Greensboro residents make merry for charity

by Amy Kingsley

Trying to determine the origin of the first Dining for Friends is a bit like trying to piece together the events leading up to the Big Bang. Some here say it started simply, just a few dinner parties timed to coincide, with each attendee leaving a few dollars behind for a good cause. Another man claims he was there at the beginning, when Leon’s Beauty Salon on Lee Street offered five-dollar haircuts to all comers and donated the proceeds to Triad Health Project.

He’s a little hazy on how cheap haircuts evolved into the feast before us. But this memory lapse probably has less to do with the nearly two decades that have passed since that mythical first event than it does with the fact that the man ‘– in true Dining for Friends fashion ‘– has been partying since 2 p.m.

He and his stepsister arrived at the Triad Business and Professional Guild’s bash after an afternoon barbecue in Oak Ridge affiliated with the annual fundraiser. Already full, they pick at paper plates packed with geographical goodies like Hawaiian fruit salad, Mexican pasta salad and Swedish meatballs. The star attraction of this event, catered by Maria’s Catering, is shrimp and grits cooked into a cake. Maria Fangman herself has stacked blocks of the savory concoction onto serving plates.

Shane Burton is pulling double duty at this shindig. He serves on the Guild’s Board of Directors and is also the director of community involvement at the Triad Health Project. So, in addition to planning the Guild’s party, he’s also collecting pledges and tallying up the total.

‘“This is the Guild’s main social event,’” Burton says.

He’s expecting between 400 and 500 people at the height of party time ‘– around 8 p.m. by his reckoning. Besides being a social event, the Guild’s party also tends to be one of the highest grossing of more than 100 officially registered events.

All over the city people are throwing parties. Arriving guests first stop at the host’s table where they make a contribution, pick up a red AIDS awareness ribbon and a ticket to the dessert finale held later on at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Unlike, say, a 10K, this fundraiser panders directly to our vices. Food and drink figure prominently in the night’s events, and the only marathon for most partygoers is the one they make out of attending as many functions as possible.

All that gluttony results in piles of cold, hard cash. Last year’s Dining for Friends earned Triad Health Project about $137,000.

It’s still early in the evening when I have to split the Guild’s party for another bash. Already, about 50 people have congregated under donated tents, sipping the white wine decanted from bottles glistening with condensation.

Roughly a half mile east of the Guild’s gala, downtown luminaries Ches Kennedy and John Overfield are hosting a gathering of their own. Really it’s a collaborative effort, borne from the labor of a longstanding supper club of which they are members.

The party proper is being held at the pair’s house, a Bavarian-style manse. Kennedy and Overfield moved in only six weeks ago. Maria’s Catering is busy tonight, providing the food for this party as well as the one down the street.

‘“I received an invitation and I was honored to get it,’” says Allison Doyle.

The crowd dining under warmly glowing Japanese lanterns certainly includes the cream of Greensboro’s professional class. Conversation saturates the space like department store Muzak as real silverware clinks on real plates.

Kennedy and Overfeld host with enviable aplomb, but it’s the house that is the real draw. One could spend hours ducking through the myriad rooms stacked three stories high. Several probably will, forgoing the dessert finale for an evening of lovely conversation.

I run into Burton again down at the coliseum, where he’s busy collecting checks from party hosts. A crowd of Triad Health Project volunteers greets each person walking through the door with hearty applause.

Inside the coliseum, where people are loading up on sugar and coffee, the variety of Dining for Friends functions becomes manifest. I walk up to a girl dressed in a trash bag.

‘“Our theme was pretty broad,’” says Rosa Brown. ‘“It was movie characters. Do you know the movie Zoolander? Well me and another girl dressed up as models from the Derelicte fashion show.’”

Her church youth group, the Congregational United Church of Christ, hosts a party every year. Brown says a Stepford Wife is walking around somewhere, but I can’t find her in the throngs of people.

So, instead I approach a woman dressed in a toga. She lounges near one of the many dessert tables while her similarly dressed companions dance the Charleston nearby.

‘“We did a basic cookout with an Animal House theme,’” Allison Ward says. ‘“We had beer ’cause it don’t cost nothing.’”

The range of desserts available at the culmination to the night’s events is impossible to accurately describe. The chocolate offerings encompass every geometry and physical state of matter. Alex Amoroso brought samples of every cheesecake on his extensive menu plus a few fresh from the test kitchen.

At around 10:30 I’m packing up to leave, and the tables still hold enough sugary treats to fuel this party until the wee hours. The dance floor in front of the Greensboro Big Band is filling with swing dancers while techno fans crowd a smaller convention room.

On the schedule, it says this party ends at 11 p.m. But as I exit the double doors against a sea of latecomers, I catch the eye of a coliseum employee. He looks resigned to a much longer night.

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