The Blue Raccoon

Friday, January 27, 2006

New Plays For The USA

Greetings all, back again. I hope some of my billion-eyed audience has the opportunity to visit the Firehouse (pictured above, in this World War II era image--then Fire Station #10 lost the bell tower in the 1950s).

Through the happy effects of happenstance works for the Firehouse Theatre Project's Fourth Annual Festival of New American Plays are set in institutions, one a prison and the other a university. Their themes pertain to the value of authenticity and self-expression, and of denial and delusion, and the varying kinds of love. They each involve characters who are rebels, criminals--and crazy. Both the playwrights are from California.

The cast for Tiger By The Tail, written by Frawley Becker, is Foster Soloman (recognizable around the Richmond region as the Comcast community conversation guy who hosts the PSA interstitials), who delivers a warmth and humanity to his portrayal of L.A. therapist Jerry Arnold; Ben Hartland--who reminds me a younger version of Chandler Bing, if he'd gotten sent to a Florida prison; David Boren is powerful as The Criminal; Kelly, a bruitish guard is Rick Reinhardt, Kent Skidmore is Peter Gordon, who is the therapist's therapist; Slocum, another slimy guard is portrayed by Jeremy Wade; Kaye Weinstein Gary is Miriam, a commuity volunteer and the expressive narrator--and in staged readings, setting the proper tone is important-- is Stephanie Ackerman.

The cast for Last Semester, by David Starkey, is headed by veteran Hutch Hutchinson as the irascible Dr. Schilling; yours truly plays academic hatchet man Dean Evans; the luminous Amy Sproul is the idealistic Allison; Mark Caudle portays the brooding Miguel Salazar; Raylene, a no-nonsense gal from Beaumont, Texas, is given voice and spirit by Laura Khatcheressian, who doubles as Schilling's estranged daughter Carolyn; the would-by riot grrrl Portia is Natalie Norville; David Boren appears here as the difficult Danny and the narrator is Robhye Proctor.

Don't forget, either, an important date: Saturday, February 11, which is the Firehouse's Hearts On Fire event. For those who with to add their support to the Firehouse mission, we'll have a catered repast--including an ice sculpture--cabaret-style entertainment; live jazz; dancing; an art auction with works from Bill Fisher, Kathryn Henry, Diego Sanchez, Andy Bality, and Amie Oliver and other prominent regional artists; a wine auction; a raffle for many wonderful prizes--and a free martini bar. And even Mayor L. Douglas Wilder will be there. The event is $100 a person, and theatrical black tie is required. Tickets are going fast, so don't dawdle and delay, and, again, if my faint plea makes to the eyes of those who are guardians of vast sums of money, remember, we are a non-profit institution.

Hope to see you at the Firehouse.

More later.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

It's My Blog And I'll Self Promote If I Want To

Occurred to me that, hey, I'm affiliated with a little theater company here in Richmond Vee-A and that, heck, for the benefit of my billion-eyed audience that reads this here blog, that I'd promote my own show. Well. Not my own show, I didn't write it or anything quite so serious, but I'm in the thing; and it's more like a staged reading--well--it is a staged reading in point of fact--and I have three scenes in a two hour show and--so--come see the dang thing if you're in town and around.

If you go to the Firehouse Theatre link on the right, you'll see the set up, and what I'm promoting here, really, is the Fourth Annual Festival of New American Plays. This time out, the Firehouse received more than 200 scripts from throughout the country and a panel of readers and theater professionals whittled this down to the two we're presenting, from January 26 to January 29. The audience votes on their favorite play--so they are encouraged to see both--and the winning playwright wins money-and so does the second one, though half--and a potential of possible production at the Firehouse.

The show I'm in, Last Semester, by David Starkey and directed by Kerrigan Sullivan is about a contrarian college professor who in the final semester of his teaching career is busted down from upper level classes in Romantic Poetry to teach Freshman Composition. He decides that since he doesn't want to teach the class, he won't, and if anybody takes it, he'll fail them. It's sort of About Schmidt meets The Groves of Academe.

I play Dean Evans, his boss, who is trying to enforce the rules and prevent trouble. The role of Professor Schilling is played by stage veteran Hutch Hutchinson, who was in a play I wrote and produced at the Firehouse, titled The Persistence of Memory. That was about how in 1966 Richmond almost commissioned Salvador Dalí to create a sculpture for our Monument Avenue. Then Hutch played historian and novelist Clifford Dowdey, who was on the commission that formed to choose what kind of new statue would be appropriate for one of the world's great urban boulevards that features statues of Confederate generals and political leaders, and, lately, athlete, author and activist, Arthur Ashe. The 1966 statue was to honor Southern women. Strange, but to this day, there is no statue on Monument honoring a woman.

The other show is Tiger By The Tail, by Frawley Becker and directed by Roi Boyd is about a L.A. therapist who falls in love with an inmate in a Florida prison via written correspondence.

Shows are at 7 p.m., admission is three bucks per night, for five bucks to see both shows. If you read a play for us, you get in free, and if you're an ID carrying student, you pay nothing, too.

So there. Come see us at the Firehouse. By the way, if you are a potential underwriter for cultural type events in the Richmond region, well-- two words: Branding Opportunity. Think: Humana Festival in Louisville. This could be you.

By the way, the goofy Jimmy Olsen cover was sent by me mate down in Sydney, the one and only Ashley Russell, who is an ink stained wretch like me.

OK. Now it's time for all good actors to crawl into the Great American Sleep Machine.

