Monthly Archives: August 2009

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, I remembered what it was like when I was young and wished for the first time that I could hide my face or change it. When I wondered about all the things I might have to do differently if I ever wanted to get anywhere—or even to just stay right where I was.

-Jose Padua

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What Would Buddha Do? or Ten Things I Don’t Hate about Front Royal

FRGazeboBuddha, by way of my therapist, pointed out to me recently that “life is suffering.” I ponder this while working my way around a chocolate-dipped vanilla cone from the custard stand just up the street. At the moment, life doesn’t feel too bad.

Buddha was one smart dude though—he knew it’s always best to lower one’s expectations. If you expect your life to suck, then every good thing that happens, every ice cream cone, every sunny day, every kindness extended to you is a shining miracle.

As I finish my treat and start pulling out of the lot next to Burger King, it hits me that even though Buddha lived thousands of years ago in India, he knew all about Front Royal—freaky.

Maybe he visited a town like ours, out in the hinterlands, a small and mostly backward place that, nevertheless, deep down in the rocks and dirt, harbored a few stunning jewels.

Maybe he couldn’t see them until he calmed his mind and observed his surroundings without judgment, free of negative or positive attachments.

Yeah, right—easier said than done. But he was The Buddha—of course he could handle a little non-judgment.

Every time I meet with my crunchy, new age therapist, she reminds me about a related concept called “Radical Acceptance.” She’s just so ridiculously sensible. Radical Acceptance involves accepting life as it comes without trying to control every detail, run away, or push back like a trapped rodent. You either change the thing that is bothering you, accept that you cannot change it and agree to be miserable, or decide to improve your attitude toward the outside element you cannot change.

I wonder if Buddha had a cognitive behavioral therapist to help him through dark times, those days when his followers looked like cretins, dull-witted and selfish, without the least desire to imagine anything beyond what they had always known.

Or on days when they acted like spoiled, neurotic, type-A urban dwellers.

Did his therapist also swear by aroma therapy, bio-feedback, and creative visualization? Oh, wait, he was the therapist.

Honestly, driving down Osage Street, it’s hard to think of Front Royal without judgment, to call it Home with a capital H, a place we chose of our own free will.

But this is the town where we are raising our child, the place where we sleep and dream every night, a place without so many of the perks we used to consider essential.

Here there is no nationally top-ranked public school system, no nightlife to speak of, no art house movie theatre, no gay district, no government buildings named after civil rights leaders, no Ethiopian, Lebanese, or Moroccan restaurants, no children’s museum, no go-go bands performing on street corners, no metro, no Filipino Festival, no Kennedy Center.

After two years here, it occurs to me that when I look around, glancing up and down Main Street or peering down alleys, I’m more likely to see what isn’t here rather than what is. This is a problem. The absences are clouding my vision like smoke from a neighbor’s stinky brush fire.

If there were anything interesting or cool or inspiring here, would I even see it?

What would Buddha do (WWBD) in such a situation?

Just for kicks and because I don’t want Buddha to be disappointed in me, I decide to try an exercise suggested by my therapist as a way to relax before sleep. This exercise has become my night-time crack—it calms me, moves mind and body to a “receptive” place—whatever that means—and is, of course, much cheaper and more healthy than actual crack.

But will it work in broad daylight when I can actually see all the Sarah Palin stickers zooming by around me, all the NRA fundraising flyers plastered proudly downtown?

My assignment is to list the 10 things I am grateful for, not just any 10 things, but the 10 things about Front Royal that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, or at least not suicidal.

It’s a lot like asking an artsy kid to explain why she loves military school or a video game addict why he adores folding paper cranes.

No, “there is no try, there is only do,” as Yoda would say. No past or future, only present.

Okay, so focus…breathe…observe.

Slowly, they come to me, the top 10 things I do not hate about Front Royal (FR):RoyalOak

1. Royal Oak Book Shop—how could you not appreciate a store that leaves a good chunk of its wares on the front porch for bibliophiles to pick up and pay for on the honor system? On the inside, this labyrinthine book shop feels like it blossomed out of the earth, books and maps filling every room like Virginia creeper. Admittedly, I don’t just tolerate this store—I really really like it.

2. Mountain Mystic Trading Company—a true hippy haven, this shop features funny, left-leaning bumper stickers (thank god), incense, crystals, scented oils, books on meditation, and funky jewelry. It provides a much needed balance to the shame/guilt/damnation vibe emanating from the Catholic shop on Main.

3. Front Royal Women’s Resource Center—not so much a physical destination as an amazing conglomeration of positive energy, this organization has moved FR light years ahead with its progressive programs for women and girls, its scholarships, arts events, and reminders of what woman anywhere can accomplish. No non-judgment here I’m afraid.

4. Yoga Studios—there are two in downtown FR—two! Blue Mountain Healing Center offers massage therapy, thai yoga massage, kripalu yoga, reiki, arch healing, and aromatherapy. Peaceful Energies offers hatha yoga, gentle yoga, pilates, reiki, and natural health consultations. Although one guidebook for young girls that I found in the local CVS warns against the Satanic evils of that far eastern cult, yoga, I have yet to start speaking in a guttural devil voice after enjoying Thai yoga massage. Maybe the masseur isn’t doing it right.

5. The Gazebo—I think someone pulled this white-columned structure near the Visitor’s Center directly from an early Mickey Rooney flick. The gazebo adorns FR postcards and is the site of community events year-round. It seems to attract all types of lollers and strollers. Sometimes you see mysterious groups of teens practicing traditional old-world European dances there or random D.J.s performing for non-existent crowds during the week. But sitting there on the grass surrounded by gorgeous flowers at dusk on a coolish spring or fall evening, the smallness of this small town seems almost not so bad.

