One way to tell that summer had begun in these parts was by the number of Confederate flags that were out and about again—on pickup trucks, motorcycles, flying from front porches in celebration of the season of warm weather in America. Of course there were some who refrained from displaying the rebel battle flag and for whom the good old stars and stripes was more than enough, such as the SUV we saw one day that proudly bore a bumper sticker with the standard United States flag and the words “Does my American flag offend you? Dial 1-800-LEAVE-USA.” The bumper sticker was new to me, then—four years ago—so the words that went through my head were “What the fuck is this idiotic shit?” Words I might not have been able to refrain from saying out loud had my daughter Maggie–who was twelve at the time—not had her friend Anna with us in our car on the way to Winchester. Words which I did, however, end up saying more and more over the past four and a half years.
That day started pleasantly enough. My wife Heather was using a present from Christmas finally and took herself and Maggie for a pedicure at a local spa. To read during her appointment she brought along Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which she was having another go at. In the middle of her session she looked over to Maggie to see what she was reading and was surprised to see her reading about things like disaster capitalism and the 1974 U.S./Henry Kissinger master-minded coup that put Augusto Pinochet in place in Chile—she was reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
I suppose that with the presidential election upon us—and having heard me speak of my high school classmate whose father was assassinated by Pinochet’s forces right across the street from where my own father worked, and having heard Heather and me discuss how galling it was to hear a supposed progressive politician like Hillary Clinton speak glowingly of the aforementioned war criminal Henry Kissinger—that Maggie might have wanted to get some background information on all of this. She might not have understood everything in The Shock Doctrine, and it certainly wasn’t “feel-good” reading, but I was more than glad that she’d taken such great interest in learning about the world and how it works.
When we got to Winchester, we went to the downtown walking mall on Loudon Street, which was busy with people out for the holiday weekend. Our son Julien was happy to be running around past the shops and chasing after Anna and his big sister. In one photograph I took that day, though, he was taking a pause from the chase, and giving someone his old side-eye look. It was something he did quite often in our years out there. In Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley there were some nice people—like the writer Joe Bageant, who wrote a lot about inequality and the working poor in America. He went off to the west coast when he was a young man, but later in life returned to Winchester—the “bigoted, murderous redneck town I grew up in”—to kick some ass. We got to meet him a few years a few years before he died, and then some other good folks who lived on and were our friends the entire time we lived out there. But there were always those “bigoted, murderous” types you had to watch out for. And soon after I took that picture, we encountered some of them.
We were leaving the walking mall—crossing Piccadilly Street with Maggie, Anna, and Julien holding hands as they walked—when we passed by one of those pickup trucks equipped with smoke stacks waiting to turn onto Piccadilly. Sometimes called “Prius Repellents,” these trucks can let loose with clouds of noxious black smoke that for the asshole occupants of these vehicles are a protest statement against liberals, tree-huggers, Obama, etc., and as we walked past them they started jeering at us. Heather and I figured out that seeing Maggie and Anna holding hands as they walked past must have looked “gay” to them. And then, with me looking like some illegal alien, and Heather and me together being one of those horrible mixed-race couples, and Maggie and Julien our half-breed children, there was just so much to offend their delicate sensibilities. So when they turned, they let loose with the black smoke—“rolling coal” the act is sometimes called—which engulfed all of us. In other words, they had no reservations about letting the noxious fumes loose on two twelve year old girls, a five year old boy, and a middle-aged couple minding their own business, before roaring off to wherever it is dickheads like them like to spend their Saturday nights.
At the time, I’d never had a close encounter with the smoke from a Prius Repellent, and because I have respiratory issues, I had trouble breathing for few minutes. Julien, aware that something had just happened, asked, “Are those bad guys?”
“Yes,” we answered, aware that he now had a few new faces besides Donald Trump’s to add to the gallery of bad guys.
Luckily, we were just down the block from the Hideaway Café, which was where we going to see a drag show benefitting the theater where Maggie had been taking acting classes. The Hideaway calls itself “a safe space for all our guests, regardless of race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, etc.” and that night, for us, it was precisely that and provided a welcome antidote to the smoke stack pickup truck goons.
It took me a little while to get back in a decent mood, but I did. The drag show helped in that regard, as did Victoria, the woman who runs the Hideaway. What helped even more was running into our friend Larry Yates there. Larry was about ten years older than me, and had been an activist most of his life. He’d even lived in Washington DC for a few years, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I must have crossed paths with him at some point. Maybe at 18th and Columbia Road, back when the neighborhood was scary for all those people from the suburbs. Maybe even at something like the Rock Against Reagan concert at the mall in ’83 when the Dead Kennedys played.
Decades later, in Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley, hanging out with Larry was like having Noam Chomsky to bounce questions off of and learn from (Larry wasn’t a linguist himself, like Chomsky, but his father was). He helped keep our spirits going for the ten years we lived in Front Royal—that scarily conservative town a little bit south of Winchester. It was the sort of place where, when progressive people we met in Winchester found out we lived there would go, “You live in Front Royal? Oh my god!”
When Larry tried to run for the 29th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2013, he was clobbered by the conservative Republican candidate. We all knew that taking down a Republican in the Shenandoah Valley was longshot, but with Larry, you always had hope. He made you believe you could change the backwardness of this this town, this place, this country. I think that’s why news of his death this week from an apparent heart attack hit those of us who knew him so hard. Somehow, we didn’t think anything could stop him. Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, the United States, the world, the universe—none of it’s going to be the same now. There’s always going to be that piece missing—the piece he brought along with him whether he was grumpy, laughing, talking obscure concepts or real life actions. The piece, now gone all loose and lost in the fading of stars in a distance we can’t see.
That night in Winchester, after we left the drag show, we went with Larry back to the walking mall to eat dinner at El Centro, a Mexican restaurant on Boscawen Street. It was a nice, easy-going spot, where we could dine under the early summer skies and we figured we weren’t likely to run into the goons there. It would just be us, feeling like we belonged there.
When we were done, we said goodbye to Larry. We’d been meaning to get together with him like that for some time, but things were always so busy, so hectic, and sometimes so strange and so sad. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to find the time and space for an old friend, to just spend an evening talking about the world and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. That night, though, we managed to do that, despite the bad guys that were out there and despite their stupid machines. Then we headed home, down the highway between the slumbering mountains under a milky night of stars, as I slowly—very slowly—began to think of more beautiful things.