Last Call With Ron Stodghill: Finding True Sanctuary

Charlotte is among hundreds of cities being called a “Sanctuary City” in political conversations. But those politicians are missing the point
JACQUI OAKLEY

WESLEY MANCINI was standing in the greenhouse behind his Myers Park home, surveying the beauty of his self-styled wonderland of flora and fauna. In Mancini’s secret garden, prickly caudiciforms live next to pungent night blooming jasmine and indigo, yellow finches fly between begonias, while bunnies slumber in the cool shadows of vines and flowers.

Mancini is a prominent fabric designer and unabashed socialite, but his greenhouse—an ecosystem of exotic plants and little creatures—is where he finds peace. It’s also his sly manifesto on civility and balance. “This is a little community where everyone gets along,” Mancini, 62, says of the place where guinea pigs named after his best friends’ moms (Beulah, Hedda, Juanita, etc.) scurry by his feet. “It’s my Disney, a utopia of the way the world should be.”

Luminous and airy, the greenhouse is a fun, often biographical affair—here’s “Jackie O,” a nearly 25-year-old jade plant born from a leaf Mancini’s mother plucked while touring First Lady Kennedy Onassis’s estate—and bits of personal biography (the sprawling philodendron he had in his college apartment). There, too, are cautionary tales: “I once made the mistake of getting some marsupials, or flying squirrels. We had them live in a room in the house for six months to domesticate them. The first night we let them into the greenhouse, they killed a couple of birds. They had to go.”

The greenhouse serves as Mancini’s sanctuary, that precious place on this crazy earth where he finds his greatest solace and refuge, away from the economically challenged times for the textile business. All people should know such a place; to lay claim on their own time capsule that propels them far away, if only briefly, from life’s pressures. I discovered my first sanctuary as a child on a rickety old dock on Idlewild Lake in northern Michigan, where I spent summers as a kid. While the grown-ups talked politics, I sat on the faded white dock for hours, singing my favorite songs, skipping rocks, and gazing out as fishermen pulled the occasional largemouth bass or bluegill from the lake. Years later, as a college student, I found refuge in the old wooden booths of a dimly lit tavern where I sipped coffee and read some of the greatest modern authors—Baldwin, Fitzgerald, Hemingway—until closing time. More recently, I have taken to repairing under the big gazebo in Latta Park in Dilworth where, on sunny afternoons, I eat my lunch alone and watch guys shoot hoops and toddlers play on the slide and monkey bars. 

It always hurts to see a good word go bad. In this election cycle, I have worried about “sanctuary,” as it has become code language for anti-immigration politicians decrying “sanctuary cities” whose policies make it difficult to prosecute undocumented immigrants. Charlotte, along with some 300 other cities, carries the “sanctuary city” label—a trendy euphemism for embracing foreigners who enter the country illegally or overstay the terms of their visitor or student visas. Among those driving the “Sanctuary City” bandwagon is GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who warns that such illegal immigrants crossing the border between the United States and Mexico border are criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. 

I want the word back, to reclaim it and return it to its original owners. Cities can never be sanctuaries. They are too impersonal, ever-changing, conflict-ridden. They are too vast and populous and torn by too many antagonists to provide the cocoon of a sanctuary. 

Mancini told me that when he steps into his greenhouse, the world outside hangs in suspension. He talks to his plants, “My, you’re growing fast,” or, “Looks like you need some water.” During this casual, oneway banter, Mancini feels a kind of absolute connection with nature. He also told me that he is still grieving the death last year of his turtle named Petunia, whose routine was to crawl across the greenhouse and rest on Mancini’s foot while he tended to the plants. It was the oddest, most magical thing—but gradually Mancini grew to expect the turtle’s greeting. After a while, Petunia’s appearance no longer surprised him. This, after all, is his sanctuary—where Disney moments are real.

Categories: The Buzz