Thursday, August 07, 2014

A Sign of the Times

One afternoon in the mid-1970s, I was walking about 20 yards behind a guy heading east on the 800 block of West Grace Street. I think it was in the summer. Then, like it was his, he casually picked up the Organic Food Store’s hand-painted sandwich board style sign from the sidewalk in front of the store.

Without looking around for any witnesses to his act of dishonesty, the sign thief kept going at the same pace. To close the distance between us, I walked faster down the red brick sidewalk.

By the time we had passed the Biograph Theatre, where I worked, I had sized him up and decided what I was going to 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 both in the neighborhood.

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. My tone was resolute, my voice clear: “Hey, I saw you steal the sign. Don’t turn around … just put it down and walk away.”

The thief’s body language announced that he had heard me, but he didn’t turn around. Instead he walked faster. Moving closer to him, I said with more force: “Put the sign down. The cops 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. 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.

Then I carried the recovered property back to the store. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said to the thief nearly 40 years ago, verbatim, but that was a faithful recounting of the events and the spirit of what I said.

What I had done came in part from a young man’s sense of righteous indignation. That, together with the spirit of camaraderie that existed among some of the neighborhood’s merchants in that time. There were several of us, then in our mid-to-late-20s, who were running businesses on that bohemian strip — bars, retail shops, etc. We were friends and we watched out for one another.

My tough guy performance had lasted less than a minute. Now I’m amazed that I used to do such things. The character I invented was drawn somewhat from Humphrey Bogart, with as much Robert Mitchum as I could muster. Hey, since he bought the act, the thief probably felt lucky to have gotten away. Who knows? Maybe he’s still telling this same story, too, but from another angle.

This much I know — that quirky pop scene on Grace Street in those days was a goldmine of offbeat stories. Chelf’s Drug Store was at the corner of Grace and Shafer. With its antique soda fountain and a few booths, it had been a hangout for magazine-reading, alienated art students for decades. It seemed frozen in time.

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. Strangely, that location has remained boarded up for decades, while the new Village still goes on across Harrison Street. In the '70s the same neighborhood was also home to cartoon-like 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. 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 the strip 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 early-‘80s, I can also remember a day when an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot was scaring old ladies coming and going from the then-new Dominion Place apartment building on the 1000 block of Grace. We were about the same age. I said something to him like, "Cut it out and move on."

The surly panhandler laughed like a villain in a slasher movie and threatened to, “Bite a plug out” of me. Wisely, I didn’t press my case any further. Instead, I moved on.

Walking eastward away from that unnerving confrontation, passing the 7-Eleven store that's still there, it was more obvious than ever that the times had indeed changed in the neighborhood. By then Chelf's was history. The same space had become home to a greasy spoon restaurant. 

-- 30 --

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Last Call for 'Where the Frisbees Landed' GRFGA T-shirts

On Thursday, Aug. 14th, the window will close on placing orders for the second and final printing of the most recent model of Greater Richmond Frisbee-Golf Association T-shirts. By my count, beginning with the first one in 1984, this model is the eighth different GRFGA T-shirt I've designed. Although I can't promise there won't be a ninth, I'm still expecting this one will be the last of the series. So this is the time to get an extra one to pack away and save. One day you'll be glad you did.

Regardless of the garment’s fabric color, the art (as shown above) on all of the shirts will be silk screen printed in just two ink colors -- black and white. Thus, the gray halftone in the illustration represents the fabric color.
  • Short-sleeve T-shirts are $17.
  • Long-sleeve T-shirts are $19. 
For double-X T-shirts add a dollar. 

The 100 percent heavy duty cotton T-shirts will be available in three fabric colors:

Antique Sapphire (a bright greenish-blue)

Cardinal Red (a cool red)

Military Green (olive drab) as shown in photo below.

  • Crew neck sweatshirts are $26, hooded sweats are $27. Please note: the sweatshirts are available in athletic gray only
For double-X sweats add two bucks. 

