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.
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."
"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, 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."