More later.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Game Each Of Us Loses

The first few weeks of (January isn't over) 2006 has collected a number of talents and powers in the City of Richmond upon whom we'd come to depend. Their taking was a combination of the actuarial and absurd: Bryan (49) and Kathryn (39) Harvey, and their daughters, Stella (9) and Ruby (4) --musician, entrepreneur, mirth makers--to murder; David S. "Peter" Kilgore, 80, last surviving founder of the more than half-century old Barksdale Theater-- to lung cancer; Edmund Addison "Ned" Rennolds Jr., 90, symphony founder, with his predeceased wife Mary Anne Rennolds, cultural lights--to natural causes; William Leigh Carreras, 61, who with his surviving wife Rejena, a patron and supporter of the culture and arts throughout the region, in particular the Hand Workshop (now Visual Arts Center of Richmond) and the Richmond Ballet, to cancer; amazing artist and astounding educator at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts and the center of many, many front parlor conversations, a dancer and delighter, husband of artist and imparter of wisdom Eleanor Rufty, Richard Carlyon, non-agerian, to cancer.

This is what the passing of the torch sounds like.

Wonder if we're up to it.

One good thing: The mirror at World of Mirth is back on the sidewalk. I'd not seen it in so long--has it only been two weeks? Feels like two months--I'd forgotten how tall it was. This morning, on my way to get the papers, I paused and modeled myself before its distortive powers, and chuckled to see myself reduced to two pairs of feet, and danced a sidewalk shuffle with myself; and on the other side, my fedora converted to a stovepipe, and my body a Lincoln of pulled taffy.

Yup. That's what it's all about. And aforementioned all understood.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Staring Pensive Toward The Lip Of The Abyss

Greetings, from moderate to cool Richmond on a Thursday evening. WRIR 97.3--turning a whole year old -- is bouncing some odd reggae-beat something in the home office, giving me some sliver of hope.

The scowling lady above is one of my favorite images of one of my favorite members of the thespian class and human being in general, Mary Louise Brooks. She was a habitual reader, essayist and letter-writer and I wonder, afforded this 21st century opportunity, if she'd find blogs and connecting to other blogs and overhelming and useless preoccupation, or a delight. I'm of course projecting. If you don't know anything about Louise, you must go to right now.

What are you still doing here?

Anyway, as I know all of Christendom or at least those select and attenuated portions of it who've chosen to inflict themselves with this blogorrhea are concerned about my cats --

-- Well let me back up. At the Blue Raccoon tonight Carlisle Montgomery--this young-ish woman, who by way of background, hasn't owned a television in 15 years, doesn't use a computer at home--which may be a wigwam (OK, I'm kidding about that)--yet somehow justifies a cell phone (it's a generational thing), but if she can't get there by foot, bus, train or kayak she doesn't see much point--asked me in a smirking serious way about my "pussy problem." She pronounced the plosive "p", with a lip purse and slight exhale that gave the phrase what, I'm sure, was an unintentional prurient effect.

Someone talked to her about my situation with Flannery and Miro´as I'd not said anything about their hotly contested sleeping arrangements beyond this current narrative. I assured Carlisle that for the past two nights I had managed, by following instructions sent by Amie, to arrange pillows and by bringing in one ahead of the other, to make a peacable kingdom of the bed.

Flannery tucks herself half in and out of the duve and konks out and purrs like a motor all night. Miro´--named for the only Surrealist a cat is able to pronounce--commits her widdershins between my covered knees and with a few grumbles curls into a fur ball and is still. And that's how man and beast get through the winter nights here in Richmond.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cats Eat The Birds And Cyclones Eat The Cities

Today I uncovered a series of epigrams I'd burrowed out of various novels in my undergraduate years. I'd paperclipped them to the front pages of my successive journals to see if I still attached truth to the stentiments expressed by these wise, typed words. I'd taken the cards to work for some reason some time ago. If you run your hand down the face of the thick paper you can feel the impressions left by striking machine keys. This is a sensation in these online days that we don't feel much of.

The quote I'm interested in here is by the late great John Gardner, of whom little is said much of today, as he wrote a series of large, word drunk books that required thought. He also rewrote Beowulf from Grendel's perspective, among other efforts. This is from his epic, The Sunlight Dialogues, about a hippie prophet who causes a ruckus in Batavia, New York.

"Nothing prospers but the soul. The universe is a great machine gun and all things physical are riddled sooner or later with bleeding holes. You're bombarded with atoms, colors, smells, textures; torn apart by ancient ideas, appeals for compassion; you twist, writhe, try to make sense of things, you force your riddled world into order, but it collapses, riddled as fast as you build, and you build it all over again. You put up bird-houses and cities, for instance, but cats eat the birds and cyclones eat the cities, and nothing is left by the fruitless searching, which is otherwise called the soul."

And that's it, for me. This is life. We live in a universe where 90 percent of what is is dark matter, the remainder is what we've evolved enough to see. Here, we are urged to choose one religion over another, one politics over another, and indigent people on the street ask if we have any change. But what does it matter? Katrina devastates New Orleans, and other storms will slam into cities, and eventually, there'll be the Big One and it'll erupt and everything will slip beneath the waves.

Yet, we are here.

Here I am. In my Richmond house and my partner-in-art wife is working in Paris and she's left me with two squabbling cats, one, Miro´ who is the eldest, a perpetually annoyed Siamese brought up from Mississippi some 10 years ago, and the bushy-tailed youngster, Flannery, who joined us about six months ago, also from Mississippi. Her knees are textured and colored like grey striped flannel, thus, she was named for Flannery O' Connor. And the elder destests the younger's presence. I must keep Flannery locked on the side porch Florida room with her food and water, but she leaps against the door, and if it is left unlocked, she pops the latch and leaps out, stunning the older Miro´.

When Amie and I are here together, both cats sleep on our bed. By myself, they fight and won't be still. Amie e-mailed me instructions about bringing Flannery in and shoving her under the covers first and building a wall of pillows, which sounds complicated except she accomplished this at night before I came to bed, and made it all look easy, and furthermore, kept the cats at peace.

