The Blue Raccoon

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond...And What I Found There Part VII

The story thus far: Philip Gotz, an obstreperous travel writer known for his "What I Found There" pieces detailing his five-day visits to destinations, is in Richmond, Va. The visitors bureau has assigned to him as a guide Tia Chulangong -- who pretty much has his number from the moment she meets him at the Richard Evelyn Byrd International Airport. She provides running color commentary on Richmond sights and history while riding the train to bustling Main Street Station, and from there to Gotz's accommodations. Tia, however, has informed Gotz that Jennifer Royce, his novelist ex-wife, is in town on a book tour and through a scheduling error he's booked into the Jefferson Hotel where she is also staying. The writer and his guide have now gone up to the rooftop terrace of the Jefferson, where Tia is giving Gotz a travelogue explanation of the city's sights. Gotz observes the city's bosky streets and plentiful green and open spaces, lack of automotive traffic or parking lots, the preserved historic architecture and the exile of high rise office and residential towers to the outer edges of the central metro. Tia leaves him to enjoy his first evening on the town. (Image: 400-500 blocks of West Franklin this from the north side near Belvidere, looking west, toward Monroe Park, via Library of Virginia).

"Richmond: A Laughing Matter"

All images in this section via the Library of Virginia's archived Richmond Esthetic Survey, 1965. View and weep what was, and the record of how ugly interpretations of Modernism chewed up the city's aesthetic qualites.

Gotz returned to his suite like a wary cat. Armed with this knowledge of Jennifer’s presence, he expected to see her around every corner, or the elevator door opening to reveal her. It wouldn’t be so bad. There’d been only minor bloodshed in their fight, and it got messy only toward the end, and four of their six years had been quite enjoyable. But it was that fifth year, and, oh, good God, the sixth. The whole fiasco ended in tears and lawyers.

Why Tia, this presumed efficient hospitality diva, allow this to occur? Gotz wondered if, indeed, he was as annoying as many believed. Tia couldn’t be that passive aggressive, could she? Say it ain’t so. For all she knew, Gotz could take it personal and write a fierce and vehement assessment of Richmond. Just to teach her a lesson. But he’d much prefer other methods.

Gotz arrived at his suite without incident. Perched on the soft beckoning bed he investigated the CVB gift bag feeling like a raccoon rummaging through the trash.

He formed piles on the royal blue bed covers.

Interesting: final copy of the itinerary Tia designed, the DVDs, guide books, the most recent Richmond Tempo for the what-to-do and where-to-go; Not Now: slides, brochures. Junk: Coupons. On the topmost of the first division was the DVD loaded with “trailers.” He decided to slip it into the big plasma screen machine the Jefferson hung on the bedroom wall like a magic portal. He kicked off his shoes, propped himself on pillows, and aimed the remote.

Richmond: A Laughing Matter featured a series of comedians, chosen for broadest appeal, a white guy in a double-breasted suit and tie, Jerry something, he'd have to reverse it if the name mattered; a back guy in a skull cap, Ronnie Wilcoxen; a sharp fast talking woman—Sherry Ressen he’d actually seen her on HBO— “I’m Jewish, from Richmond, Virginia, so deal with it -- ya’ll.” They were shown speaking “before live audiences” at various Richmond entertainment venues; The Laff Riot in Shockoe, Galloping Comedians downtown; and The House of Mirth on something called Staples Mill Road.

There was fun with classifieds designation about house and apartment locations. The skull-cap comedian Ron paced the stage, his temples gleaming, “ So listen up, chirrun—that’s children for you up staters—for your insider info. “ITWNRVU’ means Inside The Woods River View, or even more detailed, ITWNSRVU, Inside The Woods North Side River View, or SS, for South Side – I hear we got some South Side in the house tonight--which is where the best views are, (hoots). Inside the woods don’t mean you’re like Hansel and Gretel and you live in a gingerbread house in the forest. No, uh-huh. Means you’re rich. You are very, very rich (laughter, applause) You’re making large sums of money. That’s what it means.”