No, you don't need to be a member of the GRFGA to place an order. The T-shirts should be ready by the end of the month. Message me on Facebook or send an email ( for more details and to discuss payment and pick-up/delivery. If you aren't in Richmond, I'll be happy to mail them to you, COD, as I'm not interested in trying to make money on the shipping.  


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Coldest Warrior

Note: This is piece a I wrote for in 1999 (with some touch-ups to update it). I did the illustration back then, too. 


August is usually a slow month for news, so we are spoon-fed anniversaries to contemplate: Hiroshima’s 69th, Woodstock’s 45th and 40 years ago Pres. Richard M. Nixon took the fall -- he resigned.

The entire culture shifted gears the day Nixon threw in the towel. The brilliant strategist, the awkward sleuth, the proud father, and the coldest of warriors had left the building.

August 9, 1974 was a day to hoist one for his enemies, many of whom must have enjoyed his twisting in the wind of Watergate’s storm. It was the saddest of days for his staunch supporters, whose numbers were still legion. Either way, Richard Nixon’s departure from DeeCee left a peculiar void that no personality has since filled in anything close to the same way.

For the first time since his earliest commie-baiting days, in the late-‘40s, Dick Nixon had no clout; he hardly mattered. Upon Nixon's departure, concern for social causes went out of style for a lot of young Americans. It was time to party.

Soon what remained of the causes and accouterments of the ‘60s was packed into cardboard boxes to be tossed out, or stored in basements. Watergate revelations killed off the Nixon administration’s chance of instituting national health insurance. On top of that, many people have forgotten that he was also rather liberal on environmental matters, at least compared to the science-doubting Republicans who have followed. Although he was a hawk, Nixon was moderate on some of the social issues.

Nixon's opening to China and efforts toward d├ętente with the Soviets are often cited as evidence of his ability to maneuver deftly in the realm of foreign affairs. No doubt, that was his main focus. Still, at the bottom line, Nixon is remembered chiefly as the president who was driven from office. And for good reason.

Nixon’s nefarious strategy for securing power divided this country like nothing since the Civil War. Due to his fear of hippies and left-wing campus movements, Nixon looked at ex-Beatle John Lennon and instead of a sarcastic musician, in his view he saw a raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that imagined potential, the sneaky Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country.

Nixon deliberately drove a wedge between fathers and sons. To rally support for his prosecution of the Vietnam War, he sought to expand the division between World War II era parents and their baby boomer offspring. The families that never recovered from that time's bitterness were just more collateral damage.

However, Nixon’s true legacy is that since his paranoia-driven scandal, the best young people have no longer felt drawn into public service. Since Watergate, for 40 years -- taken as a whole -- the citizens who’ve gravitated toward politics for a career have not had the intellect, the sense of purpose, or the strength of character of their predecessors.

We can thank Tricky Dick for all that and more. So weep not for the sad, crazy Nixon of August, 1974. He did far more harm to America than whatever good he intended.

Some commentators have suggested that he changed over that period, even mellowed. Don't buy it. The rest of us changed a lot more than he did. On top of that, Nixon had 20 years to come clean and clear the air. But he didn’t do it. He didn't even come close. In the two decades of his so-called “rehabilitation,” before his death in 1994, Nixon just kept on being Nixon.

So, spare me the soft-focus view of the Nixon White House years. Tricky Dick's humiliating downfall should be a lesson to us all -- he surely got what he deserved.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Accordions Helped Me Keep a Promise

At the A Ring Around the Diamond event yesterday, we had a little over 100 people out there. Perhaps, to some who rode by in their cars, the unusual doings looked more like a performance art piece than a political rally -- a demonstration to dramatize the opposition to the mayor's so-called "revitalization" plan. But with all the arts and show biz hams we had on hand at the Diamond, maybe it was both.

No, Mayor Dwight Jones didn't show. Neither did the cops. 

