‘03, when TriadStyle died because of money problems and morphed into the N&R’s arts & entertainment weekly Go Triad, I brought Brian with me. Had to. I needed his talent to pull together this new mag.

Plus, I always loved to see what he would come up with after his nightly adventures with a notebook in his hand.

He continued his life as a journalist vampire. A few years later, though, I knew I’d probably lose him. I heard whispers of a new alt-weekly cropping up, and I told Brian about it. I urged him to apply for the editor’s job because I told him he needed a steady gig with health insurance.

At the time, Brian was married with two young boys, no older than 4. He was getting by on freelance work, and his wife, Jill, had just given birth a few weeks before to their third child, a little girl named Rosaleen.

I told him I’d be his reference. He applied, and he got the job at YES! Weekly. He did well.


Today, Brian’s hair is much shorter. Mine is longer than his, matter of fact. And his kids? They’re older.

Jill and Brian call their daughter Rosie, and she’s now a freshman at GSO’s Weaver Academy for the Performing and Visual Arts. Her brother, Donovan, is a senior there, and her oldest brother, Beck, a Weaver grad, is a sophomore at ASU, majoring in guitar performance.

How time flies, right?

Brian is now the publisher of Triad City Beat, the region’s fine alt-weekly. He started it six years ago. Like with YES!, Brian has done well. He and his writers at TCB have won their share of awards. But maybe the biggest is about to come.

Last week, Brian stepped into the breach of our coronavirus confusion and began doing daily roundups of how the coronavirus is affecting our state as well as Guilford County, the home of TCB and most everyone else we know.

He’s posting them on FB as well as TCB’s website.

This past weekend, I shot Brian a private FB message and asked him about the why of it all. He wrote:

“So — I started it for the simple reason that so much news had broken since we put the paper out that morning. We had already begun making the pivot to a digital first newsroom because things had been moving so fast. And I tossed the idea out to my reporters, but they had been working so hard on other stories that I just did it myself.”

And the reaction?

“Pretty good, I guess. I’m doing it because it’s still our mission to keep our readers informed, and our work — the work of all journalists — is so important right now. It’s getting clicks and shares, and I hope that it will get a reputation as a daily source for local, accurate headlines.

“Not sure if I’m going to write on tonight, but I probably will. You know how hard that habit dies.”

Oh, I do.

Now, to Doug.

He’s doing the same thing – except with a guitar in his hand.


Doug Davis in his element.

I knew Doug from my own vampire days at Go Triad. I had hung with him at his home studio, and I had watched him onstage more than a few times at The Garage, the most excellent music room in Winston-Salem that closed a few years back.

He’s one of the Triad’s talented musicians, a married father with a sweet disposition. And he has helped create one of the coolest things in our Musical Triad — the Vagabond Saints’ Society, a group of local musician all-stars who choose a group – or better yet a group’s most memorable album – and play it live.

Check out this link.

And this link.

And this link.  Click, and you’ll se Doug channeling a bit of Tom Petty.

So nice.

And so much fun.

With our Code Red days of coronavirus, Doug took to FB. He had no stage. But he had his house. Once he figured out how to work some of the software, he played live for anyone who wanted to listen.

And I listened.

See, when all this coronavirus mess began, I found myself scrolling often through FB. I felt this need to connect, to see how other folks were coping with the weirdness around us.

That’s when I caught Doug.

He played these 20-minute concerts on FB. He played favorites, he took requests on the spot through FB, and he raised money for out-of-work musicians and other nocturnal members of our local gig economy. He also encouraged other musicians he knew to stage their own online shows and play songs from other local artists.

I loved it. I even shot Doug a virtual shout-out on FB when he played “The Whole In The Moon” from The Waterboys, a group both Doug and I love.

But the bigger deal was this: I found myself watching Doug play on FB again and again. I shared it on my FB page, and I checked his page every day to make sure I could catch him playing live one more time.

I couldn’t get over how comforting it felt.

So, like I did with Brian, I shot Doug a private FB message this past weekend. I wanted to know the why behind the why. He wrote:

DOUG-2“The 20-minute concerts have just been my attempt to do something tangible and immediate for some folks in the music community that are suffering from losing work.

“I don’t have any great illusions about what we can accomplish here; everyone, across the spectrum, has a deepening burden right now, and I’m still feeling out how effective any of this can be.

“But I just figured that if, with a moderate expensive of my time, we can direct a couple hundred bucks to someone that’s financially adrift, well, that’s an easy decision.”

And the reaction?

“I think, on reflection, that the biggest impact for me is to see the huge numbers of comments and interactions from and with friends and acquaintances far beyond the usual scope of these kinds of things.

“Which shows me that people really are watching and paying attention, and that there’s a real hunger out there to connect. I certainly don’t want to be overly “Kumbaya” about this – there’s every indication that dark days may be ahead of us, and a bunch of music videos aren’t going to save us.

“But it does show how much empathy and craving for human interaction is out there, right now.”

I’ve found that empathy, too.

I found that online, too. In church.


My Rev

The Rev. Julie Peeples, my longtime minister, started going live on FB last week. She began  doing services on the church’s FB page to keep her congregants out of harm’s way as well as deliver some sort of hope in our world of so much uncertainty.

She did that Sunday from the small chapel at Greensboro’s Congregational United Church of Christ. Kath and I participated. We read. Then, Julie stepped up and preached. It seems she was smitten by the same thing that caught my eye this past weekend.

