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City Protects Salamander Sex; Both Sides Tell Versions of Tow-Brawling Case; Baskerville Legislation Backs Breastfeeding; Group Wants City to Expand "Living Wage"; New Walkers' Guide Shows Our Past; Chef to the Stars Starts Catering Here

Street Talk

City Protects Salamander Sex

There's a section along Riverside Drive where a steep hillside opposite the James River slopes down to a marshy seasonal pond, 50 feet long, 10 feet wide.

In winter it fills up with water and forms a habitat. It becomes, says city naturalist Ralph White, a "vernal pool." In other words, it is a hotbed for spotted salamander.

Once, the 6-inch-long, black-and-yellow amphibians swarmed the area, but in recent years their numbers have dropped dangerously low, says White.

"A large number have been killed by cars coming by," he says.

White decided something had to protect the fragile mating rituals of the spotted salamander. He decided on a roadblock.

To pitch the idea, White went to a meeting of the Southampton Civic Association. After hearing about the salamanders' plight, neighbors agreed to help re-propagate the salamanders.

"These salamanders only come out in late February, only at night, and only when it's raining and at 40 degrees and above," White says. Consequently, he notes, the nocturnal roadblock would have little impact on people.

Starting this week, whenever the special mating conditions exist, a span of Riverside Drive from the Pony Pasture exit to the intersection at Rockfalls Road will be closed from roughly 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. This could be in effect for about a month. White will put up the yellow chains and road signs himself.

"This window of opportunity allows them to have a big orgy," White explains. "What they do isn't particularly appealing to me but it works for amphibians."

To mate, the males come out of the "vernal pool" to find something flat to lay sperm on. It has to be open — like a road. The females follow — "sniffing" to find the sperm packet that "looks vaguely like a golf tee," says White. When the female chooses one she carries it back to the pool, back to safety.

"What's so significant about the roadblock is that it's the first time that I know of that a city road has been closed for the protection of animals," White says.

Salamanders aren't the only ones taking a beating. Wood frogs, green frogs, spring peepers — "all of these guys are getting squished." White says. The roadblock could help them.

"This is Virginia Beach or Daytona Beach in the springtime," White says, amused. "They come out and they do it in the road." — Brandon Walters

Both Sides Tell Versions of Tow-Brawling Case

Last week, Style reported that a 34-year-old man had assaulted an electrician working late at the Verizon switching station in the Fan. According to the police report, he thought the electrician was responsible for towing his vehicle, and in the resulting fight broke the man's leg.

An extreme case of tow rage? Or something else? Chad Eric Strayer, the man charged with assault, and his attorney, Keith Marcus, maintain there's a lot more to tell.

Witness David Douglas, who is also Strayer's employer, says he and Strayer came out of the Metro Grill on Robinson Street after 11 p.m. on Jan. 24. They'd left their trucks in the alley behind the Verizon building at 2601 Stuart Ave., he says, in a spot unmarked by tow-warning signs. Now, Strayer's truck was gone.

They spotted two men talking nearby, Douglas says, and approached them to ask if they'd seen the truck towed. The men vaguely mentioned that a resident may have called the towing company to remove the vehicles, he says.

Douglas then telephoned the police, who, he says, told him the truck had been towed after someone called from the Verizon building. "Chad was pretty upset," Douglas says, and he started shouting at the pair outside. Meanwhile, the tow-truck driver reappeared, on his way to pick up another car. "One thing led to another," Douglas says.

Accounts of the following fracas vary. Douglas says he saw one man strike Strayer in the head with a long metal object, causing gashes that later required Strayer to get 18 staples in his head. Then, Strayer says, the tow-truck driver launched into the fray armed with nunchucks and threatened him with a knife.

The wrecker driver, Tracy Alan Jarman, 28, has since been charged with assault.

Fred Archer, owner of Kall Me Towing, says a neighbor, not the workers, called his company. He adds that drivers are not allowed to carry weapons in their vehicles. "Nunchucks? No. That's pretty good," Archer says, chuckling. "Guy wouldn't know what to do with 'em."

