The Blog Squad

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What next? Will I start dreaming about $300,000 houses?

It is almost impossible to believe that I got gas for $2.03 a gallon just a few weeks ago. I got it at an East Coast on Midlothian Turnpike as I was filling my tank to head up to Philadelphia. That would have been March 9. When I got back to Richmond, I don’t remember precisely what the price was but needless to say, $2.03 was a distant memory.

Yesterday, my husband scoped that same East Coast as he was headed into the city, checked the price at $2.41 and made a mental note to fill up there on his way home. By the time he passed by at about 6 p.m. it was $2.47. And that’s about the cheapest it gets. BP on Robious Road is up there at about $2.57 (by the time you read this, who knows …) And if the pattern I’ve been noticing holds true, it’s higher still in the city and the West End.

Here’s the only funny part. The other night I had a dream that my friend Carolyn is driving me and my kids somewhere and pulls into this sketchy looking garage. A truck moves out of the way to reveal gas pumps and teenagers dressed in those natty little gas station attendant uniforms from the ‘50s. I am stunned to see the price on the pump -- $1.81. You know it’s gotten pretty bad when you start dreaming about the price of gas … and it’s still almost two bucks a gallon.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Jingle all the way

The daffodils have pushed their way through the warming earth. The dogwoods are blooming. Homeowners have taken down their penguin and snowflake banners and replaced them with tulip flags. Spring is here. So that’s why I choose today to pay tribute to those rarest of souls among us. Those who, through procrastination, obstinacy, mental confusion, class clownism, unbridled pollyanaism or sheer rebellion, still have Christmas decorations up.

A family of three white-lighted reindeer still graze on a lawn on Warminster Drive off of Featherstone Drive in Chesterfield County. A fully lighted Christmas tree, complete with candy canes, still glows like a beacon of lunacy on Forest Hill. And if you look closely (which requires very slow driving and possible threats of restraining orders) you can see a strand of lights still strung here, a red and green wreath on a door there.

One wonders what indignities these people must suffer from the neighbors -- the whispering, the grumbling, the terse greetings. Humbugs! Where is their Christmas spirit? Locked away in their red and green Tupperware storage boxes in the attic, no doubt, while our few fearless friends dare to carry it through to Easter and beyond!

Hail to you, the iconoclasts of seasonal dictates, you lone wolves of outdoor home décor! Thank you for extending the Yuletide season, shortening the wait til the next one and reminding us that there are only 272 shopping days left. God bless you and your crazy, rebel hearts.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Our area is earning its reputation one murder at a time...

Back in November, you might recall, Richmond was ranked as the fifth most dangerous city in the country. There was much pondering at the time, a little scoffing and some rationalizing too -- our statistics are compiled differently from most, including crime from only within the city proper, and so the per capita rates are undiluted by the statistics of the surrounding counties.

Nevertheless ...

It is starting to feel like that damn study is right. We are killing each other right and left. The latest -- another family of four, brutally attacked in their own home, but this time in Henrico. And this time, two survived, but gone are father and daughter Herbert Sharpe Jr., 51, and Angel Jackson, 26. The alleged killer is a relative, unlike the random attack on the Harvey family on New Year's Day. But -- and pardon my bluntness, friends -- dead is dead. Murdered is murdered.

In an earlier version of this post I inadvertantly identified this as a Richmond crime and took a shot at Doug Wilder, asking if he would attend a memorial service for this family. A misdirected arrow to be sure, but my frustration remains with our mayor's outrage over the Maymont bears when we hear barely a peep about human beings dropping like flies.

As a kind of aside, it may seem strange to commend a reporter on his writing of such a story but I think it's appropriate here. Times-Dispatch reporter Julian Walker got more than the standard "He was a great guy" quotes in his story. This is what comes from patient listening. He offers us sweet details about these victims that makes them more than victims, and therefore their loss harder to bear. Herbert Sharpe, he writes, "had an easy smile and was an awkward dancer." His daughter studied dance and fashion and to the "bewilderment" of her family, loved the Dave Matthews Band.

Meanwhile, buried in the lower left-hand corner of page B4 is a three-paragraph blurb about another body being found in an abandoned home in Richmond's South Side -- a teenager found "with obvious signs of trauma."

And the beat goes on.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What the !@#$%&, Doug?

