Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Brief Introduction to Lexington, Virginia--some of which is actually true . . .

Back in 2000 when Ellen and I found out she was pregnant, we had a conversation about what we were going to do.  At the time, we were living approximately 105 miles apart, with Ellen in Charlottesville and me in Roanoke.  It was a very short discussion:
“Do you want to give up your job?”
“No.  Do you?”
The only option, then, was to choose a spot halfway between the two locations and begin a double commute.  The only question was, where?
Again the conversation was short:
“Do you want to live in the country?”
“No.  Do you?”
That option gone, the only reasonable location was Lexington, Virginia, an historic town more-or-less equidistance from Charlottesville and Roanoke.  Once or twice when we were living apart, we’d make a date on a week night and meet in Lexington for dinner, trying out different restaurants, getting a feel for the town.  We weren’t impressed.  The place was small.  Very small.  Like, drive through end to end in six minutes small.  Like, notice a car from out of town because it stands out small.  And the restaurants weren’t that good:  there was the fancy place in town, where the waiters stood in their white shirts, hands behind their backs over white linen table clothes.  Only the food was just . . . okay.  Then there was the diner on the edge of town.  Even the salad was bad.  And I don’t mean kind of bad; I mean, we can’t eat this, we need to leave and go to Hardee’s bad. 
But it was either Lexington or someplace where your rental home came with a John Deere tractor and a gun rack in the dining room, at least one of which I refuse to live with (hint:  JD tractors are made in Iowa, home of my undergraduate alma mater and one of my favorite states ever).  So Lexington it was. 
It didn’t help that Ellen is a big city person.  Prior to living in Charlottesville, which was a necessity given her job, she’d spent several years in New York City, on the busy west side, taking the subway to work, doing carry out Chinese every third night, clubbing with Boy George and the former members of Oasis, waking up at noon in the dingy alley way behind a meat cutter, head full of cotton and a tattoo reading “Jesus was my meth dealer” bleeding on her forearm. 
Okay, not really, but you get the point:  whereas I’d grown up in a small town in Wisconsin visiting my grandparents in an even smaller town (think, drive from end to end in sixty seconds) that I absolutely loved, Ellen moved from one large metropolitan area to another, including Portland Oregon, L.A., Oxford, England, Minneapolis, and New York City.  Lexington for me was a step up.  Lexington for Ellen was a . . . well, nightmare is a strong word, so let’s just say that it wasn’t her idea of paradise. 
But such was life.  She was pregnant, neither of us was quitting our jobs, and both of us were afraid of cows.  So Lexington it was.
We weren’t willing to commit completely, of course, so we kept our house in Roanoke, renting it to a good friend with a cleanliness fetish, at the same time that we shopped for a nice apartment in Lexington.  We eventually found one on the edge of town and moved in the August before Will was born.  As is usually the case in situations where none of the persons moving actually wants to move and one of the persons moving is five months pregnant, the move was stressful and tiring.  Finally, though, we got the house more or less in order, took the dog out to go to the bathroom, locked all the doors, and crawled into bed. 
In order to make sense of this next bit, it helps to know that we have a king size bed.  And when I say “a bed” what I actually mean is “a yacht that two people sleep on”—it’s just that big.  These days, all five of us can crawl into that thing and drift into la-la land without touching each other.  Back then, when it was just Ellen and I, we could go for days in that bed without even knowing there was someone else on the other side. 
This is important for you to know, because not long after we turned out the lights that night, exhausted and a little depressed from the day’s move, I felt the bed begin to shake.  Not mightily mind you—no earthquake or anything like that—but a shaking nonetheless, just the light flutter of a body trembling on the other side of our runway-sized mattress. 
“Hey,” I said into the darkness.  I considered sending up a flare, but decided against it—no point in losing our deposit on the first night. 
The quavering continued. 
“Hey,” I said again.  I reached a hand into the darkness, groping until I found Ellen’s shoulder.  It was shaking.  Fiercely.  Poor thing I thought, and scooted across the sheets.  Must be the hormones, I thought, the move, all this change, everything. 
“Hey,” I said, again, holding Ellen close in my arms.  Her shoulders rattled against me.  “Shh . . .” I said.  “It’ll be okay.  Seriously.”
The shaking deepened and then she burst out laughing.  “I swear—“ she gasped, “I swear—.”  She had to take a deep breath.  I pulled back a little, trying to figure out what was going on. 
“I swear,” she said, laughing so hard she could hardly breathe.  “I swear I just heard a cow moo.”

