Tag Archives: Winchester

The Art of Going Nowhere

WinchesterMallHeather and I are in the third floor lounge of the Union Jack Pub in Winchester, Virginia, waiting to meet some new friends of ours and trying not to make eye contact with Bob Orange. He’s standing in the middle of the room, amongst the several tables of people out for Friday night drinks, and looking completely lost and lonely. Something of a local celebrity, he’s scheduled to start playing here in a few moments. We had seen him perform for the first time about a year ago—a lot of Beatles covers, pop tunes from the eighties, that sort of thing. We’d seen some local musicians who really blew us away—like the guy from the barber shop whose voice was one of the most expressive I’ve heard anywhere. And we’d seen some musicians whom we just kind of felt sorry for. Bob Orange was neither of these.

If he were totally horrible, I may have liked him, but he seemed to be one of those people who’d found a way to turn the drive toward mediocrity into an exact science. In other words, if you’re not bad and you’re not good, and you’re not annoying and not pleasant, you’re just boring—and for me that was just about the worst thing in the world an artist of any kind could be. But where the guy from the barber shop and the musicians we felt sorry for both seemed to get polite, half-hearted applause, Bob Orange could get the crowd cheering for him like trained seals.

Mind you, I don’t know Bob Orange at all, and I want to keep it that way. He’s a skinny guy, of average height, whose face seems to be frozen with a teenage boy’s pout. You get the idea that he thinks he’s suffering somehow; and even though he may realize that he’s suffering on a much smaller scale than a lot of other people here, the quantity of his suffering isn’t what matters. It’s the quality of his suffering that makes it so much more significant than that of anyone else here. And in that, I feel a bit of kinship with him. I know that because I’m an artist my suffering, no matter how it pales compared to the travails experienced by a lot of other people in the Shenandoah Valley, is profound.

Yeah, me and Bob are both a couple of assholes—or perhaps the term locals would prefer to use for me is pussy—and the only difference between me and Bob Orange is that I know it.

Heather and I sit at a table and wait for our friends. We had just done a poetry reading at a new age bookstore on the walking mall in Winchester. If you had told me twenty years ago that an event at a new age bookstore would be the highlight of my weekend I would have laughed so hard I’d start spraying you with the half-swallowed bourbon in my mouth. Because that was how I tended to talk to people back then—with a drink in front of me, a cigarette in my hand, and daylight a quaint memory.

It used to be, at this point in the evening, after doing a reading, I’d be completely trashed. And that was a good thing. Those drunken hours were not lost hours, and those drunken years were not lost years—they were productive hours when I became friends with a good number of people I still hold in high esteem, productive years when I learned more than I had before I started drinking. I was not among those who, as they say, drink to forget. But now, after this reading—even though it went really well—I have that sinking feeling that I have no idea what’s going on anymore, and that I’m going nowhere. Or that I may, in fact, already be nowhere.

Bob Orange is still moving about the room, still looking for that friend or just an acquaintance, even. It’s not easy being a local celebrity—but it doesn’t take much to become a local celebrity here: Heather’s already had three newspaper stories done on the various poetry projects she’s started here.. And she takes the publicity for what it is—as something that may help move these projects forward—though she knows that most likely it won’t make much difference one way or another. Or is that just me who thinks that?

WinchesterMall2

Sometimes, Heather thinks I’m too quick to make up my mind about people—that I often don’t give people the chance they deserve, and that I’m too quick to take a negative view of any situation. And she’s right about that. Still, I feel that that’s what’s helped me survive all these years—survive without being more damaged than I already am, survive without being even more cynical than I already am.

Right now all I want to do is avoid Bob Orange. But Bob Orange seems as determined to make some sort of connection as I am determined not to. Because of all the things I’ve been obsessed with over the years, companionship has never been one of them. I enjoy making enemies more than I enjoy making friends (how I, at several points in my life, could number my active friends in the dozens, was beyond me) and right now the risk that Bob Orange will strike up a conversation with us and perhaps, for some strange reason, like us, is yet another crisis for us to face. Or, to be precise, a crisis for me to face, since what I consider a crisis is often something Heather can effortlessly shrug off.

