One summer afternoon in what I’d guess was 1974, give or take a year, I was walking about 50 yards behind a guy on the 800 block of West Grace Street. Then, like it was his, he casually picked up the Organic Foodstore’s sandwich board style sign from the sidewalk in front of the store. Without turning his head to look around, the sign thief kept going at the same pace.
As we continued walking east on the red brick sidewalk, passing the Biograph Theatre I sized him up as I picked up the pace. He was a big-haired hippie, 18 to 20 years old. He could have been a student. Or, he might have been a traveling panhandler/opportunist. There were still plenty of them in that neighborhood then, asking for “spare change.”
Passing by Sally Bell’s Kitchen, in the 700 block, I was within six or seven yards of him when I spoke the lines I had written for myself in the time it took to close the ground between us. My tone was resolute, my voice clear: “I saw you steal the sign. Don’t turn around ... just put it down and walk away.”
As seen from walking behind him, the thief’s body language announced that he had heard me, but he didn’t turn around. Faster he walked, with the sign under his right arm, holding the weight with his hand.
Moving closer to him, I said with more force: “Put the sign down. The police are on the way. Don’t turn around ... walk away while you can.”
Without further ado the sign clattered onto the sidewalk. He kept going without looking back. It had worked! As I gathered my neighbor’s property I watched the thief break into a sprint, cross Grace Street and disappear going toward Monroe Park at the next corner.
With a big smile I carried the recovered sign back to the store, which was a few doors west of the Biograph, where I worked. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said to the cat three decdes ago, verbatim, but that was a faithful recounting of the events.
What I had done in this instance was out of a combination of things: chiefly a young man’s sense of righteous indignation, together with the spirit of camaraderie that existed among some of the neighborhood’s merchants in that time. There were a bunch of us then in our mid-to-late 20s, who were running businesses on that bohemian strip -- bars, retail shops, etc. -- nestled up to burgeoning Virginia Commonwealth University.
My tough guy performance had lasted less than a minute. The character was drawn somewhat from Humphrey Bogart, maybe a little Rod Serling, and as much Robert Mitchum as I could muster. Hey, he didn’t look back, so the thief must have felt lucky to get away. Who knows? Maybe he’s still telling this story, too, from another angle.
Now I'm amazed that I used to do such things. In those salad days the confidence I had in my ability to become a character -- upon demand -- that could swell up to control the playing board, well, now it seems more funny than anything else. I’m amazed anybody bought it.
Then, for some reason that same Young Turk’s sense of confidence displayed in this yarn gradually evaporated away from my psyche after my grandmother died in 1982. Now I’ve seen more, so I understand that family deaths frequently mark big changes in a person, in lots of different ways.
This much I know -- that quirky pop scene on West Grace Street has a goldmine of stories that haven’t been told in print, yet.
There was Chelf’s Drug Store at the corner of Grace and Shields. With its soda fountain and a few booths, it had been a hangout for magazine-reading, alienated art students since the late-1940s. The original Village Restaurant, a block west of Chelf’s, was a legendary beatnik watering hole, going back to the late-‘50s. Writer Tom Robbins and artist William Fletcher “Bill” Jones (1930-98) hung out there. That neighborhood was also home to characters such as the wandering Flashlight Lady and the Grace Street Midget, et al.
During the late-‘60s the hippies had come on strong to replace the beats, as the strip went psychedelic, seemingly overnight. But by the mid-70s the hippie culture had peaked, too. Cocaine was becoming the preferred drug of choice with the in-crowd, replacing pot. Punk Rock and Disco were coming in, too.
So, by the late-‘70s the mood of that area had changed severely. Several restaurants were serving liquor by the drink, the dives catering to students began having bouncers at the door.
In the early 1980s I remember an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot threatening to “bite a plug out” of me, with what teeth he had left, because I had had the temerity to tell him to move on. Times had changed again, so I didn’t press my case that day.
Instead, I moved on.