Performer challenges space rules and gender norms

by Jordan Green

He stopped in mid-song, held his hand up in the Supremes traffic stop gesture and turned with a winsome glance to a lady walking out of Tate Street Coffee. Gesturing to a card table with a sign reading ‘“war is a drag,’” he invited her to take a homemade chocolate chip cookie from a heaping plate.

‘“No, but I will take those boots,’” she replied, glancing up from the silver spray-painted platform boots, past brown and tan plaid skirt, past the sheepskin coat and borrowed Girl Scout sash with the iron-on anarchist patch to the tan Panera Bread hat that capped his rouged face accented with heavy eyeliner.

‘“My name is Zelda Foxworthy, and I’m a wilderness girl raising money for the North Carolina Peace and Justice Coalition,’” the performer said to any passersby hurrying through the cold drizzle on a recent Saturday afternoon, breaking from a song-and-dance routine that included the ‘“Theme From Cats’” and Janis Joplin’s ‘“Mercedes Benz.’”

To anyone who broke stride, the performer added: ‘“It’s almost exactly like the Girl Scouts, but we’re about female empowerment and not letting the man push us down.’”

Zelda Foxworthy, a Southern belle with a sometimes raunchy sense of humor, is played by Alistair McQueen, a 16-year-old Greensboro Middle College student. The ‘“wilderness girl’” angle was a new development, stemming from the performer’s run-in with a Greensboro police officer in the same location exactly a week before, on Feb. 4.

A uniformed officer approached McQueen and asked him if he knew he was panhandling, the performer recalled. He replied that he was not panhandling; he was raising money for a charitable organization. They then discussed whether he had permission from the property owner.

Matt Russ, who owns the building at 334-344 Tate Street and is the proprietor of Tate Street Coffee, confirmed that he gave McQueen permission to perform on the sidewalk as long as he didn’t interfere with his customers. Russ’s blessing turned out to be a moot point.

‘“You can either leave or go to jail,’” McQueen remembered the police officer saying. ‘“I said, ‘I don’t want to go to jail in drag alone.’ I wasn’t going to do that. I left so angry.’”

The police tell a different story.

Reached by telephone on Monday, spokeswoman Lt. Jane Allen said an officer responded to a complaint from a beauty supply store about an individual singing on Tate Street at about 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 4.

‘“The officer went into the establishment to speak to the complainant,’” she said. ‘“Upon coming back outside it had begun to rain and the individual moved to the sidewalk under an awning in front of another business. The owner of that business said it was fine for him to be there. The officer was under the impression that the individual was raising money, so it was okay.’”

Despite Allen’s statement that the police allowed McQueen to stay, the performer left under a different impression.

After researching Greensboro city ordinances by reading a Rhinoceros Times article and consulting the website, McQueen concluded that city ordinance makes an exception to the prohibition against soliciting on public sidewalks for the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Shriners and church groups. He also placed a phone call to James Joiner, a member of the nearby St. Mary’s House church. Joiner is the chair of the church’s steering committee.

McQueen thought he might be in trouble again when a police officer parked his car nearby and got out, but instead of harassing him the officer went across the street to eat at Filet of Soul.

McQueen’s table held stacks of fliers and brochures promoting the World Can’t Wait campaign to drive President Bush from power, the Greensboro Community Arts Collective and the Greensboro Burlesque Collective. In the past, McQueen has performed on the street to benefit Triad Health Project. Future performances will raise money to cover legal fees for several people arrested by the police during a protest against the president’s state of the union address in front of the Scene on South Elm Street, he said.

And now McQueen had a new cause: standing up for free speech and free enterprise in the city’s public spaces.

‘“I’m protesting the city’s panhandling law,’” he told several people. ‘“It’s just a way of weeding out the homeless people.’”

A few of the passersby cast uncomfortable glances or curtly dismissed Zelda Foxworthy’s entreaties, but most seemed charmed.

One young woman who stepped out of Tate Street Coffee with a male companion gave the performer an alluring smile, and said, ‘“I love you.’”

‘“I love you too,’” Foxworthy replied. ‘“If you love me, a donation would be sweet. My name is Zelda Foxworthy. I’m raising money for the Peace and Justice Coalition. We’re having a rally in Fayetteville in our very own state of North Carolina to protest the war. I’m going to put my high-heeled foot down to stop George W. Bush.’”

The woman’s next statement was just as succinct: ‘“I’m a Republican.’”

‘“I love you anyway,’” Zelda Foxworthy said.

Soon Joiner, the chair of St. Mary’s House steering committee, came strolling down the sidewalk. McQueen explained his understanding of the exceptions to the panhandling ordinance and asked if the church would sponsor him so he could sidestep the regulation. Joiner suggested he come to 11 o’clock mass and make his proposal to the congregation during announcements.

At 4 p.m., McQueen packed up the card table and counted the money. His take for the day was $36. Even better, he’d avoided any incident with the police.

On Sunday, as if on cue, McQueen noisily let himself into the St. Mary’s House chapel just as the priest, Rev. Charles Hawes, segued from his homily into announcements.

‘“Alistair, we’re glad you’re not in jail,’” Hawes said.

At the Joiner’s prompting, McQueen explained that he was a wilderness girl singing, dancing and giving away cookies to raise money for the NC Peace and Justice Coalition. He told about being harassed by the police, and explained his principled refusal to apply for a panhandler’s license. Noting the exemption for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Shriners and churches, he asked the members of St. Mary’s House to sponsor him.

Some members of the congregation, a small left-leaning group that officially welcomes gays and includes many opponents to the death penalty and the war in Iraq, laughed uproariously. At least one was seen holding his head in his hands.

Rev. Hawes asked McQueen to list the beneficiaries of his fundraising efforts and stated that the proper forum to decide whether to support him would be the steering committee, which meets Saturday.

Inconveniently, it is the same day McQueen plans to give his next performance.

On Monday a deputy city attorney, Terry Wood, said McQueen was within his rights to express anti-war views on the public sidewalk, but the fact that he was soliciting money put him in more ambiguous commercial territory and beyond the clear-cut protection of the First Amendment. Soliciting can only be done on private property with the owner’s permission, he said, and while Russ owns the building he does not own the sidewalk.

He didn’t believe McQueen could apply for a panhandling license ‘— something the performer had already ruled out ‘— as many homeless people do.

‘“He’s not a panhandler,’” Wood said. ‘“That’s someone who solicits money for themselves.’”

Yes, there are exceptions for properly registered charitable organizations and tax-exempt churches, but Wood indicated he was unsure whether a church could extend its privilege to someone not strictly engaged in church activities.

‘“When that happens we’ll deal with it,’” he said. ‘“He’s not soliciting for the church, so that’s going to be a problem too. The church might be soliciting for a new chapel, but you can’t make a political statement and solicit money.’”

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