Yesterday morning I got out of bed really early. I had plans — big plans. It was the first annual USA Timmy Day. (Some may note, due to my selfish side, that “every” day is Timmy Day. But I digress.)
I ran by my office and got my athletic shoes, which I had left under my desk. I catnapped in a chair in the computer lab while I waited for the gym to open. At around the appointed time, I drove across the street and proceeded to work out for the first time in about a year.
I noted on the treadmill that it had a warning to stop if you felt dizzy. After about ten minutes, I did, so I stopped. I couldn’t tell if my dizziness was due to lack of sleep or the exercise, but I decided not to push it the first day out.
I then made my appointed round to the neighborhood Starbucks. I asked them about a gift card someone had given me at work. In my daze the day before, I was almost positive I had put it back with a stack of other cards. (It’s a long story, not worth noting here, HOW I did that).
The manager checked the top one, and sure enough it had been loaded already. She gave it back to me.
After some wake up juice and blogging, I headed to my own personal living history museum in Roanoke, the town where I spent my pre-adolescence.
My goal this day was to check out the downtown a little bit. Other than driving through, I hadn’t been there since I moved back to Virginia from overseas.
I breezed down the interstate and the spur into town. I noted the warmup I experienced as I entered the Roanoke Valley. It’s about 5 degrees warmer than my own city of Blacksburg. I got off at the Hotel Roanoke. My thought was that I should stay there once before I die,so, onto the Bucket list it went.
THE HOTEL ROANOKE IN 1955. I WAS A YEAR OLD.
I drove behind the hotel and thought that I don’t recall ever being in this neighborhood before. It turns out I was in the historic African American neighborhood of Gainsboro, which is why this southern white boy of the 60s probably had never been on this street.
I spotted the niftiest looking house for rent there. It was painted kind of a pinkish red and was longer than it was wide.
I turned left from Wells down Gainsboro and headed toward the downtown. Since it was mid morning I didn’t have too much difficulty parking on Campbell Avenue. I figured it would get crazy at lunch time, so my sketchy agenda was to get out of Dodge by then.
I got out of my car and walked toward the Roanoke Wiener Stand, which was definitely on my Bucket List. Unfortunately, I had no cash and their sign made it clear that’s all they took.
I walked through the open air market and headed to Church Avenue, where I knew the Texas Tavern was located. For some reason I had never been there, at least in my memory, but I had read about it. They didn’t take my card either.
Thankfully, I had spotted a Bank of America on Jefferson Street. No surprise there. They are ubiquitous.
My main concern before going to the ATM was my bladder. I walked into the courthouse. No luck. I then walked into another building, where a nice woman directed me to the Municipal Building down the street. At least I got a free calendar there from all the walking.
On the way down Church Avenue I had seen a music store advertising pianos and stopped in on the way back down that street. My oldest daughter plays and I wanted to see if they had any deals. A nice older lady named Sue showed me what they had.
Church Avenue in Spring 2010 (www.nokenews.com)
I told Sue I had moved away when I was 13 and was downtown reminiscing. She told me the downtown had changed a lot. In fact, she said a lot of people were moving back into it and condos were springing up. Sue said some of them were even around a million dollars!
What I remember about downtown Roanoke was walking way ahead of my mother down the street, and going to some lounge with my father.
I tried to describe this pub to Sue. It was in the cellar of a hotel I believe, perhaps the Patrick Henry, and had red leather seats. She said it could have been there. Actually, I think it was the Ponce de Leon Hotel. (Or, it was a place called “The Boiler Room.” Memory escapes me.)
The Ponce de Leon Hotel in the 1950s, when I was a little tyke.
Sue told me the Patrick Henry was being renovated. Above the first floor she said they were building over a hundred condos.
I mentioned that my Dad and my uncle had worked for Rutherford Insurance back in the 60s. I knew they were a big concern now, and she told me they were right down the street. In fact, her shop had insurance with them. I was tempted to drop in and see if there was anyone old enough to remember my Dad, but I demurred. My hot dogs were waiting.
I felt a little sorry for downtown Roanoke while walking around. There were a lot of storefronts for lease and one shop had a going out of business sale. For a downtown, it’s kind of quiet. I suppose it is a sign of the times.
I made a mental note to bring my kids back, hopefully even this week, for a tour of the Virginia Transportation Museum. Their trains are a centerpiece, which makes sense, as Roanoke was a railroad town until recently.
My last stop was the Roanoke Wiener Stand. It has been spruced up on the outside to fit with the artsy/craftsy feel of the historic district, but inside it’s a diner.
I ordered the combo, two chili dogs, fries and a lemonade. I sat down on stool next to a frame full of foreign currencies.
I spotted the Euro, and a Saudi Riyal, two bills that have been part of my recent life. I didn’t see a Finnmark, also a part of my jounrey, but I did catch a Swedish Kronor.
The best content of that frame was a small black and white of Jesus, framed within the frame. He’s the Lord of all that money.
I suppose I expected the hot dogs at the Roanoke Wiener Stand to melt in my mouth. They didn’t.
They were good enough, but I think I had mythologized them to a point where they could have never met my expectations. In the final analysis, it was lunch.
On the way out I made my obligatory pilgramage to the old homestead off Williamson Road. I paid more attention to my neighbors houses this time than my own digs. The old Stiff house across the street had a satellite dish, another sign of the times (along with the “Roanoke.com” sign on the newspaper building downtown). Even sleepy Roanoke has gone high tech.
Roanoke is a town of the 21st century now, but it still looks pretty much the same, save the 20 pump gas stations. Williamson Road is much seedier than when I was a kid, but as I understand it, its current seediness is even an improvement.
It was the home of massage parlors (aka brothels) in the 1980s. The fair citizens of Roanoke demanded a cleanup, and they got it.
I arranged to meet my old childhood friend Jeff in southwest Roanoke County where he lives. We spent the evening together, and became even closer friends.
I met his beloved dogs Lexi and Ringo and ate lentil soup at his house. We chatted a little deeper this time than our normal banter, which in some ways is leftover from when we were twelve.
Twentieth century Roanoke brings nostalgic feelings, but the twenty first century verson ain’t half bad either.