After sitting there for five minutes, Heather starts to think that maybe we’re in the wrong part of the bar—that maybe our friends are, right then, waiting for us downstairs. Somehow, Heather is always the one who gets to go off on a search mission, while my duty is to wait—or “hold down the fort” as the expression goes—so she heads downstairs. I look to the other end of the room, and Bob Orange, his pout turning into the slightest, vomit-inducing grin, seems to be heading my way.

I immediately start to panic.

* * *

It was early spring.

I didn’t want to be there, at that bar in Winchester. But, on the walking mall in Winchester that night, the evening air seemed to have just the right level of crispness to it. It was the sort of chill that, if it were just half a degree cooler, would give you goosebumps. Staying out a little longer seemed like the thing to do.

I’d just been laid off from my job. Or, at any rate, they’d run out of things for me to do, which amounted to the same thing. It used to be that the end of a steady job was something for me to celebrate. But when you have a family, and you’re not the only one who’s going to suffer from your lack of income, it’s not the sort of thing to bring a smile to your face.

Nuyorican2

Back in 1992, when I was living in New York, I got completely trashed on the day I was laid off. It wasn’t a sad, woe-is-me-and-my-sorry-ass kind of drunk, though. It was a celebratory drunk, a toast to my being free of the soul-sucking job—well, maybe it was really too easy of a job to honestly say it was soul-sucking. So let me just say what I had was a ridiculous job, a job keeping track of sales for a direct-mail marketing firm (“Charlie, sales for the Susan Lucci cubic zirconium pendants are way down this month”).

And, back then, in the evening of my last day at my ridiculous job, I had a reading.

This one was at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the poetry club that was half a block away from my apartment on Avenue B and Third St. And, this time, a film crew from Good Morning America was there to do a segment on the poetry scene. So, even though I’d just lost my day job, I felt that my career as a writer was now going somewhere. Because that’s what a city does for me—it gives me hope.

As soon as I got to the Nuyorican, someone from the film crew put a wireless microphone on me. I then went to the bathroom to take a leak as she listened on her headphones to see if it was working properly. By the time I read, I was trashed. So I read a poem about being drunk.

The audience got into it. They laughed at all the right places and, I hoped, also got a sense of the sadness and desperation that lurked beneath the surface. Then I forgot all about it until a week later when, after staying awake all night, I turned on the TV. It was around eight in the morning, the time of day when I’d expect to see the morning weather report or Barney the Dinosaur, when, to my surprise, I saw myself on TV, my hair dangling in my eyes and my voice fueled by alcohol, saying, “Drunk at four in the morning…”

I felt like I’d sold out. But, since I was out of a job, it felt good that I had something to sell. And that’s what I did for the next two years I spent in New York—I wrote. I wrote for NY Press, which was a weekly paper that competed with the Village Voice. I wrote for Wrestling World, a magazine my old friend Stephen Ciacciarelli edited. I also had poems appear in cool lit mags like Bomb, and in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter. I did readings at places like the Public Theater, The Living Theater, CBGBs, and the Knitting Factory. I even did a poetry video that was shown regularly on the local public television station (usually between back to back episodes the British soap opera, EastEnders).

I was, without a doubt, lucky. Because I had made the transition from being a nine to five grunt in the straight world to a…Well, I don’t know what. Because one detail I left out was that I wasn’t making a living. I was making money, but that money wasn’t nearly enough to pay the rent on my apartment, meaning that it was my credit in the straight world that was helping me get by. That and a some temp jobs here and there, including a month long gig at Goldman Sachs and a gig at another investment firm that canned me after I’d worked there for one day—the job was supposed to last for at least one month—when I came in reeking of bourbon and cigarettes. As the guy at temp agency explained when he left a message on my answering machine telling me not to go back to the job, “your body odor was highly inappropriate.”

Again, let me emphasize that these were good times. And although my inappropriateness was a liability in the straight world, in the downtown lit scene I was a part of, my bad behavior was a good thing. And whenever I felt bad about something, like losing that temp job after one day or splitting up with a girlfriend, there was always someone to remind me that this was New York, and that no matter how bad one day may be, the next one could be completely different. And, at least back in those days, it was true.

television2

But the high point of my days as a writer in New York was one afternoon when someone recognized me on the street. It wasn’t someone from a publishing house, or the owner of a bookstore, or some beautiful woman stopping me to say she was impressed with a poem I’d done at a recent reading—though all these things had happened at various times and places while I was in New York. No, the high point was when a homeless person, who was watching TV through the storefront window of an electronics shop on 14th Street, turned away from his free entertainment because he recognized me from the reflection I made in the window.

