Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Virginia

Virginia.

There's an old joke that as far as Virginia is concerned, American history stopped with the Civil War in 1865 - it was Virginia's last gasp of glory before succumbing to a land of sleepy battlefields and evangelical churches. Virginia is conservative: it has no casinos, no strip clubs, and hard liquor can only be purchased at an official licensed government or "ABC" store. (Which closes at night and isn't open on Sundays.) When I was 20 the state decided to throw caution to the wind and allow scratch off gambling tickets in grocery stores - by a miracle society did not unravel.

I moved to Virginia when I was 10.

However, I'm not really from Virginia.

I'm from Northern Virginia, which is as different from Virginia as Virginia is from West Virginia.

Northern Virginia is an extended suburb of Washington D.C., filled with over educated government workers and immigrants with doctorates looking for work - I've worked retail alongside Polish physicists and Czech ballerinas while hitching cab rides with drivers who proudly display their masters degree on the back window. When people on the west coast ask where I'm from, I now just say D.C., it's more accurate and it stops them from thinking I grew up surrounded by gap toothed yokels.

Gap toothed yokels still live in Northern Virginia, but they have nothing in common with the bureaucratic automatons who pushed them out except that they both love the Cheese Cake factory.

It's been three years since I've last been here, but Virginia is not behind me in years, but lifetimes. The memories are there, but the emotional nostalgia is gone. The recollections are clear, but they are a stranger's memories, the person who lived there compartmentalized into my past along with college and child hood.

This time I'm headed back to work on an audio recording for my book with my wicked step-mother, Nancy. She is a voice over professional with her own studio, and she's offered to coach me through a read which can then be placed on the web to help promote the book.

Business Trip! Tax Deductible! Whooo-hoo! I purchase a round trip flight on American Airlines for $250, not aware that American Airlines is the new Southwest - a cattle car of human chattel.  LAX is worse then I remember, I'm asked to show my ID at the baggage counter, once to up the escalators to security, again before I can get in the security line, and a final time as I walk through the metal detector.

I'm asked to take off my shirt because it is too baggy.

On the ride to D.C. I'm surrounded by a middle school of hyperactive 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

At the car rental agency I pick up a black economy model Mazda for a whopping $420 a week, $405 after my triple A discount.  The Washington D.C. cherry blossom's are in bloom only two weeks out of the year, there's a festival, and everything has doubled in price.

Stupid Japanese cherry blossoms.

Traffic is slow, and compared to LA light, Virginians in the right hand lane believe in going the speed limit.   

I arrive at my stepmother's in Arlington, she's looking well. I'm tired, but we spend the next 4 hours talking.  Her cat Dwight dismisses me with a hiss, but being a cat person I hide my feelings - cats don't really care what you think of them anyway.

John

The first person I look up is an old college buddy named John, he works for a government contractor, which is the government's way of saving money by paying someone else more to do the same job.  John declassifies information for the public, a few years ago he worked at the Pentagon and joked he was one of the two liberals in the entire building - evidently the military hates giving up its secrets.

Naturally John can't tell me anything juicy - something about needing TOP SECRET clearance. He tells me that some people even have higher clearance then him, or TOP TOP SECRET. I ask him if there's a TOP TOP TOP SECRET, but he can't tell me because it's a secret.

Makes you wonder why they don't call spying HIDE AND SEEK.

Turns out that's what they call sub warfare.

STEVE and CONNIE

Before I moved to Los Angeles I rented a room from a married couple I met in college.  Steve and Connie live in Dale City, about 20 miles south of D.C. - land of mass aluminum sided housing and the Potomac Hills mall.  Life in Dale City centers around the kids in school, the TV, and the mall - in that order. Steve still looks the same, I've joked that if he was a dungeons and dragons character he would be a dwarf, trustworthy, stable - but if you ever messed with him he'd chop off your head with an ax.

Connie doesn't even get up off the couch.

I take a look at the house - it has wood floors, otherwise it's unchanged. My old room is a mess of discarded furniture and cat litter. When I visited three years ago I felt disbelief, this time I feel nothing. Different lifetime - I've moved on.

Luke

The last time I saw Luke he had two kids, now he has three. He's a big ex-army fella that went from making peanut's to low six figures because he has TOP SECRET security clearance. Now he works for Microsoft, but complains he has less money then ever.

Three kids and a wife at home will do that to you.

Steve and I meet him for lunch at Red Robin - a burger joint known for it's infamous bacon double cheeseburger topped with a fried egg. I fondly refer to as the heart attack sandwich.

We catch up on all times. Luke's a conservative, but Bush has screwed up so bad he doesn't even bother to defend him. I ask him about his family - he tells me that one of his sister's married a mercenary working for a Blackwater type outfit out of Iraq. The mercenary got into his wife's e-mail account, discovered she was cheating on him. When she won't return his calls he decides to play the mother of all pranks:

He fakes his death over the phone.

