When we moved to Virginia, I was very cheery about it. “Heck yes I want to move to there!” I told my wife ecstatically. In my mind, we were leaving behind our heavy on the midnight bottle-rocket shooting and sometimes actual shooting- neighborhood of Northwest Denver, and starting anew in the intellectually elite and historically rich city of Charlottesville, which was surrounded by some sort of gentrified and civilized South that I had only envisioned while watching Gone With The Wind, minus the slavery. Maybe there would be some slight racism, but I was worldly enough, and had I not gone to a high school where white people were nearly a minority? And didn’t I have the one black friend, Alan, who I sometimes talked to at church? Surely I could sway them to see things in a new light, and throw off the shackles of their past. If I knew Charlottesville, it was a modern and intellectually forward-thinking place.
Our first house as a married couple had been situated on a quaint little park in Denver’s Sunnyside Neighborhood. This park featured a playground for the kids, broken beer bottles and discarded heroin needles for the adults, and bags upon bags of half eaten McDonald’s value meals for all of our homeless friends and their squirrels. Our realtor had told us it was an “up-and-coming” neighborhood, which means in Real Estate Agent Talk, “You probably won’t get stabbed”. Most importantly, we could afford it.
It was a lot to take in for my wife. She had freshly been relocated from some uppity apartment in San Francisco, where she was constantly basked in good weather, amazing culture, magnificent food, and gay people. Sunnyside did not have the same amenities. Our neighbors had at least eight junk cars in their back yard, and- I am not making this up- a working Coke machine in their front yard. When, one day, I had summoned enough courage to ask them about it, they told me it was there to help them save up money to take their kids to Disneyland. What was weird about this is that no one ever used it but that family. They bought a Coke machine, stocked it regularly, walked outside of their house at least twice a day, and, at a ridiculous markup, bought sodas from themselves. It really did not seem financially solvent, but there was no way I that was going to point out the flaws in their plan. The two brothers who owned the Coke machine were covered in Latino gang tattoos, and may have weighed 600 pounds, each- mostly muscle. There was also something like six kids, and maybe a half-sister or ex-wife, and some type of mom in the mix. All of this to say, we were BFFs.
In the very back of their yard, beyond the rusting heaps of cars and the above-ground pool/mosquito hatchery, there was also some sort of shanty-town kennel with what seemed to be an inordinate amount of feral pitbulls in it. You could never really tell what kind of dogs they were, or how many there were, and because it is illegal to keep pitbulls in the City and County of Denver, I think these guys wanted to keep it that way. Nonetheless, no one was asking too many questions on our side of the fence.
And that was the thing about this neighborhood. Everyone had some very vaguely bred yard dog who had two distinct jobs. The first was to bark rabidly at anyone who actually had the audacity to walk upon the surface of the earth, and the second was to tear the living crap out of the entire lawn. Sunnyside landscaping was not complete until your yard looked like a moonscape with some sort of mange-covered hyena-beast, tethered to an old tractor tire, and chewing something that looked like either an old Barbie, or a mummified human hand.
Also, from May 1st until October 31st it was just one long, drawn-out festival that may have been celebrating either a combination of Mexican and American independence, or some type of test to see how many fireworks could be set off before the police might come. The answer to that question, was all of them. All of the fireworks on earth, plus or minus firearms could be exploded, while a prison riot sponsored by Osama Bin Laden was roving through the streets. And the police would not come.
So, we were kind of eager to get out of there. And, for the first few months that we lived in Virginia, I have to admit that the luster of the new state was pretty bright. My wife’s family was glad to see us (part of the reason we chose Virginia was to be closer to her family), and Charlottesville seemed to be this shining pocket of forward-thinking, intelligent people, in a sea of kind, good-hearted but slightly not-so-progressive people. Within a short while though, the truth crept in.
We had moved into a borderline swamp of a basement apartment that we procured sight-unseen via the internet, thinking that in a few months we could move to a more permanent dwelling after we got a better “feel for the town”. At first we thought we were paying an exorbitant amount for rent because we had chosen a short-term lease with our management company in order to free us up to find a better place. But the more we looked, the more we discovered that it was just Charlottesville. It is expensive. This seemed okay in some weird way in the beginning because we were like, “Hey, it’s the crown jewel of central Virginia.” And, “Thomas Jefferson!” But soon, reality started to pop the thin walls of the bubble we had created.
