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, July 31, 2006

Every time I wander through Western Maryland, I see any number of guys my own age. Some of them are, in fact, guys I knew in high school. Most of them are a well along in their journey down Male Pattern Baldness Highway. A lot of them have beer guts. (I know, I know. I do too, but I'm talking Olympian-scale beer guts.) Invariably they've married their high school girlfriend and have several children. The more rednecky guys work for their more successful friends' contracting business. The once-popular guys are mired in some mid-level sales job and are generally divorced. All of them have a defeated look about them. While I'm busy laughing about our Junior Prom--themed "Almost Paradise," I'll have you know--they're probably thinking that it was the best time of their lives. And I think: There but for the grace of God go I. (Of course, when I look at guys I knew in college who seemed like complete drunken idiots and who are now junior partners in big Richmond and Norfolk law firms, I think: Yeah, God, thanks for the kick in the butt.) I feel bad for these dudes, but their bleak lives make me feel a hell of a lot better about myself.

So when I see a city that makes poor beat-down old Baltimore look good, I feel bad for the place, but it makes me feel a hell of a lot better about my hometown.

A few days ago I saw a PBS special about Judy Garland. I never got the appeal of the late '50s and '60s androgynous-costume-wearing, torch-song singing Judy Garland. My much more prosaic taste is more in line with all of the dopey happy movie musicals she made, so I stopped paying attention to the show right after it spotlighted one of my favorite musical pictures: "Meet Me In St. Louis."

In 1942, St. Louis probably still was the epitome of a nice, prosperous, big but charming American city. Things have changed--have they ever.

I frequently point out, when bemoaning the collapse of Baltimore as I once knew it, that during my lifetime Baltimore has lost about 300,000 inhabitants--significantly more than the entire population of Richmond. Imagine Richmond itself just plain vaporizing and you'll have an idea how Baltimore has shrunk. From being the nation's sixth largest city in my childhood it has sunk to about the nineteenth.

And then tonight, while I was aimlessly surfing some websites that cover neato abandoned buildings, I discovered this incredible site:


St. Louis in the 1890's was the nation's fourth largest city. It is now barely hanging on at number 48. From being a city about the same size as Baltimore, it has lost about the entire population of Washington to become about the size of Richmond. The city itself now claims only 300,000 inhabitants. Now, imagine the entire city of Washington just vaporizing, and that tells you what's happened to St. Louis.

Have a look at the site and compare it to your own city. The vast stretches of abandoned houses and empty fields where city blocks once stood are breathtaking. The scope of the houses is unbelievable, too. The 1942 movie depicts St. Louis as the ideal of everything that was nice about living in the United States in 1904. The city, as it stands (more or less stands, that is) now, depicts everything that could possibly go wrong with living in the United States in 2006. (I also noted that, while Hollywood decided that St. Louis was full of big rambling wood-frame houses, clapboard houses are really quite rare in that city.) Compared to Baltimore's more staid architecture--Baltimorean stinginess strikes again--St. Louis was full of ornate and fanciful houses in every imaginable revival style. Pressed and patterned brick seems to have been a civic obsession. Walking the streets of the city in 1900 must have been the fulfillment of the American dream, with the beautiful and well appointed houses seated amidst tree-lined streets and lush gardens. A century later, thousands of the houses are just plain gone; many of the remaining ones are notable more for their missing roofs and collapsing bay windows than for their unique styles.

Everything has gone wrong there. The city's manufacturing base is dead. Its river port--the original purpose of the city's existence--is a nonentity as river traffic is a shadow of its former self. Its status as a rail hub has been obliterated by air and automobile traffic and changed patterns of rail freight. Its banking and trade have been swallowed by national conglomerates. With the bulk of its economy wiped out, there just isn't much need for people to live in St. Louis anymore. Those who do--the metropolitan area does still lay claim to a population of nearly two million--have long since fled the city for the vast array of suburbs, a pattern all too common across the nation, but one particularly destructive in this case. Even though I've seen the same patterns in Baltimore, the effects haven't been as devastating. In the space of about forty years, St. Louis has gone from being an important city with an impressive and bustling downtown and endless miles of beautiful residential streets to a vacant and shattered ruin.

In college, I studied the cities and architecture of the ancient world, and I always wondered what some of those ancient people might think, if they somehow woke up in the present and saw what had happened to their cities. An ancient Roman might be mystified by the bustle and notorious awful driving of his descendants, but more than cars and trains, he would probably be horrified by the sight of the all-important Forum lying in ruin. There are St. Louisans who can see that change within their natural lives, no time-travel required.

