Friday, July 28 2006
I drove into Staunton all by myself this afternoon just to walk around all by myself. What is about one's home town that makes it seem so irredeemably provincial, so provincial as to be unaware of its own provinciality? Is it just Staunton, or are all small towns like this? Perhaps it's just my deep familiarity with the town and that fact that is the only place I've been deeply familiar with that I have chosen to leave. Everyone else, had they had the sense I had, would have left. But they're all so provincial they remain!
At an unexpected car audio shop on Beverly Street in downtown, I ended up buying speakers to replace two of the four buzzy ones in my car. I didn't know what size to get and naturally picked the wrong one, which meant I had another workshop-style project when I finally got home. I also patronized the coffee shop down on the wharf and looked through the antique hardware store on Beverly Street.
I was wearing the teeshirt with the depiction of Don Byron playing his clarinet, one of the batch made by his father and given out as a party favor at Don's wife's recent birthday party. Don had dreadlocks when that photo was taken, and it might have been no big deal to wear such a shirt in Upstate New York. But in Staunton, in addition to its provinciality, I have a sense (somewhat real, somewhat imagined) of its intolerance. In Staunton, I'm sure there are still plenty of people my age who can't think of any good reason for a white man to be wearing a picture of black man on his clothes. At the hardware store on Beverly Street, the shirt was odd enough to be a conversation starter with a youngish woman working there. She asked who that was. "Don Byron, he's a modern jazz musician," I said. "Oh yeah, obviously!" she agreed, blissfully unaware of the prejudice in this retort. "He's pretty famous if you know modern jazz, which I don't," I added.
Back at my childhood home, I scraped together what tools and materials I could find to make adapter rings capable of fitting four inch speakers into holes designed for speakers of the six inch variety. I was hoping to cut luan plywood into the proper shapes using a coping saw, but the saw's blade was missing so I tried using a chisel to stamp out the shape instead. The luan had languished as scraps in the garage since 1991 when I'd built my Shaque, where I'd used it for the wall and ceiling surfaces. Now it was brittle and the plies had separated from one another. It soon proved useless. So I turned to another material leftover from the building of the Shaque, galvanized roofing scraps. These were still as good as the day they were manufactured, and there were even handy tin snips to cut them with. Without too much fuss I managed to get the new speakers into the doors of my car, even soldering the contacts with a hefty 60 watt soldering iron Hoagie happens to have.
Tonight would feature the first activity of my 20th high school reunion (Riverheads High School, class of 1986). My childhood friend Nathan had convinced me to attend, and it was the reason I had chosen this particular weekend for a summer trip to Staunton. Coincidentally, tonight would also be Staunton's monthly "art evening" (called Fourth Fridays) featuring art openings and wine tastings throughout the downtown area. I only knew about 4th Fridays because of Hoagie's strong involvement in one of the art galleries downtown. She set off for the gallery stuff before me, and I eventually met her at a wine tasting down on the wharf. Wine tastings and gallery openings attract a certain demographic, not one I'm used to seeing in Staunton, and it's heartening to see people of this sort in the center of such a formidable cultural desert.
I was soon separated from Hoagie and wandered to another wine tasting upstairs at the Pampered Palette, one of Staunton's better lunch restaurants. There I went through the whole course of wines, chatting amiably with the guy presiding over it all. He'd been a helicopter pilot in the Persian Gulf and now works as a wine distributor for a couple Virginia vinyards. Talking to him, I got the sense that there's a whole culture attached to Virginia wine, one where the rabbit hole is as deep as you want to go. Indications of its special Alice in Wonderland physics were apparent in the unexpected flavors of the wines, none of which I would have noticed had they not been pointed out to me. I really should have bought a bottle of the Riesling, which tasted like candy in the best possible way.
Hoagie and her faithful dog were at the opening in CoArt Gallery on Beverly Street, where a bluegrass band had begun to play. They had wine if you knew about it, and I knew about it because the first question Hoagie asked when I showed up was whether I wanted any. And of course I did, in as much as I was about to meet a bunch of people with whom I had nothing in common whom I had not seen in twenty years.
Meanwhile my childhood friend Nathan was driving over from Charlottesville. I met him out on the streets of Staunton, and we both returned to the gallery so he too could get his bracer.
And then the next thing you know Nathan and I were walking into the Bistro in the Wharf, where tonight's informal get-together would be.
I've seen people age and it's often not a graceful process, and people can go from attractive to eye-avertingly not-so in the space of a couple years. Imagining the sorts of diets and lifestyles indulged in by my high school cohort, I'd imagined that everyone at the reunion would be fat, bald, and toothless. But I'd neglected to consider that the people who go to reunions are a self-selected subset of a much larger group. They will tend to be the best-preserved and most-prosperous of their cohort. Looking around the bar tonight, I could see that the people at this reunion were the elite of my class, the ones who had been in my AP English class and/or whose parents had been the most affluent. (The correlation between these two characteristics tends to be high.) Many of them had changed very little over the past twenty years. Some had gained a little weight or their hair had started going grey, but they were, for the most part, well-preserved. A couple people who had been plump in high school had ballooned to ginormous proportions, but one of my old buddies who seemed to be getting fat when I'd last seen him was now tall and slender and sporting a mustache that made sense only insofar as it allowed him to fit in seamlessly at his job at a feed company. His parents are liberal intellectuals in Staunton, and it must have broken their hearts that he wound up being something of a redneck. Talking to him tonight it seemed he'd stepped back from completely joining the red [state] side.