6. Warren County Democrats—during the 2008 presidential election, this group opened an office on Main Street and I thought I was going to cry. A life-sized cardboard Obama gazed out from behind the front door onto a staunchly Republican Warren County. Against some pretty tough odds, a motley and diverse crew of liberals significantly bumped up the number of registered Democrats in the area. If that cardboard sign could have moved its lips, it would have broken into a smile as broad as the Shenandoah Valley.

7. Victorian Houses on Blue Ridge Avenue—even though too many have been torn down and replaced by modern structures or cut up into apartments, the intact homes that remain take my breath away. We’ve watched several neighbors restore their turn-of-the-century houses with painstaking care. The staircase banister in our own house has developed a rich satin patina. That simple piece of wood connects me to history every time I touch it.

8. Veggie Wrap and Background Music at Soul Mountain—stepping into this restaurant can make everything feel alright, baby. The lunch special can’t be beat—spicy wraps and a drink for a mere $6.95. But what really gets me is the vibe—reggae music, Bob Marley on the wall, and my favorite guy, Buddha, watching over it all.

9. View of the River and Mountains Coming into Town on 340 South—this sight just never gets old. Rolling down 340 south over the two bridges into town, you see the river on the right flowing down from the mountains between banks of trees. It’s all undulation and subtle shades of blue, purple, and green. If you listen closely, you can hear the velvet voice of poet Langston Hughes reciting: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

10. Custard Stands—do these need any explanation? I used to love the ones dotting south Jersey, where I spent a good bit of my childhood. They seemed magical then somehow and can still be a highpoint of my day. Maybe my therapist should set up an office right next door to one. She could start a new craze—ice cream therapy.

Now that I have named my list and become one with my cone, I feel receptive, humbled, grateful, warm, fuzzy, and centered. How lucky to live here and not in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, or North Korea—life is good after all.

Kicking back on my front porch, swinging in the old wooden swing, I gaze at the cornflower blue sky, watch a bee buzz the azalea bushes, and then realize I’d better get off my butt and brew some coffee now before this haze of contentment swallows all my critical faculties like quicksand.

Please, not that.

If that were to happen, I might forget Buddha’s words about suffering, let my guard down, and start to expect way too much of this podunk little town.

And that, don’t you agree, would be a disaster.

-Heather Davis

Exile on Main Street

soulmountain2We never would have moved here if it weren’t for Soul Mountain. Mind you, I’m not talking about the writers retreat in East Haddam, Connecticut or the Nobel prize-winning novel by Gao Xingjian. Writers retreats are of no use to me—I’d gaze at the scenery, overeat, overdrink, then fall asleep without writing a single word—and I have not yet read Gao Xingjian’s novel.

Soul Mountain, for us, is a restaurant on Main Street in Front Royal that features Cajun and Caribbean cuisine. It’s also, for us, one of those establishments where we can be called regulars. And though we may no longer be the sort of regulars whom you would see every day of the week at, say, the old Scorpio Bar on Avenue A in New York (before it made the transformation into Psycho Mongo’s House of Sublimation and then into the “cozy, dimly lit Library Bar”) we are, despite the lower level of frequency, regulars nonetheless.

As it is, Soul Mountain is the sort of place where we would have become regulars wherever it was. A few years ago, though, the space Soul Mountain occupies was a German restaurant, one remnant of which, I suspect, is the oversized wooden table that you see to your left as soon as you enter and which back then probably bore plates of bratwurst and beer steins filled with some pale lager. Nice stuff, yes, but I very much doubt that we would have become regulars at this spot if it were still a German restaurant. But that’s a moot point, because, again, we never would have moved here to Front Royal if this particular restaurant hadn’t drawn us in and made us think that yes, two die-hard urbanites like us could actually feel comfortable in this small town in the Shenandoah Valley.

On the first day we ever set foot in town we parked a few buildings down from Soul Mountain. We didn’t go in, but we saw the tables outside the restaurant, peaked through the big glass windows to see a statue of the Buddha and a poster of Bob Marley inside, and immediately came to the conclusion that this could be our spot in town—our second home, as it were, even though we hadn’t yet found a first home.

We didn’t have time for a full meal in Front Royal that day, so we just walked across the street toward what looked like a coffee shop. The people we saw walking on Main Street that afternoon had an aura of alertness and purpose about them, that ever-so slight furrowing of the brows which, more often than not, indicates awareness of the world at large. In other words, the people we saw looked somewhat sophisticated, even mature. Oftentimes you can tell you’re in a town where nothing is happening by the number of bored teenagers you see hanging out, chatting idly without even looking at each other.

Going into the coffee shop, the Daily Grind, we found another pleasant establishment, decorated in warm earth tones, where decent music was playing. It sounded like maybe John Mayer, whose records I would never shell out money for in a million years, but whose music is OK to hear when you’re out in public trying to relax or need just a little noise to drown out the inane conversation going on at the table next to yours. Anyway, you don’t usually go to a coffee house like this to listen to the two hundred electric guitars of Rhys Chatham’s “A Crimson Grail.” You go there because it’s the sort of place where you can relax for a few minutes—or a few hours.

Thus began the process of being seduced by this small town. Seduced by Soul Mountain which was dressed, metaphysically, in a low cut blouse, hot pants, and fishnet stockings while making pointed commentary on current events and culture; seduced by the Daily Grind with its warm, soft voice skillfully making double entendres while reaching under the table to tap us on the knee; seduced by the worldly ways of some of the people strolling down Main Street on a Saturday afternoon in June.

theoldhotelIn other words, we were seeing things that weren’t there, building the town up in our minds because the bottom line was this: we needed somewhere to go. We couldn’t afford to stay close to the city anymore. Indeed, what we would have preferred to do at this point in our lives—and with a young daughter who could benefit from its culture and diversity—would be to move closer to the city (or, better yet, to a bigger city, like New York or Boston). Because we don’t buy that shit about the city not being a healthy place to live. And, we don’t buy that shit about the city not being a good place to raise a child.

