Poverty of Imagination: Cashing out at Taco Bell
I mean, in the case of my mom, who smoked two packs a day, she suffered two collapsed lungs, a direct result of smoking, and she’d eventually die of lung cancer, at 62, one of three siblings to die in their 60s, all of them smokers.
My grandmother was also a lifelong smoker, to a point.
Granny was in her early 70s when a persistent cough sent her to the doctor, and she was diagnosed with emphysema, and told by the doctor that if she didn’t quit smoking, she’d be dead within a year.
She quit that day, and lived another 10 years.
You can’t tell me that the stuff about cigarettes being addictive is all about the chemicals when a person who smoked for 55 years can quit cold turkey and never touch another one.
Odd thing about growing up in a family of smokers is that you get desensitized to the whole smoking thing.
Thinking through my mental checklist, I don’t remember any of the family members that I would visit or stay the night with not having at least one smoker in the home, so, yeah, that’s the definition of pervasive.
I mentioned my basketball career being cut short earlier. It almost didn’t get to the point of me having to quit because Mom wasn’t interested in picking me up after practice.
The seventh-grade season that had me as the star player on a youth-league championship team was marked by me coughing throughout games, and an eventual diagnosis of asthma.
Now, when I tell you that, moving out on my own after college, this asthma thing pretty much went away, mysteriously, and that I now run distance races, and have completed three marathons, you’re not surprised at all, are you?
Because I didn’t have asthma as a result of anything other than growing up having to choke my way through endless fogs of secondhand smoke.
I used the word desensitized, and another thing you get desensitized to is the smell.
I only realized this as an adult, but there was an odd episode for me in seventh grade, where I was pulled out of class, along with another classmate, to meet with a guidance counselor.
This counselor had instituted a program that school year matching up kids in our class with kids in second grade to serve as sort of mentors.
Our second-grade little brothers were there with us, and we were shown a video on cleanliness, little things, like washing your hands after you go to the bathroom, using deodorant.
Things I did as a matter of course. I’m a neat freak, to an extreme. I can’t think if things are out of place, brush my teeth at least three times a day, long showers, relentless hand-washing, all of that.
As an adult, living on my own, I started noticing that my mom’s trailer … stank. Reeked. And when I’d leave, I had to go home and take a shower immediately, and throw my clothes, my shoes, my jacket, if I’d worn one, into the washer.
I’d have to air out my car after just riding home in it.
It hit me: the cigarettes.
Mom never made much money, and she smoked the two packs a day. A pretty expensive habit if you do make money, and if you don’t, you buy the discount cigarettes, with as little in the way of filters as you can get under the law.
And then it really hit me: this was how I smelled growing up, in elementary school, in high school, in college, when I foolishly went home for a night every couple of weeks to wash my clothes, not thinking.
I walked around smelling like cheap cigarettes, a smell so bad that I couldn’t bear it past a short drive home as an adult.
I funked up every classroom, dorm room, social situation, you name it, all my life.
That little session with the guidance counselor in seventh grade wasn’t about me mentoring a kid into washing his hands after going to the bathroom.
It was because I was funkdafied, and she was trying to find a workaround.
Now, to the impact that this had on me in terms of me being horribly socially awkward. I was a mess as a teen.
I’ve mentioned being poor to the point of having a single pair of pants each year for school. I had pizza-face acne, to a point where I’d cry looking back at pictures of me from back then, if any existed, and thank God, they don’t.
You’re not going to be surprised to read that I’ve done some reading on the causes of acne, and that prolonged and consistent exposure to secondhand smoke is a known causal factor.
So, I had a pair of pants, one, had an awful, New England Journal of Medicine-worthy case of bad acne, and I smelled like cheap cigarettes.
I don’t have to further this by now going on about my utter lack of a social life.
Maybe it was a good thing. No distractions, right?
I’m always trying to find the positive.
I was tabbed for induction in the National Honor Society in 10th grade, with a nice ceremony at the school that, of course, my parents didn’t bother to attend, noticeable because the other inductees had parents there to soak in the moment with them.
