Saturday, May 30, 2009

Who Is Renting These Places?

I just read on the Petersburg People's News site that developer Thomas Wilkinson is proposing to develop the industrial property at the corner of Market and Hinton into up to 120 conventional one and two bedroom apartments, with projected rents of $700-$1100. And I had to wonder, is this a case of the if you build it they will come mentality? Permit me a little skepticism. $1100 a month? For a two-bedroom apartment? In Petersburg? Blink. I've rented a house in Virginia Beach for less, and that didn't even include a bonus daily encounter in the parking lot with, alternately, my choice of itinerant panhandler or fake-gun-wielding man in a dress.

This set me to doing a little impromptu research. This is certainly not the first of such projects proposed, nor will it be even close to first completed. You can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting the speculator du jour in the mouth while he's spouting details of the latest development scheme. Mayton Transfer boasts 100 apartments, renting for between $800 and $1600 a month. Then there are South Street Lofts and High Street Lofts and Dunlop Street Lofts, oh my! It appears the going rate for all these several hundred luxury lofts within the confines of one of the poorest cities in Virginia is in the range of $900-1400. SOMEBODY with a large amount of disposable income is renting these places. According to South Street's website, there are only two vacant apartments in their complex. So I dug around on some of these developments' sites to try to find the pool from which they draw their renters (I obviously am missing the boat on this), and what struck me was this: Boy do these places sound like they're in another town! To a one, the "neighborhood" sections of the websites include only the best areas of town (not a single one has pictures of their actual surroundings, opting instead for the more aesthetically appealing Court House, Pamplin Park, Folly Castle (the aerial view), the proposed Visitor's Center, etc. I'm all for putting a positive face on the city, but when Pamplin Park is in the same neighborhood as the Dunlop Street Lofts, I'll strike it rich running the bookstore in Petersburg!

In fairness to the loft developers, these apartments, as restored, are undeniably works of art. They boast hardwood floors, high ceilings, exposed brickwork, open floor plans. The list of amenities is impressive, and some utilities are included at some sites. And, all of the sites mentioned within the context of this blog actually have gated parking lots. So an encounter such as the one I alluded to in my first paragraph is unlikely. But I find myself wondering, how much protection is a fence when the predominant threat is a stray bullet from the surrounding blighted 'hood? And why are service members from out of state signing up for these places, sometimes sight unseen, without a little more truth in advertising from the complexes? Is it because the developers understand that, in real estate, location is everything? And if they showed their diamonds in the rough as they really are, potential renters might not be able to see the pretty new trees for the surrounding tangled forest? Is it also just possible that some of the money and energy being spent to wall these high end, palatial developments off from their surroundings might better be used pursuing improvement of the city at large?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Liberty" U.

Heavy-handed tactics. Censorship. Suppression of dissension. Refusal to recognize legitimate political organizations whose ideals are different from their own. Sound like something snatched out of news headlines about the oppressive government of a distant land? Maybe the junta in Myanmar, one of the last Communist bastions of China, perhaps? Try the administration of the ironically named Liberty University, right here in Lynchburg, VA.

This week, the College Democrats club at Liberty U was informed via email that their recognition as a university organization was no more. They were, for all intents and purposes, told "their kind" wasn't welcome on campus. Reasons cited included the national Democratic party's support of abortion, socialism and the "LGBT agenda," referring to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. The email went on to say that, even though the campus club "may not support the more radical planks of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party is still the parent organization of the club on campus."

I fully understand that Liberty University is a private school, funded by private money and, as such, has every right to control what organizations it allows to operate under its purview. I can see why the right-wing religious contingent might not sanction a Young Satanists chapter, for example. But, seriously? One of this country's two major political parties? You can't find room at the table of brotherly love for a healthy debate with the party that represented almost 60% of your countrymen's views last fall? Hmm. This kind of insular, head-in-the-sand approach is exactly what a university education is supposed to prevent. Hopefully, by the time a young person has attended four years of college, he or she at least understands and respects opposing viewpoints and is, subsequently, more grounded in what he or she believes. The fact that this university is trying to prevent student exposure to viewpoints that don't coincide with its neo-conservative social agenda is problematic on many levels. It smacks of Big Brother protectionism at best, brainwashing at worst.

Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr, apparently channeling his father who once famously said, "Textbooks are Soviet propaganda," among hundreds of other gems, cited "lots of complaints from parents and donors" about the club in a statement to the Associated Press. He went on to say that he hopes these "great Christian kids" find a pro-life and pro-family Democratic organization "so they can become endorsed." In other words, he hopes that they come to their senses and form a campus organization that is an elephant in a donkey suit. Preferably one whose idea of free speech happens to coincide with the neo-conservative ideal of, "He who is not for me, is against me." It is a mindset that is at once McCarthyist, xenophobic and virulent in its protection of its socially conservative morays. It seems that campus officials have decided to suppress one viewpoint out of fear that the young, impressionable students might not be able to choose the "right" path, when actually given a choice. I have to ask, what are you so afraid of? Liberty means "the right to act, believe or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing." At Liberty U., there's an asterisk beside the word. The fine print reads, "as long as that coincides with what we want you to believe and do."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Khaki Sausage

This week, I finally got my orders to report for Navy Reserve duty this upcoming weekend. Last night was my moment of reckoning: the first attempt to pull on the old military uniform in over a year. The result was not pretty. Picture a lumpy, stubby sausage crammed into a khaki case, with hair. A fair amount of sucking in and reconfiguring was required for buttoning and zipping the pants. Sweat stood out on my brow as I cinched the waistline and tried to breathe with everything fastened. This clearly would not do. I could not report for the beginning of a new phase of my career with my uniform molded around my ass like one of those spray-on pick-up bedliners. The despair drove me to change into workout gear and go for the second run of the day. As I ran, I tried to conjure a scenario in which I could somehow buy a pair of pants from the Norfolk Navy Exchange (the closest Navy uniform facility) AND get them hemmed and pressed before Saturday morning. There were two possibilities: contact a friend with whom I've spoken maybe once in the past six months and impose on her good nature, then take the sewing kit down there and hem them myself by the midnight candle Friday night. OR, I could drive down this morning before opening time for my store, somehow finagle my way into the Exchange without a military ID to buy a pair, drive back and take the pants directly over to the military tailors on Rt 36 and slip them a twenty to put my crap ahead of the soldiers already in line for expedited service. Neither of these scenarios seemed particularly practical.

I'll be the first to admit that I have only myself to blame. Having been raised in the Deep (fried) South, I know I'm genetically predisposed to the tiniest amounts of sugar and fried food addiction. Knowing this, I could have exercised a little self-control, maybe pushed back from the feeding trough OCCASIONALLY. I could have started the workout program sooner. I could have tried the %*#& pants on before three days prior to D-day. None of this was a consideration before Wednesday night. So now I've had to get draconian. I've put myself on a Biggest Loser-esque regimen of two-a-day workouts and a scant 1,000 calories a day. I just had salad for lunch with half a can of tuna spread on it, the tease of a tablespoon of light salad dressing drizzled over it. For breakfast, it was an egg, nothing added, and a banana. This makes THE PROGRAM weight loss scheme from last year look like a hedonistic splurge in Vegas in comparison. It seems to be working--already the pants feel less medieval torture device-ish. But, oh, the humanity! I'm left staring forlornly at the carrot sticks I picked out for a mid-afternoon snack and wondering where my metabolism went.

The Eleventh Commandment?

Thou shalt not circulate virulent chain emails filled with lies and half-truths in the name of furthering your political agenda.

My mother and I went round and round about this during the lead-up to the election. I was, and still am, a staunch Obama supporter; she and many of her correspondents believe he lies somewhere between the Soviet Union and the anti-Christ on the continuum of evil popularized by Dick Cheney, et al. The last couple of months before November's election, the volume and level of sheer nastiness spewed across cyberspace reached a fevered pitch. I couldn't open my email inbox without having my senses assailed by the latest claim associating Obama with terrorism, flag burning and the advocacy of baby killing and doing away with Sunday newspaper coupons. At first, I tried to point out the inconsistencies within these missives, tried to get my mother (who is a smart woman) to apply reason or, at least, Google. I sent her links to or, better yet, to sites where the sources refuted the doctored versions of their ideology kidnapped by the religious right for the alleged greater good. But she took that as the devil quoting scripture for his purposes, and we finally reached an uneasy truce only when the propaganda machine that produces these things wound down, dispirited, after the election.