I thought I was just dreaming. I woke up in a bit of a stupor having falling asleep before 11 p.m. the other night and in my disorientation thought I heard the Channel 12 newscaster say that Mayor Doug Wilder had hinted that if talks between Richmond and the Braves fell through, it would be easy enough to find another team to come to Richmond. Nah, I couldn't have heard that. The next day, the paper had no story on the ongoing saga, so surely I had dreamt it. Today, of course, that very story, minus any comment from The Emperor Himself. "Wilder did not return two phone calls beginning yesterday afternoon, and his press secretary did not return four beginning yesterday morning."

The one comment attributed to Wilder was from earlier in the week when he apparently said he will not accept the blame if the Braves leave Richmond. But it has been the city, and Wilder in particular, who have fumbled things more times Marcus Vick in the Miami game.

First, to offer up the Fulton Gas Works site as the best available site when it is fraught with problems. Then, to accuse the Braves of reneging on the deal when no such thing had occurred. Then, to hint at inquiries from new suitors (a clear violation of the league rules, according to the president of the International League). And now to avoid comment better than Michelle Mitchell could ever dream of doing, and in so doing, avoid having to answer from the press the very questions the Braves deserve answers to:
What about the traffic flow and access issues?
What about the drainage and flooding problems?
What about possible toxic waste at the site?
How will the stadium construction be funded?
So how is it that a man who possesses such a gigantic brain and a vat o' political savvy can seem so thick? This is the eternal mystery, the unsolvable conundrum that is Doug Wilder. Does his recalcitrance and ego cause him to make critical missteps -- or are they missteps at all? Are these tactics a calculated part of his plan so that he can point back after the deal falls through and avoid blame? Is he setting up the Braves organization to take the fall for a bad deal he already knows is doomed?

So if Wilder refuses to take the blame, who is to blame? Oh, that's right! The media! The paper said this morning that Wilder "accused the local media of reporting that the Braves were leaving because of him." Well, if the mayor can just decide he is not blame, then I can decide on behalf of all Richmond media that we are not to blame. Your move, Emperor ...

(As a postscript, let me just say the revelation that there may be other site proposals in the mix is intriguing. Perhaps the counties are involved? The proposed NASCAR Hall of Fame site? And what about Chesterfield with all that expanse of land off of 288 sitting there? Maybe Lane Ramsey should charter himself a plane to Atlanta...)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Let's remember the Harveys with acts of kindness today

I don’t usually reference my Richmond Magazine column here in the blog, but today’s a little different. In the current issue I called for a kind of tribute to the Harvey family and it just so happens that I suggested that today -- the first day of spring -- be the day for such a gesture. So here, for those of you who missed it, is my column from the March issue. I’d be honored if you’d consider committing some random act of kindness today in memory of Bryan, Kathryn, Stella and Ruby Harvey.