That was in 2000.  Now, twelve years later, we still live in Lexington.  A couple times while we were in Hong Kong this or that administrator would probe gently, trying to see if we were interested in making our stay there more of a long-term thing (this isn’t that surprising:  the universities there are growing rapidly and desperate for faculty), but we never took the bait.  And since we’ve been back, we’ve talked a lot:  what sort of job offer or location or opportunity would lead us to pack up and move away forever?   What would cause us to leave Lexington? 
The answer:  very little.  Excepting an offer from the Sorbonne (not bleedin’ likely), or someplace renowned for its food—say, Tuscany or Toledo—chances are we’ll die in Lexington and get buried in our backyard, which sounds kind of creepy until you know that our land abuts a cemetery—and likely sounds creepy even then.
So what is this magical place that snares would be transients?  What is this Shangri-la that turns us all into lotus eaters—and worse, that causes us literary types to mix their metaphors? 
Sit back, and I’ll tell you:
Lexington, Virginia, population 7,000, more or less, is the county seat of Rockbridge County, population 36,000, more or less.  The county goes back approximately 200 years, and though wikipedia will tell you it was founded to shorten travel distances to the nearest courthouse, the truth is the county was created after a group of pissed off white settlers killed an Indian chief they believed was stealing their cattle and then selling it back to them.  Afraid that the people in distant Richmond would look upon this sort of wholesale slaughter of the natives as a criminal act of murder—probably because it was—the Rockbridge area residents very quickly established their own county, built their own courthouse, held their own trial and—surprise!—found themselves innocent of all charges. 
Which is a metaphor for something, I’m sure, likely involving genital herpes.  
Lexington itself was first settled in 1778 and named after Lexington, Mass. following the revolutionary war battle.  The town finally became incorporated in 1841 and grew steadily, feeding off of the timber industry, the advent of the railroad, and its proximity to the Great Wagon Road, which ran the length of the Shenandoah Valley, in which Lexington is located. 
Several things make Lexington distinctive:  first and foremost, it’s home to two nationally recognized colleges, Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.  For better or for worse, these two schools shape the city:  go downtown on any weekend night and you’re bound to run into VMI cadets in their dress whites; forget to make a reservation for your favorite restaurant in early November and you’re liable to discover that every seating has been taken up by students being wined and dined on parents weekend.  Student rentals dot most neighborhoods, and real estate prices are inflated by the influx of faculty and artificially low mortgage rates sponsored by colleges desperate to keep Harvard-educated professors in a town the size of a moderately cramped parking garage. 
Not that I’m bitter or anything. 
The other thing that’s distinctive about LexVegas is that it’s purrty.  I’m not saying it this to make fun of southern accents—some of my best friends are southerners, and so are my kids—but because it’s just the appropriate way to say it:  Lexington isn’t pretty, it’s purrty, warm and soft and shockingly green, just like, um . . . your, uh . . . green cat. 
But damn, it is:  pretty that is, or purrty, or whatever.  Unlike Salem, fifty miles down the road and named after another Massachusetts town albeit one known less for a courageous battle than for burning human beings alive, Lexington has managed to keep much of its olde towne charme.  Most of the downtown sidewalks are glazed brick and a lot of the buildings have been standing since the late nineteenth century.  Away from downtown you’ll find tree-lined streets full of antiquated wood-framed houses, hardly a brick ranch or McMansion in sight.  It’s the kind of town where kids walk to school with their friends, where on the 4th of July they have a bicycle parade down Main St. full of boys and girls on streamer-covered bikes, the sort of place where Sons of the Confederacy march proudly any damn day they want, waving that symbol of lost history, the stars and bars of the confederate battle flag . . .
Uh . . .
Forget I mentioned that . . .
Actually, that’s not true:  as of last October, the SoC—just one letter away from . . . again, forget I mentioned it—the SoC is no longer allowed to fly their flags from the town’s poles to commemorate the South’s efforts in “War of Northern Aggression,” a phrase that is not used ironically (by some—indeed, by many) down here.
Which relates, I suppose, to two rather more complicated components of life in the Lex:  first, it is very much a place that is steeped in confederate history.  It is, after all, Washington and Lee University, and no matter how you slice it, that last bit isn’t named after someone by the first name of Peggy.  Indeed, good old Bobby Lee is actually buried in Lexington, on the W&L campus, in the Lee Chapel.  Which is a chapel.  You know.  A sort of religious building?  Where you worship God?  Or gods, as it turns out.  And if you think I’m kidding, then feel free to glance in and see what they have where the alter should be. 
Hint:  it looks an awful lot like a confederate general carved in marble . . .
In addition, Thomas Jonathan Jackson—he of Stonewall fame—is also buried in Lexington, or at least most of him is as I’m not sure what they did with the arm that his—ahem—own men shot off.  Old Stonewall is actually buried in my backyard—or in the cemetery next to my property at least.  Indeed, I can almost see his statue—which portrays him with both arms standing tall and facing to the (surprise!) south—from my desk as I write these very words.  Stroll by his monument on any given day and you’ll notice a half-dozen lemons strewed about the grass:  among TJ’s many quirks was his belief that sucking lemons made a man stronger.  Pity it didn’t make him glow in the dark, because maybe then he wouldn’t have gotten shot.  By his own men, have I mentioned that? 
Indeed, the southern history here runs deep enough that when they were considering shutting down the confederate museum in Richmond, Lexington was mentioned as a possible alternative site.  That the museum wasn’t actually moved here perhaps points to the second complicating factor that needs to be mentioned when we discuss Lexington:  namely, that the town itself isn’t really representative of the deep south—or even the moderately shallow south. 
Allow me to explain by telling yet another one of my short but stupid stories:  a little over a year ago I was invited to a party where I didn’t know a lot of people.  Generally in situations like this I drink too much and make a pass at my hostess, leaving only when the police show up and chase me through the woods.  This particular evening, though, I was well behaved (my hostess was a former karate instructor) and more or less sober.   At one point I was introduced to a guy in his late forties with long, graying hair, workman’s hands, a loud laugh that was infectious.  When he asked me what I did, I told him I was a professor but that I was currently on sabbatical writing a book.  He gave that laugh of his and said, “Rockbridge County:  where half the people have written a book and the other half have never read one.”
It was a harsh comment—funny as hell, but harsh.  And like most funny as hell but harsh jokes, it had more than a bit of truth in it.  In this case, I think, it made an exaggerated claim that pointed to a real fact:  half the county—mainly, the people who live in Lexington, are over-educated geeks like yours truly; the other half (who actually read plenty of books) are . . . well:  not. 
On some levels this is a political thing:  every other year, our congressional district regularly elects a carpet-bagging mind/soul vacuum, largely because the Republican county wipes out the Democratic city. 
And as is the case generally in the US these days, the political is social:  not only do the town and county vote in very different ways, they live very different lives—or at least generally.  The county embraces rural life, is not afraid of guns, and tends to engage in the life of the mind without getting obsessed about it.  The city folk generally pride themselves on being cosmopolitan (e.g., being able to distinguish good Thai food from bad, good single malt scotch from cheap), tend to keep even water guns away from their kids, and argue strongly that there’s nothing wrong with being intellectual, that, indeed, the country would be a much better place if people would start to pay attention to what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it and whether or not what they’re thinking is actually true. 
But again, I need to say this:  generally.  Because the fact of the matter is that:  a) the minute I make generalizations like this, I start to think of exceptions; and b) I generally like to be honest about the complexities of these things, particularly when: a) it’s a small town and I’m easy to find; and b) the people I might offend likely have guns. 
But more, I think, I really don’t have any interest in arguing that a town full of wealthy folks, academics, and wealthy academics is necessarily better than folks who know how to fix a tractor—or the other way around.  Rather, the point I’m trying to make, finally—FINALLY!—is that Lexington, Virginia doesn’t fit the stereotypes—accurate and inaccurate—of south central Virginia.  It’s its own place, its own weird place, full of anomalies. 
And that’s why we like it. 
And that’s why I’m going to write about it from now on.
And that, at least, is the truth. 