But now it's back, and revved up. The doomsday predictions from before the election must now be substantiated through a renewed email smear campaign. The latest product can be found in my yahoo inbox, or here: The gist of this one is that it compares our current sociopolitical landscape with 1930's Germany and, you guessed it, President Obama with Hitler. That's right, all the leading eggheads in the country believe we're headed for Naziism. If you don't believe me, read your Revelations. This one is spreading faster than a juicy rumor via the 21st century version of the church phone tree: the email distribution list. The M.O. for these things is always the same: attach some official sounding credentials--maybe a picture--and a shaky attribution. Run spell check and, quick, get it in the hands of those legions of the neoconservative movement who are interested in it only insofar as it confirms their worldview. The alleged author's refutation can be found here:

I can't help but wonder in all this: what would Jesus do? Why is it that the religious right in this country, seemingly so anxious to create a theocracy with Christianity at its center, regularly disregards the very core tenets of Christianity? Or was that little admonition not to lie only applicable when it's politically expedient?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Morning After The Anniversary

This morning, I'm dealing with the aftermath of our Giant Hootenanny Paper Anniversary Customer Appreciation Poulon Weedeater One Year Anniversary Party. It was more wonderful than I could have hoped. It was a gathering of the best possible combination of smart, literate, funny friends and well wishers. It left me with a certain level of disarray in the store and a bout of the kind of torpor that comes from working at a frenzied pace to pull a big event together and then having it come and go.

It strikes me that this 24 hour period is fairly typical of the reason a move must be imminent. Last night, the store was full of people and music, life and activity. People were eating and talking, grooving to the music, running around with their little scavenger hunt sheets in hand, gloating over door prizes. This morning, the inevitable letdown of, welcome back baby, to the po' side of town. No money coming in. Bills in the mail. Tattoo parlor bursting at the seams, book store not so much. The combination of these factors, along with the introspective affliction that strikes me around any anniversary, have thrown me into a strange mood. Be forewarned. This will be some indication: I decided almost subconsciously I'm in a vintage country state of mind and have been listening to George Strait on auto play for over three hours.

This morning, unlike most second Saturdays in which the town sleeps off its collective Friday For the Arts hangover, I had several people in and out. A lady from the library dropped off a book that had been delivered to them by mistake. Another lady came by and picked the book up (she had paid for it in anticipation of the dropoff). A woman who works at one of the local antiques places stopped by to kill time because their business was also dreadfully slow. The merchant organization secretary dropped in to confirm some information. And a woman came in with her young daughter while the husband kept an eagle eye peeled on the tattoo parlor door for any sign of opening. There's kind of a rock concert flavor to the parking lot sometimes. People start showing up an hour or so before the tattoo place opens, and then they tailgate and jockey around for position until the staff throws open the gates and starts handing out numbers. Sometimes the would-be ink-ees go in search of food or a bathroom, while the designated anchor man holds down their place. This particular family showed up at 11:55 for a 1 p.m. opening, the better to be first in line. I watched them run through the standard routine of: check the door (locked), look at their watches, gaze bewilderedly up at the sun, check the hours sign, try the door again (still locked), check the second entrance (also, if you can believe it, locked) and finally resign themselves to the fact that the place was, indeed, still closed. They sat in the car for a few minutes, got out and smoked, walked down the alley and back and finally, the woman brought the kid (who had been staring in this direction since they arrived) in my store.

The kid reminded me of myself at 10 years old--beside herself with excitement at being in a bookstore, exclaiming over title after title, begging her mother to let her get a book. The answer? "You should have brought one from home if you wanted something to read." This woman had dragged her kid out on a Saturday morning to hang out with her for a couple of hours at Petersburg Ink. She was about to drop a couple hundred bucks for a new dragon in a bed of roses tattoo (this is a guess based on historical precedent) but couldn't find $2.50 in the budget for a used kids' book. It's not like the kid was begging for the latest shoot-em-up video game. At any rate, the man called the woman on her cell phone from across the parking lot to tell her that the doors were open, and that was the end of the kid's bookstore excursion.

The same little family JUST left the tattoo parlor and piled back in their car, the kid still staring forlornly in my direction. They were there for over 3 1/2 hours. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to just give the kid a book. It wouldn't have changed anything substantial, but it might have made us both feel better. In that same span of time, I've made exactly $38 in sales and seen over forty people enter the tattoo parlor. In keeping with my nostalgic music theme: We gotta get out of this place.