So Long, Hookville: Breaking loose from the velvet rut
I like to claim that I was blackmailed into coming to Charlottesville. The real story, of course, is that when it came time to make that pesky decision about college, my folks knew me better than I did (and were also well aware of what it would take to overcome my generally mulish obstinance). So it was off to UVA for young James.
I don't necessarily see my first year as the halcyon days of collegiate euphoria. Sure, I had a good time– a great time, in fact– but I never knew quite what to do with myself. I was too self-conscious to revel in frat parties and found the enforced sociability of on-Grounds activities considerably over the top. The Corner was fun, but, well... it was the Corner.
Then I met a girl, and with her, I met Charlottesville.
She had a car, but we also both had bikes and pockets full of transfer tickets. It was through the heady clichés of puppy love that we discovered each other and the city we lived in; we rode buses just to see where they'd go, and we biked Downtown just to get her a glass of chai that she could've enjoyed at any number of coffee shops along the way.
We went to Mono Loco and the Jeff like it was our job and made out under the coal tower like we were still 14. Then we realized that we didn't actually like each other, and our courtship gracefully faded to irrelevance. The memories I treasure are of a love affair with a city, which has continued unabated.
It's easy enough to draw a map of what makes Charlottesville home. I don't think I'll ever have a piece of pizza that lives up to Christian's or find a sushi restaurant that approaches Tokyo Rose (ambiance affects the taste buds, didn't you know?)
Blue Hole might be my favorite swimming hole of all time, and although I'm a mountain boy by birth, the Piedmont's gentle verdant allure isn't lost on me. I've always loved the Courthouse area of Jefferson Street by night and the Rivanna Trails by day; they're obviously not coming with me when I leave.
While I'm moving to a city where there's independent cinema aplenty, I'll be sad to leave OffScreen and Vinegar Hill. Outdoor gin and tonics won't taste as good without Más, Miller's, or Orbit, and grocery shopping won't be the same without Reid's. I can't help but already miss that typewriter shop on West Main that I've never been in, and there's even a special place in my heart for the unequivocally chillest post office of all time&emdash; University Station, where Wayne and Danny's calm, courteous conversation makes the pilgrimage to post a letter a delightful endeavor.
Sure, there have been some changes since I've been around, but all in all, Charlottesville's not so different. Trax shut the doors, and Starr Hill opened; the Corner Bodo's still claims it's "coming," and the Outback Lodge still won't go away. The University's digging big holes and putting bigger things in them; so's Coran Capshaw.
What hasn't changed– what I suppose we all hope won't change– is the intangible character of the people here, more essential than its attendant landmarks and vastly harder to define. While some would have you believe that Charlottesville has huge undeserved pretension of urbanity and sophistication, I choose to see it as a certain sense of civic satisfaction.
We like where we are, and we like it that others do too; we can make the place better, and we're working at it. We're big enough to sustain great restaurants, good music, and all the trappings of citified life but small enough to be manageable and welcoming. When you make a friend in this town, six more come along; hospitality's in.
It's been termed "the velvet rut." Half of my friends claim to have coined the phrase themselves, so no one's getting credit for it here, but it's an apt expression&emdash; this town's full of comfortable habits, soft and smooth and tough to abandon. It pulls you in and won't let you go, whether you like it or not&emdash; they don't call it The Hook for nothing.
And yet, here I am, breaking the silky bonds of Charlottesville. Friends, enemies, and those who have no idea who I am, stay behind, keeping a proverbial seat warm while Charlottesville's languid meander continues.
In the meantime, I get to re-experience what it feels like to go on a first date with a city again. Will it be love at first sight? Will it be a slow crescendo of passion, or fits and bursts of dislike? I have no idea how the romance will stack up, but there's only one way to find out.
I once read an essay claiming that you can't consider yourself a resident somewhere unless you've lived there for five years. As it happens, when I skip town, I'll have been here for exactly five years and three days– making my "legitimate" residency only slightly lengthier than a slumber party. But it's been a fun little sleepover, the kind that breeds those shiny, sticky memories that make a place home.
James Graham has been one of the Hook's top freelance writers. Having penned everything from beverage-fueled nightclub prowls to an exposé of why the Corner Bodo's won't open its doors, he now puts down his pen and moves to Brooklyn. We think (and hope) he'll be back someday.