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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One of my friends, a native Richmonder who hasn't lived there in the last quarter century, says that the problem with Richmonders is that they really believe the world revolves around Richmond. He gives as an example the statement that Richmonders frequently make: "Rome is like Richmond. It is built upon seven hills."
He believes that Rome, having once been the capital of a world empire and still the seat of the Catholic Church, trumps Richmond, so they should say that "Richmond is like Rome." I point out that Richmond is the capital of Virginia and the former Confederate capital, has several pretty Catholic churches, and furthermore is not full of Italians and does not smell like garlic. And it IS built upon seven hills. I can still name them--can you? (That, of course, only applies to people who have lived there.)

It is not necessarily true that Richmonders believe the world revolves around their city. Mostly, this is because it rarely occurs to them that there IS any world much beyond Richmond herself, and what there is is almost entirely in Virginia, which DOES pretty much revolve around its capital.

So, you can imagine my pleasure when I noted that one of my companions at the beach this year was reading something called South of Broad. Naturally, in my mind, Broad street only exists in Richmond, and all fashionable districts are indeed south of it. And, thus, you can imagine how quickly my pleasure evaporated when I realized that the book was in fact about another charming Southern city--Charleston--which also has a Broad street.

If my annoyance was meager upon discovering a book NOT about Richmond, it could only grow from there--and did it ever.

South of Broad is Pat Conroy's latest oeuvre. While I'd never read any of Conroy's work before, I'd always sort of dismissed him on hearsay. I'd heard his writing called "the revenge of the weepies," and according to most I knew, it was all decidedly Chick Lit. Within the first chapter I realized that this was, indeed, Chick Lit. Worse, it's a specific form of Chick Lit. Jane Austen is serious Chick Lit; Pat Conroy is for girls who graduated at the bottom of their class of 12,000 from a giant Midwestern university, and therefore think that they're too well educated for Danielle Steele.

Anyone who's made a pilgrimage through a bar frequented by nerdy English majors (i.e., me) has probably heard the disparaging remark that something is "fraught with symbolism," "fraught with error," "fraught with meaning." South of Broad is just fraught. It's fraught with everything. I can't even begin to provide a summary of the story, because it's so completely convoluted that I couldn't possibly get it all in order. Let's just be content with some of the elements, shall we? South of Broad includes:

--aristocratic Charleston families and
--persevering black folks and therefore
--inherent racial tension especially once you add
--Southern white trash and
--late '60s integration.
--Descriptions of Charleston that make the truly beautiful city sound like a Sears catalogue
--teen suicide
--insanity (brought on by the suicide's little brother's discovery of grisly same)
--awkward teen love
--Malicious insane man who is also a pedophile with mildly insane alcholic wife and
--twin children -->
--slutty sister
--gay brother who of course ends up with
--Homelessness and AIDS victims in San Francisco
--loving if amateur descriptions of a football game
--loving descriptions of the Citadel (at least I get the last two)
--a climax centered around Hurricane Hugo (did we really need to hear about the dead rotting cats? That was the only part of the damned thing that moved me)
--a mom who was once a nun
--a pedophile priest (Damnit, can't someone ever write about a pedophile Presbyterian? Those frigid Scotsmen can be horny and inapprop, too)
--frustrated love sacrificed at the altar of society which is symbolically sanctified by rescuing
--a stranded porpoise post-Hugo.

Dear God. I could go on, but I couldn't stomach it, and neither could you. Since one of Conroy's myriad themes is "How the Catholic Church can Fuck You Up," he must have gotten sucked into Catholicism enough to learn about litanies. This book reads like "1,001 Conflicts for Beginning Writers." Conroy seems compelled to have a crashing climax per chapter. Halfway through the book, I found myself wondering how many more shockers he could administer to the beleaguered psyche of his readers. Of course, the devotees of this sort of thing eat it up.

I was also a bit put off/surprised by the presence of not one, but two pedophiles. Either Conroy got jumped by a motorcycle gang as a child, or he wanted to be--I understand that Prince of Tides has a similar undercurrent. After slogging my way through this lurid loser, I don't feel any compulsion to try out his earlier work.

South of Broad did have one positive effect in my universe. I haven't been to beautiful Charleston for many years and just reading about it--no matter how awful the read itself--makes me want to buy a ticket on the Palmetto State Express. While I can't afford that, I can afford to make Charleston-style food. Time to dust off my copy of Charleston Receipts.

By the way, the Seven Hills of Richmond are: Shockoe, Church, Navy, Union, Gamble's, French Garden, and Council Chamber.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Let's segue back into the Temping Chronicles, just because I'm giving some thought to rejoining that world. Perhaps, if I revisit those not-so-halcyon days, I'll give thanks for the teaching job I have, and revile the temptation to forsake it.