But, despite what we believed, we had to go and go soon before the economy, with its glorious bubbles bursting spectacularly in the air over the housing market, set us down in a hole we could never dig out of. And Soul Mountain and the Main Street Daily Grind made us think that, for us, the road out of that hole led to Front Royal.

This isn’t to say that Soul Mountain and the Daily Grind weren’t what we thought they were. They were exactly what we thought they were, and we’d be frequenting these two places if we’d found them in New York, Paris, or at the beach. The error we made was that we ascribed to them more power than any restaurant or coffee shop could possibly have. A tremendous restaurant and a great coffee shop can only lift an entire town so high.

Finally, we had to face it: we were now residents of a very conservative small town.

We’d been in Front Royal for almost a year when, sitting inside Soul Mountain and glancing out the window, I realized that I still found it hard to believe we were here. It was a Friday night, in the early Fall. It was still warm, and now and then some shirtless kid with a shaved head would walk past the window, from left to right. Then, a few minutes later you’d see him going from right to left, and then a few minutes later, from left to right. Much of the time, that’s the action on the street. Sometimes, that’s all you’ll see.

Yesterday, driving Maggie up to her gymnastics class in Winchester, I saw a pickup truck with a huge Confederate flag flying out the back. Today, it was a bumper sticker that said “Licensed Terrorist Hunter.” And I always seem to see “When Guns Are Outlawed, I’ll Become an Outlaw” and that guy who looks like a rural G. Gordon Liddy who has the bumper sticker that says, “Ban Illegal Aliens, Not Guns.”

It’s at times like these that I realize that I’m lucky.

After all, my Tourette Syndrome could be worse. I could all of a sudden start screaming “VAGINA! VAGINA! I CAN SEE YOUR VAGINA” on Main Street when I see a woman wearing a frontier dress. Or maybe, “WHERE’S YOUR GOD NOW, MY PRETTY?” as I walk by the Catholic Store. Or “WHAT’S IT LIKE HAVING A TINY DICK?” when I see a guy in a pickup truck with an anti-gun control bumper sticker.

Yes, I’m lucky. But I have dreams for this place, too. And I see possibilities—even though sometimes all that comes to mind are dirty, angry words.

-Jose Padua

Breeders’ Ball

BreedersBallIt’s dusk. Illuminated by a street lamp, she leans against the side of a building on Main, dragging on a cigarette. I spot her kid first though—a tiny girl maybe two years old toddling off toward the curb. The mom, 19 or 20, wears a tank top and short shorts. Her blonde hair hangs in a messy ponytail. She calls the kid back and leans again, waiting for something or somebody.

We drive by, our six-year old in the back with me, sucking happily on a wildberry smoothie.

An ocean stretches between me and the other mom, the young one. I could make assumptions about her: she didn’t expect the kid, she works as a check-out clerk at Kmart or Wal-Mart or Target, she attends the Baptist church on the corner, she and her boyfriend watch Glen Beck religiously.

These assumptions could be wrong. Maybe it’s more like this: she was dreaming of college on the day the condom broke. Now she works at a winery and takes classes toward a degree in nursing at the local community college. She attends the Unitarian Church. Her boyfriend picks produce at an organic farm. They live on the mountain and refuse to buy a TV.

Or maybe it’s a mix of both. Or maybe neither.

Whatever the specifics of her life, she is a very young mother and there are many many like her here. Poppin’ em out while young seems to be a lynchpin of Shenandoah Valley culture. For some it’s unintentional and for others it’s very much part of the long-term plan.

Noting these sisters around town, I’m tempted to laugh—not at them but at myself. I’m the butt of the joke here, one hour west of D.C. in this breathtaking slice of rural America.

In the city, I’m just another forty-something career mom who worked her ass off to avoid pregnancy until the very last minute. In the city, six-year olds expect to see mommy dying her gray roots red or brown or blonde.

Here, I should have grandkids and 40 more years to watch them grow. The irony is killing me.

Growing up in a large, poor family, I swore like Scarlett O’Hara that I’d never breed until I was good and ready. It worked—I wasn’t “ready” until I hit 35. Now, I am riveted by these young mothers. I study them with an unsettling mix of envy and surprise, even though I know their lots are not perfect, even though some might jump to trade places with me.

It’s been six long years since we had our first child—we haven’t been able to conceive a second. What seems to come so easily for the Shenandoah girls—brand-spanking new life—eludes us, fading into the blue-green distance whenever we think we might reach our goal.

Tonight, though, I have an idea.

After we get home, I tell my husband I’m going for a walk, then amble down Main until I see one of them. This one’s not drinking or smoking, so I pounce. With promises of easy money and a genuine plea for help, I lure her into an alley to make the offer. I’ve got a good feeling about this—I’m gonna score.

She takes the bait: three and a half Gs for however many eggs she has on hand—fresh, young, fertile. She must have been waiting for a junkie like me.

She eyes me up and down, looks around carefully, then pulls out a clear pipette, holds it up for my inspection. It glints like a diamond in the lamplight.

I pull the cash from my pocket not bothering to count out the bills. Shifting from foot to foot, she grabs the stack from my left hand and plops the thin elegant tube in my right.

I gaze down at it, barely breathing.

The glass seems so fragile, so full of the future that I’m afraid it might break under its own weight or with the too-loud thumping of my heart.

“Just don’t waste them,” the girl whispers nervously and looks me in the eye before slipping away.

Watching her go, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve committed an unspeakably perverse crime but I don’t care. I’ve got my fix…

As we pull into the driveway, I come to my senses.

I won’t really walk downtown tonight to purchase human ova from an illegal dealer—that would be too easy. The legitimate route requires a reproductive endocrinologist and unending office visits.

