Did I say that the mountains were green, including that great range by which many people identify this region, the Blue Ridge Mountains? Well, I’m slightly color blind, so if there’s some blue in that range, I don’t see it. All I know is that I don’t understand which mountain is which, can’t follow these roads that snake madly through the hills, and never know if the body of water I’m trying not to drive into is the North Fork or the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.
Most of my life was spent heading the other way—to the beach, to where, after crossing the Chesapeake, the land was as flat as that high note in the Star Spangled Banner when sung by a guy who’s drunk before the game has started: “Oe’r the land of the free.” (A lot of people don’t get the free part right, or else they think that most important part of being free is the right to be an idiot.)
The first time I intentionally headed out over the mountains to a valley was around ten years ago, when Heather and I went for a vacation in West Virginia’s Canaan Valley. We didn’t quite know how to get there, so what we did was instead of going east on Route 50, which was the way to the beach, we went west. Following 50 through Arlington, Fairfax, Chantilly.
Chantilly—back then we thought that was so far from the city that the only words we could use to give us a sense of where we were was to say that it was “fucking nowhere.” Route 50 also brought us, for the first time, through Winchester. Little did we know that ten years later we’d be visiting Winchester at least once a week, and that we’d adopt one of those alien territories south of that little town as our own.
But then we kept going and going for what seemed like an entire day but was actually only about four hours. And as we continued driving west on 50, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, curving up and down on winding roads that had us cursing as we held onto the seats of our rented car, we headed through the Allegheny Mountains and down into Canaan Valley. It was here, in the town of Davis, West Virginia, which is the closest town to the Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center, where I had one of the most memorable meals of my life.
We’d already checked into to our room at the resort but then went back to Davis to have dinner and explore the town. It was a quiet place—which was what we expected—and exploring the tiny business district took only around five minutes. That was something new for us, a business district you could traverse in about the amount of time it took to smoke a cigarette (I was still smoking then). So, since our evening of sightseeing took a lot less than an evening, we decided we may as well eat.
There weren’t many choices for restaurants, but what we found looked promising—a restaurant and brew pub right on William Street, Davis’s main drag. It was one of those clean, well-lit pubs, not one of those dark smoky caverns where everything looks like it’s covered in ten year old grease. I ordered the chicken cordon bleu with salad and a side of rice pilaf while Heather ordered chicken parmesan.
We each drank a beer as we waited, looking around the still mostly empty restaurant (it was only around five o’clock). When the waiter returned with our food, I immediately picked up a forkful of the rice pilaf. Soon my mouth was overcome with the sour rancid taste of spoiled food, something that had either been left out for a couple of days or else fished back out of the garbage. I grimaced and spit it right back out into my napkin as Heather probably wondered if I were having some kind of seizure.
I leaned over to smell the rice, and it reeked. I called the waiter over and exclaimed, “This is spoiled!”
The waiter looked at me coldly, and simply asked, without a hint of emotion in his voice, “Well, would you like something else?” as if there were nothing wrong with having just served rotten food to me. I had traveled four hours for this. Of course, some people have traveled a lot farther for worse, and some people don’t need to go anywhere at all for this kind of treatment.
It was at this point where I should have jumped up from the table and pounced on him. But, although I was angry, what I was overcome by was disbelief. Disbelief that they would serve this to me and then pretend that there was nothing wrong. Heather and I were both so stunned that we just sat there.
Again, it was one of those times, like ten years later when the policeman stopped me, when I couldn’t do what I wanted, perhaps even needed to do. Or that time in DC (and, no, this sort of thing doesn’t just happen in small towns) a few years before our trip to Canaan Valley when I sat at a hotel bar downtown. It was happy hour, and the news was on TV. When an Asian meteorologist came on with the weather report, the bartender immediately started make fun of her name and began to speak with a mock Chinese accent. A few minutes later, when I asked him where the restroom was (I’d never been to this bar before), he pointed to the other end of the room. “You see that door there?” he went on. “Well, you go out that door, walk down to the corner, and there you’ll see a tree.”
And that was it. Not even a “Sorry, I was just kidding.” He simply turned away to serve another customer.
Sometimes the game is played against you in such a way that you can’t defend yourself and you can’t speak up without making things worse for yourself. Yeah, I could have smacked that waiter in West Virginia, then gone into the kitchen and smacked the cook, too. And I could have thrown my empty beer bottle into the mirror behind the bar at the hotel and told the bartender to go fuck himself, and I would have felt a lot better inside. A hell of a lot better. I also would have been arrested, with me looking like the guy who took the first shot. Still, how can one deny the power of what the waiter did and that it was, in effect, an assault? And, the power of the bartender’s words, were also a kind of assault. The kind of assault guys like them can easily get away with.
More often than not, that’s the way it’s done nowadays. They can’t deny you entry into their establishments, but they can damn well make it uncomfortable for you so that you won’t want to come back. Usually they’re a little more subtle about it, but sometimes they’re not.
Nowadays, with things like the insane Tea Party protests (the participants of which are so clearly driven by something other than their professed outrage at “wasteful government spending”) and the popularity of goons like Glenn Beck spouting hate disguised as junk food for the intellectually bulimic, I’m getting scared. And, I’m a little bit warier again when I travel, except when I go back to my old Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in DC, where I went this past weekend.
There, me, Heather, Maggie and my brother Tony walked down to the park at the end of Mt. Pleasant Street where a small Latino festival was being held. There was good music and, unfortunately for us, an incredibly long line of people waiting in line for the steaks, Chorizos, and other incredibly delicious smelling foods that were being prepared on the spot. Heather, Maggie, and I had to go back to Front Royal soon, so we couldn’t wait. On the way out, I saw an elderly lady looking at me, saying something in Spanish, which I don’t understand. After a moment I realized she was telling me to join in on the line, have some food, have some fun. I expressed my regrets, as best as I could, in English and through my awkward hand gestures.
I was, certainly, a long way from Canaan Valley. And from that downtown bar.
In a way, I was still a child back then, before Maggie was born, before I felt so compelled to take action. Indeed, there’s something about being a parent that actually keeps me angry about things. And keeps me dreaming. I want an America where she learns compassion, generosity, and complexity, not hate, greed, and stereotypes. I want an America where she can walk anywhere—anywhere—and not have some ignorant dickwad look at her and treat her like she’s some alien being. And although she’s a mix—I don’t want her to pass as white. I want the color in her to be recognized and respected.
But soon, we were on our way back. To the Shenandoah Valley. To our Valley. To my Valley. Because, yes, it’s my Valley, too. And as we drove back, going west on I-66 past Manassas, past Gainesville through those rolling hills and into those lush green mountains (or whatever color they are), I started thinking that, hell, I don’t know. Maybe I will go back to that ice cream shop here in Front Royal where they seemed to think I was some kind of “illegal alien” or terrorist or socialist. Maybe I’ll go back there every goddamn day.