Tag Archives: 3. Literature

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


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 wherever he’s going.

-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

Ladies Who Go Hack in the Night

LadyHack3When I step out of my house at 4:15 a.m. three days a week to catch my commuter bus, I am only marginally awake. I’ve discovered it’s entirely possible to drive to the park- and-ride lot while in a dream state. Buildings and side streets glide by of their own accord under the traffic lights’ silky glow. Often, I prefer this time of day because it is so pure, like a beach emptied of tourists. At this hour, Front Royal could be almost any place.

You don’t see too many other human beings at four a.m., not until you reach the park-and-ride lot. I might see one other vehicle roll down my street now and then as I’m getting into my car. Rarely, there’ll be a teenager strolling down the sidewalk to or from the 24-hour McDonalds.

Despite or maybe because of this quiet, I have a compulsive habit of looking in my backseat as I get into the car. Even though I never watch horror flicks, I’m always happy to be safely on my way with the doors locked. About a year after I started my commute, we installed a motion-triggered flood light above the front porch—don’t know if it would scare anyone away but it makes me feel better.

Still, two days ago, I got the most interesting reminder about what undiluted fear feels like. I’d completed all my morning preparations—showered, dressed, brushed my teeth, fed the cat, made my daughter’s lunch. Finally, ready to go, I set the alarm, opened the front door, and stepped out within the allotted 75 seconds. Juggling my laptop bag and purse, I held the door shut with one hand and started to slip the key into the lock with the other.

A guttural shout came from behind me, over my left shoulder. It was completely incomprehensible—loud, rough, and quick. My heart flew to my throat and time turned slow motion as I swiveled toward the sound. I heard words come out of my mouth but I could swear they were slurred, as if I had swallowed a large dose of valium with breakfast. They must have formed something like, “What did you say?” but to my ears they were an aural blob, sheer terror.

The shout had come from someone standing below me on the sidewalk about twenty feet away, a middle-aged woman with short, dirty-blonde hair. My pulse pounding, I asked more clearly, “What?”

“You got a cigarette?” she asked as if we were sitting next to each other at some dive bar, sharing a laugh and a drink. Her voice was all sandpaper and phlegm wrapped up in a southern drawl.

“No, I don’t smoke,” I shouted back, more than a little annoyed and a bit self-righteous.

“Oh,” she said, and shuffled on her way.

I looked around carefully before I got into the car, every sense still on alert despite the obvious absence of danger. She had hardly been a threatening figure, but I couldn’t believe how easily my body locked down, ready to fight or run. It had been a long time since I’d felt that kind of fear. At least this time, it was a false alarm.

I’m still royally pissed at that woman for scaring the crap out of me but the whole incident was so Front Royal. What would my new town be without the middle-aged, early-morning cigarette bummers? If I were still a smoker, I probably would have given her one, maybe had one with her, maybe asked her why she was walking down the street at such an ungodly hour.

Now I’ll never know—unless she has a regular schedule and a regular route that’ll bring us back together at 4:15 a.m. This time, you’d better believe, I’ll be ready for her.

-Heather Davis

Heart of Glass

HeartOfGlassI sat on our front porch, waiting for Heather to come home, while Maggie sat inside watching a particular episode of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody for perhaps the 10th time. Maggie doesn’t let me make suggestions for things to watch on television anymore—not after she noticed the DVD of Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass on the table and asked what it was.

“Well, you want to watch it?” I asked. “It’s about this town where the people have all gone mad. And also, the whole cast, except for one person, is hypnotized!”

Maggie was intrigued, so I put it on. She actually made it a third of the way through before falling asleep (I, on the other hand, had seen it five or six times, and not once had I fallen asleep while watching it). Now, if you ask Maggie what’s the worst movie she’s ever seen, she always says, “Heart of Glass.”

“It’s so boring,” she explains. “And everyone’s hypnotized,” she adds, as the detail that once intrigued her is now the most horrible thing about it.

So I stepped outside with my early evening cup of coffee, not being in the mood to watch the scene where Maddie Fitzpatrick (Ashley Tisdale) takes in the suddenly penniless London Tipton (Brenda Song). Sometimes I bring a magazine to read when I sit on the porch, but other times all I need to do to entertain myself here is to watch the people going by.

I was on the porch for about five minutes when a young woman driving a beat up old boat of a car held out her middle finger as she drove by our house. I wondered what it was that offended her. Was it the Obama sign that we never took down after the election? Was that what pissed her off? Perhaps I had gained the ability to piss someone off just by sitting on my front porch. Or, I wondered, had the town suddenly gone mad, like in Heart of Glass?