What I really do is watch Hannah Montana with my daughter, trying to enjoy our short evening together.

We cuddle up, eat mint chocolate chip ice cream, plan the coming weekend, and make funny of Daddy.

Then, during a commercial, she says brightly, “Mom, I know how to make you look younger, like a teenager.”

I sigh.

“Do I need to?” I ask, knowing her answer. She wants me to look like the young moms of her friends at school.

For a moment, I imagine how wonderful it would be, what a relief, if pink body glitter and Hello Kitty lip gloss could turn back the clock—not just for my face—but for every delicate curving part of me, inside and out.

-Heather Davis

Place-Names: The Name (Or How The Road to Front Royal Was Paved with Broken Liquor Bottles)

PlaceNamesI have to admit that it’s all my fault. I was the one who spotted the house online—that beautiful, hundred year old Victorian with the hardwood floors, the three fireplaces, the deeply stained banister that seemed to move up the stairs and into another time. But more than anything else, what I liked about the house was the way it made me feel intoxicated. After a number of years of being sober and responsible, during which I felt completely sane and utterly stable, I welcomed the possibility that this was a place where I might actually feel drunk again.

Because for many years, alcohol—be it Jack Daniel’s or Maker’s Mark bourbon, Absolut or Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi or Myer’s rum, or beer, (and whenever I drank beer it was usually because I couldn’t afford the hard stuff)—was like fuel for me. Whether it was high grade or low grade, I was running very well on this fuel, with cigarettes being the equivalent of the air freshener dangling from the rear view mirror. And when I first spotted a beer-bellied, shirtless middle-aged good ole boy strolling down the street with a can of Pabst in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I felt that moving there, in certain ways, would be like coming home again.

Home—that was the key word here. Home, even though I felt out of place as early as the day after we’d moved into the house. Home, even though the name of my new home town, “Front Royal,” had really only entered my consciousness on two previous occasions.

The first was during a trip with my old college friend Michael Randall to visit another college friend of ours, Michael Waters, in Sylva, North Carolina. Waters was the bag-piper in our crowd—he brought his pipes everywhere he went. The scenario for many a drunken night would be for him to disappear from his barstool at some point and for us to suddenly hear, coming from just outside entrance to the bar, the loud wailing of his bagpipes. Depending on the state of his intoxication, Waters would either continue his bagpipe serenade on the street or else walk confidently into the bar as the wail and hum of his bagpipes grew deafeningly loud. Because of Waters there were a lot of bars that hated us—though there were also a good number where we were loved. But that’s the way it was when you were a serious drinker. Some places got you and accepted you, eccentricities and all, while at other places you remained a stranger no matter how many times you went there.

Waters had helped to arrange a showing of Michael Randall’s recent paintings, plus a classical guitar recital by yet another of our friends, at a gallery down there. So Randall took the train to Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, and then we rented a car for the drive to North Carolina. It was on the way there, while heading west on 66 and looking for the exit where we’d turn off onto 81, which would lead us out of Virginia and toward the western tip of North Carolina, when I noticed a sign for the oddly named town of Front Royal. Even though it was only some seventy miles west of DC, and just a little over an hour away, I believe this was the first time I’d ever heard of the town. And though I knew nothing about the town, there was something about the name that I found appealing. There was something exotic, even poetic, about it, and as we floated past the signs at seventy miles an hour I wondered if somehow we’d been transported somewhere else, across the Atlantic, to Spain, to France, to Italy, where someone had decided that the words Front Royal would be a great name to embody their concept of an American city.

No, it didn’t make any sense then, either, and it was probably my hangover stretching logic and imagination in ways they were never intended to be stretched, but that’s what I felt, and what I imagined, upon first seeing the words Front Royal.

Then, ten years later, I thought about Front Royal for the second time in my life. This involved another trip west on 66, to Markham, Virginia, where Heather and I went to collect on one of our wedding presents: a hundred dollar gift certificate from Naked Mountain Vineyard and Winery. It was a gift from our friends Debbie Martin and Ed Hamilton who, although they were die-hard city people, enjoyed frequent excursions to the country. They had discovered Naked Mountain during one of these adventures and thought, quite correctly, that we might enjoy it as well. But for them, the country was only a hobby, and even after being in New York for ten years they’d never seriously entertained any thought of permanently leaving their closet-sized apartment in the Chelsea Hotel for anywhere else.

Heather and I had gone to Naked Mountain with my brothers, Tony and Pat, and my Dad. Exiting 66 at Markham, our directions to Naked Mountain had us taking a one lane road going uphill. I wasn’t much for the back roads. I’d been on two lane roads before, but a single lane, for cars going in either direction, was something new to me.

“Are we going the right way?” I asked nervously.

“Yup, this is it,” Heather reassured us, and we headed up the hill until we reached a clearing where we could see that we were really were in the right place. Stepping out of the car, Heather and I were immediately enamored of the place: the green that surrounded us, the view from the mountain, and, most importantly, the distance from the city. It was, for me anyway, the first time I’d been seduced by my distance from the city, and the idea that both art and business and ugly office buildings and monuments I’d grown tired of were far off and, ultimately, for my purposes—whatever they were—insignificant.

If it’s like this here, I thought, what would it be like if we’d stayed on 66 until the next exit, which was Front Royal. All along the way to Naked Mountain on 66, the road signs posted Front Royal as the ultimate destination. Again, it was the name that got to me. It was beautiful, but what did it mean? And, most importantly, where would it take me if I followed it?

