Monday, April 15, 2013

A Better Block


  GNARFOLK, 2013

(Click on images to see larger.)

If your city’s lucky you have people who are always testing the limits. Some of Norfolk’s limit testers have recently taken on the task of creating an arts district out of a run down stretch of one of downtown’s main streets. It’s a few nondescript blocks that’s home to the city’s bus station, a gay bar (recently closed), a multi-story gun shop and a handful of other businesses that typically gravitate to the commercial fringe where the rent’s cheap.

In other words, it’s drive-by territory. Once upon a time you might have shopped there. Now you just drive through it on the way to somewhere else. When there was a place across from the bus station where you could sell your blood the street life was pretty lively, if a little gamey. Now you don’t see many pedestrians. The gun shop customers park behind sturdy gates.

For just under twenty-four hours this past weekend, though, this little stretch of forgotten commerce became a hub of pop-up activity. A small cadre of out of town consultants worked with a hundred or so local volunteers to turn empty storefronts into, among other things: a beer hall, music venue, video arcade, bakery, jewelry and craft shop, art gallery, outdoor music venue, improv comedy theater, glass blowing studio, children’s play area and indoor skateboard park. Wooden pallets were painted bright colors and became platforms for outdoor dining. Impromptu art showed up on walls and the street. A food truck and the obligatory cupcake vendor fed hungry visitors.


Seen on the Street, 2013

Let me be clear. This wasn’t your typical block party or street festival. There was beer. But there were no funnel cakes, Belgian waffles, face painting or cartoonists drawing cheesy caricatures. Better Block had a decidedly young and alternative vibe. As the sign in one window said, “Art Show May Require Parental Discretion.”

A local TV station dismissed the event by saying that “dozens” had come out to see it. The newspaper claimed “hundreds.” I’m confident there were thousands. And even more impressive, it drew art school hipsters, skaters and musicians, as well as main street lawyers and corporate types, families with young children and empty nesters and singles well into their 70s and 80s.

What this crowd found was a lively array of music, art and fun. What they learned was how a little creativity and youthful enthusiasm can make even a dreary stretch of downtown into a destination. 


Wes & BC’s Tower, 2013

In the sixties, we might have called Better Block a "happening." I heard one person refer to the bamboo star shown above as “Norfolk’s version of Burning Man.” That might be putting a little too much of a spin on it. But there’s no doubt that Better Block drew a crowd more interested in having its artistic limits stretched than in tasting funnel cakes. It was a place where young and old, black and white, male and female (and a few in between), insider and outré, mixed comfortably and cordially, united by creative curiosity and the prospect of what could be.

Like Burning Man, Norfolk’s Better Block was a temporary affair. It closed Saturday afternoon, a successful demonstration, indeed, of what could be. By Sunday, the street and the storefronts were once again empty and quiet, Better Block but a memory.


The Family That Swings Together, 2013

Thursday, April 11, 2013

After 57 Years, a New Start.

  Jody Dudley, 2013

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Believe me, I never thought I’d be writing a blog post about a service station. But here it is.

I refrain from saying this is about a “gas station” or a "filling station" because although both of those terms would have applied at one time, the fuel tanks were removed some years ago.

The Cavalier Garage was built in the late 1920s as a service to the customers of the Cavalier Hotel, a Virginia Beach grand dame of a hotel on whose campus the building sits. At one time, the garage building housed not only a gas station and mechanical shop on the first floor, but also rooms on a second floor for the maids and chauffeurs of hotel guests. Maids? Chauffeurs? Yes, in its day, visiting the Cavalier Hotel was more like visiting an English country house than today's concept of a beachfront motel. One doesn't get the impression it was the kind of place where guests moseyed  back up the hill to their rooms with sand between their toes.

In 1956, a young mechanic by the name of Johnny Dudley took over the operation of the Garage. By then, people were driving their own cars and the Garage was building a healthy trade catering to the well-to-do residential neighborhoods that were growing around the hotel. In time, Johnny’s son Jody took over the business.

The Cavalier Garage was built on customer service. If you dropped off your car for service or repair, they’d have someone drive you home and then go back and pick you up when your car was ready. Such attentive service made for many loyal customers.

The Cavalier Hotel and all of its property, including the Garage, is now for sale. After fifty-seven years of service, Jody and his staff received little more than a month’s notice to vacate the Garage. He’s been fortunate to find another location in a more distant part of town. The name will go on. The phone number's unchanged. The new place is big enough that Jody will be able to keep his entire staff.

The departure of the Cavalier Garage from its site on Holly Road won’t destroy the neighborhood. But for many it’s just another sign of the end of simpler times when grocery stores made deliveries and gas stations and other day-to-day businesses were indelible parts of neighborhoods. 

The big sign over the front door of the Cavalier Garage that says “Thank You. 1956 – 2013” says it all.

“I’d hoped we’d make it to sixty years here,” says Jody. “But I guess that’s not going to happen.”