For me, the most poignant aspect of my tour through the website was the realization that I really wanted to live in St. Louis--that is, the St. Louis of a century ago. With almost every picture of a crumbling house, I started to picture myself living in it.

No. One crumbling house is enough for a lifetime.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Day: Second, in my brief re-entry to temp world.
Time: Middle of the goddamned night, because I downed about three hundred cups of coffee today and thus won't sleep until Wednesday.

Today's temp assignment was much like yesterday's, except that it was a lot less interesting. Sort of. It was another one of these seminar thingies, but it lasted all day. This meant that I spent an hour in the morning running around like the iconic beheaded chicken, another half-hour in the afternoon playing Efficient Secretary Boy, and the intervening seven hours drinking coffee, sneaking smoke breaks and staring at walls.

I finally finished "Forever Amber," about which I blogged about a year ago before dumping it as hopeless. It still is--has been since 1946--but I was in the mood for a read of the heaving-bosom variety. I also spent a good bit of time talking to the various guys who work catering and security and today's hotel, the Wyndham.

The Wyndham is sort of point-counterpoint to the Tremont. The Tremont is a giant, ugly block of a building with no redeeming or interesting features in its 36 stories. (To give you an idea of the thing, picture a beige shoebox on end. Baltimore's landmark skyscraper, the Baltimore Trust building, is technically only 32 stories, but towers a good two hundred feet above the Tremont.) The Wyndham, on the other hand, has had about seven different names since I've been alive. It started life as Baltimore's first Hilton hotel. It has since been a Hyatt and a couple of other things before its current trademark-hotel-du-jour. It was built in the early '70s and was obviously designed with that era's misguided idea of what might make a landmark structure. It has two towers, which only connect on the first three floors. It has some seven hundred rooms, but no grace or style whatsoever. Even so, it's a couple of notches above the Tremont--excepting that Masonic temple bit that I mentioned yesterday, and which will be addressed in a separate post to follow.

Since today's seminar was ensconced in a meeting room just off the main lobby of the Wyndham (wait, they haven't changed the name since this afternoon, have they?) I got to watch the foot-traffic parade as I sat at my station, alternately falling asleep and following Amber's endlessly coital exploits.

There is one significant thing that kept the day entertaining. This weekend, the City of Baltimore is playing host to a Firemen's convention, and a good chunk of them are staying at the Wyndham (it's not the Radisson, now, is it? oh, no! That's what they're calling the old Hotel Lord Baltimore this week.)

There are firemen from all over the country holed up in that hotel. I saw guys with shirts from Elizabeth City (NC, I assume), Ronkonkoma (which I believe is somewhere in New Jersey), Oklahoma City, Seattle, our own Hagerstown, and the rather unfortunately-named Hicksville (not sure which state is claiming that one) in addition to the better-known Philadelphia and New York City.

Before I say anything else, I want to state that I have nothing against firemen. These guys are the salt of the earth; their daily jobs require a significant amount of risk and the work they do ensures the safety of us all. I admire these men (and women, though it seems they're a distinct minority) because they have, bluntly, bigger balls than I do. They think nothing of entering a building consumed in flame to rescue people they don't know. I would make an effort to rescue my own cats and silver service, but that's about the extent of my bravery.

When it gets down to personality, though, firemen are the little boys who never quite grew up. All little boys want to be firemen. Real firemen are the men who never grew out of wanting to be one. And, when you get several thousand of them in the same place, it's like being in a city full of fourth graders. (Several of them are big, muscly, tattooed fourth graders, but fourth-graders nonetheless.)

Most of Middle America is terrorized by the idea of a hotel full of college fraternity boys, but as your friendly neighborhood Sig Ep, let me tell you, we ain't got shit on the firemen. These dudes hadn't even had a chance to get wasted yet and they were already trashing the hotel, stealing potted palms and booby-trapping the elevators. A lot of them had their girlfriends and wives along for the ride, most of whom walked around with an air of annoyed resignation.

I understand that on Sunday there is to be a parade of antique and modern fire equipment downtown somewhere. I think I should go to see it. Then, I can revert to fourth-grade too--and if I'm lucky one of the guys from Ronkonkoma will let me ride on the back of the truck.