It's going to be a long winter.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

That Old Gothic Romantic Kind Of Mood

Greetings, all, at the darkening hour of a chill Richmond Sunday evening. This change came as a wintry interruption to a procession of days and nights unseasonable in their warmth. With the crazy weather of recent times, though, what constitutes unseasonable and what is to be expected is not for me to parse.

The reproduction above is of Caspar David Friedrich's "Cloister Cemetery In The Snow," and is one of my favorite works of representative art; or rather, one that bobs up in my consciousness when called upon although I cannot always call immediate to mind the artist. There's been precious little snow around Richmond, so far, but I'm carrying this sensation in my mind.

The piece reminds me of the verbal atmospherics found in the writing of Richmond's own Gothic Romantic, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe began his professional writing career in Richmond, and when in a good mood considered the town his home--insofar as he ever had one, and even though almost every person who meant anything to him here managed to die of tuberculosis or some other dread illness, beginning with his own mother Eliza. She wasn't from Richmond, but was traveling as an actress with the Alexander Placide troupe in December 1811. Here, the young mother of three, likely exhausted from the rigors of travel and illness, died.

Edgar Poe was taken in by the wealthy Allan family, though John Allan, as one critic referred to him, was Edgar's "non-adoptive unfather" who at first spoiled the boy, then, disappointed with his lack of interest in business and poetic sensibilities, never made him a legal member of his family. "Jock" Allan sent young Edgar to the University of Virginia without enough money for tuition or support. Edgar resorted to gambling and smashing his furniture into his dorm room fireplace for warmth.

When Allan died intestate, his considerable estate apportioned out, and while an illegtimate son was given a large share, Allan's warder Edgar got not a penny.

Allan's meanness saved U.S. literature from yet another Southern man of means pottering about with pretty poetry while sitting on the splendid porches of his great house, but his lack of financial independence also meant that Edgar suffered always from lack of funds. He wrote like his life depended on it--because most of the time, he needed the meager money provided by the profession.

Still, he'd tell people Richmond was his home (up in Northern literary circles, it lent him a certain exoticism, some "street cred," and he'd on occasion add "Allan" to his name to give himself a link to a Southern gentry that he didn't really possess, and wanted. All together, he spent off-and-on, roughly half his life in Richmond.

So I thought of Poe in these opening weeks of 2006 when so much unreasoning horror was visited upon us while under skies that were bright, blue and winds mostly favorable. Yet, middle of this past week, I walked to work on sidewalks shrouded by a misty fog that transformed the Edwardian streets and alley ways of the Fan District [] into a mysterious place out of time.

Yet...a few days ago I was walking home for lunch, and along Strawberry Street I heard this low wolf whistle, directed--as improbable as it seemed--toward me. I took the sound for a joke, and of course, turned out to be Carlisle Montgomery, slowing beside me in her scruffy old Jeepster. Her kayak was poking out of the back and I pointed, "Hey, lady, don't look now, you got one of them strange pods ridin' in the back of yer car."

She laughed. "Hey good lookin'--need a lift?"

"Eh, sure, I never turn down a ride from a red head in a Jeep."

"That's Jeepster."


"She's a classic," Carlisle grinned, patting the lumpy dashboard. "She's my ba-by."

Carlilse, in her old cut-offs and flannel shirt, and hair wet, was fresh from the river.

"How was the water today?"

"Oh,God, it was gorgeous this morning," she exclaimed, changed gear with a lithe arm, and started us on our way. She asked the direction and I gave her the left-rights. "Out there, man, it's so great. I saw an eagle today."

"Hope it was a good sign."

"Me, too. So you gotta work today?"

"Carlisle, I have to work every day."

"Oh," she giggle-snorted. "Yuh, I forget. You have a real job."

"Well, I wouldn't go that far."

"You got health insurance."


"Then you got a real job. Hey, you ever read any poetry by David Wagoner?"

"Um. No."

"Well, DD had this collection of his at the B'loon and he said his one poem really helped him in the past few days."

"Which one?"

"It's called Staying Alive. Which I dunno is either appropriate or not, but it's more about how you keep on. You know?"

First opportunity I could, I looked up Mr. Wagoner, a fine poet, in the Great Northwest of our fair nation, and his poem had sudden meaning for me, much as John Donne's, taking a decided metaphysical approach to the Problem At Hand.

If you want to see it, you can buy his collection, "Staying Alive," or scoot over to Jeannie's blog at Tribe, to see her photographs and musings of life on the trail.

Still, I'd like to share three portions I found immediate and effective:

"It may be best to learn what you have to learn without a gun,
Not killing but watching birds and animals go
In and out of shelter
At will. Following their example, build for a whole season:
Facing across the wind in your lean-to,
You may feel wilder,
But nothing, not even you, will have to stay in hiding."

. . .

"If you hurt yourself, no one will comfort you
Or take your temperature.
So stumbling, wading and climbing are as dangerous as flying.
But if you decide, at last, you must break through
In spite of all danger.
Think of yourself by time and not by distance, counting
Wherever you’re going by how long it takes you;
No other measure
Will bring you safe to nightfall."

. . .

"A time when you’re warm and dry, well fed, not thirsty,
Uninjured, without fear,
When nothing, either good or bad, is happening.
This is called staying alive. It’s temporary.
What occurs after
Is doubtful. You must always be ready for something to come
Through the far edge of a clearing, running toward you,
Grinning from ear to ear
And hoarse with welcome. Or something crossing and
Overhead, as light as air, like a break in the sky,
Wondering what you are."

This is called staying alive. It’s temporary. Oh, that's...well. True. So, one foot in front of the other. Gaze into the sky. Appreciate the bite of cold air and the cloud of breath in the air, and the evening shadow slanted across the old red brick walls of the century-and-more old houses of the neighborhood. This is temporary.