I'd read recently (in Malcom Gladwell's Blink) that the way two people interact has an inviolate signature about it, a DNA that never changes no matter (within reason) how the people as individuals change. Going to a high school reunion and seeing people you haven't seen since forced daily intimacies twenty years ago is a good test of this idea. Would it be just like old times? Or would my classmates have changed dramatically and be able to break through to some other level of friendship?
The experience of tonight did nothing but confirm Gladwell. The faces might have been older, but the nature of the way I interacted specifically with everyone else was unchanged. When, for example, the girl who never acknowledged my existence showed up (now as woman of 38) late in the evening, she continued her inexplicable social boycott exactly where she'd left off.. She did eventually laugh at one of my jokes, but only did so when the laughing of the others turned it into a socially-obligatory applause. The guy who'd been terribly unpopular both for being fat and saying incomprehensible things had swollen to twice his original size when he appeared tonight. Later when I talked to him I felt every bit as awkward as I had 22 years ago during a lunch period we'd shared in the 10th grade. He still had the habit of saying things without explaining them or responding to follow-up questions and then standing there staring at you, waiting for you to say something affirmative even when it was obvious you couldn't find it in you to go there. He handed me a business card and I took it because that was the polite thing to do. Somehow he'd managed at some point to successfully communicate to someone that he wanted business cards printed up, so perhaps he'd made progress.
Talking to AM, the guy who had once been the most popular in our class, I found his charm undiminished. He had a disarming non-judgmental quality about him that made me want to confess. I found myself telling him about how difficult it had been for me to move to Virginia and adjust to the conservative environment of the Shenandoah Valley school system. "At home I tell people about the bible trailers and they don't believe me," I said, adding. "You can imaging what it was like being an atheist growing up here." (This was the first time I'd admitted to being an atheist to any of these people - except Nathan - since suffering badly for declaring myself an atheist in the 2nd and 3rd grades.) Later, though, Nathan told me that a few years ago AM had been sucked up into the Amway cult and called the numbers of all his old high school classmates, hoping to add them as tiers beneath him in his nascent part of that pyramid scheme. Thinking about his likeability and the many friends he must have made through the years, it sickened me to think that there's actually a company that profits by causing people like him to strip mine their accumulated wealth of relationships.
There had been a number of closeted gay guys in my high school class, and one of them was present for tonight's get-together. I didn't specifically remember this guy as being gay, but I could tell the moment I heard him speaking. So in my conversation with him about his new life in Chicago, I mentioned that one of the things I don't like about the South is its intolerance. This caused him to immediately say, "Well, you know, being a gay man..." Coming out is not something someone just does on some momentous day, particularly when it comes to classmates from your old redneck high school.
On a related subject, I was impressed by the thick Appalachian accents of my old classmates, something I never really noticed back in the day. All of them, even the wealthy ones educated at the University of Virginia, have rural Shenandoah Valley accents. Some had it thicker than others, and they surely all had it back when we were in school together. But now that I've lived in the North and/or West for many years, it's become noticeable like the familiar smell of grandma's house.
One frightening thing about seeing my old high school classmates was that this is a group with utterly alien politics with respect to mine. As I mentioned previously, after moving to rural Virginia I'd soon discovered that it was best not to discuss religion with anyone other than my immediate family. The same had also been true of politics. I grew up thinking the members of my family were pretty much the only liberals in the entire world. The first day of college had been mindblowing; who knew there were so many like-minded people? What were the chances that they'd ever find their way into one room? And since college I've mostly been surrounded by people whose views are similar to my own. I haven't had to live as a closeted liberal. But here I was, twenty years after my emancipation, surrounded by people who surely voted for Bush, watch Fox News, and believe that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are different aliases for the same guy. Tonight, mercifully, conversation never turned to politics. Instead it hewed strictly to "where are they now?" stories and reminiscences of days of yore. There was one moment, though, when the hideous face of all that is repulsive about public school in a red state broke through the bland patina of uncontroversiality. This happened when I overheard one of my old classmates mention in passing picking up her kid at a "Patriotism Day" rally. That's right, she said "Patriotism Day." Who knew? Evidently the usual flag-draped holidays aren't quite fascist enough for the good folks of the Shenandoah Valley. At that point I couldn't contain myself and piped up, "Lord knows, you can never have enough patriotism!" Nathan immediately chuckled and the girl-turned-woman stammered briefly before carrying on with her conversation. Again, this was vintage me in my vintage bomb-throwing style, and for onlookers there was nothing surprising at all except perhaps for the sheer level of outspokenness I'd developed after 20 years outside the land of unquestioning conformity.
I'd had a lot to drink, what with the beers and then the shots and various drinks people had bought me. At the end, though, I managed to coast to a stop on water alone, making it possible to drive safely home. Nathan and I were feeling so upbeat at the end we considered going to a "family picnic" tomorrow afternoon, a reunion event we'd been planning to skip.
The White Star Mills restaurant, viewed from the Staunton train station.
A few of the many spires of Staunton. The clocktower on the left is on Beverly Street across from the CoArt Gallery. My mother Hoagie was doing docent duty there a couple of months ago when a woman climbed out onto a ledge on that clocktower, threatened suicide for awhile, and then slipped and fell to her death. Hoagie heard the crunch.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next