The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It's Been A While

Image: "Ballad Plays -- 1951" from an on-line album of images, prose and poetry of individuals affiliated with the Beat era in Wichita, Kansas, compiled and maintained by Thornton Lee Streiff, here.

Billion-eyed audience, we've made our way through several strange few weeks here in Richmond, Va. For the first time in my life, Virginia voted Democratic, and I still don't believe I'm seeing President-Elect Barack Obama. This is truly the Best.West Wing. Ever.

Then, despite the air of celebration, the national cascading economic collapse accelerated here, as Circuit City -- that started here as Ward's TV -- filed for bankruptcy and laid off 800 people in Henrico County alone; Richmond-born LandAmerica was bought by its competitor, Fidelity National Financial; even Luck Stone trimmed off 17 percent of its regional workforce.

The downturn isn't just something getting reported on the news, like a weather event, but a real occurrence now affecting friends and acquaintances.

And though I face now a week of customary stresses at my day job, and more to come, at least I have a place to go in the morning.

Even the weather here has exhibited odd tendencies; season cold and drizzly and gusts of wind sending up tempests of leaves; or downwright balmy and short-sleeve weather, and with cool breeze, with a hint of the winter bite, but a pleasure to inhale deep of.

Among other things affecting peole I know, a recent balcony collapse that injured 21 people on West Cary Street near VCU occurred at the where some friends live, and not well-reported was a melee that erupted almost at the same time with the next door neighbors.

In Other News

I've been busy attending signin' and sellin' events for Richmond In Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex and Murder (History Press) and planning or participating in discussions about more. I want to thank all of those who've turned out, the Valentine Richmond History Center for including me in the Holiday Shopper's Fair and the James River Writers for inviting me to attend its Meet The Writer happy hour this past week.

The book's lively cover causes remarks and the silky finish is also quite fine. Plus, it has that wonderful new book smell.

But I was listening to "The Book Guys" on WRIR when they discussed a recent New York Observer feature about how, like every other industry, book publishing is feeling the pinch of the times. And if the situation was already bad for prospective first-time novelists, and difficult for small press authors, then now the matters have worsened.

"Only the most established agents will be able to convince publishers to take a chance on an unknown novelist or a historian whose chosen topic does not have the backing of a news peg. The swollen advances that have come to represent all that is reckless and sinful about the way the business is run will grow, not shrink. Authors without “platforms” will have a more difficult time finding agents willing to represent them. The biggest publishing house in the world, meanwhile, will be overhauled by a 40-year-old man who worked in printing until he was appointed to his post as CEO of Random House Inc. last spring.

“Think of it like a supply chain,” said one publishing executive who would not speak for attribution. “If the newspapers have fewer ads, they’re running fewer book reviews, so therefore, for those books that don’t have a pre-established audience, there are fewer opportunities to appeal to the consumer. Therefore, there are fewer of those consumers going into the bookstore. The bookstore recognizes this, and they tell you your mid-list books aren’t doing shit, so they’re not gonna order them, or they’re just gonna order 100 copies. They can cut off those books, and then the publisher is faced with a tough decision—how am I gonna buy those books that I know I can only ship 100 copies of? What am I gonna do? Am I gonna keep doing it? Or am I gonna spend more [money] chasing established authors?

You can read the whole depressing thing here.

An Evening At Dupont Circle

The Partner In Art For Life this weekend had a piece in the Art for Life auction that benefits the Whitman-Walker Clinic that works in prevention AIDS/HIV among minority populations.

The event was held in the marble halls at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

We were delayed in getting out of Richmond, then, by chance, having noted our intentions on my Facebook page, our friend Kathryn called offering to ride up together because she was going up to meet a friend at a separate event.

I thought heading into D.C. so close to rush hour on a weekend was probably going to be fraught with some challenges; but if she was willing to take on the challenge, we were willing to travel.