* * *

I don't know how many people are reading this, or whether I'm providing anything different from anybody else, and I'm surprised at the few recognitions I've gotten from those fluttering across the cyber network of ideas and notions and images. I want to ultimately post examples of fiction here, and maybe get some feedback, but this is basic elementary blogness here.

I suspect, too, that I cannot get back to this but every few days, but want to continue, because I find somewhat sad untended blogs that are mired in the vast Sargasso Sea of the Internet, snagged by grasping weeds and sails hanging without wind, and the originator of the blog gone off to some other thing--like maybe reading books or actual social interaction, or, life.

Thus, I don't want these occasional dispatches from the Blue Raccoon to get the stench of neglect, nor do I wish to worry over it. So--I think it best that unless I'm so moved, that I should limit my entries to once-a-week, and try to have a subject that won't try the reader's patience.
We'll see.

* * *

Tomorrow, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is publishing its account of the grisly first week of the year, with a title I was kicking around in my head when thinking of I was to write a feature about this terrible time what would I call it: Seven Days In January. That has the just-the-facts poetry ring to it: Ten Days That Shook The World, Seven Days In May, 12 Days In October, etc. The implication is that the events occurring within that time frame are so momentous and important that any other description would fall short; a hackneyed use of a piece of poetry, or borrowed famous title, wouldn't meet the criteria.

I am between wanting to read the overview of the events and wishing that I didn't possess the curiosity.

* * *

The merry blinking and chord lights wending across the facade of World of Mirth are dark. The floral arrangements brought there have finally, I think, stopped coming. Not many people are pausing to write anymore though some are lingering, and they seem now to visit out of something less than an attempt to grasp the awfulness. Today I overheard remarks like, "So, this is where they worked," and, "Here it is, this is the place." The sudden blusters coming down Cary Street knocked over some of the containers holding the flowers.

I conversed with acquaintances whom I first saw, on that terrible day, when we went there to try and do something, and we stood there and cried. They were on the opposite side of the street, a couple, with their dogs on leashes, and she was staring at the place and said to me, "How will I be able to go in there, now? How will anybody who worked there?"

The immense hole opened by the violence didn't approach the store on Cary Street, but it swallowed the personality that shaped its character. What happened has left a tincture of experience that is palpable.

The lights are out at World of Mirth. Nobody knows for how long, or, if they could ever come on again.

* * *

This week, I put Amie on the big jet air liner bound for Paris where she'll be in an arts fellowship through to spring. The parting is difficult. I watched her become anonymous in a cluster of travelers getting checked through security. I never saw her come out and was relieved to receive a phone message from her on my phone at work. I'm saving it until she's home safe again.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Going All Wobbly: Intimations of Mortality and
Public Policy On ElvisDay in Richmond, Va.

We're all a little on edge here in Richmond these days, and getting into debates about arcane Central Virginia regional policy issues may not provide the required entertaining diversion for the vaunted blogosphere but, so what. I'm confused and angry and this morning I managed to irritate an intellectual and that, I hope, will produce a pearl of an entry. Hum. We'll see.

So, I go to get the morning papers, and, my amour Amie gasped from bed, "Chocolate...cho-colate," and so I endeavored to bag a couple of croissants from The Bl'oon. This in traditional practice means walking to the corner market to get the New York Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch (now that's fair and balanced, especially considering the physical weight of those respective Sunday publications), then while the fresh croissants may need heating, drinking a frothy cappaccino, scanning the headlines and exchanging badinage with whomever is tending the bar or sitting at the tables before returning home.

My eye fell upon a box nestled in a story about the astounding violence that has infected our city this past week (the bold and italics are mine):

"While nine killings in six days may make Richmond seem a highly dangerous place, and annual statistics may make it seeem even worse, it's important to remember that the forms of local government in Virginia give Richmond a statistical handicap.
An executive of the Southeastern Institute of Research pointed out in November that because Richmond is an independent city, its crime numbers are reported separately from those of the surrounding counties. In other cities, crime is reported on a regional basis.
That means the statistics on crime for Richmond -- homicides per 1,000 people, for instance -- are skewed. The area inside the city limits, for which statistics are kept, includes fewer suburban neighborhoods where violent rates tend to be far lower than in the more developed urban sections.
While crime is chief among concerns for Richmonders, only Nashville residents gave their region a higher rating for quality of life, according to a survey commissioned last year by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and conducted by the Southeastern Institute of Research."