Random Acts
A suggestion for remembering the Harvey family

Where do we go from here?
It has now been two months since Bryan, Kathryn, Stella and Ruby Harvey were viciously murdered in their South Richmond home on New Year’s Day. As a community we have been through vigils, community meetings, memorials and tributes -- all of them worthy and the right thing to do in the wake of these horrific crimes. But what now? Where do we go from here?
I am not the first nor will I be the last to suggest that the Harvey murders were on a small scale like Richmond’s own 9/11. Something tall and proud, concrete, of immense substance, packed with humanity -- in this case, not buildings with thousands of people but a loving family of four -- was there and then it was gone. They didn’t just move away, they were wiped off the face of the earth in one sweeping, monstrous act.
When we will get over this loss?
One answer is never.
A better answer is never, if we are lucky.
In the aftermath of 9/11, every time they’d show those planes hitting the towers I’d think, please, please stop showing it. Now I think we each should look at it once a week, so that we will never forget what it felt like. Not to stoke our anger or grief but our sense of the immense loss. In the same way, I am not ready to -- nor do I want to -- let go of the loss of the Harveys.
Instead, I wish we could use it somehow, to turn it into something they would be proud of.
The Harveys were pretty well known among a tight circle of Richmonders -- musicians, Carytown denizens and so forth. Some of us may have loved World of Mirth or seen an explosive House of Freaks show once upon a time. But the great majority of the half-million people in the Richmond area probably never came face to face with Bryan, Kathryn, Stella or Ruby Harvey. So what was it about this crime that touched an exposed nerve in Richmond? Obviously, the children. Also, the sheer brutality. To call these killers animals would be an insult to animals. But beyond that still, there was one shocking element most of us have been unable to swallow.
There was a time, early in the Harvey investigation, when all signs pointed to a lunatic in their midst, someone known to them. I know I’m not the only one who took a kind of selfish comfort in that -- thank God it doesn’t affect me and my family. So when the shocking news came that the Harvey murders were indeed random and motivated by nothing other than robbery, the aftershock was nearly as big as the initial jolt. And it wasn’t just a lock-your-doors, count-your-kids, there’s-a-maniac-on-the-loose mentality. They’d been caught. It was a terror deeper than that. It wasn’t the fear of these maniacs, it was the fear of any maniac, anywhere, at any time.
Randomness in general isn’t usually thought of in a positive way. Every once in a while you get that person who wins $86 million dollars in the lottery and says, “Oh, I just picked the numbers at random.” But other than that we think of randomness as something that befalls us -- the random police checkpoint, the random airport security check, the random IRS audit, and of course, random violence.
It was randomness that shook this city to its core. Perhaps it is randomness that will help us lift ourselves up again.
What if -- can you dream with me for a moment? -- what if we took a day, one day. Let’s say the first day of spring. And let’s say each one of us decided to put some bumper sticker philosophy to good use and actually commit random acts of kindness throughout the area. What if Powhite commuters just started paying for the driver behind them? What if suburban moms drove into the city and dropped off some clothes or toys at the emergency shelters? What if someone planted some pretty flowers in an elderly neighbor’s front yard? What if these things happened all over Richmond in one day, in memory of the Harveys? What if we were to take the idea that randomness is something inflicted upon us and turn it around to create something beautiful? It would take only the smallest action on each individual’s part, but a half-million small actions equal one very grand gesture.
And what if we were to sustain it, do it year after year? That way we would never forget. Never. If we are lucky.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Wilder's latest inexplicable hissy fit

Is there anyone out there who can explain Doug Wilder to me? (Doug Wilder need not apply. I would never understand his explanation.) Now it seems he has decided to pick his next fight with the Richmond Braves. Who, by the way, were scheduled to come here today to meet with city officials about plans for a new stadium but a death in the family of a top city official postponed the meeting. I repeat: This was not canceled by the Braves, but by the city. So Wilder picks right now to throw a hissy fit over the Braves allegedly reneging on their deal to stay in Richmond.

Say what? says Mike Plant, executive vice president for the Atlanta Braves. “I’m just blown away by these false representations. He said we misled the citizens of Richmond, and I don’t think we’ve done that.”

What the Braves have done -- understandably -- is not sign on the dotted line of a deal that so far is no deal at all. The Braves said they would not agree to anything until they got a few, you know, teeny, tiny, minor questions answered, such as -- what would the city do about road access to the Fulton Gas Works site; parking; the possibility of lingering toxic waste and oh, where the $45 million would come from. You know, nothing big. Sort of like the list of questions Wilder himself demanded be answered before he would consider the Shockoe Bottom location.

Read the whole story for yourself, but it is unbelievable that Wilder has picked this fight. Someone close to Wilder (is there anyone since Paul Goldman got the boot?) has to tell him that his outbursts do nothing to serve the people he was elected to serve.

Um, Mr. Emperor, sir? About your outfit …

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Yearning for Richmond's vibrant, revitalized downtown

Good to go visiting, but great to be home. I don't know about you but for me trips out of town always spur those pointless comparisons to Richmond -- pointless because comparing Philadelphia to Richmond is like comparing red wine to red shoes. OK, so they are both cities but so different in their size, composition, culture, politics as to render any comparison almost meaningless. Yet, I find myself doing it anyway. But there is at least one comparison between the two that has some value and that is to take a look at what Philadelphia has accomplished with its downtown, what they call Center City.

Center City Philadelphia has always been busy and bustling but it sure did lose its shine for a lot of years. I remember my mother telling me about how she'd put on gloves to go "in town" as we say and about the heyday of the big department stores, John Wanamaker, Lit Brothers and Strawbridge & Clothier. This week in Philly came the news that Strawbridge's, which opened in the 1800's, is closing for good. Richmond can certainly relate to that. There were a lot of years when Center City Philadelphia was dirty, depressing and felt unsafe.