HollinHallAnother ten years passed, during which I, as they say, “cleaned up my act” quite a bit. By the time our daughter, Maggie, was born, I’d quit smoking, could handle maybe one drink a week, and, of course, because I was a normal working stiff, kept regular hours—no more staying up all night until seven or eight in the morning (as I’d been doing for a number of years before I met Heather), then sleeping until the afternoon. During these ten years Heather and I also slowly made the move further and further from the city. A couple of years after we were married, we made the first move, from renting a one bedroom apartment in DC to renting a small row house in old town Alexandria. This, I thought at the time, was a long way from the city—but in reality, Alexandria, Virginia was simply an extension of the DC metropolitan area. Then, after Maggie was born, we decided it was time to actually own something—namely, a house—and where we thought we could afford to own a house took us even further away from town to neighborhoods we’d never heard of before. We looked at cape cods in Bucknell Manor, split levels in Kirkside, contemporaries in Ridgeview, raised ranchers in Virginia Terrace. What we ended up with was a rambler in Hollin Hall.

It was a nice house, in a clean and pleasant neighborhood—not the sort of thing I was used to, and it’s not like I didn’t have any problems with the area in the three years we were there—but we probably would have stayed if I hadn’t gotten laid off. With our income cut in half—well, actually it wasn’t cut in half, because Heather has always made more money than me; but the loss of income was significant, especially considering the cost of paying the mortgage for our house in Hollin Hall, which, at least compared to what we were used to, was a rather upscale neighborhood. With the housing bubble starting to burst, and the value of our house slowly starting to fall, it seemed like a good idea to sell before the value of our house went below what we paid for it—and to move someplace cheaper.

So I looked at all the online listings for real estate. At first I looked at Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Frederick in Maryland, but there was nothing in our range. Then I checked Manassas, Woodbridge, and Fredericksburg in Virginia, but still, everything was out of our range or just looked too depressing (admittedly, our three years in the suburbs had spoiled us to a certain degree).

But maybe it was really all about the names. Springfield, Reston, Centreville: nothing about those names moved me, and I’m sure nothing about them moved Heather either. But Heather is much too practical to let a name, no matter how beautiful or intriguing, lead her anywhere she doesn’t want to go. So, I have to say it again: it was all my fault. And in the back of my mind, after lying fallow for nearly a decade, were those words—that name. And I looked further and further away from town until I got there. Until the magical words “Front Royal” once again entered my consciousness.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, when Heather, Maggie, and I went out to Front Royal and saw the house in person, that was it. It was more than a name now. And, although we still knew almost nothing about Front Royal, it was where we wanted to be.

-Jose Padua

Straw Hat for a Madman

RoyalandMainThis clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks
– Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

When we first moved here I’d see him walking all over the place—downtown on Main Street; by the abandoned houses at South and Osage that look like the wind should knock them over any day now; on Royal Avenue where it climbs the sort of hill you see in San Francisco (only you know this sure as hell ain’t San Francisco) then curves toward the Texaco station on 14th Street.

He was probably somewhere in his 60s and he walked with a cane and always seemed to be wearing an old, beat-up straw hat. He looked like he’d stepped out of some Norman Rockwell painting and then been given way too much to drink before being left out in the sun for about forty years. But what was most notable about him was that he regularly had these outbursts where he’d scream—scream at cars, scream at people, scream at storefront windows as he waved his cane in the air. I saw him nearly every day for the first few months we were here, and all that time I never saw him actually speak to anyone—it was always just these outbursts, and the silent walking in between.

Then once, I saw him approaching on our street as I stepped out of the car after coming home from dropping Maggie off at school. I looked toward him and nodded, saying “Hi.” And, like anyone else, he nodded back and said hello. Then he walked a few paces and had one of his outbursts again as he let out a scream and shook his fist like a man who, once again, had lost control.

I could sympathize with him. Having Tourette Syndrome, I may, at times, look a little bit out of control. Sometimes, of course, I am. But when I lose control it’s just my thoughts running wild and free—or sometimes getting stuck like a car with its rear wheels in the mud—and has nothing to do with any strange movements Tourette Syndrome compels me to make.

Running into someone with an affliction similar to mine, whatever that affliction is—and I have no idea exactly what the man in the straw hat suffers from; it may be Tourette’s or it may be some other pain in the ass disease—can be refreshing. The last time I regularly saw someone with a similar condition was when I lived in New York’s East Village in the 90s.

Davy worked in my landlord’s flower shop on the first floor of the building I lived in on Avenue B. He was a nice guy who had this West Side Story sort of look with greased wavy hair and a plain white tee shirt. A lot of times when I brought down my rent check, he’d be the one there.

“Well,” he’d say, and then nod. “Thank you.” His voice was deep and he spoke slowly. “I’ll give this. To Bob. So he can put it. On the books.”

Davy always looked a little bit out of it, and it was obvious that the reason he had this job was because he was my landlord’s nephew. Still, if he was the only one around and I went down there because my bathtub wasn’t draining or, as happened one time, water was gushing out of an exposed pipe in my bathroom, he tried to be helpful.

One night, walking home from my job in midtown Manhattan, just as the sun was going down, I saw Davy walking on the other side of the street from me on 4th heading toward Avenue A. As he walked he’d stop, twist his body, grunt, then look up at the sky and scream. Then he’d walk on normally for a few more steps before contorting his body again and waving his arms in a fit of what was sometimes called “St. Vitus’s Dance.” When Davy was close, on the opposite side of the street, he saw me and gave me a look. It was one of those yeah, whatever sort of looks and we kept going our separate ways as if nothing new or unusual had been revealed.

Again, I don’t know exactly what condition Davy had, but I knew then that he was one of my people. And one of the things that people like us seem to have in common is that we don’t like to explain it. I could, for example, explain to someone who’s looking at me, concerned, perhaps, or even frightened, that “it’s not a dance, it’s a disease.” But I’m not one to spoil a decent mystery like that. Besides, it’s not like I owe anyone an explanation for what I am.