"Here's something else we can blame on Judge Dillon," I announced in my best Rush Limbaugh, as I rattled the newspaper.
A patron, whom I'll call Doktor Doctor because he's a university professor whose first and last name are the same but spelled different- henceforth to be noted here as DD-- peered up from his papers and steaming coffee and said, "What now?"
"The city-county, split, DD, is what I'm saying."
He sighed and removed his tortoise shell glasses to rub his tired eyes.
"You know, Harry, not everything that happens in this miserable little burg has to do with your personal fixations."
Carlisle Montgomery, her bottom braced against the back counter, and not looking up from the NYT magazine, mumbled, "What? Louise Brooks?"
DD's brows drew together. "Louise Brooks, what?"
Carlisle trained her bright green eyes on him, lowering her chin, "Louise Brooks is Harry's personal fixation."
"I didn't know that."
"You don't know him very well, then."
"I know he goes on about these things that this backwater won't ever change. And if you weren't an intellectual coward, you'd be on my side on this."
Carlisle bent a kayak-muscled arm and rested a fist on her hip and challenged, "Wud you call me?"
DD looked nervous.
"Yeah, I thought so."
I cleared my throat, "Of course, my other personal fixation is Carlisle."
She made one of those dismissive girl sounds, shaking her head and returning to her article. "You guys crack me up."
DD made much of putting money on the counter and pulling his arms through this coat.
I continued, "You gotta admit; this is a stupid way to run a state."
"I'm sorry, Harry. I'm just not getting into this with you right now. Everything's just way too sad."
"But listen to me before you go."
"Harry, I've heard everything you've had to say already."
"So untrue. OK, if it is, then why is it that Virginia is the only state--the
only state--that by law makes every city and town a separate entity?"
DD slumped like I'd dropped a Funk & Wagnalls on him.
Carlisle chuckled.
DD didn't say anything. He glared at me.
I took this as a signal. "Why? A big reason is the political hang over left from the Constitution of 1902."
DD ran a hand through his thinning grey hair. "Harry," he said, quiet and midway between amused and annoyed.
"No, this is important and relevant to our current predicament."
"I don't see how--"
"--because of this preposterous division of energy, time and resources. The 1902 constitution, among other things, enshrined Jim Crow by legalizing pole taxes and complicated voting requirements. This made it impossible for blacks to vote, but also a third of the whites, mostly the working class."
"Yeah, Harry, but you forget," DD entoned without his usual sarcasm, sounding robotic. "I favor Plato's Republic," then perking up, "What's democracy done for us lately? I mean. Really."
DD looked watery-eyed and pale.
"Then you would've loved this constitution."
"Oh, Harry."
"Because--because--it was saying that for the safety of the whites, you needed to corral the blacks and undesirable immigrants into the urban areas and deprive them of voting. And this was actually--actually-- perversely considered progressive. Virginia politics was hopeless and rife with corruption and the Democrats and conservative Republicans thought that if fewer people voted, and smarter white people did, then government would run better--because it'd be a junta. Nobody votes, everybody agrees with Generalissimo Plato. Problem is, no Virginia governor that I know of who has been this enlightened despot that Plato craved."
Carlisle scratched her forearm and mumbled, "Not even Tim Kaine?"
"Tim, atleast, believes in democracy."
DD grunted. "Therein lies the problem."
DD, putting on his gloves, said, "Oh no, not the 'furthermore.'"
"Watch out, he's breakin' out the furthermore," Carlisle said.
"Furthermore, this constitution made it illegal for a governor to have more than one term, thereby reducing the Virginia governorship to this lame duck status that really only makes it a political stepping stone to another office. You can't carry policy over from one administration to the next."
The late great Lou Rawls singing on WRIR, which Carlisle had put on, was celebrating his rocking chair.
I said, "So, we'll never know how Virginia might be different had we not been saddled with nothing but one-timers throughout the 20th century. But the big point is--"
DD made a move toward leaving. "There is a big point?"
"It's irresponsible--downright stupid--to have within a 50-mile radius five police forces, five fire fighting departments, five economic development offices, five executive administrations and five school systems. And in the middle of this, you have a city that cannot annex, cannot grow, and into which most of the region's mentally ill and the disadvantaged and those living in antiquated public housing have been herded because, out in the burbs, ne'er is heard a discouraging word."
"And, prithee o great font of wisdom, is your solution."
"One big region."
"Oh, how Wobbly of you."
I shrugged. "Call it what you will. Can this method right now truly be called the best way to run things?"
"You just try uniting these school systems, Harry, and you'll get people with pitchforks and torches marching on your house. You really don't know what you're talking about. Theory is one thing, reality is that people are set in their ways and comfortable in their biases. You can't be making these wild statements that don't matter. Now you look at this," and she slapped his hand against the cruel headline of the newspaper and the seven photographs of the dead, arranged like some gruesome yearbook page. "How would your One Big Region have prevented this insanity?"
"Well," I started.
"Well, exactly. It wouldn't 've. Sure, if Eleanor Roosevelt had had wings, she could've flown. But she didn't. Stop living in science fiction and see the reality," and flicked a finger against the paper again, at the word 'deaths.'
"Anyway," he was up and near the door, "Carlisle," he blew her kiss.
Carlisle made a desultory grab of it in mid-air.
Now a bopping version of "Summertime" played.
The door whispered to a close and Carlisle smirked. "I think you really pissed off our good doctor."
"You know, somebody needs to be pissed off, or else nothing will ever change around here. And why can't I make statements that don't matter?"
Carlisle clucked her tongue. "He was just looking for a way out. By the way, you said something about blaming Judge Dillon."
"Oh, yeah," I held up the statistics headline from the paper. "Judge Dillon is the reason why, for most of this past century, that Richmond couldn't elect its own governor and has had to go to the General Assembly and play Mother-May-I to get permission to get anything done. Dillon wasn't from here--he was an Iowa supreme court judge, of all the damn things. This mess is changing, thanks to Wilder, I think, but the whole issue of One Big Region--I don't know what or how or even if it'll ever be possible. And so he's right. But what's the alternative; we don't face the fundamental mistakes that keep our city based schools a wreck, sprawl is taking over and the transit system an embarrassment, and makes fiefdoms-- individual duchies--out of Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield and Goochland counties where an entrenched political class and tradition won't allow the system to be altered."
Carlisle made a fist and pumped it in the air. "One Big Region! One Big Region!"
"Say it loud, Comrade Montgomery," I paid for my coffee and croissants. "But, sadly, I don't see crowds getting whippped into a fury of justifiable rage about it."
"Hey, by the way," Carlisle said. "Happy Elvisday."
Lou Rawls was jazzing his way through Old Man River.
"This is Elvis' birthday. You go by World of Mirth, and," she blinked, "they've put a computer monitor in the window. And they've got a loop of Bryan doing Fat Elvis he did there, for that. For Elvisday."
I stood at the door hefting my heavy news.
"Yeah, Carlisle. Happy Elvisday."