But walking into view from the left was one of those young shirtless guys with the bad tattoos. As the car moved ahead he turned around and looked back at the woman in the car, then raised his own middle finger to salute her in return.

“Fuck you,” he muttered in disgust. “Fuckin’ bitch.”

I was embarrassed, having assumed that that middle finger was meant for me when it was meant for someone else. I was disappointed, too. I tried to catch the shirtless guy’s eye so that I might share in his sense of disgust, but he kept moving on. I guess he had shit to do. And probably other women to piss off.

-Jose Padua
Photo: Josef Bierbichler in Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass.

Jonesin’ for Blueberry Sno-Cones: The God’s Unvarnished Truth

Jonesin2You know how sometimes, if you aren’t trying, you can have a nearly perfect day? This past Saturday in Front Royal came pretty close to perfect, which surprises me even as I write this on a Monday morning at 6 am surrounded by high-rise office buildings in Rosslyn.

That morning, my daughter Maggie and I rose early, around 7:30 am, leaving Daddy to sleep in since he’s a notorious night owl. After Maggie scarfed down her egg, ham, and cheese sandwich left over from our visit to The Daily Grind two nights before and I finished a bowl of the obligatory shredded wheat cereal, we went for a power walk around town.

I call it a power walk, but with a 6 year-old in tow, it was more like a stroll. Every few feet Maggie saw something on the ground she wanted to look at. Eventually, we made our way down to Main Street and past the empty storefront being used to display local artwork. The sun shone brightly on the massive baskets of pink and purple petunias hanging from the light poles near the visitor’s center. The slightly humid air had warmed up quickly.

We marched past the secondhand store run by the women’s shelter, the bank/arts council, the coffee shop, the fabric store, the computer shop, the Catholic store, the Lucky Star Lounge, the furniture store, and the movie theatre, before Maggie whined that the snazzy black boots I told her not to wear were hurting her feet. I suggested that we cut our walk short and head over the new farmer’s market behind the gazebo—so much for Mommy’s kick-ass workout.

Front Royal had been lacking a farmer’s market for years, which was odd because there are lots of farms in and around town. Ironically, an old neighbor of ours from Alexandria now runs a farmer’s market in Strasburg. But Strasburg is twenty minutes away—too far for a quick trip to pick up veggies.

Lots of folks here were thrilled to hear that a local market would be starting up, selling produce and other goods on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. Jose and I had wanted to check it out for weeks but were just too busy. Finally, last Thursday, we made it over.

Under one of about 12 small white tents, we chatted with the market’s manager and his wife who we’d met some months before when the wife ran up to me at the grocery store and introduced herself. She’d seen Jose and I read poems at The Daily Grind. Like us, they’d moved to Warren County from the northern VA suburbs.

That night at the market, Maggie played with one her classmates between the tents while we bought some Swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash. I vowed to actually cook the stuff, not just feel virtuous about buying it, which is usually as far as I get in my quest to be an organic, locavore mommy.

As Maggie and I entered the farmer’s market again on Saturday morning, she headed straight for the sno-cone table. She had discovered on our earlier trip that the blueberry sno-cones, made with real fruit syrup, were strangely more tasty than the variety enhanced by blue dye #2.

Just as on Thursday night, a man and woman sitting off to the side played guitar and sang some folksy farmer’s market shopping music. About five minutes after Maggie started in on her sno-cone, a lady selling herbs and homemade scones scurried over with a paper towel to mop up the sticky mess decorating her face and shirt. I thanked her profusely.

The whole scene had that easy Saturday morning kind of feeling, as if no one there could possibly have a care in the world (except maybe for the frowning, bleary-eyed woman smoking a cigarette by the visitor’s center).

In the end, I bought three peach muffins from a woman who grinds her own flour and then window-shopped the offerings at the other tents—scented oils and bath salts, candles, soaps, honey, fruits and vegetables, meats, organic pizzas, and hand-embroidered towels and aprons. Those aprons were the only product that scared me a little since many of them depicted curly crosses and avenging angels.

The rest of our day flew by. After Maggie and I got home, I threw her in the tub for a quick bath, then we hung out at a birthday party in the wilderness near Skyline Drive, read some poems to teens at the library, ran to the Hair Cuttery to get Maggie’s hair chopped into a sassy bob/shag kind of thing (which she requested out of the blue), ate dinner at home (including the recently purchased Swiss chard), and finally headed off to a movie—I couldn’t wait to sit down and relax, though Jose feared he might fall asleep.