First, he contacts his mother in law, explaining he has been shot and he is desperately trying to get a hold of his wife because the doctor's didn't think he would survive the operation.


The mother panics, contacts her daughter, and a few minutes later Luke's sister immediately calls her mercenary husband. First, however, she has to talk to a "doctor", a mercenary para-medic who hits her with medical jargon about the bullet wound. Then they put her husband on the phone and they speak for a few minutes while he says a tearful goodbye.

Then Luke's sister hears the doctor's scream, "CODE-BLUE, CODE-BLUE!" A second later one of the doctors gets on the phone and explains that they need to "operate".

Five minutes later one of the mercenaries' friends calls to tell her the bad news, he's dead.

Two weeks later she still hasn't heard anything from the defense department about her husband or when they will be sending back the body. She contacts the DOD (Department of Defense) and they explain they haven't heard anything, but they will immediately find out if anything has happened to him.

Thirty minutes later the mercenary contacts his wife, admits he faked the whole thing. His contract is being revoked.

You have to wonder if the mercenary was willing to do that to his wife, what the heck is he doing to the Iraq civilians?

Skippy

Skippy is my token gay friend.

Everyone should have at least one token gay friend.

He's living in Arlington, unofficially married to a Russian economist out of St. Petersburg. I joke that I wasn't aware Russia had mail order brides in the male order variety.

"Russia's got everything." Skippy replies.

If I'm 50 and unmarried I might have to look into that.

Skippy works for DARPA, or Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency. The Cell Phone, the GPS, and the Internet we're all invented by DARPA for the military before they went for civilian use. (Sorry Al Gore, you didn't invent the internet, DARPA did.) DARPA is filled with brilliant scientists, most of whom think on a level so far beyond us it's like how we think compared to our dog.

(Your average dog, not Lassie, Benji, or Rin Tin Tin.)

Many of these same scientists, however, can't figure out how to work a remote control, run a slide projector, or drive a car. That's where Skippy comes in. He's their event planner, or party coordinator. He keeps all the caterers, minor officials, and junior officers in check. He's bossy enough to get the job done. He takes me by his office, it's full of empty rooms - but Skippy explains DARPA is expanding, they are busier then ever.

"So what's it like working with all these scientists?"

"They have nerf gun wars on the 2nd floor."

That sounds cool. "Can we go?" I ask. I've always secretly wanted to shout "Take that Einstein!"

"No."

"These guys are really smart?"

"Ever seen the Big Bang Theory? It's just like that. It's great when they all start yelling at each other."

It's good to see Skippy doing well.

Melissa

Melissa is the girl that got away. I blew it with her 17 years ago, chose my friends over her and always regretted it ever since. The day before I left for Virginia I got an email from her on Facebook - she was living outside of Baltimore. I sent her an email back explaining I was in Washington and that I would like to see her.

On the drive to Baltimore, I get lost.

Stupid GPS. How could it guide me to a road that dead ends at a train track?

I call her from a nearby Checkers - and she immediately knows where I am, five minutes later I drive out into the middle of a grassy field beside a duplex. She rents the bottom while a group of her friends play a card game named "Munchkin" upstairs. Her place was sizable, bigger then I expected.

Melissa spent two years working in the stables at Pimilco, the famous Balitmore race track, home of the Preakness.   After taking care of horses for two years, she decided to quit and enter the work force - not much money in grooming.

Before that she had worked as a teacher. "I quit. It wasn't the kids, it was the adults."

I couldn't agree more.

Melissa explains she sets up websites to actors, she is currently a fan of Callum Keith Renee. When I stare at her blankly she tries to hide her exasperation. "Cylon #2. The one that's in love with Starbuck."

I ask her why she's a fan and she looks at me like I'm crazy. "He's awesome in everything he does. He's currently in Californification, he was the guy trying to kill Guy Pierce in Memento. He's awesome!"

Melissa sadly shakes her head. "I used to have the #1 fan site to Ted Raimi."

I stare ahead, ignorant.

"Joxer on Xena Warrior Princess!"

"Joxer? That loser guy who was always getting beat up?"

"He's also the brother of Sam Raimi, director of Spider Man. Ted's been in all three Spider Man movies."

"What happened?"

Melissa waves her hand. "We had a falling out."

We spend the night watching Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, a one hour special that aired in three parts over the Internet during the writer's strike of 2007-2008. Then we watch the commentary, which isn't really commentary but an hour's worth of additional songs that barely acknowledge what is happening on screen. Then we watch fan submissions by people aspiring to join the Evil League of Extraordinary Evil.

Melissa submitted one - she made third tier dishonorable mention - Ban Sidhe.   Her evil superpower was she could sing and make people bleed out the ears.  

I wanted to see it, Melissa wouldn't show it to me.

The next morning I wake up the couch and kiss her on the cheek to bid her goodbye.  I wonder for a moment if there is still something between us....

                                                                                             ....the moment passes, and I am the one 

                                                                                                                ....leaving.