V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

Oh Lexington. I grew up in Rockbridge Baths, in the shadow of Jump Mountain, far from the maddening crowds in Lexington, ha ha ha. My brother is a W&L grad; my husband graduated from VMI. In high school, I was in a gifted program and took special classes on both campuses.

I live in northern Virginia now (after stints in Oklahoma and Europe), and my kids go to camps in Rockbridge County, something that never fails to amuse me. I now pay substantial sums of money so my children can live without TV and air conditioning, just as I did. We didn't even have our own phone line when I was a teenager. What torture.

I love the County but when I visit Lexington, I find it a bit creepy, like a movie set. I swear, Alvin Dennis hasn't changed their window displays in 35 years--still madras, seersucker suits, and bow ties. Another generation of silver- haired women with bobs, loafers, and cardigans has replaced the one of my youth. The Palms, which opened when I was in high school, is still there and still the same. The town remains self-consciously charming and artsy. The addition of the Virginia Horse Center years ago brought more of the gentry out into the county, some of whom built second homes there. Rockbridge County in the 1970s used to attract hippies, musicians,and commune lovers.

I still have friends and family in the area and love to visit. I have traveled quite a bit but still consider Rockbridge County the most beautiful place I've ever been. Still, I wouldn't want to live there!

LA said...

I am related to Ol' Mr. Lee and have not ever been to Lexington (my middle name, even, is Lee, and you'd find quite a few Robert E.s in my family tree). I cringed a little at the Chapel comments, feel ashamed. I always stress that he wasn't really pro-slavery, he just really freakin' loved Virginia, maybe because it's so purrrty?


// Ladaea

Stephen Bravar said...

Stumbled across your blog as I was searching out info on Lexington as a possible move from NE NC. Been there several times....but a move is a different adventure and I, now 68 and just about traveled out, only want to do this ONE MORE TIME! Thinking of Lexington as a place to hit a few books, the country roads, attend instead of teach and --- when necessary or when the snows arrive --- to flee from for our beach place at Hatteras. Goin' Up the County, as Country Joe and the Fish used to say....maybe we're just looking to recreate the pleasure we found for 25 years on a hillside farm in Vermont. Somehow I will shake this out....and your enjoyable writing will help us do so. Many thanks!