Messages written in sidewalk chalk.

The messages she saw were written in pink and blue, green and yellow. Like this one:

 “Stay well. We’ll get through this.”

She talked about passing a Little Free Library, those quaint structures in people’s front yards that are no bigger than a birdhouse. But this time, the Little Free Library wasn’t stocked with books. It was stocked with canned goods.

She talked about passing a restaurant with a sign out front thanking its patrons for their support.

And she talked about ending up at the church’s labyrinth, walking its circular path of stones, looking down and seeing the flowers blooming near her feet.

In her sermon, she said:

 “None of those wonderful things will fix all of this, of course. But they’re signs of hope, of life, of the way we are still connected. We are learning new ways to give what we can even when it feels like we don’t have much to offer.

“My anger and frustration is legitimate. And so is yours. But my walk made me remember what matters most.”

About ten minutes later, Julie ended her sermon this way:

“Jesus tells us what matters: Love God, love yourself and love others. All that may have gotten more complicated these days, but we are resourceful and resilient people.

“We still have each other. We have that abundant, limitless source of grace. Some day, when we come through this, we will all look back and say, ‘Yes, it was so hard. But look at what the virus couldn’t take away from us.’

“And some day, when we’re driving our children, our grandkids and our great grandkids berserk with stories of the great pandemic, we will be able to tell them that through it all we remembered what mattered most.”

What matters most. So, what is that? Well, it’s what we see around us.

Brian writes.

Doug plays.

Julie preaches.

We’re all looking for ways to help one another. We play guitar, we pick up chalk as thick as your thumb and write something inspiring or we chase down reliable information we can trust to calm our fears about what unsettles us every day.

In doing so, we become connected.

Through sidewalk chalk.

Through music.

Through a daily news update in pixels.

We see each other as one, and we realize we’re all in this together. That’s what community is all about, right?


Richard Rohr

As Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and spiritual writer, says: “We cannot face large-scale crises as individuals; we cannot carry the pain of this reality on our own, nor can we only look out for ourselves. The pain is communal and so too must be the response.”

True that. Now, to me.

After seeing Brian and Doug step up and do what they could, I felt driven to do something, too.

So, I acted.

Over the weekend, I created a FB page. I called it Jeri’s GSO, the name of my old N&R blog, and I started posting some of my old human-interest columns that I wrote from July 2006 until October 2014 for the N&R, my old professional home.

You’ll find it here.

Why? Simple really. Maybe you feel the same way.

These days, I feel pretty helpless. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. But I knew I wanted to do more than think constantly about how far away I need to be from someone or about how I need to sing the opening verse of Grand Rank Railroad’s “Some Kind of Wonderland” to make sure I wash my hands for the requisite 20 seconds every time.

I admit, it began to drive me a bit bonkers.

That’s when I thought about my old columns.

I figured I could repost them on FB three times a week – on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, my old three-a-week column schedule – and I hoped it could help someone in  some small way deal with this freakishly surreal time surrounding us.

I know I’ve got enough columns — more than 1,200. But more importantly, I know what I always tried to do as a columnist. I tried to find stories that showed us who we are, how we live and what we’re capable of in our corner of the South.

That, I believe, will never change. And today, as we face down the biggest public health crisis in more than a century, I figured we need to be reminded of that — now more than ever.

So far, I’ve posted two columns. That included the first one I wrote. It ran right after July Fourth, 2006.

I hadn’t read it in, like, forever. But I did Saturday night. Like Julie, I wrote about what connects us and what makes us … us.

I ended my first column this way.

After more than 20 years as a journalist, some stories I’ve found over the years have had that touch of Technicolor, a way-out-there weirdness.

I love those discoveries.

But remember this:

My sister convinced my parents to spell my name like a girl.

My cousin once earned extra money as a masked, spandex-clad wrestler named Jessie Storm.

And my favorite restaurant in Charleston, S.C., my hometown, happened to be a small family-run shack snug beside a salt marsh where I drank longnecks, ate fried shrimp off paper plates and signed my name on the ceiling.

Yeah, I stood on the table to do that.

I do love those personal stories, too.

They zero in on what UNCG professor Michael Parker said about writing once. He called the craft “an attempt to dice some small halo of light from the murkiness of this life.’’

I like that. It reminds me why I wear my bracelet.

It’s a cheap thing: 17 plastic beads hanging on a piece of elastic purple string. But I wear every day because my daughter made it for me. And every time I see it dangling from my left wrist, particularly when I hold one of those skinny reporter notebooks, it reminds me of what’s important.

It’s that exhausting yet exhilarating adventure of raising two kids, loving my wife, keeping them close and grimacing – with affection – when my 4-year-old daughter screams in her thick-voweled Southern accent, “Big Fat Daddy!’’

And that ain’t a blues-soaked chant, y’all.

It’s simply a snapshot in time, an idiosyncratic tick, that resonate with all of us.

It makes us who we are.



Words to live by from a sidewalk near you.



7 thoughts on “Our Sidewalk Chalk

  1. Very warm and comforting! While we all are so different, it just comes down to what most people want… kindness, love and security. Thanks for a great read, I needed it!


  2. Pingback: Four Walls, Six Feet | JRowe's Walk

  3. Pingback: Run, Think, Run | JRowe's Walk

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