The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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

The story thus far: Philip Gotz, an obstreperous travel writer known for his "What I Found There" pieces and cable television appearances detailing five-day visits to destinations, is in Richmond, Va. The savvy and sharp Tia Chulangong provided to Gotz as a guide from the city's hospitality bureau provides color commentary about Richmond sights and history. Tia, however, informs Gotz that Jennifer Royce, his novelist ex-wife, is in town on a book tour and through a scheduling error booked into the Jefferson Hotel where he is, too. The writer and his guide enjoyed a travelogue experience from the rooftop terrace of the Jefferson. 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. While reveling in the atmosphere of the chic boho estabishment of Monrovia, in Monroe Park, and t the sounds of the house band, Deadly Nightshade, he happens into Jennifer and their encounter is less than cordial. Out of sorts, Gotz heads downtown to the club Mongoose Civique.

(Image: via The Vault. All other images via Middleburg Trust.)

The more progress he made up Ninth Street the greater distance between him and the jazz on Gallego Plaza that faded into the noise of a busy city. Gotz fumbled for his cell phone. He pushed in Tia Chulangong because she said he could, and she was his guide. And he needed guidance just now. The phone rang several times until her voice, warm and professional, said, "This is Tia Chulangong of the Richmond Visitors and Conventions Department. If this is media related, please don't hesitate to leave a message. I'll get back to you."

Standing at Ninth and Main, Gotz said, "Tia, this is Phil. I'm calling because...because I'm actually getting ready to go into Mongoose Civique and didn't know if I needed to know anything, ah, special."
He shoved the phone into his jacket pocket and turned left on Main as the familiar clarinet smear from Rhapsody In Blue caused him to bring it out again.

"Guess where I am?" said Tia, sounding more mischievous than Gotz anticipated.

"I wouldn't even try."

"Right outside Mongoose Civique."

A pause.

"What about those Cruel Aztec Gods."

"Oh, we went, and then I saw some girlfriends there and we decided to come out here. We're not staying long. You and I have a busy schedule planned!"

"I know I know...but listen...I'm intrigued enough to know what the inside of this place looks like..."


"There's a line."

"You've got that all access pass around your neck."

Now he stood before 821 E. Main St. an imposing, Trajan triumphal-arched bank building, the former Virginia Trust Company, as the incised letters proclaimed.

"Does this big guy at the door know what this means?" he fingered the plastic card.

"Yes, all the doormen know that special pass. Anyway, I'm standing right here."

Gotz shoved his hands in his pockets and passed by a line of dressed-to-party youngsters and approached the red velvet ropes. The bald man in black wearing a wire at his ear turned hard dark eyes onto the card as Gotz held it up. He motioned Gotz on. Tia stood beside the door wearing a baring red dress.

"Fancy meeting you here," Gotz said.

Thumpa thumpa thumpa music pounded from deep inside.

"We're up on the mezzanine, if you'd care to join us."

"I'd love to."

They passed through the double glass doors and Gotz was immediately in a swirl of partiers, like any hip club, from Goa to Aspen. But seldom had he seen such vigorous entertainment pursued
under gold-encrusted coffered ceilings with rosettes inside. A large lit clock affixed to the mezzanine level marked the advancing hours into the dwindling night. The huge room was dim, music geared to cause hip-shuddering and the bar clingers leaning into each other's ears to be heard.

Up in a calm eddy of the party in a corner of the mezzanine among sleek lounge furniture sat a pair of Tia's friends; Capriana Umana, a stunning African American woman in a purple and pink floral dress and the bobbed blonde Ainslie Groth whose wide bared shoulders made Gotz want to lay his head down on one.

They shook hands and Tia efficiently made introductions all around: Capriana, from Atlanta originally but studying urban planning at Ginter U; Ainslie had something to do with regional sports promotions. Richmond's National League Virginians and the NBA Cardinals gave the metro a chip in the "quality of life" game. Gotz, wherever his assignments and expense account took him, tried his writerly best to figure out a different way to explain. And the only way to know the place is to be in the place, and hear the roar of the crowd when the popfly goes up, like this club where he felt lascivious just walking in; and that was comforting.

"So Capriana, why did you choose Ginter?"

She laughed, big, tossing her head one way. "Well, this is the place you come to for my field, In the country. This is where I wanted to come; because Richmond works, and it's good planning put in motion. And I love it."

"You don't have to impress me. Honestly. Why did you come?"

"Ah," and she looked at her confederates, who laughed with her. Ah, Gotz, said, he so enjoyed the music of unified female amusement.

"It's got a killer club scene," she said.

"Damn straight," Ainslie affirmed as she brought up her martini glass. To Gotz, her green dress seemed like a candy wrapper containing all that sweetness.

"I swear I didn't put them up to his, Mr. Gotz," Tia said, raising a hand. "This is how they really feel."

"Well let me ask you this. I took one of those bubble-things to get here. I've read about them, but it was kind of interesting. A little strange. Even for me. What do you think."

They cried out together, as though scoring the highest in a game, "Ped Pods!" Tia crossed her arms, pointing to the women on either side of her. More laughter.

"They have to answer that."

"I'm a Three T girl," said Ainslie, stirring her olives.

"How's that?"

She counted off on fingers. "Tram, train or taxi," she laughed. "I don't like talking to my transportation."

Tia explained how the Pedestrian Pods were the primary cause for the foundering of the hugely popular Mayor Jack Chataigne who'd served Richmond with a Periclean duration of 30 years. There wasn't really ever a candidate who can stand against him; from an old Richmond family and VMI-trained, his wit, self-deprecation, diplomatic skills and constant moving about the people, returned him to city hall every four years. Chataigne advocated for such late 1980s projects as the extension of the Kanawha Canal trips into Goochland and the Byrd Park Pumphouse Canal Museum that wouldn't have gotten through their embryonic stages without his guidance. He got legislation passed guiding residental requirements for varying economic levels in the towers outside of the center city, led the charge for massive improvements in the schools, roads and riverfront, and more efficient delivery of social services. The Virginians stadium on Mayo's Island is called "The Jack."

"But the Ped Pods killed him off, politically," Tia said.

Capriana shook her head. "What happened to Jack was just wrong. More than wrong: stupid. I mean here he is, the truly, the highpoint, the absolute of what Richomnd is supposed to be about. This city won't find anybody else like him. I mean, he's in the history books: you look up "Good Mayor" in the dictionary, and there's his picture. For real."

Her frown was deep and sincere and Chataigne's abrupt dismissal struck Gotz as though it personally offended Capriana.

The Ped Pods were expensive and experimental at a time of a tight budgets, Tia went on to say, but more importantly, loathed by the taxi driver's union. The compromise measure was that the Ped Pods would run as a four-year pilot project primarily restricted to downtown circulator routes. And that was what got Jack voted out two years ago.

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