The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Monday, January 30, 2006

As the faces of the old neighborhood change, I find myself in an increasingly odd role. When I first moved into the St. Paul street house, I didn't quite fit any of the proscribed patterns for the neighborhood. I was a Baltimorean myself, but I was under seventy and so didn't match the other old Baltimore types in the area. Nonetheless, being a real live Baltimorean, I didn't fit the mold of the "urban-homesteader" types who'd moved in and thought they were doing the city a great favor by their presence.

I had simply moved here because I'd always wanted a Saint Paul street address, and had every intention of continuing about life as generations before me had done. I would (and do) buy food at Lexington Market, hear Mass at St. Alphonsus, get very drunk on Preakness Day and change the rugs twice yearly.

For better or worse, though, the neighborhood is becoming stylish again, for the first time in nearly seventy years. As I've lived here for nearly fifteen now, the newcomers see me as an old-timer. Little do they know! Years ago, I knew very few people who weren't from Baltimore. Now it seems that I know more auslander than natives.

The auslander are always a little flummoxed by our ways. We are probably among the last of the major cities that considers entertaining at home far superior to restaurant dining, but then we have a tradition of excellent food.

We also take great pride in — of course, our silver — but also in the snowy-white linens that the silver rests upon. If I make the biggest fuss over the silver and its care, storage, polishing and display, the linens take a very close second. I have always taken care to wash the best linens by hand with a glass washboard and Fels-Naptha soap. Fels-Naptha smells a little too much like a funeral parlor, but it sure does make your napkins glow.

Because the house never had enough electric power to run a dryer, I've had to hang my wash out on a line since I moved in. No problem really — didn't everyone do that for centuries? Of course, everyone in town knew what my drawers looked like, but I figure everyone else has the same damned drawers. No shock factor there.

Today I made one small leap for myself, but a grand jetee for Baltimorean laundry. I had an electric line run in for a dryer.

This will make some aspects of daily life more convenient. No more worrying whether or not I've clean shorts for the next day. An easy job, to tumble-dry a sweater that's gotten irradiated with smoke from the Pub.

I do not trust the dryer. In my experience they're hard on fabric, and the bleaching effect of the Sun (the star, not the paper) is lost.

The neighborhood will be deprived of the nebulous pleasure of looking at my underpinnings, but all of the good linens will still be hung out to dry. A fine damask cloth is a masterpiece. It must be washed by hand, dried on a line, and starched and ironed within an inch of its life. I wouldn't trust my Imperial Crab to a microwave, and I surely won't trust my grandmother's Austrian linens to a dryer.

My neighbor down the street — one of those who loves to hear stories of Das Alte Baltimore — saw the electrician at work and stopped by to see what was going on. She said she'd miss the socks on the line. I'll miss them myself, I think.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Ever since I moved back to Baltimore, much to the chagrin of my friends here, I’ve been moaning that I want to go back to Richmond. I frankly enjoyed Richmond much more; it’s prettier, cleaner and has more things to do that don’t involve illicit drug trade. All the same, it is a smaller city and doesn’t have a very good opera company. It does still have an operating grand hotel and an operating movie palace, but... hey.

By the way, I just love the word chagrin. It’s a good word, isn’t it? I particularly like the fact that Cleveland has a fashionable suburb called Chagrin Falls, and even more particularly that no one in Cleveland sees anything remotely odd or funny about it. Either the whole city has a poor vocabulary, or they’re just so immured to jokes about it that they respond stoically. Perhaps Baltimore should establish a similarly-named little hollow. "Oh, yes, we still live in town but Cousin Adalbert has moved out to Vaguely Dissatisfied Terrrace. Didn’t I hear that your sister and her husband just got a place in Dyspeptic Acres?" Then, of course, Washington would have to respond in kind with a more fashionable emotional condition: "Well, you know it’s been a rough week for me. We had a dinner meeting with Representative Bla and the focus group from Bla-Corp out at the conference center in Manic-Depressive Towne at Bile Creek." Soon enough Richmond and Norfolk would be on the bandwagon too and they’d tear down the lately-elaborated Lifestyle Centres in favor of Annoyance Centres and... Oh, never mind. My digression has taken on a life of its own. Some children just need to be aborted. (Take that, right-to-lifers. I’m even more "right" than you are–I’m into Eugenics! Put that in your bubble-gum pipe and smoke it.)