* * *

In the afternoon, three young girls, visitors from the sound of foreign-inflected accents, were cavorting around the suit of armor at the Elephant's Toe antique shop, posing two at at time and holding his proffered lance. They were smiling and laughing and taking pictures of each other. For the first time in a week, they didn't look as though they were in mourning. The day was splendid, bright, a slight chill, but this is, after all, Elvisday.
Then, I overheard two women coming out of Can Can. One said to the other, "You want to go by World of Mirth?" And the companion with emphasis shook her head and said, "Nuh-uh,

* * *

Among the tangled filligree of comments on the papers attached to World of Mirth's windows:

"How can we walk by this store again?
How can we go to the pool?
How can we look at our children's toys again?
Have we keep on living in this awful town?"

"Creativity is the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair."

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Sinister Shadow of Amusement

During the past few days at the Blue Raccoon there's not been much to do except cry, hug friends, and contemplate the enormity of Richmond, Virginia's week of tragedy. Along the bar, the patrons spin theories and shake their heads and tell stories of hearing Bryan Harvey's music, of the crazy gifts they bought at Kathryn's World of Mirth, seeing the effusive energy of their girls Ruby and Stella at the pool, at First Fridays, at school, and they shake their heads more, and as one person wrote on the sheet of paper taped to the World of Mirth window, where anyone was encouraged to write memories or sentiments, this pleading query: What do we do now?

For myself, all I could do was shamble into the BR with the few other stunned and numbed patrons who were, in their own way, seeking a reply to that open question. All that is left to us is--us, and our ability to discuss what's going on in our heads and contemplate a way out of the dark.

Going into the Blue Raccoon allows you to not sit at home by yourself and try to not think about this thing, or search for glimpses of news online, and it is a partial shield from the shrill clamor of most television. The flat screens here are for art shows, much to the annoyance of tourists, and a point of humor for patrons: "Hey, can you turn that to the Weather Channel?" Whereupon the bar attendant peers out the streetside windows and say, 'It's fair and sunny' or 'It's cool and raining.' Which, if you think about it, is all the Weather Channel you really need. Those who come into the BR aren't there for the distraction of whatever happens to be the national fixation. We go there for each other--and the place's design that makes us feel we're somewhere else.

The favorite bartender here--well, mine, anyway-- is Carlisle Montgomery, a willowy kayaking redhead, who possesses a trait in that she was born without a ring finger. It is a matrilineal inheritance, passed down to every other generation or so of females in her family, and you barely notice it until she's left-handed grasping the draught beer lever, or mixing you a fine dirty martini. Growing up, when she was taller than most of the boys in grade school, and more extroverted than the girls, she was accused of being a witch and told she wouldn't ever fall in love, or get married. Neither of which proved true, nor are they the current case. Nonetheless, this salient distinction, among others, has created in Carlisle (never Carly, God help you), a sense of introspection and reflection. And she's also wicked funny. But not so much in these nascent days of 2006. There's been precious little laughter.

Carlisle told me tonight when I briefly stopped in that the murders have evolved from personal sorrow into public entertainment. Before her shift, she caught a segment on MSNBC where in a square jawed, blondish newscaster using serious anchorman tones queried a Richmond reporter and a retired FBI profiler about the methods of the killings and possible links to Bryan Harvey's songs--which was needless sensationalism. "This is the sinister side of amusement," she said. "It's a helluva thing for somebody who had a store named World of Mirth."

Carlisle was right, as she often is, but we talked more on that subject, and I've contemplated the dichotomy of how the classic carnival sideshow attractions are poised on the edge of humor and horror, shock and silly, or just out-and-out weirdness. Kathryn Harvey understood; that silliness and nonsense is how we conduct our skirmishes against oblivion. And now, how that the store's name has a perverse poetry that nobody ever imagined would ever be associated with it.

One of the characteristics of the World of Mirth is the sidewalk funhouse mirror that invites all passersby to step ever so brief into the realm of the off-kilter and see their forms compressed or stretched. I performed this enjoyable diversion a few times myself while bustling about Carytown around Christmas-time. Children and unchildren alike loved this peculiar touch of the surreal plopped down in the middle of the to-ing and fro-ing of the daily rush. For the past week, the mirror was replaced by flowers and devotional candles.

Visitors have found the mirror an irresistible attraction. Two examples posted here were plucked from cyber aether (which has become the Akashic Library of Now) and were taken by Yun Joo Shin on separate occasions.

From: The Mirror, photo: Yun Joo Shin

Who knows how many such images have been taken by parents and larking friends during the past several years. You could probaby plaster the front of the store with them.

The funhouse mirror is a harmless means of disorientation; of things being somewhat familiar but yet not what they seem.

From: Yun Joo Shin's at

It is in a way a description of this past week in Richmond, and really, the world, as news beyond the Harvey slayings was conveyed, from colossal error with the West Virginia miners, the German ice skating rink deaths, to all manner of deaths and disasters that occurred in the first hours of 2006.

The mission of most popular entertainment is to assuage our frazzled consciousness and ease any slight discomfort and sell stuff. This makes it, too, rather ridiculous. I think of that parody of a situation comedy in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (featuring a damp Rodney Dangerfield as a really bad dad wearing a wife beater T-shirt) where a violent dysfunctional family was represented and a purposeful, sickening laugh track added to off-set the terror going on in this thoroughly awful family. Mirth and Macabre are Siamese twins peforming in their own sideshow attraction.

The image used at the head of this entry comes from the site for Czech-born theater creator Pavel Dobrusky who was involved in a 1988 production of Murphy Guyer 's play The World of Mirth at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC). Those strange clowns convey the characteristics of the play, as conveyed in a 2001 review by the Village Voice's Charles McNulty, World of Mirth: suicide and cotton candy --

Protagonists in drama don't need to be likable...