Guy in a suit, Jerry. More conversational, leaning on his mike stand:

“What comes down to is: Are you an innie or an outie? (laugher) So, if you live In The Woods, means you live in the old part of town. And if you’re a single guy trying to hook up, and she asks if you’re in the Woods or outside of the Woods, and you say,” he lifts one arm and nonchalantly scratched his neck, “Yeah, I live in the Woods,’ she’ll make this sound – they all do – “Oh,” like she just got pinched but she kinda liked it, you know? It’s weird, weird, it’s like that’s the sound you want. That little ‘Oh!’ adds a real or imagined $50,000 to your paycheck. Seriously, seriously.

But, if, like what happens to me, I say, (self-consciously rubbing his forehead) ‘Oh, I live Out of the Woods.’ (pause for effect) In Chester. (chuckles) And she makes this, ‘Ah,’ sound. Not so good. Not the sound you want. Very different from the, ‘Oh!' which is a whole tilt of the head with interest-in-you kind of thing. ‘Ah’ is you get a nod and this expression of, ‘That’s almost 15 minutes on the Centralia train. Bet he reads a lot.’

Sherry Ressen, in her floral pattered summer dress, and easy delivery. She’s quite pretty, sharp featured, long black hair that she tosses with alarming abandon.

“So my buddy comes to visit me from New York. Says he’s nervous. Says he's worried because Richmond impounds cars with out-of-state plates and fines the owners. He says this to me. So I had to, you know, talk him down, that no, we just lock up your car for your safety and ours.” (knowing laughter and big applause)

(change of angle on her)

The Car Docks. (mixed applause) Strangest thing for some people. You drive your car into this thing that looks like it was used for anti-aircraft guns during World War II, and you just leave it there.

This totally freaks people out. Totally freaks’em out.

They don’t want to leave Betsy behind, you know? Like it’s their kid: ‘Now, now, Mr and Mrs. Johnson, she’ll be completely safe in our hands.’ It’s a parking garage, not summer camp. (laughs)

Skull cap Ron:
Richmond’s missing making a mint on this whole car dock deal. We should have package plans, you know? Park in the dock and we’ll wash your car, vacuum, detail it… We could say: Leave the heap with us in North Tower and three days later you pick it up in the South Tower she’ll look like she went though an automotive self-improvement class.” I’m telling you, you could reduce our taxes his way.

Guy in suit Jerry:

Trolley cars and Richmond, Richmond and trolley cars. We love’m. We invented’m. We’re very proud of this. But after a century, you’d think we could tell you how to get someplace on one of the things. (laughter, clapping)

It’s kind of confusing. There’s a rainbow of options (holds up multi-colored route planner and lets it unfold to general amusement). It’s like there should be a leprechaun involved. (big laughter and steady applause as camera lingers on route schedule)

Skull Cap Ron:
This is what you got to know about Richmond neighborhoods. So listen up, know and learn this. I’m gonna tell you it to you straight like nobody else will. Gonna start far east, not China, but Fulton, OK?
Fulton: hippies and the black folks who tolerate them. Rocketts: tourists, gamblers and the boat crews that blow into town for the weekend push and shove, you know. Shockoe; One of Richmond’s oldest hoods, gamblers and drinkers and people who live there who’re shocked, shocked to see gambling and drinking going on. And gambling.


Church Hill: They’re on a hill and they know it. It’s old. Poe hung out on Church Hill. And Shockoe, too. See what happened? Downtown: people wandering around looking at the people wandering around, you got your students and the hipsters and the gamers and city hall stuck in the middle of it.

Highland Park and Northside: Oh, you mean there is another part of the city? We like it over here just fine. Buppies and post-graduate newlywed breeders and gays. And some of the best coffee in town. It’s true.

Skull Cap Ron:
Ginter Park: More established, upper class folks, houses big enough to need intercoms and camera systems to find your wife or husband or your kids. “Timmy, what are you doing in the garage? I can see everything. Don’t touch that. Don’t touch that, either.” (whistles, appplause)
Union Theological is there, so people are more holy, or holier than you, anyway.

