The Blue Raccoon

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond

-- And What I Found There

Part I

“I have thought it wise to live for the future and not the dead past. While cherishing honorable memory of its glories, I have thought that we should look to the future for life, power and prosperity…”

William Mahone, Readjuster and ornery cuss, 1882

Just a different set of problems…

Come now, and walk alongside an obstreperous travel writer who is researching an extensive feature about Richmond – a different version than the one with which you are familiar.

He—like you—has never been to the Richmond described here-- but he’s applied himself to studying the story, and he receives able guidance by indulgent, patient and hospitable residents.

In this Richmond, people are no less venal and slothful, nor more gracious and industrious, as they are in the city around you now.

They just have a different set of problems.

The subjects of conversations in its boisterous bars and busy cafés are textured by a history quite altered from the one recorded in Virginius Dabney’s book.

Nobody could blame you, though, if you’d like to move there.

* * * *

Arrival: Admiral Richard E. Byrd International Airport

“The Byrd statue at the airport named for him seems strange, both Hollywood and Italian Futurist,” he said into the mini disc recorder when the guide called his name.

“Mr. Gotz?”

The stack of grey hair and strong-jawed face was unmistakable from the meet-the-writer pages of travel and leisure magazines. His metal-rimmed glasses flashed in the light as Gotz turned, assessed and approved.

She said, smiling, “I’m Tia Chulangong,” and extended a firm hand. “Welcome to Richmond.”

Tia, an Eurasian stunner in heels, looked him straight in the eye through rectangular glasses and her efficiency crackled like static electricity. Richmond’s ambassador to the travel press wore chic urban black, a tailored Edwardian- cut jacket, and carried a hospitality bag in the crook of one arm.

Gotz said, “Well, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has impressed me already.”

She noted his wheeled travel luggage, another bag strapped to it, and his backpack.

“Good flight down, Mr. Gotz?”

“Short, like I like them. And, please. Call me Phil.”

Tia crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.

“I was warned about you.”


“I have a friend who works in Austin; at their tourism bureau.”


“How did you get your car out of Sandra Bullock’s pool?”

Gotz shifted his backpack, nodded and chuckled at the familiar story.

“First thing: it wasn’t my car.”

“If we’re lucky, while in Richmond, you won’t have to drive, at all; but,” she raised her Blackberry, “if you need a car during your stay, the Jefferson is providing one. You have guest permission to drive downtown.”

“A Jeffersonian automotive dispensation! I feel honored.”

“You should be,” and she laughed, causing angel-bite dimples. He wanted to make her laugh often. “Listen, I want to ask you: what do you think of this sculpture?”

Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd stood bold and in bronze, one foot stepping up to jutting icy ledge. He was bundled in his fur collared parka, flight helmet and goggles shoved on his head, and gloved hands raising binoculars toward eyes peering into a distant horizon. Byrd’s exploits were incised on a panel circling the piece, including the Admiral’s declaration of Antarctica as THE CONTINENT OF PEACE.

Tia folded her hands in front of her and examined the statue as though seeing it afresh.

“I think, from pictures I’ve seen, that it’s a good likeness.”

“Don’t take up art criticism.”

“I’m in public relations. Which reminds me.”

Tia in a brisk motion flipped open her phone to the office of Gotz's arrival, safe, and sound, in a matter of speaking. He watched her brows form an exclamation point in the center of her forehead as something was told to her, but her expression didn’t betray what it might’ve been. She nodded, and directed him to follow.

Their brisk pace across the sleek concourse took them past the late afternoon light streaming in through the slanted glass walls of the swooping, cantilevered terminal.

A shoosh and hoofing ahead announced the arrival of the downtown express. A scrum of baggage burdened tourists surged toward the platform, some with burbling kids, a few foreign students whose glottal vowels sounded middle European and several business types busy arranging their predestinations with their handheld devices.

The guide asked, “So you’ve never visited us before?”

Gotz shook his big grey head. “Never. Passed around on that crazy hooked interstate you got, but duty otherwise never called.”

“Well, we’re very glad that you’re here; I have some office envy because we follow your writing, especially on”

“So you’re the ones.”

“Hah. Not the only ones,” and he’d lagged behind her and for a few moments Tia was talking to air. Then she stopped, her heels squealing on the floor like a car braking at a sudden red light.

Tia executed a sharp whirl and again, with the imperious eye brow, following a slight tch tch against her teeth, declared:

“Mr. Gotz.”

“It’s Phil. And what? We’re walking and talking and missing our train.”

Tia inclined her head. “I think you were taking in the view.”

Ab-so-lutely,” he raised a hand toward truth, then lowered to her, “I am but a man, fashioned of weak flesh.”

“Maybe,” she replied in mixture of enthusiasm and sarcasm, “but that isn’t the subject of your article, unless the theme has changed, and if so,” she tapped the stylus against her Blackberry, “we’ll need to alter your itinerary.”

Gotz scratched his temple. He said, “My, my, the CVB chose well; chose very well. Did they also give you a cow prod, or cuffs and a whip?”

“No cuffs or whips, because, my director knows you, too.”

“Touché, touché.”

“Here’s your Richmond packet,” she handed him the CVB grab bag, chunked full of information sheets, DVDs, helpful distillations of history and culture to fill in gaps for visiting travel journos when notes and the disc player or camera fail, or the weather is bad, or you’re unable to stir from your hotel room because you imbibed too much of the native hospitality the night before.

“And this,” she pulled from her jacket pocket a plastic strip card. “We call this the Frequent Traveler Token. It’s good for all trains, trams and buses, for a period of 10 days, in case you love Richmond so much that your five days here haven’t been enough.”

“I’m in love already and I haven’t left the airport.”

“We’re ahead of the game, then, aren’t we? Now, you’ll notice here,” she pointed to a corner of the card with a red strip and four numbers. “This is your PIN. You take this off, attach it to something you’re less likely to walk off and forget, or, if you have a PDA you can punch it so you can remember, then if you lose the card, you go to a kiosk, type in the numbers, and the system knows that card, and how much money is left on it, and you’ll get another one.”

“That’ll come in handy for me, I’m sure.”

“I’ve used it. Plenty of times.”

Note on the image: The top photograph is the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Terminal at John F. Kenndy airport in New York City, via In this Richmond, architect Haigh Jamgochian is an acclaimed and revered figure and he designed Byrd's terminals among numerous other public buildings. He becomes our postmodern Mackintosh, Richmond's Frank Lloyd Wright. This is close as I can approximate. Byrd Airport, and the evolved Richmond International, is not nearly so swooping or as dramatic, and lacks much in the way of public art. If there'd been a physical representation of Byrd, maybe we'd still have the name of a person attached to the airport.

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