I’ve mentioned my successes on the debate team, winning district and regional championships, and placing twice in the state tournament, held each year at the University of Virginia, in classrooms in which I would, later, study government and history.
Senior year, I had my one shot at being on the school’s Pop Quiz team, because I’d bought the $400 piece of crap jalopy, and could drive myself to the after-school practice sessions.
Our team ended up winning a state championship, and qualified for a national tournament, held that year in Chicago.
Early senior year, a big production was made of the guidance counselors meeting with us one-on-one to go over our progress toward graduation, and also let us know our class rank.
I was #2, with the top spot in striking distance.
I never assumed anything other than that I was going to go to college, because looking back, I had no reason to assume that I’d actually be able to.
I just naively assumed it would just work out.
Naivete: can be a good thing.
But, of course, things don’t just happen. The reason you’re able to read this today is because two women made me their cause, my debate coach, Diana Beam, and a guidance counselor, Anne Lewis.
Mrs. Beam had been my ninth-grade English teacher, and would always be the person that I’d call my favorite teacher.
Her class included a unit on creative writing in the spring that I credit with me whatever I am today.
The debate-coach gig is one of those thankless tasks that teachers get paid a small (read: infinitesimal) stipend to do ungodly amounts of work to do.
We’re talking after-school meetings, maybe 8-10 weekends a year for tournaments, all spent with debate nerds, funky-smelling and acne-ridden as many of us were.
Mrs. Beam unleashed a writer and a top-notch critical thinker on the world. Ms. Lewis figured out a way to pay for things.
Beginning in my junior year, she’d pull me out of class to have me fill out applications for scholarships, from every possible granting entity.
A couple hundred here, five hundred there, and we’re going to have this accounted for, she’d tell me, and damned if she didn’t figure it out.
Which gets us to April 1, senior year, the afternoon: as I checked the mail at the Crimora post office, P.O. Box 12.
We’d been told to expect letters around the first of April.
They were prompt.
I’d only applied to two schools: UVA, and JMU.
That was either ballsy, or more likely, just dumb.
Come on, you need a safety school, right?
I opened the JMU letter first, figuring, OK, second choice, let’s at least have an option.
Good news, bad news: I’d been accepted, but the financial-aid package wasn’t great.
OK, it was awful. The math didn’t add up, even with the scholarship dollars that Ms. Lewis had been accumulating for me.
Then, the UVA letter. Joy: I’d been accepted. And they could’ve offered me nothing in terms of financial aid, and I was going to rob a bank to get there.
But, instead, they offered an awesome financial package, which, with the scholarship dollars that Ms. Lewis had gotten to come my way, gave me a full ride.
I mean, I’d have to live frugal, but a lifetime in a trailer park tends to make frugality second nature.
I couldn’t overcome the #1 kid, but the consolation prize for being #2 was being honored as the class salutatorian, which came with it the chance to give a speech at graduation.
Which, holy crap. So, the stinky kid, still trying to grow out of his acne, was up on the stage.
Small roadblock on the way to the podium: me and the #1 kid, a friend from a couple of my classes, Brent, had to submit our speeches for pre-approval.
And mine, you’re not going to be surprised to learn this, didn’t meet with approval. Because, among other things, I wrote about how tough it was to get through being called names on the school bus, being a kid from a trailer park in a school with rich kids looking down their noses at us.
Looking back, I totally get it.
Graduations are supposed to be celebrations.
Thing was, I got word of the speech being rejected the morning of graduation. I guess they look at the approval thing as being a mere formality.
I mean, what kid is going to go nuclear on graduation night, right?
Answer: this kid.
I had time to rewrite the speech, but nowhere near the inclination.
Which is why I hereby formally and publicly apologize to Mr. Mowen, the man who had the misfortune to be the principal at Wilson Memorial High School in 1990, for having to endure my slow walk to the podium, papers in hand, having no idea what I was about to say, and then having to hear it out loud, in front of God and the world.
