The Strawberry Queen

Anna M. Phillips: PLANT CITY — In a strawberry patch thirty minutes outside of Tampa, just past the exit for a dinosaur-themed amusement park, Maria Zuñiga pulls on her mud-covered rubber boots and ties a bandana under her dark, quiet eyes.

Now in her third season of strawberry picking, her latex-gloved hands know the most efficient choreography. Her body knows to stay bent at the waist, like a runner frozen mid-toe-touch. If you were to pass her from the road, you would see only the curve of her back silhouetted against the sun.

On this morning, she puts in earbuds to fill the silence of forty other workers picking fruit. There is no conversation, save for a polite exchange as the laborers near the ends of their rows and turn to see whose flats are nearly full. “Cuántos le falta?” they ask each other. How many are you missing?

100 Years

Joe Kovac Jr.: On the evening of July 14, 1915, a couple went into the Southern Railway station in Macon and tried to give away a baby. The blond-haired, blue-eyed girl was almost 5 months old, and she wasn’t theirs.

Salvation Army Capt. G.B. Austin was across the way at the Brown House hotel when someone told him. Austin hardly believed it, but he hustled to the station at Ocmulgee and Fifth streets. Built in the 1880s, the depot, replaced by Terminal Station a year later, featured a brick spire that overlooked the tracks.

On a bench in the waiting room, Austin saw a woman with a baby and sat down beside her. The man supposedly with her wasn’t around. Austin told the woman what he had heard.

“I guess I am the one you are looking for,” the woman said.

“Tell me about it,” Austin said, according to an account in the Macon Daily Telegraph.

The Martyr’s Son

Brendan Meyer: John Reeb plodded down the cracked pavement of Washington Street, his thick white beard and frizzy gray hair glowing orange in the setting sun. His feet ached as he moved slowly past the white-brick café on the right, his first footsteps in Selma, Alabama, shadowing the route his father took 50 years earlier.

Sixty-four strides from the café was a 3-foot-wide memorial with a man immaculately carved on the front. John weaved between photographers, reporters, tourists and locals, and faced the front of the monument.

There, just as he remembered him, was a bronze version of the man he hadn’t seen in 50 years. There was the dimple on his left cheek. There was the greased hair, always slicked to the left, the rimmed circular glasses and the bow tie.

There was his father, James Reeb.

A Job, Not A Parable

Anne Hull: The Hardee’s biscuit slides toward the heat lamp, and the uniforms are waiting.

“That one’s mine,” says Brandi Garner, snagging the cinnamon biscuit. A digital clock overhead is tracking each customer’s wait time in the drive-through and transmitting the results back to corporate. Brandi folds the bag so the heat won’t escape, then leans out into the 8-degree wind chill with snow spitting sideways on her face and farmland all around. At home later she’ll have a few nice sips of Equate Stomach Relief, but now she’s counting four sets of headlights and two employees who called in sick.

“Let’s go,” Brandi says, drumming her fingers. “Where’s the egg and cheese?”

Two weeks earlier in Washington, a former Hardee’s biscuit shift worker had appeared in front of 32 million Americans to present her vision for the country.­

Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, recalled growing up in the small Iowa town of Red Oak and working the biscuit shift at Hardee’s to pay for college. Ernst, 44, cited her own striving as proof that opportunity is available to any American who wants it.

“You just need the freedom to dream big and a whole lot of hard work,” she said.

Brandi didn’t see the speech. Neither did any of her co-workers. They had never thought of the biscuit shift as a parable. Hardee’s is a job, and paychecks come out every other Wednesday. Trina Starkey, who is 18, spends hers on rent and ramen noodles. Emily Abell, who is 20, buys diapers. Brandi, who is 31, drives around Creston with a bank envelope to pay her bills, including a stop at Leslie’s Dance Emporium to cover her daughter’s tumbling class.

Rez Ball

Dirk Chatelain: WAYNE, Neb. — Mike Barry bounces back and forth from the gymnasium to the ticket window, running the numbers in his head.

Inside, bleachers are filling fast. Outside, the line snakes down the sidewalk almost 100 yards. He has a problem.

Barry has managed Wayne State’s facilities for 17 years, all the way back to the heyday of Greg McDermott. He has never locked the doors.

If fans keep coming, he isn’t going to have a choice.

He knew this Class C-1 clash would draw a big crowd. District finals are always popular. And Norfolk Catholic has a devoted fan base. The mystery was on the other side: the 24-1 Winnebago Indians.

Three nights earlier, Barry had attended Winnebago’s subdistrict final. He witnessed the best dunk he’d seen all year — “That was worth the price of admission right there.” He noticed the buzz around the region. Even casual basketball fans were talking about the state’s best Native American high school team in decades.

“This isn’t taking anything away from Norfolk Catholic,” Barry says. “But I had a sense that there were a lot of people rooting for Winnebago.”

An hour before tipoff, a Winnebago fan had told Barry, “Hey, the town is closed. We brought everybody.”

(thanks, Nigel)

The Irredeemable Chris Rose

Michael Patrick Welch: Chris Rose’s Pulitzer crystal sits in his small French Quarter apartment, its glass badly chipped from various accidents. The disfigured accolade for his work on a reporting team at the Times-Picayune is a reminder of both prowess and loss.