Of course, I don’t have it that bad—certainly not to the degree where I’m shouting obscenities all the time (when I curse someone out, it’s not a disease speaking, it’s me, expressing my feelings). Most of the time I can control the odd tics and random grunts and the only place I really let loose with it is when I’m home, inside the house. Maggie learned long ago that “Daddy’s noisy.”

Another place where it’s sometimes hard for me to control it is at the movies. And at the Royal Cinema here on Main Street one time, some people moved away from me, Maggie and Heather during a late afternoon showing of Mamma Mia! But it wasn’t because of any noise I was making—it was because Maggie was singing along softly with the songs as she watched them being performed on the screen. There was no way either of us was going to tell her to keep it down, because how—and why—would you try to control that kind of exuberance? If you find it disturbing, then move away. Likewise, if you find the odd movements and random noises I make strange or unpleasant, you can take a walk, too.

I don’t see the man with the straw hat much anymore. Maybe he’s on meds now, the kind that knock you out and make the real world a total stranger to you. Maybe something happened to him. Or, maybe he moved—to New York where he can add to the noise Davy makes and where no one will think twice about it.

Me, I’m still here and I’ll be here for a while, roaming the streets sometimes. And, in these days when unfounded fear and paranoia seem to be on the rise, I’ll be trying to walk like a normal person.

-Jose Padua

Deep Inside the Spinning Bear

greased_pigWe’re at the Warren County Fair on a humid August night and I feel like a real Front Royal resident now that we’re about to see the Greased Pig Contest, the Spectacular Thrill Show, and the Globe of Death.

Jose is not as enthusiastic as I am about the fair. He doesn’t share my childhood memories of south Jersey’s Cowtown Rodeo, with its dust and horses, or of the Fuzzy Few Carnival in Hummelstown, PA. His eyes are already itching from some pollen or other allergen—probably the dander of penned up animals.

Straightaway, I drag Jose and Maggie to the Greased Pig Contest. Jose frowns as we tromp across muddy grass to the building I’m sure houses the porkers. The funky smell and high pitched squeals tell us we’ve found the right place. We work our way into the crowd around a large ring. About 20 kids sit on hay bales lining the inside of the fence. In the center, six adults shield something with large sheets of plywood—whatever it is does not sound happy.

A man in a checkered shirt walks around the ring pouring oil on the kids’ hands. At the announcer’s call, the boards lift and 20 screaming bodies run at the group of suddenly exposed young pigs, who take off in every direction. Kids grab and lunge and scramble as the crowd shouts. “Remember, if you catch a pig, you get to take it home,” the announcer says, “and Southern States will kick in a free bag of feed for every one caught.”

A skinny girl of about 13 grips the hind legs of one animal and holds on tight, her face exultant and determined. She shoots her arms up in triumph after a judge appears and takes the pig from her. As all the pigs are carried off by their ears and legs, a woman next to me says to her husband, “Shouldn’t PETA know about this?”

As I watch, I wonder how many of these kids are growing up on farms, helping to raise animals. Most everyone I know is completely removed from the places and the people who create our food. Maggie breaks my train of thought then, whining that she wants to “go to the rides NOW!”—so much for fascination with the natural world. The prize-winning cows, goats, sheep, and pigs hanging out in their stalls near the ring will have to wait.

thrill_show_2On the way to the rides, while Jose stops at a Port-a-Potty, I make Maggie slow down long enough to watch the Thrill Show. Though I couldn’t wait to see this event, I quickly discover that two Cirque Du Soleil performances have ruined me for small-time circus acts. Still, watching the beautiful spangly trapeze artist on her rope swing, I can feel my gut flutter just like it does when I contemplate riding the Ferris wheel.

Suspended from a crossbar set atop two wobbly poles, the Thrill Show lady flies wildly hundreds of feet into the air with no net, much higher than any playground swing. Her husband on the ground holds a long rope, which is attached to her swing—he whips it back and forth to fling her higher. They are both blonde and perfect as are their two little girls who do tricks on the trampoline. I have a sudden realization that part of what makes Cirque Du Soleil work for me is the dark European existentialism that underpins every performance.

With Maggie tugging, we wind our way through the crowd to the midway. Maggie gets me on the giant slide twice and on the bumper cars once. I feel bad that both Jose and I are too scared of heights to tackle the Ferris wheel with her—Maggie will just have to wait until she is old enough to try that on her own.

We’re a bit shocked at the price of all this—in a matter of minutes we’ve shelled out over $30 for ride tickets on top of the $20 we paid for admission. Were carnival rides always this expensive or are we just cheap?

While Maggie rides the mini-roller coaster for the third time, I take a peek at the Globe of Death. It’s a big black metal cage set into the ground. Inside, two motorcycles rev their engines then drive very quickly around and around, up and down and over, just missing each other. A busty hostess wearing black satin short-shorts announces each trick. I saw the drivers earlier as they sat by their trailer slumped in lawn chairs—they looked like they’d just woken up.

There’s something deeply satisfying about the roar of the engines as they travel the tight space of the ball. I feel complete, then, having witnessed every major attraction the fair has to offer on this particular night.

After I return to the mini-rollercoaster, Maggie wheedles one more ride out of us. As the sun sets, we line up at the ticket booth again, paying pay $3 for each of us ($9 in all) to try not to spin inside a fiberglass teddy bear.

It’s hot inside the bear. Jose and I grip the metal table between us determined to keep the sucker from spinning wildly. This ride works just like those giant teacups—the bear sits on an arm that pulls us in slow circles—we can handle that part. Then, if you are young or insane, you can make the entire bear revolve wildly by moving the little table/wheel inside.

When the ride is over, Maggie is seriously disappointed. “That was not fun,” she says.

Yes, but we survived and no one vomited.

carnival_nightFinally, it’s time to get a snack and leave for home before we break the bank. I buy a Gatorade from a slightly pudgy boy of about ten who sits behind a small cooler. He looks at me as I pull out some cash and says, “You live around here?”