Number one, Charlottesville only has two roads that go anywhere. It is a city of 30,000 plus, and home to the University of Virginia which adds at least another 30,000 to its population. And it has two roads. Everything else is just a confused mishmash of winding pieces of pavement that rarely connect. Here’s another interesting fact: it actually has more trees than the Amazon rainforest basin. At first I was worried. Does no one understand what a grid pattern looks like? Doesn’t it bother a single soul that none of these roads go anywhere? I had thought. And after driving there a few more months it hit me: no, it doesn’t. No one is bothered by driving on roads that have no purpose, or by being stuck in constant traffic on the two roads that actually go somewhere, because they aren’t going anywhere. Yes. 60,000 people just driving around and looking around at the copious glut of trees, or drunkenly stumbling in some type of extended universal frat party- across those same useless streets. Driving down the main road through the University is like when you were in high school and you somehow found out where all the cool kids were having a raging kegger, and then you tried to drive your car through it. You know that time. You were so crazy back then!
Our bubble was burst again when we moved out of that basement apartment and bought a house. We looked for months in Charlottesville, but really couldn’t get past the traffic, and oh my good Lord, the housing prices. It seemed that everywhere we looked the prices were worse than Denver, for much less, and in a really bad neighborhood. Everything we could afford was too small, and slowly losing the battle to not be swallowed by the jungle around us. As a side note, no trip to Charlottesville is complete without visiting both Monticello, and the world famous Mayan ruins. Just make sure to bring your machete, and to hire a local guide. Preferably one who won’t make you “toss him the idol” and then not “give you your whip back” afterwards. I hate snakes!
I’m serious. During the summer, it looks like God just barfed green stuff all over everything. There is some sort of ivy, poison or otherwise, covering every last inch of Charlottesville. It appears that it is choking the crap out of the trees, which actually doesn’t matter, because new trees are already growing out of their friend’s dead corpses. If a person were to fall into this rambling, green death pile, they would either be strangled to death within minutes by some sort of monstrous, evil, vine thing, or emerge from this verdant nightmare with their body completely covered in ticks.
To make matters worse, anything ten miles outside of Charlottesville was at least 30% cheaper. So our housing search started to press the edges of the envelope of what we felt we could and couldn’t do for a commute. We settled on the most amazing deal we could find: an enormous, money-pit of a historical fixer upper in one of the quaintest little towns we had ever seen anywhere- Staunton, Virginia.
At first it was great. New house- check. Closer to Amy’s family- check. Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, gift shop, and museum- check. Town so cute it makes your teeth hurt- check.
But then it happened. After a few weeks, I actually was somewhat scolded by my in-laws for asking a simple question. I wondered why they thought so many things around us had to be named after dead Confederate generals. Really, my question was posed something like this: “If Woodrow Wilson is actually from your town, why is your high school still named after Robert E. Lee?” I was then told that I was obsessed with the “War Between the States”. This is funny, because before I moved there, I was also told that Virginia was both, “for lovers”, and that it “wasn’t really the South”. Oh, dear God and Baby Jesus, I was deceived.
Virginia, as I have found out both literally and in spirit, was the Capital of the Confederacy. The fancy Hotel in our town is mysteriously called the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center. For what purpose they named it that, I have no earthly inclination. The really nice bourgeois boarding school down the street from us is named Stuart Hall, after the wife of General J.E.B. Stuart. The high school in the neighboring town is named after Turner Ashby, another Confederate general. Mechanicsville, outside of Richmond has Lee-Davis High, home of the “Confederates”. Someone in Richmond just bought an acre right by the highway so that they could fly a fifty-foot Confederate flag, which they claim they are doing to “honor their ancestors”. In fact, just about anywhere you go, there are Confederate flags on bumper stickers or flying from houses. The maps are peppered with streets named after Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson- or their wives, horses, and possibly even their pet hamsters. The city of Alexandria, the original Washington DC, STILL has a law on their books that requires EVERY North and South running street to be named after a “Confederate War Hero”. Good thing it’s a small town.