Archer says the company tells its drivers to be "as nonconfrontational as possible." Fights are rare, Archer says, though shouting and threats are not out of the ordinary: "Most of the time these people are intoxicated, so there's a lot of yelling."

Was Strayer under the influence of alcohol? Well, a little, his attorney concedes. "He clearly recalls who did what," he maintains, although he adds that Strayer "doesn't have any clue how he could've broken someone's leg."

Verizon officials say they prefer not to discuss the incident, which involved contractors, not employees.

What really happened on that fateful night? That won't be determined until the trial, which hadn't been set by press time. Until then, we suggest this: Park where you won't get towed, and leave the nunchucks at home. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Baskerville Legislation Backs Breastfeeding

Health experts agree: There is no substitute for breast milk. It helps build babies' immune systems and may lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in mothers.

So why don't more moms pump?

It could be that work gets in the way. Despite the health benefits, women who choose to pump at work encounter a slew of obstacles. Among them, employers who won't let them take breaks to pump milk at regular intervals, or who suggest bathroom stalls as a substitute for a clean, quiet, private room where they can pump.

That could change in Virginia. A bill sponsored by Del. Viola Baskerville, if passed, would establish a woman's right to breast-feed on state-owned property. (A different version of the bill proposed last week by the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee would add lactation to the list of reasons for which it is illegal for small companies to fire employees.)

Baskerville has also proposed a resolution that would encourage employers to provide a designated space where nursing moms can go to breast-feed or pump.

Baskerville, who has said she breast-fed her own children, says Virginia's families could benefit from legislation that would safeguard a woman's right to breast-feed. And because of the rising number of women in the workforce who recently have had children, she says, now is the time for Virginia to visit the breast-feeding issue.

"We've had bipartisan support" with few opponents, Baskerville says. "This is a very important issue."

Already states including Hawaii, Minnesota and Tennessee have passed similar legislation. Could Virginia be next? Baskerville hopes so.

House Bill No. 1264 was introduced last week and passed 19-3 by a House committee. After a series of readings and possible amendments, legislators could vote on the bill as early as next week.

Meanwhile, a study by the Department of Health and Human Services reveals that 64 percent of all mothers breast-feed in the first months following childbirth while only 29 percent did so at the six-month mark. The department's aim is to increase those numbers to 75 percent and 50 percent by 2010. Health-care experts hope new laws and increased workplace support will help. — B.W.

Group Wants City to Expand "Living Wage"

Last year the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage convinced City Council to vote yes to a minimum pay rate of $8.50 an hour plus benefits — or $10.13 without benefits — for all city employees.

Now the group is fighting to have that same minimum rate apply to all workers employed by vendors who are awarded contracts by the city.

If the measure comes up for public debate, contractors and other vendors may not agree.

But this week, members of the coalition plan to start lobbying City Council members in hopes of winning them over to the idea. An amended version of last year's ordinance has been drafted and will likely be introduced by Councilwoman Delores McQuinn, 7th District, at the Council meeting on Feb. 25. McQuinn could not be reached by press time.

The $8.50 hourly wage plus benefits is what the coalition considers to be the "living wage" for the Richmond area — that is, what one full-time wage earner would have to be paid to keep a couple living just above the poverty level.

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. "Obviously, that's insanity," says Mary Lou DeCossaux, spokeswoman for the coalition.

DeCossaux contends that City Council's original measure didn't go far enough — because not everyone who provides services for the city is getting the $8.50-an-hour rate.

According to the ordinance, only workers directly employed by the city are covered, not the full- or part-time laborers who work for some of the 590 vendors or who provide much service-work for the city.

According to a report compiled by the coalition and based on city procurement records, there are 547 contract workers who earn less than $8.50 an hour.

For example, workers who sweep the streets as part of the city's "Downtown Clean and Safe" program actually work for Richmond Renaissance, not the city, and most are paid between $6 and $7 an hour. Workers who provide janitorial services at such places as City Hall and the Coliseum also are paid similar rates through contractors.

DeCosseaux maintains the city is contracting more services out to vendors.

"The city is willing to shell out millions of dollars to developers," she says. "It should not only be accountable to corporate interests but to public interests as well." DeCossaux notes such projects as the Richmond Convention Center and the proposed Stony Point Fashion Center, which enlist numerous contractors.