But driving around Center City Philadelphia this weekend on a balmy Saturday night was inspiring. Restaurant after restaurant was packed with diners, shops were -- imagine this -- open! Theaters were doing shows but by the looks of things it didn't seem like the folks I saw packing the streets and restaurants were necessarily in town for one big evening. They looked like people who just wanted to be downtown because it was the place to be.

How does Richmond accomplish this? That's the 64 million dollar question no one has an answer for. It's frustrating to me because it seems like efforts to revitalize downtown Richmond always hinge upon The Grand Plan -- the arts center or 6th Street Market Place or even the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium. All of these things are dead in the water of course. Maybe we can't fix downtown with one giant project that is superimposed over it. Perhaps what it takes is an organic effort -- the true courage of small entrepreneurs with iron wills who are willing to transform downtown one store front at a time. Anyway, a city as big and lumbering and slow to act as Philadelphia has seen a enormous turnaround in its downtown. So what's stopping us?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Scattered thoughts before the weekend road trip

Speaking of the part of the world I come from, I am heading up there tomorrow for my mom's birthday so I won't be posting again 'til Tuesday. (You just pictured Aimee Mann with that crazy hair, didn't you?) Therefore, I am a bit scattered today and not caring one bit about Tim Kaine's standoff with the Republican legislators in the House. The gods of journalism forgive me, but there's something about the combination of the words "general" and "assembly" that just makes me glaze over. I've written my share of stories on obscure but important bills and I know I should care passionately about what goes on for those couple of months but gee whiz, "American Idol" is on, you know?

Now, having said that, Simon was right last night. It's not that Elliot didn't sound good. The guy can sing. But being one of the better singers in the competition, he almost has to work harder to -- as annoying people say -- take it to next level. Elliot's going to be around for a while, guaranteed. But he has to prove that he is more than just someone who can hit all the right notes. Singing "Heaven" didn't do that for him. So, hopefully a lesson learned. I'm sure he'll be back next week. Meanwhile, Kevin, the kid they called Chicken Little, has to go. It's like Talent Night at the high school every time he gets up there. And oh my God, that Peter Brady guy singing "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You." Welcome to the Catskills! So I think the Virginia boys will live to see another round. Oh, and interesting that Elliot shaved off the facial hair that connected to his sideburns creating the Curious George I was talking about a couple days ago. Now he just needs to do something about the fur line straight across his forehead. Looking good, Elliot!

And also, because I just feel like it, let me tell you about the new CD I just got -- "Rabbit Fur Coat" by Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins. If you have never heard Rilo Kiley and have never heard Jenny Lewis' voice you need to take a listen to their CD "More Adventures." It's like hearing Chrissy Hynde for the first time. Not that Jenny Lewis sounds like her, but you walk away saying, "I have just heard a voice unlike any other I've ever heard before."

Have a great weekend, gang.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

There's something to be said for whispers behind the back

I come from a part of the world and a community of people (Italian-Americans in South Philadelphia) whose dysfunction has its merits. We do not “get things out in the open” or “express our feelings” or “communicate.” We are warm and sincere and direct for the most part but when we disapprove of someone's behavior we do not point it out to the offender: instead, we whisper behind their backs. So if, for instance, a tragedy were to occur as happened with the Godwin students who were killed in the joy-riding accident and if some students started wearing HERO shirts in honor of their lost friends, the people where I am from would mumble their derision but never, ever would it reach the newspaper (or elicit a poll, for crying out loud).

Teenagers are dramatic. They can manufacture drama in ordering a pizza. So when something truly dramatic -- and traumatic -- occurs they will find the grandest, bold-stroke gesture they can dream up (in this case literally -- it came to a Godwin student in a dream, the combination of the first two letters of the deceased students’ names, Heather and Robert) to deal with their pain. Let them. I don’t think these kids are calling their friends who died that night heroes for that action. It was just a clever if not entirely fitting use of their names that created a word that was positive, and in some way honored them. If their names had been Logan and Veronica and someone had come up with a LOVE shirt, no one would be complaining. How must the parents of the deceased teens feel reading this in the paper? If some Godwin students and parents had a problem with students wearing these t-shirts they should have done the decent thing and whispered behind their backs.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A million kudos to the heroes of the Swift Creek Reservoir search

Government, at every level, has really been taking it on the chin lately, and deservedly so. Chesterfield County Administrator Lane Ramsey charters a flight for $18,000 to fly back from Kansas for a non-crisis crisis; state and local health officials hastily decide to off the Maymont Bears; Doug Wilder says the city isn't responsible for making its own schools accessible to the disabled; and we now know with 100 percent certainty that in the Hurricane Katrina disaster everybody knew everything and no one did anything.