Friday, July 28, 2006

One of my students at Carver High was absolutely appalled that I didn't get paid weekly and furthermore that I didn't get paid in cash. (He was trying to beg a couple of dollars at the time which, mean old bastard that I am, I certainly didn't give him.) You see, in the planet of black ghetto West Baltimore, even those with vaguely legitimate jobs are paid weekly in cash, because nobody there has a checking account and wouldn't trust a bank in any case. Life functions with cash only--which, I sometimes think, isn't a bad policy after all.

Poor DJ would be even more horrified to learn that I don't get paid at all during the summer, but it's an occupational hazard. My dear old pal WK, the child of two teachers, remembers that as a little girl she learned very early on not to ask for anything during August, since the summer savings was nearly depleted by then.

My summer savings, which wasn't much this year, is already depleted and so I have turned to my old standard of living: temp work.

You know, in some ways, I love temping. The pay is marginal, but so is the work. The vast majority of temp jobs allow you to sit around on your ass doing absolutely nothing, because all the company really needs is a warm body to fill a chair while the real person is sick, or until they fill the recently-vacated post. Thus, you can usually bring some mindless summer reading, or cater to your little English-major heart and read one of the more tedious hallmarks of literature that you were supposed to read sophomore year, but for which you actually bought the Cliffs Notes because you'd spent the entire week getting bombed. Or, as I did today, you can indulge in your English-major specialty: working crosswords in pen.

Temping also allows a few Personal Victory Moments. As a temp with more than three operating brain cells, you can go the extra mile, produce first-rate work for a job that really only requires two brain cells, and thus earn the unending awe of the people for whom you're briefly working. I elected that strategy today: I hadn't temped for a while, so I figured I'd impress the hell out of them, which could get me a couple of extra assignments. Then again, I'd like to spend a couple of weekdays at the beach, so... well, we'll see where the next week leads. If all else fails, you can utter the timeless phrase, "I don't know. I'm just the temp." While this makes you look idiotic, it also absolves you from any actual responsibility.

You see, people do not expect anything from temps. This is because a majority of the temp work force is amazingly stupid. In the past, I've wowed clients because--get this--I could type. Crimony! You're an office temp, you're supposed to be able to type. Sheesh, with computer keyboards, even the trusty hunt-and-peck system will get you 40 words per minute. Since I learned to type in approximately 1907 on a manual Olympia typewriter, I can type almost 80 words per minute on a computer keyboard. Back in the dark days when I periodically temped for a living, I repeatedly won the temp-o'-the-month award. I figured this was mostly the result of showing up every day and not actually drooling on the computer.

Today's assignment was of a sort that I'd never handled before. I had to "manage" a seminar at one of the big downtown hotels. This was kind of cool. I like big downtown hotels; there's a bit of a charge that comes from the elegance and bustle of those places. In my next life, I think it would be really cool to be the manager of the Lord Baltimore or the Jefferson or something. Then I can be just like that pissily imperious guy with the heart of gold in "Pretty Woman," and Julia Roberts will want to date me, and... Oh, never mind. So anyway, here I am at the Tremont. All I have to do is make sure the conference room is set up properly (more on this later), check in all the registered attendees, take their payment if they haven't already, record the session, and sit around for four hours until they're done. Then I pack up all the crap, FedEx it to the company running the seminar, and leave.

This is not difficult. During my September-to-May existence, I plan daily lessons that are designed to keep thirty ninth-graders quiet for an hour. I frequently do this approximately five minutes before the class starts, and I can pull it off. I am used to fudging attendance records so that the school's administration doesn't look bad. So, really, ticking off eighteen people on a list and pushing the "record" button just ain't too stressful. All the same, when I called in to the seminar programmers to report the necessary information, they were floored. The chick with whom I spoke said--I quote directly: "Wow. You must have managed a lot of these seminars before." "Er, no," I replied. "Actually this is the first time I've done it." Moment of silence. "No way. Usually I have to walk the temps through everything on the phone the first time. I hope we can get you back again." "Well," I said, "that would be fine, but I'm only available during the summers, you see..." This continued for a few minutes, but once again I realized: there are a lot of really dumb people out there.

Most of the day required that I do nothing more but sit at a registration table in the rather imposing hallway and look either decorative or menacing. Maybe it's the crosswords-in-pen; perhaps the USMC high-n-tight haircut, but I evidently do both. The Tremont includes a vast array of meeting rooms, and several of them were in use today. (Oddly, one of the most ornate had been allocated to a conference on treatment of blindness which seemed to involve several blind participants--what a pity that these folks couldn't see the gorgeous trappings that surrounded them.)

