Oh, sure, you can visit Charlottesville, Virginia, and see the usual, run-of-the-mill tourist sites — like Monticello, the Michie Tavern, the University of Virginia. Fine. Do the whole Thomas Jefferson schtick.
But not me. I used to live in Charlottesville during the impressionable years when I was in my late 20s and early 30s. And, when you’ve lived somewhere, you own it in some funny way that isn’t readily apparent to anyone but yourself. You look around and you lay claim to it, here and there, seeing scenes that are decades old, people who no longer live there — or anywhere else, your own younger self. Like other places you’ve lived in and left, it’s haunted by ghosts only you can see.
I would have driven past the Town and Country Tavern, where we’d once seen two women get into a fight, with one smashing a Coke bottle in the other’s face. We’d watched, transfixed, as she bled on the floor and the ambulance’s wail drew nearer and the band stopped playing. You don’t see scenes like that often — not even in Texas. But the little wooden tavern had burned down years ago, my friends told me. Arson had been strongly suspected.
Instead, I drive close to the downtown mall, where a health food store used to be. Here’s a point of interest! I once saw Anna Anderson there. She was the most prominent claimant to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, reputedly the only surviving member of Czar Nicholas II’s family. She lived in Charlottesville for years, getting hauled into court by neighbors now and then since her house was such a rat’s hole, spilling over with trash and vermin.
“I speet on you!” she would scream at newspaper reporters, which always seemed quite royal to me. Glimpsing her in front of the health store as she sat in an aging, trash-laden station wagon, I wondered about the caprices of life. Here I was, staring at the last of the Romanovs! Amazing! Didn’t she look regal?
Decades later, the station wagon, health food store and Anna Anderson are all gone. Worse, her longtime claim to have been Anastasia — which had found many prominent believers — has been proven false by DNA tests. So much for this regal, I-speet-on-you business. What must it be like to live your whole life as a fraud? I now wonder. Or did she come to believe the story herself — since, without it, she would have only been an elderly woman with a bad accent and a continuing hygiene problem? And, what about the rest of us? Didn’t we all get a kick out of her charade those years when many of us half-believed it, wanted it to be true, so our lives could be touched by a little tragic glamour? Maybe.
I drive some more, past the former headquarters of the Michie Company, a
legal publishing company where I almost lost my mind. That was where I once was so desperate to do something creative and provocative to haul myself out of my endless funk in 1979 that I posted a note on the Coke machine saying the proceeds from the machine were going to support the Shah of Iran. “Death to the Shah and his 90-year-old mother!” I wrote, signing the name of a friend down the hall. That afternoon, I heard that all the secretaries were boycotting the machine. There was a message behind my prank, I realized: I needed to get out of the Michie Company. And fast.
Maybe it was just as well I didn’t have anything more to see. There’s no way I can return to a place where I once lived without slipping into a slight ache of melancholy — no matter how offbeat or bizarre the stories are.
Thomas Jefferson could have returned to find his grand and beautiful house and the university he founded. The rest of us, lesser mortals, were different. Coming back, we’re left to ponder how we come and go so quickly and leave so little trace of ourselves behind. If the Town and Country Tavern can get torched, the Shah overthrown, Anna Anderson exposed, I’m afraid there’s just no hope for the rest of us.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)