In the mid '90s, the last gasp of local hometown companies was reaching its last death rattle. All of the smaller cities--like Frederick, Lynchburg, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg and the like--had seen their little local banks and department stores eaten up by the big city firms. Now, even the big city companies were being swallowed by national conglomerates. Richmond's old Central Fidelity Bank and her two great department stores were gone. Washington had lost her beloved crusty old Riggs National Bank and was about to lose Woodward and Lothrop, one of the best department stores on earth. Baltimore had already lost all of her big stores and the banks were going fast. In 1996, the bank that kept me in beer money went, as well.

Requiescat in Pace, Bank of Baltimore! Born in 1818, "Baltimore Savings," as everyone called it, was created by a group of civic-minded wealthy Baltimoreans. Heretofore, banks were for the wealthy; the little people just sewed coins into mattresses. This bank was intended for the Little People. You could--from 1818 until its dying day--open an account with practically nothing. In fairer days, the Bank sent employees to City and County schools to teach kids about saving money and to open kid-sized savings accounts. Even now, I occasionally run into people who actually paid for their college educations from money saved through a Bank of Baltimore account established in grade school. The Bank flourished through the 19th century; after the Great Fire it built an impressive home for itself at Baltimore and Charles (then called Sun Square for the newspaper that occupied the opposite corner) which stands today--for rent.

I'm sad to say that, today, I have my accounts with a huge conglomerate bank. All of the old locals are gone, except for tiny little neighborhood concerns that have precisely one office. I don't think that any of those gigantic corporations will ever bother with things like schoolroom savings accounts.

I digress as always. The bank was broken up and sold off for parts (ironically, this was masterminded by a man who spent a lot of time claiming to be a Real Baltimorean and a Friend of the Working Man, who then went on to establish another bank). We were sold first to Foist FI-Delity of Newik, New Joisey. This was actually the way that their employees would answer the phone. While my department survived that sale, we didn't survive the next, when Foist FIdelity was eaten by First Union, headquartered in Charlotte. (No accent is required here. Since almost no one in Charlotte is actually from North Carolina, no accent occurs there.)

Thus began the long--and recurring--saga in my life: temping for Hopkins.

The first temp gig I took at the World's Foremost Medical Institution was in the world of psychology. This was highly entertaining. My actual work involved, primarily, typing and organizing the rather exhaustive studies performed by a doctor who had spent several years studying emotional problems in teenagers. I never did meet the doctor herself; she was on sabbatical. Instead, I reported to her administrative assistant--who, herself, possessed a doctoral degree, but had been relegated to working as an assistant. This was actually a refreshing assignment. After the world of banking, I was once again surrounded by academe; and it was a guilty pleasure to see that even someone with a degree rather more advanced than mine could still be stuck doing admin work. Also, I got to see firsthand how completely clueless academia can be.

Those who teach, or do social work, are the ones in the trenches. We see what really happens in the lives of those with whom we work. Those who study from afar, on the other hand, use data as a crutch in the same way that I use cigarettes. Data and cigs both keep you mollified and put off reality for at least five minutes.

As I collated data and typed research reports, I grew to understand that the doctor masterminding these studies (note--at this point, my classroom experience was a good six years in the future) had NO IDEA of what was really happening in the "disadvantaged communities" that she ostensibly researched. She clearly had an excellent grasp of psychology and sociology, but without practical experience, her studies--to my mind--were useless. Without firsthand knowledge of your subjects' lives, how can you decide what they need? what they lack? what they have?

Most of these thoughts are retrospective. At the time, I found her research interesting, and actually, I still do. Now that I've spent seven years working with those who would have been potential subjects, though, I think that I probably have a better grasp on the issues that face them.

Anyone who is interested--I mean, truly interested--in studying and rectifying the problems that face teenagers should be required to teach in a high school for a year. The old maxim is that you can't know someone until you've walked a mile in his shoes. While you can't BE a teenager again, you CAN live in the world of the teenager, at least part-time. No amount of data collection will give you the information that any teacher has at his fingertips.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Since I finally joined the world of the digital camera, I've become much more interested in taking pictures. I grew up in the era of the Instamatic. Everyone took pictures of everything. Looking back over the photo albums in the family's living room, I've discovered that my parents took a picture every time anybody farted. They took pictures on vacation; they took pictures at home. They took pictures of every first day of school, pictures of me opening every last present at Christmas, and pictures of table settings. Certainly, though, they weren't alone; when I visit the family homes of other friends, I see the same thing. The problem with the Instamatics (and the Brownies before them) was that, until you got the prints back, you didn't know which pictures were actually good and which ones sucked. A lot of them sucked. Parents would let kids take pictures, which resulted in a lot of photos of knees, because kids take pictures from a lower level. They also include a lot of pictures of the pets, because kids are more interested in the pets than the adults. Oh--wait, I still do that.

Once I got the digital, though, I decided that I should start recording things that have some interest to me, and not just pictures of parties (though there are plenty of those as well). I wanted to document the places I know and the things I love, so I started taking pictures all over Maryland and Virginia. I even tried to be all arty, so I did a series of doorways in North Baltimore, and a series of creepy faces in Baltimore architecture. (Baltimore apparently really dug that Victorian concept that architecture should frighten people; there are monstrous faces peering out of the stones of a LOT of buildings in this town.)