I started off by informing those in attendance that, you might not know it, but you can work hard for five years to be named your class salutatorian and have the honor to give a speech at graduation, only, you’re then expected to give a basic speech at the threat of being censored if you want to say anything even remotely controversial.
Then, I proceeded to read the speech as it had been prepared, submitted and rejected, the only edit being the addition of: in the speech that I was going to read tonight, I was going to say …
I’m lucky, in retrospect, that Mr. Mowen didn’t call the police to the stage to have me removed, detained, arrested, flogged.
Instead, he sheepishly walked to the podium after I sat down, called me back, and told the audience that the school system doesn’t believe in censorship of its students, and that he wanted to applaud me for my hard work and dedication to earn my spot on the stage.
I’m pretty sure he wanted to throttle me, just the same, and I wouldn’t argue that he wouldn’t have been justified.
Don’t think I walked off the stage with a big head or anything.
I was acutely aware at the school-sponsored graduation party that night that, OK, I had graduated #2 in my class, had a full ride at UVA waiting on me in the fall, but I also drove a $400 car that could break down at any moment, still had the acne and asthma.
Some winner I was, basically, was the feeling that I left that night with.
College was a chance to start over, in a manner of speaking. These kids wouldn’t know anything about the trailer park, about how I’d only had a single pair of jeans for a couple of years earlier in high school, that I was, basically, dirt poor, and trying hard not to be.
I had a clean slate, though, no, not really.
My first-year dorm was in UVA’s New Dorms, the layout being five bedrooms around a shared living room, meaning you had nine new best friends.
You identified on Grounds by telling people your dorm name and suite number. We were the Dobie 240s, and it was a great group of guys.
This being 1990, the dorm assignments were pretty random. I vaguely remember filling out a brief questionnaire about personal characteristics, but, I mean, no, it was not anything resembling a psychological profile that could match people in any kind of meaningful way.
So, that the group of us were to become a traveling band of mischief-makers was quite by chance.
I was the only local. The suitemate who would become my best friend, Jay, was from Richmond, about an hour away, and everybody else was from NoVa or beyond.
Funny thing, then, that when we got to school, and realized that, hey, if somebody had a TV, we could set it up in the living room, it was me, the poor kid, the local, who would go home the first weekend to retrieve his TV, and also make sure to snag the Nintendo, because, again, this is 1990, so we’re in Nintendo 1.0 era.
OK, we’re off to a good start.
Then, one day, I get home from class, and my roommates are having some fun.
“Chri-i-i-us, this is your-r-r-r m-ahhhh-m.”
My mom, on voicemail.
Funny thing about accents: you don’t notice them when you’re in your element, but when you get around a bunch of people from Richmond, NoVa and beyond, yeah, it’s pretty obvious.
Everybody listened, over and over and over and over.
As much as I’d been trying to pass as not redneck, there it was.
So, I’m outed.
Poor kid from the sticks.
The best part about college, and the part that I still miss, is being in an environment with a big group of very smart people, and having the time to sit for hours, into the wee hours of the night, talking about everything and nothing.
One of the first things I learned first year at UVA was how the rest of the world treated college. My high school class was roughly 120 kids, and maybe 20 of us were in college. My new friends from Richmond, NoVa and beyond came from huge high schools, several hundred in the graduating class, and 80, 85 percent of their classmates were in college.
It was expected, in other words. You did well in school, then you went to college, then you did something with your life.
You weren’t an oddball for reading books on the school bus. You didn’t have to beg, plead and steal to get your parents to pick you up after school for sports or academic activities.
People wanted you to succeed, and as a result, you wanted to succeed.
Interesting concept, that one.
I bookmarked it for later use.
One thing that I didn’t end up doing, and had assumed I would, was join really any clubs.
I tried. First thing I tried was joining a debating society, thinking, naturally, I was a state-champion debater, so, you know, debating society, natural.