“Hey, man,” he said, then raised his voice a bit, “You made it! Channel 13, man!”

He was probably around my age, though of course living on the streets can make a person look older than he really is. But the big, guileless smile he gave me showed that, yes, he was genuinely happy for me. To be congratulated by a man who was obviously going through some tough times—times he may very well have been less able to recover from than me—moved me more than any other compliment I’d gotten for my work.

There was nothing else for me to do but say, with probably more sincerity than at any other time I’ve used this frequently mumbled or otherwise carelessly used word, “Thanks.”

But I was in New York then. A city which, even though I left there feeling down and out and defeated, will always feel, to me, like a city of possibilities. And I must say that if Heather, Maggie, and me were to move there tomorrow—even with all the changes, even with my old neighborhood being cleaned up of much of the grime and disorder that made it, for me, such an interesting place to live—I’d feel right at home again.

Here, in the Shenandoah Valley, even after being here for two years, I still feel lost. And I still feel like I’m going nowhere here. But maybe that’s because I need to just give in. Because New York—or even Washington—isn’t going to be happening for us anytime soon.

So I need to get out, here, in the valley, and breath in the air and gaze at the mountains. Yes, the mountains that, decadent city person that I am, still don’t impress me as much as a skyline filled with skyscrapers. I need to learn to like these damn mountains more, so that I look at them not as a place to visit, but as a place to live. I need to wake up one morning, go to the room we use as an office, where I can look out the back window and see the mountains and say, “Christ, these mountains are fucking beautiful. I mean, seriously, they’re beautiful and I’m really feeling it now.” And, the next time I see Bob Orange, I need to go up to him and shake his hand and say, “Hey, I really like your music” or “I really enjoyed your version of ‘Nowhere Man.’”

I need to say it every time I see him. Until I feel I’m making progress here. Until I start to feel at home here.

Until I really mean it.

-Jose Padua

I Just Want to See His Face

route11aThe words going through my mind at that moment were, “You don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, you just want to see his face.” We were going south on Rte 11, the alternate to sharing the road with the convoys of trucks on 81 that are desperately and dangerously trying to deliver their loads on time. We’d passed by the Trinity Quick Lube in Winchester, whose flashing yellow sign declared, “Believe in the Power of Prayer.” And we knew that when we reached the stretch where Rte 11 becomes the 116th Infantry Regiment Memorial Highway, and where the Christian auto body shop towers over the other buildings on the block, that we’d be somewhat close to our destination. Or would it mean that we’d gone too far and that we were, in fact, lost?

But then halfway through Middletown, we were found. We’d just passed the Irish restaurant where the owner always seems to warmly greet all the other customers but us, when I saw a cop turn his lights on behind us. I thought that, OK, he just got a call, so I pulled over to get out of the way. But it turns out I’m the person he’s looking for.

I turn around to see that there are two cops in the car behind me. So we sit and wait for a few minutes, wondering what their story will be. As for my story, I already know what it’s going to be and what it isn’t going to be. And what I know is that it isn’t going to be the truth. Because telling the truth to a pair of small town cops who have nothing to do on a quiet Saturday afternoon is the sort of thing that will get you arrested—or worse.

And it’s not like you can trust city cops, either. I know a woman, a white woman, who was once questioned by the police in DC simply for riding in a car with her black boyfriend. As for her boyfriend, they didn’t spend much time asking questions. They simply threw him against his own car and immediately arrested him. They were nice to the woman, though, and one of them gave her a ride home since they were impounding her boyfriend’s car. And, on the way home he asked her out. She declined politely—because, after all, discretion certainly is the better part of valor, especially when you’re dealing with someone, anyone, who’s carrying a loaded weapon.

Besides, as an old family friend—an attorney who knew DC cops very well—once said to me, “Never trust the police.” Of course, it’s not like they’re all corrupt. Here in Front Royal, whenever we’ve had to deal with the police, they’ve been extremely helpful, as they were several times during the recent presidential election when our Obama signs were stolen and our house vandalized in the process. Each time, a policeman came promptly, asked us questions, gave us tips for deterring thieves and vandals and left us with the feeling that, yes, these guys were on our side.

