A Guide To Richmond, VA, By a Guy Who Lived There from '93 to '97

Thanks to the college basketball championships, in which both Richmond, Virginia-based teams (Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond) performed admirably, we had cause to ponder, “Not sure why people are so into Richmond, Virginia.” That’s a reasonable question! Richmond is a mostly busted-ass city on the banks of the James River that’s played host to such luminaries as George Allen, and also George Allen’s wife—what’s her name, the one who married George Allen. It’s best known as the capital of the Confederacy, and, as many of the old-school Richmondites—by which I mean the “racist” ones—will probably tell you, that’s basically where the city peaked.

But I attended Virginia Commonwealth University for just as long as was humanly necessary, and I have to say, I have a fondness for Richmond that just won’t quit. So I thought I’d share some fun facts about a place I lived while I was getting an MFA that I pretty much don’t really use anymore!

Richmond loves them some confederate heroes! And they celebrate them all on a road called Monument Avenue. There, you’ll find all the greats: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis. Also, there is some guy named Matthew Fontaine Maury whose importance is a mystery to me. He did something with sextants, I think?

Also, Arthur Ashe! Arthur Ashe was a tennis playing hero of Richmond who won three Grand Slam titles, which was more Grand Slams than the entire Confederate Army put together! But when it came time to put his statue on Monument Avenue, man… people really freaked out! A lot of people didn’t want Ashe on the Avenue because they looked him up and saw that he was a black dude. The whole tennis part threw them for a while, but they sussed it out eventually. And so: racism. But a lot of otherwise nicer people didn’t want his statue on the street because they didn’t want Ashe associated with a bunch of Civil War losers. Whatever! That’s where they put the statue, so everyone loses!

To be honest with you, have you seen the statue? It kind of looks like Ashe is about to cold whoop some kids upside the head with some books and/or his tennis racket. I always thought it looked weird, anyway, but I never said much about it, because my wife was friends with some people who were friends with the sculptor, so you never knew who you were going to be in the room with at any given time that you were at a party and felt the urge to just start straight up making fun of the statue.

There are some appreciable differences between the student bodies of Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond. VCU students fell into several categories: heroin users, meth users, people with multiple tattoos, people with multiple piercings, people with multiple piercings that you didn’t realize were there until you were in the middle of having sex with them and discovered that you had all this shrapnel to navigate around, and also some people who weren’t in the art school. By contrast, students from the University of Richmond were basically “like UVa. students, only dumb.”

The Ku Klux Klan’s number was in the White Pages! Is that normal? I never noticed it in the White Pages of any other place I’ve lived. And I haven’t checked any White Pages since. It was more like one night I was like, “Damn, I bet the Klan’s phone number is in this town’s phone book or something,” and lo, there it was! It was just an answering machine, though. (A thoroughly racist answering machine.) Me and Justice, my coworker at the record store, would call and leave messages that graphically depicted us in the middle of some “hardcore miscegenation.”

There are no left turns in Richmond. Or, at least there were a surprising amount of streets in our neighborhood where they were disallowed.

Also, all the prostitutes that you were likely to encounter around VCU were cross-dressers. There were no exceptions to this.

Both of those facts (the left turns, the crossdressers) were immortalized in a song called “No Left Turns In Richmond” by my friends’ band, but you probably never heard that song because their other song was named “I Shot Michael Jordan’s Dad (And I’m Glad)” and people just weren’t into that. Too soon.

We sometimes hung out with this dude named Ivo whose brother was in Bio Ritmo. Talking to him was just like talking to someone who had committed himself to doing a lifelong, “Saturday Night Live”-style John Travolta imitation. But he was cool, though. I’m pretty sure he sold one of my friends a gun.

Someone once approached me about possibly “fiancee swapping.” Except it was this middle-aged grad student who was grey and sweaty and who didn’t have a fiancee, or a girlfriend even, for that matter, to swap. Not that I would have done it if he had, he was gross! And get this: he pitched this idea to me at the Carpenter Center during the intermission of Kiss Of The Spider Woman. I mean, of all the places!

VCU now plays basketball at a place called the Siegel Center. It wasn’t there when I was a student. But it’s two blocks from my old apartment, in a neighborhood that VCU long coveted and finally overtook. Gone now is the terrible strip club down the street from me, the decent comic book store and the converted movie theatre where I saw the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion leap around to the light of a single maddening strobe.

My friends Jessica and Sarah lived in a haunted house on Grove Avenue. For realsies! This poltergeist was all up in their shit, constantly!

My wife got fired from the Body Shop while we lived in Richmond. The Body Shop! What do you have to do to get fired from the Body Shop? (The story of how my wife got fired from the Body Shop is really not that interesting actually.)

Here’s an interesting story. One night, while I was up working on my thesis, I started hearing this strange, repeated noise out my window, coming from the back alley. I went down the back stairs and outside, and the noise became more clear: it sounded like someone yelling some loud gibberish, followed by this epically confident laughter, like, “Garbhlegharg bafulliblah. [pause] HEH. HEH. HEH.” Over and over again. I walked out into the alley, seeking to identify the source of the noise. I discovered that it was emanating from the fifth floor of the retirement home that backed onto the alley shared by my apartment. Upstairs, there was some old codger in a grey t-shirt, with the window open, just yelling out into the night, some drunken blather punctuated by this cocksure HEH-HEH-HEHs. People all up and down the street were howling at this guy to shut the hell up already, it was after two in the morning and people were sleeping, etc. But he didn’t give a shit. Those catcalls just fueled him further. And so he stood at his window, pulling on a bottle, howling his nonsense into the night, and letting everyone on the block know that tonight, he just DID NOT GIVE A FUCK. For one night, he was going to forget the life that passed him by, that had brought him to this ramshackle retirement home, and just give the world outside his window a piece of his goddamn mind until someone finally busted down the door and stopped him. I stood out there in the alley for a few minutes more, craning my neck to get a better view of the gaunt figure in the window, raining down indecipherable epithets upon my poor, broken-down Southern town. In a world of perfect honesty, that guy would have a statue on Monument Avenue.



Jason Linkinslife was saved by some truly great ER doctors and nurses at the Medical College of Virginia, and he wishes them the best.

Photo from Flickr by rvaphotodude.