But, no. It was too wide open for me, no ground rules, just chaos, basically whoever shouted the loudest getting the podium.
Next thing that didn’t work for me: the Young Democrats.
Today, all these years later, I will tell you that I am the most liberal person you will ever meet, and I mean it, but no, not entirely true.
I back single-payer, big on LGBTQ rights, immigration reform to me is, DACA as a path to citizenship, racial justice, et cetera.
But, capitalism isn’t inherently evil, though it seemed so at the first couple of Young Democrats meetings that I attended at UVA.
Let’s see: capitalism, bad, also bad, religion, which, as it turns out, I’ve come around on, but back then, not so much.
This being 1990, war, then pending with Iraq, the first one, bad.
Odd thing, for me, was that I could never get comfortable debating in the debating society, but I didn’t seem to have a problem arguing these issues out with the Young Democrats, which didn’t sit well with some of the membership, who I’m sure, looking back on it, had to wonder if I was some kind of plant or something.
I didn’t know it then, as you can guess, still trying to figure out the world and all, but my experiences at those Young Democrats meetings were my first glimpse into the issues that Democrats face because they don’t know how to talk to working-class whites.
I mean, you make it a key part of your party platform to talk down to people about religion, about how capitalism is evil, about how the military is too big and used too much, and even if you have your points, you can learn how to present them better, and Democrats, then and today, haven’t been able to do that with any consistency.
I dropped out after about the fourth meeting, disillusioned as hell, and I wouldn’t be a member of another Democratic Party outfit until I was elected chair of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee in 2008, ahead of the Obama presidential campaign.
Funny thing about that, bit of a spoiler: within hours of me being elected Waynesboro Democratic Committee chair, I was welcomed into the fold by a Democratic blogger who wondered aloud if I was a Republican plant.
Funny how that can work out.
So, no Young Democrats, no debating society, meaning I focused my time in college on getting my intellectual stimulation through coursework.
I declared my major second year, American government, intending to focus on foreign policy, until I read the fine print, and found that foreign policy majors needed to have proficiency in a foreign language related to their field of interest.
I had wanted to focus on Soviet-U.S. relations, but had no interest in leaning Russian, nor really any interest in working in D.C., New York or overseas after college.
I had it in my head that I’d go to law school and then return to Waynesboro to set up a public-interest law firm, basically being Waynesboro’s Atticus Finch.
My advisor pushed me to declare my concentration, thus, on constitutional law, which, as I made my way through that curriculum, should have warned me as to what was to come.
In short, I hated the actual constitutional-law classes, because it seemed that the professors were dead set on declaring that there were right and wrong answers, and the concept of right and wrong answers bores me to no end.
As if, even in the field of constitutional law, there are right and wrong answers.
I mean, seriously, the now-conservative-majority Supreme Court is rewriting stare decisis daily.
What interested me most were the classes around my major: comparative government, political theory, the sociology and psychology classes that we had to take in conjunction with the major, the religious history classes, the African-American history and history of the civil-rights movement classes, the awesome Southern history class I took fourth year.
You’re always weighing values and suppositions and trying to build a knowledge base that allows you to make informed decisions and choices, but there’s no set right answer.
That’s what life is to me. There was no one right way to get out of the trailer park. It’s a complex problem that I’m still trying to figure out, as weird as it might be to say.
But at the time, I was set on what I needed to do to go to law school. Meaning, constitutional law, which I hated, and keeping my eyes on my GPA.
My dream was UVA law school, and they actually give you a nice formula – again, a right answer – as to how you can get in.
Your GPA is weighted, and your scores on the LSATs, the law school entrance exam, also weighted.
Add it all up, and you know what your chances are to get in.
I made the Dean’s List six times in eight semesters, so I had a decent first number. The second one, the LSATs, I prepped for them for several months, taking practice test after practice test, to a point that when I later took the GREs, the grad school entrance exam, which is several degrees of separation easier, man, yeah.
But, LSATs, I was doomed.