I also thought that I should document the surviving homes of famous Baltimoreans. Let's face it--the city is pretty damned run down now, but over the years it has been the home of quite a few important figures. Not too many big movie stars, but numerous literary lights, captains of industry, and medical marvels have called the town home. Therefore, I set out to take pictures of some of the houses. I'm not finished, yet, by any means, but I'm pleased with my progress so far.

In all likelihood, Baltimore's lasting claim to literary fame is E. A. Poe. In a way, this is sad. He wasn't really a Baltimorean; he was born in Boston and grew up in Richmond. He did live in Baltimore sporadically as an adult, and here met his unfortunate if rather poetic end. But: we can also count H.L. Mencken as ours, and he really was--born, raised, and died in Baltimore, the man was one of the great essayists and journalists of the 20th century. Sadly, he's mostly forgotten now, and when he IS remembered, it's always with a disclaimer that he was Not a Nice Person. Of course he wasn't, but in 2009, one must be a Nice Person, Politically Correct, and Aware in order to be lionized. Gertrude Stein, as well, thought that there was some THERE in Baltimore; she had several family connections to the place and lived here for some time--in fact, attended the Hopkins, too. (HER house has been rotting away up in Reservoir Hill for decades, but she'd probably rather enjoy the idea.) The city can also claim Christopher Morley, who penned some very witty novels back in the '30s and '40s. Although Baltimore doesn't normally claim him, Fitzgerald loved to claim Baltimore. He only lived here for a few years, but did have some Maryland family, and he wanted to make sure that everyone knew it. Raised in a decidedly middle-class world in the Midwest, ancient Baltimore provided a touchstone to an aristocratic world that some of his characters possessed while the author himself did not.

I was also careful to take a couple of pictures of the elegant St. Paul street house that was once home to F. van Wyck Mason. Have you ever heard of him?

Frankly, I hadn't either--or, thought I hadn't. When I discovered that he'd lived in and around the city for many years, I struggled to remember why on earth I knew the name. When it finally came to me, I wasn't sure whether to be impressed or appalled. You see, the only one of his books I'd ever read was "The Barbarian," which I'd bought years ago for the lurid cover art. The cover in question depicts a stunning blonde in Carthaginian costume (I had to read the stupid thing to know that she was a Carthaginian) with her foot on the neck of a very large, very muscular and entirely naked dude. What book can possibly live up to the promise of that cover? As it turned out, this one didn't.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found a copy of another van Wyck Mason novel. This one--"Rivers of Glory"--was a hardback book, and didn't appear to be of the Sinful Shocker variety. Hmm...maybe the guy DID write real books, too! I looked him up online and found that, in fact, he was quite the prolific author, and specialized in historical fiction (with naked musclemen?). So, I delved into "Rivers of Glory."

Aha. It really is another Sinful Shocker. The first few chapters introduce the principal characters, Andrew Warren and Minga Allen. As each character is presented, their physical attributes are made quite clear: Andrew's long, muscular legs and broad, hairy chest; Minga's supple, slim form. In the first chapter, Andrew takes advantage of the chambermaid who sees him naked on the bed. Minga is shortly raped by two Hessians along the Hudson, shortly after she has (willingly) boinked a British officer. When the pair hook up about a third of the way into the book, they don't go all the way--after all, the reader can gather that they're ultimately going to be a love match, so they can't do it--but they both spend some time contemplating the other's physical charms. Minga is en route to the home of her aunt in Jamaica (the island, not the section of Queens) because she thinks she might be pregnant courtesy of either the Brit or the Braunschweigers. Once she gets there, she learns that her aunt is an unrepentant ho. Aunt Adelina is having an affair with a big muscular octoroon and, possibly, also with her mulatto maid. The octoroon guy is also her estate manager. She kills him because he's trying to blackmail her (but only because he's in love with her and doesn't want to let her get away)--and, even as Adelina prepares to plunge an Arab knife into the man's chest, van Wyck Mason takes another chance to describe the smooth expanses of his muscular chest and shoulders.

I haven't even finished this thing yet. I can't wait for the description when Andrew and Minga finally get it on. The book was written during the second World War and was undoubtedly supposed to be a patriotic effort; its Revolutionary setting was probably supposed to instill homegrown pride in its American readers. I wonder how many men ever read this book all the way through? It's a great example of pseudo-highbrow pseudo-porn. The story is fairly trite and predictable. The true art of this novel--and "The Barbarians" as well--is getting the reader turned on without ever using a dirty word. Forget the story; the ladies back home during the War felt patriotic because the book made them dream of their men overseas.

Never mind Poe and his silly labyrinthine descriptions of unnecessary details. F. van Wyck Mason, though a native of the North, was in spirit an author of the Old South. He fills your mind with thoughts of heaving bosoms and rigid loins, but they're so encased in "yellow lawn, with dainty scarlet ribbons" and "scarlet shirt open to his belt" that you'll never know you're reading something naughty.