There I was, sitting at the table outside my seminar, with scores of people drifting past. Public behavior is a funny thing. People will yuk it up as long as they're with their friends, but the presence of an authority figure shuts them right up. I was no more an authority figure than was the empty chair beside me, but apparently all of these people thought that I was, because their conversations died when they saw me.

Most amusing was the pair of cute blonde twenty-somethings that strolled down the hallway. These two were attending a conference on historic preservation, which makes the following scenario all the more appalling. While the Tremont itself is a hideously ugly '60s hotel, it has lately encompassed a beautiful old Masonic temple for its meeting/ballrooms. This place is tricked out in more marble, silver and crystal than you can imagine, and all restored to an inch of its 97-year-old life. So, preservation types should revere it, no? No. The blonde babes, who would probably wet themselves if somebody lit a cigarette in an 18th century tobacco warehouse (I'm going for irony here, work with me) were chatting and were about to deposit their empty plastic water bottles into a potted palm tree. Until, that is, they realized that I was looking at them, at which time they retrieved the bottles and scuttled to the elevator. Hmm...butch Marine haircut strikes again.

If I weren't such a stickler about the way one behaves in public, I would've said "Hey, it's cool. I'm just a temp."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

And yet another era has ended. I returned to the city on Saturday, after a grueling week at the beach. How can a beach trip be grueling, you ask? Try it with one parent in the midst of an Alzheimer's haze and the other parent completely rattled from dealing with it. Add a handful of relatives from the hinterland, and you have the recipe for hell.

When I got back to town it was sweltering. I couldn't get the house aired out to save my life, and the cats refused to get up to go to their food dishes, because they were sleeping on the nice cool marble mantelpieces and didn't want to leave them. Sheesh, THEY don't need to lose weight; I do. Perhaps I should have employed the same tactic.

Now, I must admit that I've been so lazy this summer that I never even got around to changing the rugs, which makes the house at least seem ten degrees hotter. All of that wool and velvet just looks heavy and makes you feel warm, which is just dandy in February. This is not February.

But then, my summer bedroom doesn't have wool and velvet, because it is a summer bedroom and never gets used in the wool-and-velvet season. And it was roasting.

So after three days of sweating my spleen out through my pores, I went to Wal-Mart and bought an air conditioner. I have spent the last twenty years of my life hating air conditioning in houses. I'd usually rather sweat than sit in stale, recycled air, no matter how cool it might be. On those few days a year that I really want air conditioning, I just go to the movies.

I went to the movies about five times and it wasn't working out for me. I bought a damned air conditioner.

Some of you may be aware of my previous air conditioning drama. When I was a child I spent a lot of the summer with sniffles, because our Timonium house was the first my mother had ever inhabited that happened to have central air, and so she kept it cranked down to about -20. We saved electricity, though, because it was so goddamned cold in the house that we didn't have to use the refrigerator. The milk and eggs could just sit on the kitchen counter and still stay fresh.

After happily living through several AC-free years (going to the movies in Richmond was always a good option, since the fabulous Byrd Theatre is not only air-conditioned but breathtakingly beautiful), I moved into my current lair.

Many of you will recall that when I moved into this place, it was chock full of random old crap. Some of this was useful crap; most was not. Among the things that I believed, then, might be useful was a small air conditioner.

Now, I should have realized, based on my previous experience with the house I'd just bought, that there would be something wrong with the little air conditioner. For one thing, it was way too small for any room in the house. For another, someone had effected a repair on its plastic grille that involved duct tape. If I make a repair with duct tape, that's one thing, but I have also learned over the years that if someone else makes a repair with duct tape, it's probably bad news.

Undaunted, I hauled the little air conditioner down to the master bedroom and plugged it in. Lo and behold, it worked.

Sort of worked.

This was an air conditioner meant for a room that measures approximately 10 x 12. I had just put it in a room that measures 18 x 20, and it was decidedly overwhelmed. Also, its dehumidying abilities were impaired (possibly by the duct tape?). So, it couldn't quite cool down the whole room, and rather than being hot and sticky, the room was almost-cool and clammy. Not necessarily an improvement, so the hapless air conditioner had to go. Even then, it continued to thwart me. While trying to take it out of the window: a)the window's sash cord broke, causing the window to fall which b)made me try to catch the window but c) I missed so d)I ended up smashing my hand through the glass while e)the air conditioner fell inwards and landed on my foot while f) a flower box on the outer windowsill fell down onto the sidewalk. All I got for that effort in air conditioning was a broken window, a slashed-up wrist, a very sore foot and a terrorized neighbor who had been walking down the street when a box of geraniums landed two feet in front of her. I then vowed: No more AC.