Despite the fact that we can walk to the theater, we drove down and parked half a block from Front Royal’s only movie house, the Royal Cinemas. Built in 1920, it shows three first-run movies at a time in one large and two small screening rooms. Sometimes we catch a film mid-week when almost no one else is there—it’s like having your own home theater.

I was eager to see this particular film since I had just finished reading the book (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Maggie was excited too since she had seen all of the previous Harry Potter movies. Halfway through though, exhausted from our long day, she asked to go home. I held her on my lap as the sad story reached its peak and wound down. I tried not to ball my eyes out at the ending—I’m a sucker for young adult fantasy. I was tired also and looking forward to a soft, if unmade, bed and a sound eight-hour sleep.

Main Street felt almost city-like as we stepped out onto the sidewalk in the bright lights of the marquee. We walked to our car past the Lucky Star Lounge where local bands play just about every night of the week. We used to take Maggie there with us for a late night snack once in a while but kids are no longer allowed in after 9 PM—this is annoying but we’ll just have to get a babysitter next time—it’s about the only night life Front Royal has to offer.

We clambered into the van and drove home around the block, Maggie falling asleep in her seat. The day had been busy but good. As we dragged Maggie into the house and up to bed, I wondered if she would dream of Harry Potter, of his dark blue eyes and bookish glasses. Maybe she’d spend the night sharing an organic blueberry sno-cone with him at a quiet little farmer’s market just down the block.

-Heather Davis

So Early in the Morning

SoEarlyNow and then I hear it coming in from the distance here. It’s not the usual horrible pop country music (the big act this past summer at the Warren County fairgrounds was Montgomery Gentry). It wasn’t even one of the great country singers (Merle Haggard, who played the fairgrounds right before we moved here). No, it’s a sound that reminds me of the streets of DC, a sound which, in fact, began there: Go-Go music. It got louder and louder as I sat outside the Daily Grind on Main Street and started bobbing my head up and down.

The first time, it was a Sunday morning, and inside the coffee shop was a crowd of people who’d just gotten out of church. It was the usual Front Royal Sunday: some clean, mostly nice and polite folks, neatly dressed. Here and there you’d see a teenage girl wearing a frontier dress and looking like she’d never spoken a single word in her life. Of course maybe that’s just me reading into it, but that was why I looked for a seat outside, and that’s when I heard it, as the rusty brown Pontiac GTO got closer and closer:

Can we drop the bomb on the south-east crew?
Drop the bomb, drop the bomb
Now south-east crew, now whatcha gonna do?
Drop the bomb, drop the bomb…

It was the sound of Trouble Funk, infiltrating a quiet Main Street morning. And the bomb they were singing about was not a weapon of mass destruction.

I see and hear the Pontiac GTO every now and then, and it’s always go-go blasting from it. Sometimes it’s Trouble Funk. Other times it’s Experience Unlimited or Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go. But whatever the song, I always feel a little bit less lost when I hear it coming, and it always makes my day.

-Jose Padua

Soft Focus Civil War

KunstlerPostcard2If you frequent restaurants and coffee shops in the Shenandoah Valley, you can’t avoid paintings by Mort Künstler, an artist who reminds me a lot of Thomas Kinkade, though his subject is the Civil War and not cozy little cottages.

Soon after we moved to Front Royal, Jose and I started seeing these artworks everywhere—on the walls of The Daily Grind and in gift shops, hotels, and antique stores.

Typically, they depict an historical scene from the Civil War era in a style I can only describe as romantic realist cheese—think Norman Rockwell but without the cheeky humor. They have a certain glow about them calculated to elicit nostalgia and patriotism at every viewing.

Though they are schmaltzy as all get out, people here love ‘em. What Confederate flag-waving southerner wouldn’t? How glorious were the soldiers, how noble the steeds, how dramatic the sky!

These painting give folks here something grand to grab onto, scenes that read like legend and fantasy despite their historical accuracy.

Clearly, I have a bit of a complex about these paintings. We received a postcard in the mail recently announcing a new work by Mort called The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air, which depicts General Lee visiting Front Royal on July 22, 1863. It was such big art news, I put it on our refrigerator.

It is a lovely pastel vision. All that is missing from the painting is a thatched cottage, a country lane, and a few golden highlights on the river. Maybe Mort and Thomas could collaborate on something, a new piece called “Candlelit Cottage Filled with Moaning Civil War Amputees.”