Riding over to the Diamond in Larry Rohr's orange '74 VW bus, he predicted 77 people would show up for the parade. So we topped a practiced wizard's best guess. Truth is, I had no idea how many people to expect. How could anybody?

Nonetheless, I thought all along that the number 1,000 and the notion of circling the Diamond would catch people’s attention and spark interest. OK, I actually wanted 10,000 people to show up, but I knew better than to expect it. My real plan was to march around the Diamond with whatever turnout we had. That’s what we did. One former Richmond mayor was there. An enthusiastic Rudy McCollum was working the crowd.

Wishful thinking aside, what happened at the Diamond was gratifying. Thanks to Barry Bless and Karen Weatherspoon Sokohl we had accordions leading the parade that circled the Diamond. Three television stations sent reporters with cameras. So the stunt drew the coverage we schemers had hoped would also turn out.

Some history: In 2005 and 2009 I covered the baseball stadium debate for In both instances I saw building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom as another build-it-and-they-will-come folly in the making. Thus, my opposition to baseball in the Bottom is nothing new. So much for disclosure.

Some eight months ago, when Mayor Dwight Jones' announcement revived the twice-killed idea of dropping a baseball stadium into that same neighborhood, it was disappointing. However, my own thinking about the issue has evolved over the years. Since the critical and box office success of the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave” (2013), Richmond's slave jail history leading up to the Civil War has become more interesting to a lot of people, here and elsewhere. No doubt, there are folks at City Hall who wish that movie’s release could have been delayed a year or two.

Having grown up in Richmond, I’d like to better understand the slave market business that once thrived in this city. Everybody has heard plenty about Richmond's days during the Civil War. Not so much about the way of life in the 30 years leading up to war, especially as it pertained to Shockoe Bottom. Accordingly, I’d also like to learn more about how that aspect of local history was rather effectively covered up for so long. Regarding the institution of slavery, it's time to shine a new light on how our history books were cooked in the 20th century.

A fresh look needs to be taken at how the truth was systematically processed into palatable lies -- denial. For instance, in 1961 my seventh-grade history book, which was used in all of Virginia's public schools, had this to say at the end of Chapter 29:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 2014, to think building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom will really facilitate the scholarly investigation of that neighborhood’s history and archeology is just more denial. The same sort of denial that fueled Massive Resistance in the 1950s and ‘60s. The same desire to bury history that was behind the writing of that damn book of pickled history. 

So please do put me on the growing list of those who believe a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, sans ballpark, will draw tourists from all over the world. Still, I don’t quarrel with those who oppose baseball in the Bottom for other reasons. Richmond residents who oppose building a new stadium anywhere, saying that with schoolhouse roofs caving in taxpayers ought not to spend another nickel on spectator sports, have a good point. Those who assert that a lot of Flying Squirrels fans aren't likely to go to the Bottom for games, probably know more about local baseball fans than the mayor does.

My personal reason for having taken up the baseball stadium location cause stems, in part, from being asked to write a story about a benefit show in December for STYLE Weekly. Click here to read my review of the “Billy Ray Hatley Tribute Concert at the National.” After spending the afternoon backstage, watching the musicians and stage hands put the complicated show together, and then being there for the show to feel the vibe from the connection between those on stage and in the audience, I was knocked out.

All that, while the weather outside was wretched and they had no idea who would show up. The common desire to celebrate Hatley’s contributions as a musician/songwriter and to help out his family was uplifting. Filled with admiration for the effort it took to put that show together, I decided then to act upon something that had been bothering me. I had been resisting the notion that I needed to step out of the fog of geezerhood to do something, propaganda-wise, to combat the LovingRVA campaign, and ultimately stop Shockoe Stadium from being built.

It was wintertime and the job seemed too big for a guy out of the loop. But being so close to that Hatley show suddenly gave me courage that I could focus the scattered pockets of opposition to Shockoe Stadium. Thus, I soon put my shoulder to a push to let Richmond’s voters weigh in, by way of an advisory  referendum.