Larry

I make the 260 mile trip to Roanoke, heading west on Rt 66, then south on Rt 81 through the beautiful Shenandoah - this year Virginia has had a late winter and the trees have not yet bloomed.  I turn on the radio seeking non-Evangelical radio stations, flip through a half dozen country stations before finding one that plays some AC/DC!

Score!

The track ends as the radio announcer blares: "BRINGING YOU THE MUSIC that JESUS MADE!  Jesus ROCKS!  Now let's rock out to the music Jesus made for me and you, W101, Jesus saves!"

I almost flip the channel, but stop myself - there's no reason why Christians can't enjoy classic rock.  

When they play Highway to Hell I know I'm getting old.

Larry lives just outside of Roanoke in a suburb that popped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  There are big, east coast style colonial homes with white picket fences, kids on bicycles, pastures with grazing cattle and horses - it's an all American neighborhood.   Once again my GPS locater fails me - it won't work on smaller roads.  I get out of my car to manually check the address on some mail boxes when a truck pulls up beside me and stops.

"What are you looking for?" the driver calls out.

"Bivens.  Larry Bivens."

"Oh, well just go to the back of the driveway.  I think he owns some rentals back there."

"Thanks."   A minute later I find him standing outside the door, half smirk firmly in place.  

"What took you?"

"Traffic was a bitch."

Ever the capitalist, Larry's renting three rentals, living in half of one and using the other 2 and a half units to pay for the mortgage on the property.    He was fixing up properties and flipping them years before it was fashionable to do so, I think he does it just to give himself something to do when he gets home from work.   Larry does not believe in idleness.

I meet his wife Lisa who I have met once before, and get a good look at his newborn, Logan.   The baby stares at me with large blue eyes.   For a second, all I can think of is Wolverine, but refrain from asking where are Logan's adamantium claws?

Larry would have laughed, but I doubt his wife would have appreciated the comment.

We go out for dinner at the Outback.   For a Wednesday night, it's packed.  Larry is convinced that in spite of the recession, there are a lot of people who have money to blow.   Roanoke is not the wealthiest of cities, and it's been hit with economic bad times for years. 

So why is the Outback packed on a Wednesday night?

Before I head home I'll stop at Larry's school, he's a middle school teacher, and with the budget cuts in danger of losing his job.   He explains that the state of Virginia wants only people with computer science degrees to teach computers, but they are running into a small problem.

Most people with computer science degrees don't want to be teachers.

Between Roanoke's shrinking school population and the budget cuts jobs are being slashed everywhere in the school system, but Larry takes it in stride, he's a survivor.    His school is tiny by LA standards, a mere 350 students - when I explain to the faculty there that I'm from a LA school with close to 3000 students they gape in shock.

The school is clean, there is no tagging, no garbage, no ubiquitous smell of pot.  It makes me suspicious.  The students are a mixture of white and black, but I spot a cartoon drawing of the mascot on a bulletin board - it's a confederate soldier.

Larry's computer lab is in the basement, it consists of about 20 computers in a ring around the room.  Larry is stationed in the middle where he can keep an eye on the kids, he also has a master program that can spy on them and lock them out if they are not on task.

The kids eye me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, but when I tell them I'm from LA I earn about 100 cool points.   

I've taught in LA for long I've forgotten what it's like to see children who are not jaded.

Lorraina 

Lorraina was born in the wrong century.   One hundred years ago, out on the prairie, she'd have been just fine with an ax and a gun.   She's a firm believer in getting rid of the courts and settling things with a duel, the day they got rid of the duels was the day the nation started going down hill.

I make it to her place late at night, she's left it unlocked.   Inside I spot her two boston terriers, Boots and Patches, both of whom proceed to lick me to death.   She gets home a few hours later, in-between raising litters of puppies, selling baked goods, and assisting with the local theatre she works as tech support at Dish Network.

She explains that Dish Network set up a base in South Western Virginia because their number one complaint from customers was they couldn't understand the Indian's in Delhi over the phone.   

Let's hear it for the American accent, the last defense against outsourcing.

We talk for hours, it's good to see her.   

Outside the air is clean, it hurts my lungs.

We visit her mother in the hospital who is recovering from knee surgery.   I tell her I'll pray for her, but it will be a Jewish prayer, so I'm not sure if it will work for a Christian.

"Why thank you, Brian." she gushes.  "I'll take any prayer I can get."

"Remember," I crack, "it's better to deal directly with the Dad then the son."

We eat at a surprisingly good Chinese buffet.   LA doesn't have many good Chinese buffet's - in fact I don't think it really has any good buffets.    I notice an attractive blonde at the next table checking me out, and for a moment I wonder if my fly is open.

Then I remember, I'm in South Western Virginia.   Here, I'm the good looking one.  (Liz Lemon also found this out when she went to Cleveland and people thought she was a model.)

A few women also check me out when we're at the Wal-mart to pick up food for supper.   It isn't my imagination.  

It's going to be sad going back to LA and being ignored.
























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