As a respected illustrator of books, magazines, and advertisements, Mr. Künstler’s work does seem to be a cut above Kinkade’s technically, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind having Mr. Künstler’s prints scattered around town, if they were his poster and books illustrations from the 1960’s and 70s instead of the Civil War fluff.

Check out this fantastic box art for this toy from the 1960s, the “Lost in Space All Plastic Assembly Kit” complete with “one-eyed monster, giant boulders, the Robinson Family and their interplanetary space vehicle.”

Or enjoy this illustration for the “Wonder Weave Loom.” It is “excitingly different… anyone can do it…”

Mort’s movie posters also rock:

And who could resist buying these paperback books with cover art by Mort:

14 Seconds to Hell

Kill Quick or Die

But my favorite has got to be this ad for a product called “Bacchus Aftershave.” It is “The Incredible Aftershave That Conquered the World.” If this were still available, I’d buy it for Jose in a heartbeat.

To be fair, Mr. Künstler seems like a nice guy and an upstanding citizen. He contributes generously to the Timber Ridge School in Winchester, which serves needy young men. He also doesn’t seem to be nearly as strange as Mr. Kinkade, whose weirder habits and business fraud you can read about on Wikipedia. Truly, he is one of the creepiest artists who has ever lived.

All in all, I think Mr. Künstler’s early illustrations just about make up for his later Civil War indulgences. I would be proud to own any one of the prints listed above—they are beautiful and surprising, full of an authentic irony.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford one.

-Heather Davis

Up in Smoke

UpInSmokeAlthough I believe in hope, in working to make change, in gathering forces for the better and all that, I did not want to be back here. We should have done whatever we could have done so that we could have stayed in Rehoboth Beach. I could have gotten a job running the frog toss at Funland. Heather could have worked at that gift shop that has all the goddamn sea shells. And Maggie could maybe start selling her drawings of bug-eyed girls, or better yet, start doing counterfeit Henry Darger paintings. That would bring in the money. Then maybe we could afford to live in Rehoboth Beach instead of Front Royal.

Then this morning, when I was walking out of the Martin’s for my first post-vacation trip to the grocery store, a woman in a convertible grinned at me as I loaded up the mini-van. I looked back at her, and she couldn’t stop grinning. She was a plump, gray-haired woman—not a church lady, not a suburban soccer mom, and not a Blue Mountain grandma making her weekly trip to town. She was, possibly, one of us.

“You look just like Cheech Marin,” she marveled. “When he was just starting out.”

“When he was just starting out?” I asked, to make sure I heard that last part right.

“Yeah, when he was just becoming famous.” The whole time she never broke out of her ear to ear grin.

I was getting ready to step into my mini-van after having loaded it up with, among other things, Lucky Charms cereal, Sponge-Bob crushable yogurt cups, and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaur slow melt popsicles.

What she said on that Monday morning, as my beach dreams went up in smoke, was probably the best thing anyone could have said to me at that moment.

-Jose Padua

The Beginning of the Endless Summer

Photo by Pat Padua

After almost two years it was time to admit that it was an experiment gone wrong. Yes, it was time for us to leave Front Royal and the Shenandoah Valley behind us. Leave the pick-up trucks, the BAN ILLEGAL ALIENS NOT GUNS bumper stickers, the shirtless guys with the homemade tattoos, and the nicotine powered teenage mutant mothers pushing their strollers down Main Street. And, leave that mighty river, the mountains, those two lane roads that look like they’re taking you so high up you can touch the moon. Yes, it was time to leave all these sights behind us. For a week.

I’d been ready for vacation for about a year—since the last time we went on vacation. Even before we moved to this town, my idea of a vacation was not to get away from it all, but to go to a different city that has it all. A beautiful, pristine beach is great for about an hour, but after that, I want something to do, something to see other than the damn waves and the damn sand. And that’s one of the problems for me with being in Front Royal. Being there, I may as well be at some pristine beach that’s so beautiful it puts you right to sleep.

But then there are the other things we’re leaving behind with this vacation—like the gruff blue collar guy who knows a lot more about modern dance than I ever will, the shabbily dressed home inspector who happens to have a degree from MIT, and those stubborn hippie types who seem to be trying to stop time somewhere between Woodstock (the music festival, not the town in valley) and Altamont (the music festival that was the proverbial end of the 60s).

Sometimes the people here are scary—and that’s what I tend to remember. What I seem to forget so easily are those pleasant surprises, the flashes of brilliance that, although they occur regularly, are never quite enough to drown out the noisy din of what remains backwards in the Shenandoah Valley.

But we remain hopeful, which is why, when vacation is over, we’re coming back.

-Jose Padua