...Perched in the Clown-Dunk with a fifth of scotch, Sweeney (Mark Johannes) serves as both chorus and antihero of Guyer's World of Mirth. A jester with a Nietzschean bent, he shouts into his microphone the cynical truths his fellow circus performers avoid. Though misery is this comedian's shtick, don't expect to find a painted tear running down his cheek. As sentimental as a serial killer on the lam, he'll rip the lungs out of anyone who comes within two feet of his broken heartstrings.

Needless to say, it's not a happy time for the World of Mirth circus. Not only has the Frogman drowned himself, but a hurricane has left the place flooded and without electricity. The backstage freak show—replete with booze, four-letter words, and suicide—has begun to surpass even the Wild Woman of Borneo's gross-out act.

With the operation indefinitely suspended, pink slips are flying. First to get the ax is Emmett (George Bartenieff), an old heroin addict whose whimpering for mercy falls on deaf ears until a temp job and bag of "medicine" are offered as a stopgap. Augie (Kieran Campion), a young carny in love with a mute, wants to rescue the ill-fated Clown-Dunk, which he co-owns with Sweeney. His sappy entreaties to his partner to straighten up his foul-mouth act, however, are met with eviscerating disdain.

Now, that's entertainment for only a few certain members of the family.

T.S. Eliot remarked that "humankind cannot bear much reality. " In recent months and years we've certainly been overwhelmed by the actions of "purblind doomsters," as Thomas Hardy described them. From 9/11, to the South Pacific tsunami and Katrina/Rita, to the unending misery and death in the Middle East and Africa, earthquakes in Pakistan and China, rumblings of war and death from North Korea and Iran, and now, here, in our own Richmond, a vicious assault on everything we've thought worthwhile during a week of killings.

But, needs to be said, while so much awfulness has been visited upon the region and the world, what it has meant is seeing friends and hugging them and crying with them and sensing that we're all feeling this; and we're all asking: What do we do now?

The artists know how to respond even if they can't fathom the crime or the grief. I attended today the memorial event at the Byrd Theater for the Harveys. And there, through the words of John Donne and George Santayana and Lao Tzu, Bryan Harvey's own songs presented on recording to a photography show on the huge screen, and performed lived by a group of musicians who knew him well, the 1,500-some people who filled the place came to some kind of terms. We went in from a bright, splendid day, into the dark plush interior and came out with a shred of hope given to us by the eloquent speakers and the music.

Bryan Harvey remarked in an interview a few years ago that he wasn't religious but,

... I think I'm a pretty spiritual person. I have a lot of faith in humans. I believe we're capable of incredibly beautiful things (as well as incredibly evil). "I Want Answers" basically summed up how I was feeling at the time (cynical). "Man does the work but god gets the credit" is one of my favorite lines from that record because I was in a pretty pissed off mood. Now that I have a daughter, I've softened up a bit....

The incredibly beautiful and the incredibly evil reside side by side, distorted images in a funhouse mirror. A few years ago, I interviewed Kathryn for a history piece I wrote about the World of Mirth and the circus for which it was named. She told me that at one point a name change for the store was considered. I couldn't believe that and Kathryn explained that out-of-towners for some reason couldn't remember the three words exactly, and still others--even regulars--would miscall it as, "The House of Mirth," which is a bleak Edith Wharton novel that became a film in 2000, and Kathryn says, "That says something about our clientele that at least they know what the House of Mirth is." Then I asked her, what could possibly be a better name for her shop than World of Mirth.

She paused, put her hands on her hips, blew some hair out of her face, and squinted across the aisles and chuckled. She said, "Well, it sure ain't Toys R' Us."

What do we do now? We somehow continue on. We get out Tantilla and listen to lyrics that are now painful and poignant and splendid. One day, and I hope one day soon, we'll be able to walk past that shop and see ourselves in that mirror, transformed.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Greetings, everyone, to The Blue Raccoon....

...where all are welcome; only, please turn off any devices on your person that buzz, whir, whistle or otherwise make sounds like a probe tumbling into the atmosphere of a Saturnian moon. The noise disturbs other patrons.

One may ask...with nine million blogs clogging cyberspace like hulks of dead vessels in the Sargasso Sea, and some 40,000 of them bobbing to the surface almost every day as though portions of cork and flotsam after a mid-ocean wreck, then what could a balding bespectacled goofball in of all places Richmond, Virginia, offer the rest of the world should any members or participants happen meander through these portals?

All depends, I guess.

The Blue Raccoon has several origins. It began as a mis-heard comment by my artist wife Amie as we walked through Carytown one evening. Neither one of us remember what she was actually saying, but I, in my left ear which I'm persuaded is losing its acuity, heard her say something about The Blue Raccoon. This, at the time, had nothing to do with anything.
Then, as part of my birthday present--the big four-four, which, according to the actuarial tables, means I'm more than half-way to dead--she presented me with this blog and titled it thus. Today, in the waning hours of January 3, 2006, I am making my first entry. I'll continue to doctor it and tease and tweak to make this a worthwhile diversion.

What is the Blue Raccoon in my mind, and the one in which I sit now, at the bar, on my laptop, typing away? It is a wonderful hip corner restaurant, sleek and lit to make everyone beautiful. By day, people use the B'loon, or the BR the really hip kids call it, as a place to meet for coffee and have a tasty veggie sandwich. By night, it becomes a rendezvous spot, for drinks, for meeting after work, or the show, or for first date, or a last date.

The Blue Raccoon merges the wide white walls of an art gallery with an enviable loft apartment and a pricey boutique where all the clerks wear black. You may expect to hear the sound of rolling luggage carts and foreign language announcements because the décor seems patterned after a posh first class passenger club in a German or Norwegian international airport lounge circa 1970. The floor to ceiling windows along the street side should reveal glimpses of Copenhagen or Berlin instead of the window company across the street.