Until Tuesday, at least, when I'd spent a few miserable days and hied myself to Wal-Mart. I am now air-conditioning-enabled.

Except that every time I turn the thing on, I can see little dollar signs flying out the window, thinking how much it's costing me to run the stupid thing. And I've already found the air in the now-air-conditioned bedroom to be rather stale. And the cats don't like the noise it makes, and I don't like being unable to hear the outside, and I'm having bizarre dreams that I'm sure are caused by the white noise from the air conditioner.

Just my style. You can lead me to the modern age, but you can't make me plug it in.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

I've been surprised, over the past couple of days, to read the scathing reviews of the movie version of "The Devil Wears Prada."

I intend to see the movie, although I haven't yet. It surprises me, though, that the reviewers universally also pan the book. Now, it wasn't the best book that I've ever read, but it hit home repeatedly.

An article in the Sun involved interviews with real, live secretaries...oops, assistants, in New York fashion publishing. They all seemed disgusted with the book. OF COURSE an assistant should expect to be sent out in the rain to get Starbucks for twelve. OF COURSE she should be expected to go back if the coffee got cold. OF COURSE she should expect to have to babysit for her boss, and WHY would she think that would merit any extra pay or (gasp) appreciation?

I've got news for you, world. The whole damned country is not some scatterbrained idiot trying so desperately to break into New York's ticky-tacky world of fashion (and yes, it IS ticky-tacky--get over your credit card selves and LOOK at that crap they're foisting on you) .

I worked for someone, once, who was the "lite" version of Miranda, the devil/editrix of the title. (hoo, boy, I bet she'd wet her politically-correct didies, too, if she caught me using a feminine form, there...) And, you know what? I finally got fed up with her crap, her self-serving idiocy, her smarmy asininity, and QUIT. Which is what any self-respecting person would do, really; in reading the book I only marvelled that the heroine sucked up and dealt with the crap for as long as she did.

Sadly, it's a good picture of corporate America. Too many overqualified people have been produced for too few jobs and, especially in either fashion or publishing, it's a cutthroat world. Therefore, the low men on the totem pole have to suck up and deal with the demeaning, idiotic crap that they're given, if only to stay employed. Too few people are willing to tell the Mirandas of the world that, indeed, they're nasty, mean-spirited bitches who've fucked their way to the top and really have about as much talent as the average dust bunny. (I personally expect one of the dust bunnies under my bed to graduate summa cum laude from Harvard, which also tells you precisely what I think of that school.)

"The Devil Wears Prada" was, indeed, a sensationalist little novel, but it hit too close to home for most reviwers' comfort. When one has already willingly given up any modicum of self-worth to fetch coffee (and what the FUCK was wrong with the coffee in the office?) three times in a row in pouring rain, it hurts to see someone else demeaning that precise activity.

You know, I can see myself in Miranda's shoes, but I'd like to think I'd have a different perspective, though I'd keep the meanness:

DG: We need coffee, Assistant. Would you set up coffee service for twelve? I'll give you a hand in a minute.
Assistant: Oh, YES!!! I'll run to Starbucks right away.
DG: Er, is the office percolator broken?
Assistant: No, I just assumed...
DG: Precisely, which is why you belong in New York and not in Baltimore. We have perfectly good coffee here, or have you not figured that out yet?
Assistant: But what will you do for cream and sugar? You'll want pure cane sugar and cream from cows fed on orthoponic...
DG: What are you, blind? there's a pint of milk in the fridge and Domino sugar in that funny little silver thing, which you obviously do not recognize as a sugar bowl.
Assistant: But bagels...?
DG: (exasperated sigh...) What's your name...Andy, or whoever you are? HOW long have you been working for me, and you do not understand that I do not EAT bagels? If you insist upon making work for yourself, why don't you telephone Hoehn's for some doughnuts?
Assistant (overheard on 'phone): He wants doughnuts, STAT!
DG: Dear God, you WERE brought up in a barn. Give me that...
..... I'm so sorry, I hate to telephone you with such late notice, but if you could have your delivery boy get me a couple of dozen--no, no, plain sugar is fine--I'd be most obliged!
Assistant: But...
DG to Personnel: NEVER again send me someone who isn't from Highlandtown.