“The way the people of New Orleans made me feel after Hurricane Katrina—like I was holding this fucking city together all by myself,” Rose tells me at the Napoleon House restaurant and bar, in a graffitied payphone nook where he’s eaten, drunk, and written for a dozen-plus years. “At the time, we had Ray Nagin as mayor; all the city institutions and individuals had failed everyone. The Times-Picayune really stepped it up. And I was the face of The Times-Picayune.”

Rose’s collection of post-Katrina Picayune columns, 1 Dead In Attic (Simon and Schuster), became a New York Times bestseller in 2007. Since then, New Orleans’ news community has seemingly cast Rose aside. No journalism entity in town will hire him, he tells me, not even freelance. If they do answer his calls, they say he’s too much of a risk. And so for all of 2014, the 53-year-old Rose was waiting tables to pay rent and feed his three kids.

Finding Solace, In A Book Club

Robert Samuels: Robert Barksdale steps in front of the students in an English class at Eastern High School, searching for some semblance of redemption.

“For me, school is a treat because I never got to be in school, for real,” he begins. He always envisioned visiting a school to speak to students but was beginning to realize the pressures of standing in front of the classroom. He scans the room and says: “Y’all are a little intimidating.”

Barksdale was around their age when he chose the streets over school. By 16, he was arrested and convicted on armed robbery charges, the culmination of a series of ­ill-conceived attempts to be a man.

Now, at 25, he is one. But after spending so many of his formative years behind bars, he wondered: What sort of man would he be? Behind him were two former inmates. They hoped they might find the answers together.

Carrot Top In Exile

Chris Jones: Tonight is Wednesday night in Las Vegas, which means Scott Thompson has to become Carrot Top a little earlier than he does most nights. He has Tuesdays off, so yesterday he didn’t have to be Carrot Top at all if he didn’t want to be, except he left the serenity of his house to have lunch with his friend Nicolas Cage, who was wearing a white leather suit. Cage, knowing that a white leather suit has a way of changing everybody in its presence, had asked in advance whether it was okay for him to wear it, and Thompson agreed to provide the necessary counterweight. Perhaps feeling on a roll, Cage has just texted Thompson with another proposal. The rodeo is in town, and tomorrow Cage wants to go to a western-themed gift show called Cowboy Christmas to buy Thompson a pair of chaps. This time last year, Cage and Thompson stumbled into Cowboy Christmas, and Cage came out the other side in full cowboy getup, including his own pair of chaps and a southern accent that took him a long while to shake. Cage was transformed to his soul that day, and now he wants Thompson to join him in league with the horsebreakers. So tomorrow: chaps.

But first comes Wednesday. Six nights each week, 240 nights each year, the fifty-year-old Thompson appears as Carrot Top down at the Luxor, playing between Menopause the Musical (“The Hilarious Celebration of Women and the Change!”) and a burlesque show called Fantasy (“The Strip’s Biggest Tease”). And on three of those nights—Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Mondays—Thompson has to arrive early for a preshow meet and greet. His most fervent admirers pay an additional forty-nine dollars on top of their seventy-one-dollar tickets to chat with him in the theater’s lobby, take pictures with him, and get his autograph.

When Thompson surfaces from his dressing room, his personal assistant—a deeply loyal and connected forty-eight-year-old man named Jeff Molitz—is at his shoulder, as he almost always is. Molitz, nicknamed Porno Jeff because of some work he does on the side, is short and bearded, with a long ponytail and a closet filled with Carrot Top–branded clothing. “It’s the uniform,” Porno Jeff says. They met through Porno Jeff’s local Mail Boxes Etc. franchise, which Thompson sometimes used to ship his trunks of comedic props, including what he calls Hugh Hefner’s walker (it has a big dildo taped to the front of it) and Rosie O’Donnell’s buffet tray (there are five of them). Nine years ago, Porno Jeff became Thompson’s full-time assistant, and he has since evolved from Man Friday into celebrity-by-proxy. He hosts a Super Bowl party at his house that has become massive enough that Monster Energy drinks and Kraft Nabisco sponsor it; he calls up a picture on his phone of the more than two thousand packets of Kool-Aid that arrived earlier today.

Gives, And Takes Away

Leah Sottile: CALDWELL, Idaho — In the heart of the Northwest, there is Idaho. And in the heart of Idaho, there is God. And God, residents believe, blesses some and takes others away early.

Like Neil Jacob Randolph, a 3-year-old buried in Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Caldwell in 1982. “Sleep on sweet Neil — and take thy rest,” his headstone reads. “God called thee home. He thought it best.”

In another row are the graves of four infants marked with identical headstones on which “Infant Bailey” is hand-scrawled in capital letters — pressed into wet cement decades ago.

Many of the nearly 600 people buried here were Followers of Christ — a Christian sect that believes in faith healing and does not allow members — including sick children — to see doctors or use modern medicine. The Pentecostal religion, founded in the 1930s, has long had a presence in Western states. Former members say the church has become increasingly secretive about its beliefs and population after years of negative attention for deaths related to spiritual healing.

Several of the children buried here at Peaceful Valley Cemetery died from preventable ailments like pneumonia and food poisoning. And 70 percent of these children died after 1972, when religious exemptions protecting faith healers from charges of neglect, abuse and murder were enacted in Idaho and around the country. If a child dies or is abused in Idaho, law states that a parent can’t be found guilty if they believe in spiritual healing.