Crimson leather low-slung divans and banquettes populate the central portion. The angling metal stair that seems as though removed from an old Volvo factory, its red treads fitted into a smooth metal column and supported by a high, sleek railings, leads to the mezzanine, for the intimate café style seating. Plasma screen monitors over the blonde wood bar display video art although tonight or multiple sharp, slide shows of this month's favored artist. The chrome bar stools with plush red cushions resemble giant martini glasses. Good for girls in short skirts to perch upon and make a show of crossing their legs as their calves are mirrored in the row of smooth supports.

A communal plywood table in the upper corner is surrounded by small stools in a Crayola variety of colors and their curved legs that make the stools seem as though they could scuttle across the room to rescue you.

Welcome. Sit down. I'll buy you a drink then regale you with some stories. A few will be factual, others true only in alternate places. We'll share facts and nonsense, and as time goes on, we'll amass compelling links to the outside world. As I become more accustomed to the format, which I'm joining quite late. My narrative oh-so-hopelessly-19th century approach will probably be obsolete afore long, since photo and video blogging is all the rage among the digirati.

A World of Tears

Joining the blogosphere at this particular moment in Richmond, Virginia's story isn't propitious. Our great city greeted a new year not with optimism but terror and shock.

Yet before I get into this awfulness that has visited our extended family of friends and associates, I wish to draw your attention to the image here.

This comes from rrshow1's Homepage on Webshots, where the archivist has amassed images of antique circus transit wagons. This image was taken around 1972-1973, and is one of 15 of the big red World of Mirth Shows railroad cars. The sign on the door, barely visible here, is inscribed "World of Mirth Shows PRESS and EXECUTIVE Offices." The showcase traveled up and down the East Coast and Canada from 1932 to 1962 with sideshow attractions and rides, ranging from miniature race car driving monkeys to huche kuche shows featuring hip-wiggling women.

Round about 1993, Kathryn was looking for an appropriate visual image and name to describe her concept of a toy store not just for kids. While searching among vintage items she enjoyed she found a poster for the World of Mirth Shows. She was a painting and printmaking major from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts; she knew the real deal when she saw it. So christened, World of Mirth went from a delightful if crowded above-stairs shop to a full-fledged, several thousand square foot store in the middle of a 250 shop retail district called Carytown. The World of Mirth marquee includes a cartoony rocket ship streaking upward into the world of pure imagination.

Along the way, Kathryn met and married Bryan, who in the '80s, with Johnny Hott was the second part of a duo known as House of Freaks, for which Bryan wrote some of the most memorable lyrics, and was the left-handed guitarist. HOF was, as has been said, proto-Southern Gothic rock: dark, poetic and aware of where they came from. The compromising and subservience to product over creativity that the "music industry" demands basically caused House of Freaks to split, and the two musicians sought other projects, like bringing up families and contributing to their community. They both continued to perform music in various groups.
And in January, round about Elvis' birthday, Bryan would appear with a group of musicians, he in a white jumpsuit, at World of Mirth as Fat Elvis. (Except he wasn't really as corpulent as terminal-stage Elvis, which was part of the joke).
Everybody bought novelty items and children's gifts at World of Mirth; this Christmas I purchased the Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure for Amie--which caused her less amusement than mine. We have two cats, one older and one a rambunctious kitten, and, well. You just need to be there for some things. I also bought a miniature representation of a classic 1950s Chevrolet pickup truck for my Dad.

I saw Kathryn there, in the thick of it during the season made for World of Mirth. About all we could do was nod.

Bryan and Kathryn's two daughters were Stella and Ruby, lovely and precocious girls. They gave their parents and all those who knew them much joy.

Then, on a splendid New Year's Day 2006, when friends expected to arrive at their corner brick house for a traditional cook out, the early arrivals saw smoke. Firefighters discovered the terrible reality in the basement.

The Harvey family was tortured and murdered.

Much speculation has arisen in blogs and the media; the fact is, nobody outside of the Richmond Police Department's investigative team knows anything. Outside of arrests and conviction, whatever else arises is the result of rumor, speculation and observation at a distance. In the case of national television, the less one knows about a matter, the better qualified either the moderator or the guest is as a commentator. People who've never set foot in Richmond, or listened to any of House of Freaks music, or walked in front of World of Mirth and viewed one's contorted shape in the funhouse mirror placed out front, these are the brilliantines who are shaping opinion in the outside world. When all of a sudden the power of the media is trained upon your community, sniffing about for poignancy and tragedy and blood, you realize just what a sham it all is. This isn't about four lives ended in the most brutal manner, it's about selling bread and cars. The truth is in standing in front of the now darkened World of Mirth with piles of sweet flowers and candles and notes, and prolonged periods of convulsive weeping.

The truth is in standing at with more than 300 people at a candlelight vigil at the Unitarian Church and trying to keep the flame from sputtering in a cold wind, and hugging friends, and crying even more. The truth is standing at that corner in front of the house--now marred and ghastly through no fault of its own--with nearly a thousand people and staring at the offerings of remorse made, and having no more clue as to why this occurred than anybody else.

Huge Klieg lights were ordered by the city for some dumb reason. Then, playing Ray Charles' version of "America The Beautiful" those who knew the Harveys winced and left. "I feel sick," one said. "This is just inappropriate." Yet, what were we to make of it? Here we were, dealing with what is undealable. Walking toward the scene, the painful brightness direct in the eyes, gave the proceeedings a surreal resemblance to the closing minutes of "Close Encounters" when the mothership disgorges hundreds of people who've been taken up into spaceships during past decades. The silhouettes ambled about in the glare.