“Yeah,” I reply slowly.

“Is it gonna rain?”

“I don’t know,” I say, surprised.

“Well,” he says, “look how dark it is over there and how light it is over there.”

I follow his hand as he points. “Uh-huh.” But it doesn’t look like a storm to me—it looks like dusk, a bruised and beautiful dusk.

I take a swig of the Gatorade, hand it to Jose, then go stand in line for a $6 funnel cake. The sign on the trailer says you can get Bavarian Crème or Cinnamon Caramel Apple topping. The photos of funnel cake covered in glop turn my stomach. When I get to the window, the grim-faced attendant says in monotone, “Powder on that?”

Maggie and Jose stand beside metal stadium seats and watch a bit of a country singer while I pay for our snack. Maggie is sad that we don’t have time to climb up and sit on “that kind of seats.”

People crowd the gravel pathways as we try to make our way back through several fields of parked cars to our van, carrying the precious funnel cake like delicate treasure. I notice a guy in a t-shirt with this sentiment on the back: “Violence may not be the best option, but it’s still an option.” The words appear above some kind of sword and skull combo covered in blood. I wonder offhandedly how much he knows about real violence and what he thinks he may need to be violent about. Maybe I don’t want to know.

As we walk, I realize we may not be as eager to come back next year—haven’t we gotten our fill? But then I gaze back at the blue, pink, and yellow carnival lights. I like being out in the night air with the scent of funnel cake rising from the plate in my hands. And I know that six year-old Maggie won’t tire of the rides for years.

Then there are the events from earlier in the week that we missed, that someday, as good Front Royal citizens, we must experience—the tractor pull, the demolition derby, the monster truck show, and last but never least, the midget wrestling matches—well, maybe we can skip that one.

-Heather Davis

Home

HomeHome. For me that’s been a house, an apartment, maybe even a neighborhood, and, at certain points in my life, a bar. But it has never been a term I associate with any monolithic ideal of a country, especially not the United States, even though I’ve lived here all my life. I’m not one to go around waving the flag screaming “USA! USA!—I actually find that sort of behavior rather scary. This observation angers a lot of people and usually elicits a response like, “Well, then, if you don’t feel at home here, why don’t you go back to your own damn country?”

It’s similar to the reaction you’ll often get if you tell someone you don’t believe in God. I actually do believe in some sort of God, but not the one that requires that you bow down before him and praise him (and this God is, invariably, always a he). But when someone automatically assumes that I share his or her vision of God, I’ll more often than not say something shocking to get that person to change the subject or, better yet, leave me alone.

The difference is that although you can conceal what you believe or don’t believe, if someone thinks you look like you’re from another country, there’s nothing you can do to conceal this. I remember riding a Greyhound bus through the southwestern United States in the 80s. Every now and then state troopers would hop on  at rest stops, right before we thought we’d be moving on again. The troopers would go down the aisle of the bus, looking at the passengers. When they got to me, they’d have questions, such as, “Do you have your passport?” or “Do you have your papers?” One time, a trooper even asked me if I had my birth certificate.

“No, I don’t have my birth certificate,” I answered. “I’m a citizen. I have a driver’s license if you want to see it.”

After I offered my driver’s license, the trooper would then move down the aisle to see if there was anyone else who looked like an illegal alien.

Sometimes I’m able to laugh, as when the parents of the bride at a wedding I attended asked (when I introduced myself to them in English, the only language I speak) what language I was speaking (they’d had a few drinks). Then, there was another time at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in Washington, DC, when a drunken woman demanded I tell her what country I’m from.

“I’m from here,” I told her.

She then started to speak more loudly, and more slowly, as if that would make me understand her question, “I. SAID. WHERE. ARE. YOU. FROM?”

That’s when I usually walk away from a conversation that’s obviously going nowhere.

I don’t get the question about my origin much, here in Front Royal. What I do get is that look, as one time when I went into the South Street Diner with Heather and Maggie and a middle aged woman suddenly lifted her head up when I entered and gawked. Then there was that time Heather and I took a break during the day and ate at L-Dee’s on Main Street and a man sitting across from us practically stared at me the entire time. Leaving the diner, we saw a car with a bumper sticker saying “If You Can Read This Thank A Teacher. If You Can Read This In English Thank A Soldier!”

I think the odds were at least even that that car belonged to the guy who stared at me.

This past week, though, when I picked Maggie up from her summer camp, one of her friends asked me, “Are you from China?” I wasn’t quite sure how she felt about my looking like I’m from somewhere else.

“Well,” I answered, “I was born here. But my parents are from the Philippines.”

“The Philippines?” she said. “Wow! That’s awesome!”

It’s not often that I get such an enthusiastic response regarding my heritage. And when I was her age I wasn’t enthusiastic about it either. I wanted to be an American, a real American, and it took me years to realize that I already was a real American, despite what some people may think. Because my America includes people who can trace their heritage to South America, Africa, and Asia, not just Europe. It also includes people who just stepped off a plane as recently as yesterday. And people who somehow walked, or swam here.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t still feel like a visitor here much of the time, like someone who was passing through but whose car broke down on Main Street.

Main Street—it’s not where I wanted to be stranded, but then I couldn’t afford to be stranded on Park Avenue in New York or even M Street in DC. Now, Main Street is where I go whenever I feel like stepping out of the house for a walk. No more leisurely strolls up Broadway toward Times Square for me, no promenading across the Duke Ellington Bridge over Rock Creek Park. It’s Main Street for me, where I sit at one of the iron tables outside the Daily Grind on nice days, sipping my coffee.

