We 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.
In 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.