The part that I don’t get is, even if you lightly sweep the whole part of American history that concerns these guys committing treason against the United States of America, and gently turn the other way as if to lightly not notice that they actually treated human beings like property, and maybe they kind of fought for an economic system that was loosely based on the free labor of the 10.7 million out of the 12.5 million slaves that made it through the boat ride that they and their parents had arranged- even if you choose to ignore that- YOUR TEAM STILL LOST. The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American History with 646,392 casualties, and you cannot for one minute just pause, and say, “Hey, maybe we don’t need a twentieth school named after Robert E. Lee”? (There are officially 19 public schools named after General Robert E. Lee throughout the South. Public Schools, you know, that tax money pays for.)
Now, bring this fact up to most native Virginians and they are sure to point out that you are wrong because itt was about “states’ rights” and not slavery. Really? Just to clarify: what rights were the Southern States being deprived of? Oh, the one where they OWNED PEOPLE? Just checking.
I’m sorry, but within a few months of living outside of Charlottesville, every single stereotype that I had formed about the South and Southerners was not only confirmed, but it was amplified. How, you ask? Let me expound. Yes, there are actually people in my zip code distilling something called “mule kick” as I type this. Yes, the Walmart in our town has a wedding supply section. And yes, you can walk to the dress shop a block away from my house, and purchase for your daughter a beautiful, hand-made, woodland camouflage... prom dress.
At work, in the Surgical Trauma Burn Intensive Care Unit of the University of Virginia Health System, I started to automatically check the box marked “missing teeth” while assessing my patients, before I even looked at them. I admit it was very a bad habit, but almost every time I was right. Not just a tooth here or there missing, or you know- wisdom teeth pulled out, but all of them.
Along with the steady stream of dental nightmares that kept coming into our department, there seemed to be an endless supply of hunting accidents, tractor roll-overs, meth lab explosions, people being kicked by- and/or thrown from horses, people welding with or around gunpowder, and mentally handicapped people who caught themselves on fire while burning their family’s trash. I wish I was making this one up. If any of you are very impressionable and young, please take a moment to heed these three pieces of advice I will offer up freely right now:
1. Don’t burn trash.
2. Don’t send your mentally handicapped cousin out to burn the trash either.
3. Don’t burn trash.
What I can’t understand, is this propensity that the people of the South have to repudiate the stereotypes that Northerners have of them- by wallowing in them. It would be like New Yorkers becoming vindictively blunt and haughty because the rest of the world believed them to be that way. Well, maybe that’s not the best example. It would be like if French people... well, nevermind. Needless to say, most psychologists would heartily agree that the best way to challenge a negative behavior is not to reinforce it. If people think you are coarse and uneducated and this bothers you, you don’t fight fire by throwing gas on it. Side note: stop throwing gas on fires, people who keep being admitted to my hospital.
Whatever it is you feel we are criticizing you about. If it’s illiteracy and lack of education, your counter-move should not be to become a reject cast member from Hee-Haw. If the stereotype is bad dental hygiene, the answer is not to just keep losing teeth. I can tell you, even as a mediocre medical professional, that teeth are still useful well into your thirties, and even beyond that. Yes, there are those stereotypes of you being racist, misogynistic, cousin-loving moonshiners. If you don’t want them, the way out is to stop those behaviors, not to wallow in them. I’m talking to you, Larry the Cable Guy and every guy that looks exactly like you down at Lowe’s. It clouds our view of how wonderful you really can be.
My mother-in-law is quite possibly the sweetest person I have ever met. I cannot, under any circumstance, hold any type of ire for this place I now live in, when she is near. I just can’t. Yeah, all of her food tastes the same. And I don’t think I will ever gain an appreciation for sweet tea. But there is something to be said for her quiet, easygoing spirit. When I really think about it, the problem isn’t the South. It’s me. I’m all for progress, but who cares if Charlottesville doesn’t want to fix their roads? It’s how they like it. Why am I so upset by the way people like things around here? I am starting to realize that there is good in all people. It is so easy for me to point out what is is wrong with others but so hard for me to just see what is wrong with myself. I accept you, the South. I get that you are tired of people from “up North” making you feel backward, when most of it is just misunderstanding. Going fast isn’t always the most productive way to solve a problem. Money isn’t everything, and not taking care of your family for the sake of progress- really isn’t progress. It is a good idea to know where your food came from, and how hard someone had to work to get it there. I get it now. There is so much to be proud of in the South, and I think you should be proud.
Just one last thing: let’s try find a new flag to represent your Southern Pride, preferably one that the Ku Klux Klan isn’t also using. And maybe, while you’re at it, try and stay away from swastikas.