Many contractors already pay their workers at least $8.50 an hour, says DeCossaux, but plenty don't. And, she claims, amending the living wage ordinance to include all the workers would be worth the price to the city — between $5,000 and $50,000, if anything at all.

"This is the time to shore up our working families," says DeCossaux. "If this were to happen, 547 people would get a living wage." — B.W.

New Walkers' Guide Shows Our Past

Everyone knows Richmond is historic, right? Hey, it's one of those reasons we're easy to love, or so goes the slogan.

But try stopping a stranger on the street and asking where to find a fine example of Romanesque Revival architecture, or the home of Edgar Allan Poe's childhood sweetheart. "Hey, I just live here," he or she will probably say.

The Historic Richmond Foundation now offers a better answer — a free, all-inclusive guide to old city neighborhoods. It's the first publication of its kind, says foundation spokeswoman Katie Taylor, though that may seem surprising in a city so conscious of its past. "If you go to a travel rack and want to learn about that, there isn't one [guide]," she says.

The new 40-page color brochure covers not only the expected areas, such as Capitol Square, the Fan and Jackson Ward, but also lesser-known historic neighborhoods such as Manchester, Woodland Heights and Forest Hill Park. "Pretty much everywhere that makes sense, really," Taylor says.

The first of 15,000 copies will hit the stands on Feb. 18, in local hotels, the airport and the convention center, among other places. After that, Taylor says, "I think we're going to blow it out big-time, statewide."

Sarah Whiting of HRF spent six months researching and designing the guide, which was paid for with a grant from the Richmond Visitor's Bureau. "I think even for Richmonders it'll be handy," Whiting says.

No kidding. There's a lot we don't know. For example, how many Oregon Hill residents realize they're living in a neighborhood once populated by "a hardy, industrious and fiery race, disciples of Vulcan"? (That's how someone described them at the turn of the century, the guidebook says.) The book includes a glossary, too, for those of us who have only the faintest of ideas what Romanesque Revival means.

Oh, and (for the curious) an example of Romanesque Revival architecture is at 100 E. Leigh St., and Edgar Allan Poe's sweetheart lived at 2403 E. Grace St. — M.S.S.

Chef to the Stars Starts Catering Here

If you attended the inaugural ball for Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine at the Science Museum of Virginia last month, you may have sampled the cuisine of Todd Schneider, one of Richmond's newest caterers. What's more, you may have devoured some of the same recipes that have been a smash with big-time celebrities.

Schneider, a native of West Port, Conn., got his boost in the business from the quintessential entertaining expert herself, Martha Stewart.

Growing up near Stewart, Schneider got a job working for her when he was a teen-ager. He did everything at Stewart's famous private parties — busing tables, waiting on dinner guests, helping out with the decorations. Then he landed in the kitchen. He learned firsthand her requirements for perfection, he says. And she inspired him. He also learned not to gawk at famous faces.

In 1985 Schneider started his own catering business, Great Seasons, based in Greenwich, Conn. It didn't take long, he says, before word of his connection to Martha Stewart spread to the stars. Schneider recalls catering events for New England celebrities such as Stone Philips and Jason Robards (who, Schneider says, keeps his Oscar over his fireplace). More notably, Schneider says he catered a fund-raiser for Bill Clinton just a month before he was elected president.

Schneider contends that the most gracious and down-to-earth hosts he's worked for have been Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. When he catered their daughter's birthday party some years ago, Schneider says Newman preferred to stay in the kitchen and hang out with Schneider's staff. "To tell you the truth, he is really shy," Schneider says.

Even with his who's who clients, Schneider hadn't planned on catering forever. He pursued other careers but discovered that none were as rewarding. "You always go back to your first love," he says.

Six months ago Schneider started his Great Seasons catering business up again, this time in Richmond where he moved because of personal connections. Schneider claims his cuisine "blew people out of the water" at the inaugural event. Could it have been the endive with miniature potato cakes, cream and caviar?

It worked for Newman, says Schneider: "His favorite food is iceberg lettuce and potato cakes." — B.W.

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