For one, night before the exam, I couldn’t get to sleep, and I had an odd song stuck playing over and over in my head: “My Name is Mud,” Primus.
Ironic, not at all: that was clearly my subconscious talking to me, reminding me that I was still just a trailer-park kid, no matter how much I tried to pass.
Second: we took the LSATs in the Chem building, which happens to be next door to Scott Stadium, home to UVA football.
Which had a game that Saturday, at noon, against Ohio U.
Last hour of our LSATs, we’re being overwhelmed by the roar of a Homecoming crowd, as the ‘Hoos scored a couple of first-quarter touchdowns en route to a blowout win.
Yeah, excuses, excuses, but I wouldn’t get the score I needed to feel safe about UVA.
I ended up being wait-listed, and the stepfather of my buddy Jay, who would go on to be the best man in my wedding, and me in his, offered to throw his name into the hat for me, which would have been helpful, since the stepfather had pull.
I told him, thanks, but I want to do this on my own.
What I remember thinking is, it wouldn’t be fair, getting into UVA law school mainly because I had somebody pushing for it for me from the inside.
I’m 46 years old writing this now: and calling myself a dumbass.
Because that’s how the system works.
Merit is great, but knowing the right people is infinitely better.
Here, the poor kid from the trailer park was being handed probably the biggest break he’d ever get, and he turned it down – I turned it down; because I wanted the game to be played fair and square.
Same kid who never officially had that grand-slam homer and three-run double in a 15-run sixth inning because the coach of the rich-kid team perverted the rulebook to wipe the inning away because of the threat of rain in the distance.
Remember that kid?
The universe was making it up to him. He was too dumb to take it and use it.
Probably all for the best. I’ve always said that had I gotten into UVA law, I’d have seen it through, because that was the plan.
And I’d have hated it, and hated myself, and ended up 20 years into my law career quitting to go into writing, and there’s already a John Grisham, and the world doesn’t need another John Grisham.
But, yeah, don’t think I don’t think about it.
Returning home from law school, it was the first time in my life that I’d failed at anything, even if, technically, I hadn’t flunked out, anything close, just decided that, this isn’t for me, not what I want to do with my life.
Looking back on it, I wish I’d been able to intern with a law firm one summer during college, instead of having to work two minimum-wage jobs to be able to pay rent during the school year, because if I’d done the intern thing, I assume I would have seen that my vision of what a life in law would be didn’t meet what I wanted for my long-term reality, and pivoted accordingly.
I definitely envy those kids who are able to invest in themselves in that way.
Hard lesson learned. I was heading back home, back to the trailer park, with a UVA degree that qualified me to do, what, exactly, in the Waynesboro-Augusta County economy?
My dad had been able to get a good factory job after quitting school at 16, but that was a different era.
The GE factory, rebranded Genicom in the late 1980s, was a year from moving the rest of its factory jobs to Mexico, the first tangible result for us in the Valley post-NAFTA.
That GE plant, at its height, had employed 3,000. The DuPont plant, now branded Invista, once employed more than 5,000, and now has less than a tenth of that on its South River campus, which opened for business in 1929.
Those jobs weren’t there anymore, and the service industry that grew up around them was also going away, because if thousands of folks were no longer making good money in the factories, who was going to stop at the store on their way home to buy something?
Reality was, and I didn’t know it then, though I may have had some sense of it, that I wouldn’t have made much of a career coming back home to Waynesboro after law school.
I say that I kind of sensed it, because I remember sitting through the seminar that the loan folks made us take, to go over how we were expected to pay back the $100,000 in loans over 10 years, and doing the math, came to the realization that I’d end up having to work in the bowels of some megafirm in Richmond or D.C. to be able to meet those terms, because I’d never be able to do that in Waynesboro.
That realization was the basis of my one and only run for a seat on Waynesboro City Council, fast forwarding a bit here, to 2008.
A key part of my platform was focus on economic development, a fancy way of saying, we need jobs here, and not the kind of jobs that we ended up replacing those factory jobs with.
