Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Sign of the Times

One summer afternoon in what I’d guess was 1975, 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 I walked faster we continued heading east on the red brick sidewalk. By the time we had passed the Biograph Theatre, I had sized him up and decided what I would do. 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. In those days there were plenty of them in that neighborhood, 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. He didn’t turn around. Instead he walked faster, 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. Walk away while you still can.”

Without further ado the wooden sign clattered onto the sidewalk. The sign thief kept going without looking back. It had worked!

As I gathered my neighbor’s property I watched the fleeing hippie 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 then worked. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said to the thief over three decades ago, verbatim, but that was a faithful recounting of the events.

What I had done came in great part from 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. -- all nestled up to burgeoning Virginia Commonwealth University. We were friends and we watched out for one another.

My tough guy performance had lasted about 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, the Young Turk’s sense of cocksure confidence displayed in this yarn gradually began to evaporate from my psyche; the process picked up speed upon the death of my grandmother in 1982. Now I’ve seen more of life, so I understand that family deaths frequently mark big changes in a person, in all sorts of ways.

This much I know -- that quirky pop scene on West Grace Street has a goldmine of stories that haven’t been properly told in print, yet.

There was Chelf’s Drug Store at the corner of Grace and Shafer. 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 1950s. 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.

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 blue jean culture had peaked. It was about to be replaced by the black leather of Punk Rock and polyester of the Disco scene. All-night dance clubs became popular.

So, by the late-‘70s the mood on West Grace Street had changed severely. Cocaine was becoming the preferred drug of choice with the druggie in-crowd, replacing pot. Several restaurants were serving liquor-by- the-drink, the dives catering to the young set began having rugged bouncers at the door.

Into the 1980s I remember an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot threatening to “bite a plug out” of me, because I had had the temerity to tell him to stop bothering people in front of the Biograph and move on. Times had changed, I didn’t press my case any further that day.

Instead, I moved on.

-- 30 --

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