In the Shadow of The Cavalier, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Thoughts of Night

Death is Free, 2012

The most interesting thoughts come to me sometimes during what I believe is the interval between sleep and wakefulness. I have no idea whether my concept of the timing of these ideas is any way accurate. This is just how it seems to me.
Something I’ll wake in in the middle of the night—that’s what sets these thoughts apart, that they wake me—or have a particularly vivid dream just before waking that leaves a word or a name or any idea or just a turn of words hanging so prominently in my mind that I repeat the word or name or idea several times because even in my semi-conscious state I sense that it’s something worth saving.
The challenge is that sometimes I’m not quite awake enough to actually write the thought down on the notepad beside the bed. But sometimes I do and still don’t know what I was thinking about.  One morning I found written on the notepad the name “Herkimer Muldoon.” It sounds like a name out of a William Kennedy novel. I still haven’t figured out why I thought that was worth saving.
All of this is to explain why seven days ago I awoke and quickly scribbled down the verse below. I don’t recall having had a bad dream or any other sad thoughts. The importance just seemed obvious at the time and although they were neither the answer to a question I’d been thinking about nor the solution to a problem or just grist for some other thought, I grabbed the notepad upon waking and jotted them down just as you see them.
It is only a week later that I realize that I’d written these thoughts down at the beginning of the day on which my mother would die. I don’t attach any spiritual meaning or metaphysical foresight to them. I had no reason to believe she’d die that day. They don’t comfort me or explain anything. But here they are. Maybe they’ll make sense later.

Death comes to everyone eventually.

Some humanely, some cruelly,
Some on time and some before their time.

It leaves families asking
Why, or why now?
It strikes without notice, without justice.
It comes calmly, sometimes violently.

You can think you're immune,
But you're not.
You can think you wouldn’t deserve it
But you would.

It is silent. It is noisy.
It is fair and unfair.
It happens whether you like it or not,
Whether you want it or not,
Whether you're ready for it or not.

You can think you've fooled it, but
Death comes to everyone, eventually.

In the meantime you'd better get on with life.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The End Comes Finally

 Marjorie Bonney, mid-1950s
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When she was still able to use a telephone, my mother would call me every April 1st to remind me that April Fool’s Day was her mother’s birth date, and that her mother had been nobody’s fool.

In recent years, as dementia overtook her, my mother imagined that her mother and brother, both long dead, were living on the same hall as her at the nursing home.

She would insist that I go next door and check on my grandmother or go see the administrator to make sure a room was being prepared for my uncle. I learned early on not to argue with such requests, and instead merely wandered around in the hall out of her sight for a little while until she forgot why I’d left the room.

It is only fitting, then, that after having ducked any number of humane opportunities to die and avoid further suffering and confusion, my mother waited until last night, the same day as her mother’s birth date, to die. 

Marjorie Jones, c.1921

My mother was a formidable person. She patterned herself after her mother, who was left single with three children to raise after her husband took his life during the Great Depression. My mother didn’t face the same challenges that her mother faced. She was also the youngest of the three children and forever demanded the attention and adoration that a youngest child can sometimes expect. Still, she was, to put it lightly, very strong willed, and this didn’t always make her easy to be around.

The upside of my mother’s late-in-life journey with dementia, though, was that it erased her hardest edges. She forgot her grudges and couldn’t remember any new ones. My sister once jokingly asked, “Who took away our mother and left that sweet little old lady in her place?”

In the last year or so, there wasn’t much my mother could control. The one thing she could command people to do was to arrange the curtains in her room. (I always felt sorry for her roommate, who got no say in this matter.) No matter whether you found them open or closed or blowing gently in a spring breeze, she’d have you pull them back and forth endlessly until they were “just right.”  And then she’d have you move them again.

I used to think it was the curtains. Then I realized it was that the curtains were the one thing over which she could still have dominion.

I thought it was just family, too, that she’d order around like that. But as various members of the nursing home staff stopped by her room yesterday to pay their respects, almost all had a story to tell about how she gotten them all hot and bothered trying to get those damned curtains “just right.”

I must confess that they were far more patient with her than I was. I’m just happy that my grandmother and uncle didn’t actually make it to this nursing home. I’m sure my mother would have had me go to their rooms to adjust their curtains, too, and I just didn’t have that much patience in me.  

Marjorie Jones, c. late 1930s

Monday, April 1, 2013

Evidence of Life

Nita, 2013

I was walking through the house the other morning and noticed a box of papers on the floor in an out of the way corner of the dining room. These papers are the evidence of my late mother-in-law’s estate, the documentation my wife needed to complete her duties as executor of her mother’s estate.
My mother-in-law passed away just a few months ago. Holidays, family birthdays and all the days in between are still raw nerves without her. On Easter morning we recited, “He is risen!” just as she would have, even though none of us shares the faith that gave her such confidence and hope as she grappled with disease. She will remain alive in our memories and through the stories passed down through her family.
Still, that box of papers looked awfully sad and lonely. It that the evidence of her life, the proof that she once was? Of course, not. But it still seems a trifling bit of paper for someone who left so many other legacies.
It reminded me, too, that there’s a small file box containing the papers of my father, who died in 1995. The box of Dad’s papers is similarly off by itself in a closet, surrounded by books, pictures and a shoe shine box, the latter a not insignificant adjacency since it was Dad’s shoe shine box and he was nothing if not fastidious about keeping his dress shoes shined. He was just coming into his own when the Great Depression hit. He knew the value of a good pair of shoes and knew that caring for his shoes was not just a sartorial gesture, but a practical and responsible way of getting the full value from his investment in them.

Fred, 2013

My mother, meanwhile, continues to teeter at the doorstep of death. She has a physical presence, albeit one of limited consciousness, but also her own growing collection of papers, some of which will end up in their own storage box some day.
For now, though, she’s thoroughly modern. The day-to-day documentation of her life fills a large drawer in a chest. Her most important papers, though, are in a folder on the desktop of my computer. There’s even a backup copy in a computer “cloud” somewhere. I’ve no doubt she’d be doubly proud that the evidence of her life rests in such a contemporary setting.

Marjorie, 2013