The last time I sat there I had a song going through my head. It didn’t seem like the right place for me to think about this song, but there I was, hearing Rahsaan Roland Kirk doing his version of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”:

He put all of his soul
into a tenor saxophone
He had his way of talking,
’twas a language all his own

Life’s story – Love and Glory
If you listen
While he plays it for you
now listen
and listen
and dig it

Can’t you dig it?
Lester Young is playing
what he’s feeling
Dealing and dancing on home.

But was he really saying “home” at the end? I was never quite sure about that last line, whether he actually sang the word “home” or had just stopped the words and began to hum, like someone on a long long walk who has to do something to pass the time until he gets home.

-Jose Padua

Driving with My Daughter

Driving3Music was the first line of defense for me in battling the strangeness I felt when we moved here. Our new house here was no problem (I actually felt at home in it much more quickly than at the house we had in a neighborhood called Hollin Hall in Alexandria, near Mt. Vernon). It was when I stepped out of the house that was the problem—this feeling I had that I was lost inside this dream that was so strange I didn’t know if I should laugh or run away in fear.

Before moving here, I’d lived only in big cities like Washington, DC and New York, where there’s a diverse population. Being an Asian-American, I tend to stand out here in Warren County. Disappearing into the crowd, such as it is here, is not an option for me.

One might consider it an exaggeration to say that whenever I leave our house here that I leave prepared to do battle. I know it doesn’t compare to when a soldier steps into the middle of some kill or be-killed situation. And, most of the time, things are fine. But I feel I always have to be ready for that moment when, with my status as a human being called into question, I have to be ready for battle.

I don’t drink the way I used to—and besides, I was never one to mix that with driving. But I needed something to keep me focused on the task at hand whenever I left the house: driving to the Martin’s for groceries, to the Lowe’s for house supplies, and most importantly, taking our daughter Maggie to and from school. I needed something to keep me strong, fearless, and alert, and the one thing I knew would work for sure was Parliament Funkadelic. P-Funk.

Whenever I took Maggie to or from school, to the doctor—or anywhere else I took her while Heather did the day job back in DC—I played P-Funk’s Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome:

On guard!
Defend yourself!
We shall overcome
Where did you get that funk from?

Soon, I added One Nation Under a Groove, Hardcore Jollies, and Maggot Brain to the P-Funk playlist. It seemed to work, and I felt, somehow, at home riding around the streets of Front Royal. And although Maggie may not have needed this music the way I did, she, at the very least, seemed to want it. “Always play P-Funk,” she advised me whenever we went for a drive. She was, at the time, just a little over four years old.

After a while, though, it was time to move on to other music, so I began playing Sun Ra during our drives through town. I played a wide range of his music, from his early—and more conventional—albums like Jazz in Silhouette to his wilder avant garde sessions like The Magic City. I was surprised that Maggie usually wanted me to play Sun Ra’s “weirder stuff.”

As we went along, the music kept changing. When I first played one of the discs from The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Maggie was hooked. This was also the music that first moved her to try to sing along, as on a drive to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, when she sang,

You can’t use a bulldozer
To study orchids, he said
We don’t know anything
You don’t know anything
I don’t know anything about love

Among the other music I’ve played for Maggie in the car since we moved here are The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Les Stances a Sophie, Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson, The Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane, plus miscellaneous songs by King Sunny Ade, Pizzicato Five, and Serge Gainsbourg.

Then, this past summer, her favorite songs were from a mix-CD I made for our trip to the beach, and when we got back to town, that was still all she wanted to hear for the next three weeks. So I played songs like LCD Soundsystem’s “North American Scum” and The Smiths’ “Sheila Take a Bow” over and over again as Maggie sang along:

Sheila take a
Sheila take a bow
Boot the grime of this world
In the crotch dear.

Of course, as one friend pointed out, she has no idea what she is singing about. But then, she always asks questions. And although I know she can’t fully understand the explanations Heather or I try to give her, she gets a start, an inkling, an idea—and perhaps even a certain well of strength from which she may draw when the need arises.

And that’s what I try to give her in the music I play while we’re driving. Maybe, somehow, it can help her deal with those unpleasant situations we’ll find ourselves in from time to time, like last week when, after picking her up from her summer arts camp, I took her to the new ice cream shop that had opened up downtown.

As soon as we walked in, I felt it—that tension in the air and the feeling that silence has suddenly swallowed up whatever conversation had been taking place in the room. When the young woman behind the counter looked at us it wasn’t a look that said she was just tired, mean, all business, or just had an attitude. I’d seen plenty of attitude, plenty of tired, cranky people on the other side of the counter when I lived in New York. This was a different look, a look I’d come to recognize and differentiate from simple attitude.

It’s a way of looking at someone without seeing him, without recognizing him. It’s a way of saying, ultimately, “you’re not one of us.” Sometimes it’s said politely, with perhaps a touch of genuine curiosity, as a couple of weekends ago when a man waiting in line at the McDonald’s on South Street asked my older brother Tony, who was here with the rest of my family for a visit from DC, “I don’t mean to be rude, but what country are you from?”

At the ice cream shop the young woman behind the counter and her co-worker, who was sitting at one of the tables, expressed no such curiosity. To them, it didn’t much matter where I was from. She simply asked, with a blank expression on her face and in a voice that was barely audible, for my order. When she gave us our ice cream and I said “thank you” she said nothing, and turned, as if she couldn’t wait to get away from me and my daughter.

Walking out the door I told Maggie we wouldn’t be going back to this ice cream shop again—it just wasn’t worth it. Besides, there were plenty of other places in town where the people were fine. I tried to say it calmly. But, knowing right away that I was angry about something, she started crying.

I held her hand and we walked back to the mini-van. Maggie stepped inside and buckled her seat belt. When I turned on the ignition, the music came on automatically, but softly. As we drove back to the house, I turned the volume up, hoping that what she remembers most from this day is the music, and not this place.

-Jose Padua