And, the Fan, man, the Fan. (big reaction, whisles and hollers) Yeah. You know. Ginter University types, people that go there or people that teach there, are people who can afford the scenery, if you know what I’m saying. There's more bralessess in the Fan than anywhere in town. (laughter) You got Carytown on one end. All that stuff to buy, my wife loves it, 'nice' stuff that you put on a shelf then knock over and bust when you're playing with the soft basketball when she's away and you know you shouldn't but you do it because she's gone and you have to go buy another one of whatever it is, and, of course, the're out and won't get any more for years, and so are you, too, if you follow me. (big laughter) Manchester, yeah, Dogtown. Nothing doggy about it. Well, maybe on some streets. Artists. Fan refugees. Computer nerds. (hoots) Alright, alright, I hear ya.

And so on it went for another few minutes. A city that could laugh at itself. That was refreshing.

Gotz stood up, stretched, opened the curtain to look upon Franklin Street and the the city beyond. A human-scale city. Some higher rise buildings over on Broad and one Deco-style tower that rose above the others.

He decided to stride up a few blocks to this Monrovia place.


Franklin Street's sidealks smelled of wisteria and honeysuckle. The clots of people moving along by him were young people, laughing, there was a pleasant holiday air to the place. The grand houses, Richardson Romanesque brownstones, whimsical Queen Annes and each compelling him to stop and gander to comprehend their individual natures.

The stuccoed, somber Monrovia building's ends had high arched stained glass windows. A crayon-box color assortment of scooters clustered around the place. The placard he stopped to read indicated that from the mid-1910s on the building was the fire and police alarm station but the 1930 acquisition by the Monroe Park Improvements Commission rescued it from demolition. Subsequent purchase by various entrepreneurs followed with several incarnations of restaurants and gathering places, but as Monrovia, from 1968 on, it had become a cultural landmark. ("Monrovia" is to the left in the Monroe Park image)

Gotz was greeted in the stained glass enclosed Italianate vestibule by a smiling hostess in a tiny floral-pattered summer dress standing at a podium surmounted by a sculpted wooden eagle. She asked him Gotz if was here for dinner, and he replied just a drink or so. He entered the dim dark wooded bar adorned by onlooking oblong African masks and old photos and prints of Monrovian street scenes, intermixed with Monroe-ania. A bust of the president near the entrance wore a high purple velvet fez.

Brass wall fixtures with globe lights cast an eerie glow across the place. Gotz flashbacked on a book about ghosts that purported a photography of phantom monks going up a stair. The flash captured the deep creases of their robes and the grasp of their hands on the rail. The furnishings are random, old and plush, the tables heavy and wooden. Above stairs a small performance space, where the semi-regular house band Deadly Nightshade holds forth.

The diners and drinkers clustered in high-backed, plush cushioned booths were a mix of Ginter College students, professional bohos and tourists. Gotz checked off Monrovia in a mental box as an Richmond-centric place that suits both regulars and discerning visitors.

Deadly Nightshade’s lead singer's voice called him upstairs. Uvilla Peyton , tall, redheaded, bare shouldered in a slit-sided black dress. She had with her a tall, stout goateed upright bassist, a youthful dread locked pianist and a bald, mustached trumpeter, dressed in khakis like he'd just come off safari. Gotz wondered if his mufti somehow mattered in Monrovia.

He drank in his Glenmorangie and her, too, crooning, wailing, whispering, tossing back her head and howling then grabbing the mike and sing-speaking tales of love gone awry and bitter jagged tales of life's disappointments using a voice so soft and compelling everybody leaned forward to hear. These were mostly original songs so he didn't know any of them, and this didn't matter. For a couple of songs she sat, eyes closed and didn't move. Gotz, who'd seen cabaret performers all over the world, hadn't seen anybody quite like this. Her audience roared and stomped their feet. Gotz did, too.

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