**Note to self: shelve random digressions for future rants and get on about the subject.

You see, when the chagrin’d (hehe) folk say "you can’t go home again," they mean Richmond. They fail to remember that I’m from Baltimore in the first place, and nowhere is that statement more adept than it is here. You sure can’t. I left a city that was outdated and tired but still happy and pleasant, and returned to a city that was a bombed-out drug war zone. It’s bounced back remarkably; Baltimore is becoming once again a thriving and wealthy city. But–it’s not the city I knew and loved, and I’m not sure that I want much to do with the new version.

I considered Richmond "home" because it was the city that I’d selected for myself. There was no family insistence, no heritage or history–I simply liked it. It remains the only place that I have ever, of my own volition, wanted to live.

Now I won’t ever really be able to go home to Richmond, either. The apartment house that I picked out in the city I picked out burned badly on Monday last, badly injuring one of my nice older neighbors and killing several pets.

The Jackson is a stylish address and I’m sure they’ll rebuild it, but like the Baltimore of my childhood it will never be the same. I have no doubt that the pretty old Anaglypta wallpaper in the staircase is destroyed; the pretty French doors between the living and dining rooms are probably shattered. Since, I understand, the place was getting turned into expensive condos anyway, my beloved ‘20s-tile bathroom was probably already gone. I can’t bear to think what has happened–between renovation and fire–to the huge kitchen dressers and butler’s pantry, where I spent many happy hours polishing the silver.

I know that in the future there will be hundreds of good times and lovely parties at 2806 Monument Avenue, but they won’t be my parties anymore. I couldn’t bear to live in the rebuilt Jackson because it wouldn’t be the same. If I ever–please, God–manage to move back to Richmond I will have to live in the Anne Frances (if I can afford it), the Southampton (I’ll only be able to afford it if I sell nose candy on the side), the Flavius (I can afford it, but who’d want to?) the Rosaleigh (fashionable but depressing), or the Seminole (if I must). I could buy a house, I suppose, but I’m done with that.

You can go home again. There are always trains to take you there. There’s just no guarantee that "Home" will be what it was when you were there in the first place. Really, was it ever what you remember it to have been? Much as I loved the French doors and the big front porch at the Jackson, the jackhammer sound of the steam radiators was a real pain in the ass.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A few weeks ago, I was holding up the bar at the Charles Village Pub with a couple of friends. I was in a pretty foul mood because I'd just lost a very close friend.

I don't mention these sorts of things to everyone, because, well, everyone doesn't need to know. I'd known the gentleman in question for nearly fifteen years and his death by autobahn--ironically, in a place where I'd like very much to live--was a very poor form of a gift coming as it did three days before my own birthday, particularly as he'd planned to be back Stateside within a couple of weeks.

Anyway, that night at the Pub, our group was doing some free-writes. (This is one thing that English teachers do when they drink together. Don't try it at home.) Friend and colleague Derrick assigned me the topic of "loss," knowing that it was particularly applicable. I came up with this:

When I was eight years old I got a little wind-up toy frog as a stocking stuffer on Christmas morning. A week later, I lost it because I insisted upon taking it with me when we went to lunch in the tearoom at Hutzler's.

When the Hutzler's building was redeveloped, I became briefly obsessed--a quarter-century later--with the idea that my little toy frog might still be inside the cavernous and now ruined store.

That frog has turned into the "beau ideal," the beautiful ideal. Its cheap tin works--probably the least materially impressive present I'd received that or any other Christmas--have turned into a totem. Do they still live on, somewhere in that huge Art Deco palace of commerce? The small thing about which I'd never begun to care--yet it turns into a keystone of memory.

The loss of a living being--my beloved old cat, the handsome ex-beau--is easily put away. The cat's ashes sit in a little cherrywood box on my mantel and the beau rests forever somewhere in Seattle, a city which I am annoyed that I will now, for decency's sake, have to visit.

The toy frog, though probably rusted and dented, may still live on in a forgotten corner of a forgotten department store in an all-but-forgottten city--in the still-gleaming empire of my memory.