So it is refreshing to able to commend a government operation, even if it is for so tragic an event. Chesterfield County police, fire and EMS and even the FBI went to heroic measures to recover the bodies of Jordan Sebia and Travis Turner, the two 13-year-olds who went missing on the Swift Creek Reservoir on Feb. 26. Who knows what it cost the county? Who cares? This is why we pay taxes -- for services that truly help people. Those divers couldn't help those boys or bring them back to their parents alive, but they were able to give their parents an important gift nonetheless: the chance to move to the next chapter in their unthinkable grief, questions answered, not having to look back at the water and always wonder.

Friday, March 03, 2006

I almost hope Steve Johnson is lying

Who would've figured we'd be back to another Stephen Johnson scandal? You could argue (as we did here, ad nauseum) the causes of and contributors to the last scandal -- you know, his posting on an explicit gay hookup site -- but this one's pretty clear cut. The guy got caught with pot at the airport. See ya, Steve. That's all she wrote. He absolutely did the right thing stepping down from his seat on the School Board. What has surprised me a bit, though, is the reaction to his "medicinal purposes" statement.

The Times-Dispatch ridiculed him in its lead editorial this morning: "Johnson says the weed is for 'medicinal purposes' (cops have never heard that one before) for a condition he declined to disclose when the incident occurred." Gary Brookins' cartoon beside it showed Johnson, literally high as a kite, flying over the airport. Chortle, chortle.

And all over the T-D's reader reaction posts are the same in-quotation-marks references to Johnson's explanation. Throughout the first scandal plenty of people (myself among them) accused Johnson of monumentally bad judgment (ditto this time around) but as far as I remember no one ever thought him a liar.

In a weird way, I hope Johnson is lying, because if he is telling the truth it means he is afflicted with something painful, serious and possibly life-threatening. Won't everyone feel terrible if it turns out that Johnson is telling the truth?

OK, shifting gears wildly to a matter of great importance:

Richmond's Elliott Yamin sailed through another round of "American Idol" with another confident and vocally strong performance. Dude, we dig you, we're pulling for you, but the Curious George hairdo has got to go...

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Is Wilder using Bear Mom logic in appealing schools ruling?

The irony was so sharp I thought I might have needed a Band-Aid after reading the paper this morning. A federal judge has ruled that the city must make Richmond public schools accessible to people with disabilities. After having spent a week or so talking about the Maymont bears incident and possibly investigating the mother involved for negligence, Mayor Wilder has promised to appeal the judge’s decision in the schools lawsuit. Where’s the irony? It’s in Wilder’s argument, which almost mirrors the tortured logic used by mother of the bitten boy. It’s something like “I didn’t mean any harm, therefore I bear no legal responsibility.”

“The judge’s decision points out that the city has done nothing wrong and, for that reason, we think that the decision should be appealed, so as not to give the impression that the city had done anything wrong,” Wilder said in a statement.

Is he serious? Or is he simply so petulant that the thought of being told what to do -- even when it’s absolutely the right thing to do and is ordered by a federal judge -- makes him so crazy that he abandons common sense, logic and moral responsibility? How else to explain dragging out what is inevitable: the city must and will be made to fix the access problems in 54 of its 60 school buildings.

No one, not Wilder or City Council or the School Board, disputes that these buildings do not provide proper access for disabled students, parents, teachers or visitors. In fact, the School Board has agreed to a five-year-plan to fix the schools and it is that plan the judge has adopted as the legal remedy. But Wilder insists that it’s not the city’s responsibility. It will be interesting to see how far he takes this tantrum, how much time and energy he spends and how much taxpayer money he wastes that could be used to do what is right and just fix the problem.