After so many years of watching the parade go by and making my wisecracks as a commentator, I decided to cross the line and become an activist for a cause. It became my New Year's Resolution. 

On August 1 the deadline to use signed petitions to get a referendum on the ballot passed. Unfortunately, I don't know how many signatures the Citizens Referendum Group gathered on its petitions for two ballot issues. The group fell apart; it’s too bad its laudable effort was sabotaged by some complicated agendas.

While five members of City Council can still combine to put a referendum on the ballot, it looks quite unlikely. Still, talking about a referendum was useful to the debate. Seeing the fear it inspired among the boosters for the mayor’s plan was revealing. 

Back to Sunday’s colorful demonstration -- there was no sense of failure hanging in the air. Via local news broadcasts, explanations of our impromptu group’s presence at the ballpark have become part of the record of the stadium story. There are lots of nice photos of smiling demonstrators on Facebook. It seems most of them enjoyed the experience. At the moment, some in the group seem poised to do more. Good. 

Now I believe I have followed through on that promise to myself, a resolution that was inspired by live music. My thanks go out to all who helped promote the event, and especially to the faithful who showed up. The point of this piece is not to say I’m giving up. Far from it, but I simply can’t go on neglecting other projects, to stay on top of this worthwhile cause. The stark reality of my need to make some money is bearing down on me.

To finish up, I hope some of those civic-minded individuals who marched around the ballpark, following the accordions playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” will hear the call to do what they can to keep the parade moving. The cause needs more leaders with new ideas. Focusing the scattered opposition is still smart. And, of course, please keep me in the loop.

Note: Here’s the link to the report on that ran on WRIC Channel 8 on Sunday evening.

-- Aug. 3, 2014: Top photo from WRIC Channel 8. Bottom photo by Mark Brown.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Cantor's Parting Shot

Soon to be a former Congressman, Eric Cantor wrote a piece for the Richmond Times-Dispatch explaining his decision to quit serving as the elected representative of Virginia’s 7th District. It was published on Aug. 2.

Cantor opened his OpEd piece in this way: 
It has been the highest honor of my professional life to serve the people of Virginia’s 7th District in Congress. That is why it is with tremendous gratitude and a heavy heart that I have decided to resign from Congress, effective Aug. 18.
Cantor went on in this cloying fashion: 
During this time of transition for me and my family, it is my foremost desire to ensure that representation is maintained for the people of the 7th District. For this reason, I have asked Governor McAuliffe to hold a special election on Election Day, at no additional cost to taxpayers, so my successor can be sworn in immediately in November. It is vitally important that the constituents have a clear and strong voice during the consequential lame-duck session of Congress.
Then Cantor continued with several paragraphs of boilerplate Republican talking points. But, his heavy heart notwithstanding, at no time did the man who was first elected to serve in the House of Representatives in 2000 explain why he resigned. After all, if he truly is so concerned that the voters in his district have representation he could have just finished the job he was elected to do without issuing instructions to Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Apparently, after being a boss, to stay on the job for four months as a lame duck didn't suit Cantor much. Instead, he appears to have taken a page from Sarah Palin’s book and walked away from his job at his own convenience, in order to get a head start on a new career of chasing money. How surprised will anyone be should that career include lobbying Congress from a K Street office?

So the clock starts ticking on the one year the law requires between Cantor's leaving Congress and directly lobbying his former colleagues. Apparently he can become a paid adviser to lobbyists and he’s allowed to call on federal agencies for clients as soon as he pleases. Maybe he'll wait until after Labor Day to assume that role.       

While I understand that some conservative ideologues may have been happy with Cantor’s voting record, over the years, but I doubt all that many of his constituents will really miss Cantor’s transparently self-serving ways, his weasel words or his trademark sneer.

So to be fair, Eric Cantor, 51, is leaving elected office exhibiting the same style he has used in his public life all along. Whether McAuliffe will choose to follow Cantor's parting shot strategy to call a special election remains to be seen.

Update (Aug. 6): Jeff Schapiro tells it like it is.