Friday, December 11, 2015

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Those lists someone is always posting, placing Richmond in the top ten or twenty of this category or another? Spare me.

Make no mistake, there is no bigger Richmond cheerleader than me. The way I see it, our own River City nails it with the exalted holy trinity: low cost of living, high quality of life and a robust scene that defies you to be bored.

As a guy recently explaining to me why he was in a darkened art gallery on a week night to hear a string quartet play the work of Latin American composers said, "I couldn't think of any reason not to come."

I feel you, brother.

That's what these lists miss when they include us and tout the same old same old. By this point, every culture slave around has heard about our architecture, our myriad galleries, our rollicking restaurant scene. Rather than name-check the obvious - Carytown, St. John's, the James River - why not hint at the extraordinary?

If I were asked to explain why Richmond ended up on a "best of" list, I'd mention happenings such as listening to a cornet quintet (say that fast five times) in a bakery after hours. As the sun goes down on a steamy summer night, musicians and music-lovers shoehorn themselves into the bakery that grows its own ancient grains to make breads that have gotten national notice and city-wide devotion.

Because that's what bakeries in Richmond are for once the "closed" sign goes up.

Certainly I'd make an example of a top restaurant that has - since Day One, mind you  - maintained a $5 chalkboard menu, meaning even the poorest freelance writer can afford a couple of memorable courses.

Surely people would be impressed to learn that there's a group who every month invites a black director to screen their short film, take questions and then participate in a group conversation about the issues raised, making for the kind of diverse and free-wheeling discussion that's necessary if we're ever going to evolve as a culture.

For years, I told people that the highlight of moving from Washington, D.C. to Richmond was that I finally got to see a parade from the front row, which is really a metaphor for the difference in big city living and here.

It's so hassle-free to access what moves you.

It's a grass-roots print collective that holds annual shows selling the work of local printmakers, making it possible for anyone to own original art and support the creative community. A $15 print not only provides eye candy for years to come, but also introduces me to artists I may want to explore.

Without a doubt, I'd share how invigorating and inspiring it is to have such incredible waterside route options for walkers, runners and bikers. I'd insist they walk the pipeline walkway both ways, that they experience the dramatic height changes of the North Bank Trail and navigate the tangled paths of Chapel Island.

Water becomes your compass.

I'd explain that "venue" is a malleable term here and Latin bands play in art galleries, world music collectives in coffee shops and punk bands thrash in record stores. Art galleries host burlesque and bingo, while comedy clubs welcome booze panels and bad horror movies. I've seen Americana shows in cabins, communes and sheds.

Rarely do any of these shindigs cost anything.

My advice to visitors who want to really get a feel for Richmond would be to go to a local book store for a reading. Sit back and let poetry wash over you and then have the poet sign your copy. Or go to a non-fiction reading and try not to gasp when you take a swig of the jarful of moonshine that's passed around. To be fair, the book being read dealt with bootleggers and stills.

To finish my list, I'd tell visitors where to get a baguette worthy of a Francophile, the best places to dance to K-Pop, hair bands or vintage soul and why it's part of our ethos to do what you love if you live here.

Because we can.

Because those "best of" lists are never written by the people who are regularly participating in Richmond's vibrant scene. Because exciting and offbeat stuff happens here every single night of the week, whether you're paying attention or not. Because if there was ever an honest list of what's so terrific about Richmond, we'd be inundated by new arrivals and we're not ready for that.

It could be the city motto: "I never expected to stay, now I can't think of any reason to leave. Richmond."

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