JubalEarly4a

But we weren’t in Front Royal, this time. We were in Middletown, Virginia, where during the Civil War, hot-tempered Confederate General Jubal A. Early met his own Waterloo, as it were. Early, like some people today, didn’t like what was happening in Washington. He also thought that the institution of slavery was the best way to deal with what he saw as those “barbarous natives of Africa.” Indeed, it was Jubal Early who was most responsible for giving birth to the concept of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which held, among other things, that the ends of the Confederacy were noble, its leaders chivalrous, and that the institution of slavery was basically good for African-Americans. It’s a concept that lives on today whenever someone tries to tell you that, by God, some of the slave owners treated their slaves very well. And it’s a concept that lives on, of course, in even worse ways.

The trip that took us through Middletown that day started in Winchester, where we crossed that busy stretch of road that runs west to east through town. Named Jubal Early Drive, it’s a road we just about always have to take whenever we go to Winchester—which, because of the resources there, is fairly often. Jubal Early and his lost cause are, you might say, never that far from us.

So, when the cop in Middletown finally comes to the driver side window of our Toyota minivan (some may think I’m being picky, but I’m willing to bet that cops like these two stop Fords and Chevys a lot less often than they do Toyotas and Subarus), and we see that his uniform bears a patch that has both the United States flag and the Confederate flag, we’re not really surprised.

Then, finally, as his partner stands at attention on the other side of our vehicle—I suppose, in case Maggie or Heather makes some sudden, threatening move—he gives us his story.

“Did you know you were going 40 mph in a 30 mph zone?”

“Yes. Sorry, officer,” I said. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

I was lying. I was paying attention—I was going 32 mph in a 25 mph zone. There is no 30 mph zone in the business section of Middletown.

“And did you know you zoomed by a bunch of kids on the side of the road riding bicycles?”

“No, officer,” I said, again lying. There were no kids on the side of the road riding bicycles—I knew that because I was scoping out the place, looking for things I might want to come back to photograph later.

“You just pulled off of 81, didn’t you?”

The cop was making it all up—it was obvious he had a story he was sticking to and a profile he’d invented. And I was making it all up, too, giving him back the story he wanted. I didn’t just take the exit off of 81, because I’d been driving Rte 11 since Winchester. There was no 30 mph zone. There were no kids on bicycles. But again, because discretion certainly is the better part of valor, I nodded like I was getting to the unsurprising plot twist in some dime store novel. Although, technically, I really was speeding, all the details were pulled out of his uniformed ass. Pleading my case would have been difficult, if not risky.

route11-4a

I might have done things differently if Heather and Maggie hadn’t been there with me, because it’s when I’m alone that I often have the most trouble—those times when they’re not there to keep me calm, to remind me that I don’t need to fight every battle. That sometimes, all I need to do is get where I’m going.

The cop took my license and registration, then he and his partner went back inside their police cruiser to make us wait. Wait while they checked if I had any warrants out for my arrest. Wait while they checked if the vehicle was stolen. Wait while they checked if I was on a list of known terrorists. Wait while they checked to see if I was some illegal alien who’d taken this white woman and her child hostage. Wait to see if they could piss me off so that I got angry and did something they actually could arrest me for.

But I sat still. We all sat still. Oh yeah, I mumbled a few curses for my own benefit, but I kept perfectly still with my right arm resting on the passenger seat and my left arm propped up on the driver’s side door—all in plain view.

After another ten or fifteen minutes, they got out of their cruiser. Again, one cop talked to me while the other stood at attention on the passenger side. Then, at last I had my ticket.

“Thank you officer,” I said, making an almost superhuman effort to suppress the slightest hint of sarcasm in my voice—because the words going through my mind were not at all thankful and would never be interpreted as polite.

But at last we were on our way again—to Strasburg, where Cristina’s Café was presenting murder mystery dinner theater that night.

It had been a hot summer evening, and getting stopped by the police was yet another incident on what had been a strange day for us in the valley. But we didn’t have much time to talk about it, or even to think about it right then, because we didn’t want to be late.  And as I drove on, a thought occurred to me—one that both comforted and appalled me: if Jesus were alive today, he’d be racially profiled, too.

-Jose Padua