The usual Washington craziness was made even more frustrating due to the convening of the G-20 summit which seems to me a rather hopeless cause, anyway. What are we going to do? Throw around billions and print more money. Which is exactly what's happening. And tying up traffic.

We ended up leaving Kathryn to find a parking place and we ran out and dashed into Metro Center to get a train. As usual, "native intelligence" gave us wrong directions. (As I explained to Amie, from my pizza delivery days when looking for an unfamiliar street, most people don't seem to know anything about directions: they are always here from another part of town for some special reason, or visitors themselves. But, as an inveterate walker, I've given plenty of directions - and also found myself far more ignorant than I would've thought). 

We clambered out of the Farragut North station when we could've gone all the way to Dupont Circle. I was just pleased to ride the train and be around the different languages, the sharp clothes, and excited students. I liked seeing how the women here wrap their scarves. Not New York, to be sure, but a different rhythm which is exactly what I wanted.

The weather was warm, but damp, and we were dressed formal. Walking through Dupont to the Carnegie I was reminded of Washington can resemble Richmond, or the Richmond I have wished for, the Mahone-altered "New Dominion" wherein cities could extend into counties, and be embraced and girded by parks and green spaces, and the far points linked by trams and commuter rail. And that we had to risk life and limb on I-95 at all, and that there isn't a flexible and inexpensive commuter express running evening back and forths between Balto/Wash/Richmond is just bad planning. And damned inconvenient. 

At the Carnegie, we drank very sweet mojitos and grabbed some finger food from passing trays, but there was no central place for eating, which was probably far less expensive, but we got there a little late probably missed much of what was floating around. 

The auction of pieces convened to the auditorium, dedicated to Elihu Root, and his "Vision Wisdom And Devotion To The Advancement Of Knowledge," and the walls resembled the frontispiece pages for a geography or history text of about a century ago, depicting the west and east of the United States in a stylized fashion, and figures of explorers and cartographers. 

Auctioneer B.J. Jennings gave an energetic performance to gin up bids but, as evidence that times are tough, the numbers of people in the auction dwindled from those who'd been wandering around drinking. She would rap, "Doitnow, doitnow, doitnow," and "Feels beter if you do it twice," and urge, "Your turn!" when she'd in rapid fashion get the price up. Amie's was Lot #5, so we didn't have to wait long -- by now we were quite hungry. She was happy with the result, and though we got our coats, Amie intended to return and try to meet the person who bought her work. 

We hiked back to Dupont, seeking a place not over-croweded or overrun with televisions, and found Levante's at 1320 19th St. NW. We didn't even know what it was but the name seemed appropriate as its cuisine comes from the Levant. And we were ready. Our food came quick and was good; the pida, a boat-shaped pizza made in a wood-burning oven, an eggplant salad. 

Amie returned to the Carnegie, and I sat, sipping bourbon and gingers and watching Dupont Circle's Friday  night date night hustle and bustle, and felt wistful and wishing for such a scene in Richmond, and how in my alternative version, there is. Don't get me wrong. We have concentrations of activity: Robinson and Main streets; Cary between Colonial and Dooley; Shockoe Slip; 18th Street in the Bottom, and on a good night, the music room of Capital Ale when the weather allows the front window to be open. But nothing quite like sitting at a big window in the middle of downtown that is a window on the world. There is a Metro stop nearby, too. 

About a half hour later, Kathryn, her friend Terry and Amie arrived and we had wonderful conversation and more nosh. Terry is in television news; he's been to Afghanistan three times and concludes that these days, there's not much left to pull together to form an independent nation. Back in the 1970s, they were building roads, they had a university, there was a sense of progress. Then came the Russians. Then we turned our backs on them. Now they are the major front on the anti-terrorism war, this tribal and clannish culture. 

The ride home was in sometimes heavy rain. I nodded off, and fought to stay awake as I was sitting next to Kathryn and she was giving us the lift, but the auction festivities, food, drink and conversation had left both Amie and me fatigued. 

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