by Kerry O’Donnell
Richmond, Virginia: the capital of the state and the former capital of the Confederacy. Remnants of the controversial Civil War South era still linger in the city, personified in the occasional Confederate flag bumper sticker seen on cars flitting about the streets. However, residents don’t call it the capital of the Confederacy anymore. Richmond has been overrun by artistic, progressive youth, students of Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Richmond alike. Richmond is now known as The 804 (the city’s area code), RVA (teenagers these days like quick abbreviations that get to the point), River City (referring to the James River that runs through Richmond like a vein, the river serves not to separate the city but to sustain it), and even Dirty Richmond (a catchy tag that correctly characterizes the city as a polluted metropolis of grungy grit and sullied cement). Dirty Richmond is my city. Just as Aphrodite rose from the sea foam of Cyprus, I rose from the unforgiving cement of Richmond City. I am of human flesh but of city’s spirit. All of its strength and steel reside in me, along with its gentle charms.
Richmond is a city of two souls. Richmond is threatening and dangerous under dark skies, yet charming and quaint under the sun’s eyes. Richmond is wickedness wrapped in a filmy layer of southern hospitality. If I walk down Cherry Street at the wrong time of night, I’ll probably feel the cold barrel of Tommy Thug’s gun against my temple as he growls in my ear, “Gimme your shit, bitch.” Pass him on a crisp, blossoming afternoon and he’ll probably smile and wish me a nice day. I’ll smile and wish him a nice day as well, because pleasantries and politeness permeate Richmond Day. Richmond Day sprawls with shoppers frequenting the vintage stores and greasy diners on Cary Street. Hot days will find Belle Isle populated by sunbathers and beer-drinkers lounging on the rocks that dot the mild current of the James River. Richmond Day is green and lush at Maymont Park, a picturesque pocket of gardens and parkland only a few miles from the solid steel of Richmond City. The people of Richmond tread its cement on two rubber wheels – bicycles are as common as people. They roam Richmond’s rocky roads in great numbers, much to the chagrin of city drivers who have to take care to avoid hitting the numerous bicyclists. I never learned how to ride a bicycle myself, placing me on the side of the irritated drivers. Richmond Day is clean and pristine, a paragon of city splendor—until the rascals of Richmond awaken and swarm the city as the sun dims.
Richmond is a nocturnal city. The sun goes down and Richmond rises in all of its grime and glory. While polite professionals and responsible adults rule Richmond Day, Richmond Night teems with hoodrats like a corpse bloats with maggots. Richmond Night represents Richmond’s true character. This late-awakening of the city’s population is due to its druggy nature—Richmond is a city of stoners. Richmond stands still and stilted, and stoners and druggies find this stunted city a fine place to moor themselves. In Richmond, it’s easy for them to content themselves in their cheap apartments and menial jobs without hope for progress, because everyone is stuck in the same standstill. They sleep through the day and strive for excitement in Richmond Night. Richmond Night is gritty and grand, dirty and dazzling in its array of spirits that litter the streets and the lights that ignite the sky. Richmond is a city of shadows and inky streaks of skyline reflected in river murk. Richmond Night finds smokers coughing on their corners, cloaked by tobacco-tinged air. Every night, Old Man Martin shuffles along the edge of that vein-like river that runs through Richmond. On weekend nights, college kids galavant among the city’s streets, traveling from house to house, party to party. Old Man Martin sometimes asks if they have any change to spare. They lie and say no, backing away nervously from the strange man, because Richmond Night means Richmond Danger and Richmond Danger is very real danger—shootings and assaults and muggings. Old Man Martin merely grins his yellow grin and wishes them all peace and blessings—sometimes pleasantries even penetrate Richmond Night. Punks donning perilously pointy hair line the corner leading to the Alley Katz, a hole in the wall doubling as a rock venue that boasts stale alley air and floors soaked with beer. Hipster kids with tight jeans and cigarettes glued to their mouths engage in the rooted Richmond custom of “porch chilling.” They carouse on the porches that line the busiest streets of Richmond, the streets in the heart of VCU’s sprawling urban campus. They gulp down their choice beer, PBR, whimsically nicknamed the “People’s Beer of Richmond.” Richmond Night is as full of fear as it is full of fun. Criminals emerge at night and creep the streets like phantoms, haunting the city’s inhabitants and striking a special fear in the hearts of the suburban high school kids who only dare cross into the city in order to enjoy the sweet smelling smoke of the only hookah bar in Richmond that doesn’t card teenagers. Crime is indeed common. There was an incident a while back that involved bullets flying around Representative Eric Cantor’s office in Richmond. However, Richmond cops did not feel that it was a threat on the Congressman’s life. Bullets flying in Richmond are as common as birds. That’s reassuring.
Richmond Night is swift and supersonic. My friend Chester likes to drive us downtown, and he drives fast. I sit comfortably in the passenger’s seat, content to let Chester take the wheel and steer us towards whatever destination we’re seeking. Chester cranks up the volume on his stereo system and rocks out passionately to the jam band (Phish, most likely) filtering through the speakers. I sometimes wonder if Chester’s reckless driving is steering us towards death rather than the party on Grove Avenue that we are searching for. I don’t quite care at that moment though. I light up two cigarettes, one for me and one for him. I give the American Spirit cigarette to him and he smiles appreciatively. We continue rumbling down the hilly roads of Richmond. The headlights and streetlights stream past us (or are we streaming past them?) in a marvelous show of scintillating glow. It’s like Richmond Night is crowned by a garland of Christmas lights, and I always gape in wonder at its divine glimmer, no matter how many times I have taken that route downtown.
My persona epitomizes Richmond. I am a girl of two souls. There is sweetness and sunniness within me, though it is often shadowed by my steeliness. I take solace in the grit and grime of Richmond, as I recognize the grit and grime within myself. I am acutely aware of the phantoms that pervade my person, and I do not try to hide them under false optimism and fakery. I love ugly. I love dirt. I love that which others find repulsive and repugnant and revolting. I love the scum of cities, the scum of people. I loathe sterility. Sterility does not exist in this world. There is only a false sense of purity that blinds people to the true ugliness of this world, and I detest falseness. Richmond is ugly and ugly is truth and truth is beauty. I am ugly and I am Richmond and I am beautiful.
Despite the dangers, I traverse Richmond night without care. Dark Richmond looms around me, and I am unafraid. I am Richmond, and Richmond is me. If I am stabbed by the city, shot by the city, suffocated by the city, or swallowed by the city, then I am only returning to the cement and steel that bore me.