Not that it’s easy to just snap your fingers and get industries to locate in your town, but our city leaders went for the low-hanging fruit in the late 1990s and early 2000s, taking advantage of our blessed access to an interstate exit to say yes to every developer who pitched a big-box store or chain restaurant, which is fine in terms of grabbing sales- and meals-tax dollars for the city budget, but utterly sucks when it comes to what those jobs pay.
The new jobs pay about 60 percent that the manufacturing jobs no longer here paid, which is strike one for how much they suck as the foundation for a local economy.
Strike two: the scheduling. Manufacturing jobs offer set schedules: day shift, evening night, overnight shift. Retail and restaurant jobs vary from week to week, often from day to day. Sometimes you’re working morning, then night, then another morning.
Nights, weekends, et cetera, and many of them require you to consider yourself on call even when you’re scheduled to be off, in case people don’t show up for their shifts, for some reason, like, that the jobs suck, don’t pay much, don’t offer set schedules.
Strike three: the jobs require almost nothing in terms of skill, other than the skill of showing up.
You don’t aspire to work at Kohl’s, no offense to Kohl’s, and their Kohl’s Cash. You don’t grow up dreaming of waitressing at Applebee’s, running the fruit and vegetable section at Martin’s.
Previous generations did look forward to one day working at the DuPont or GE plants, either on the floor or, if they could get to and through college, as a physicist or engineer.
You can see where this is going. I’m writing about the poverty of imagination. Reality is that most people end up settling down as adults in their hometowns, or at the least not far from where they grew up. If you grew up in Waynesboro, Staunton or Augusta County, and you end up settling down here, odds are you’re taking a crap job to be able to do that.
For Crystal and me, we had to create out of the thin air our own opportunity, turning a no-frills website launched in 2002 into a business including our news website, which draws 2 million page views a month, and a web-design and marketing side business with several good-paying clients.
It wasn’t easy, and honestly, if we had been smarter, we would have, to borrow from LeBron James, taken our talents elsewhere, instead of fighting for years and years to get a foothold at home.
But now, having done that, we are among Waynesboro’s elite, at what would be a relatively modest family income if we lived practically anywhere else in the United States.
We live in a 2,700-square-foot house on a quarter-acre lot in a great neighborhood two blocks from downtown that we bought in 2012 for $153,000. Our family income is roughly $150,000 a year. We don’t have kids. It’s a good life.
And it almost didn’t happen, because my mom, worried for my future, arranged for me an interview at the local Taco Bell, for an open store manager position.
In her mind, this made all the sense in the world. I had a college degree, from UVA, no less. Managers at Taco Bell were bringing home $30,000 a year then. Mom would die in 2015 never having made more than $25,000 in a year in her life.
She couldn’t imagine anything better for her son than cashing out his UVA degree for a job managing a Taco Bell. Just like my sister couldn’t imagine anything better for herself than getting married and having a kid in her senior year of high school.
That’s how beaten down you get, and this is 20-plus years ago. We still remembered what it felt like when Dad made decent money at the GE plant, even though the system had held us back from buying that house in Bel-Air.
Mom caught on at the plant a couple of years after the divorce, and she had done well until the jobs left for Mexico.
That was in the 1990s. Now, in 2019? The DuPont and GE jobs are a distant, distant memory. The only thing propping things up here is our proximity to Charlottesville. That’s what’s fueling the boomlet at the interstate exit, and the still-strong real-estate market, with people moving to Central Virginia to take jobs associated with the University of Virginia seeing our absurdly low home prices in nice neighborhoods a short 25-minute drive from work and saying, sure, I’ll buy twice the house for half the price in Charlottesville.
Those folks don’t send their kids to the local schools. There are nice private schools in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, so, just leave a little earlier for work, drop the kids off, bring ‘em back home after work.
And those folks aren’t participating in civic life in any meaningful way here. The brain power that we’ve lost here over the years with the people like me who went off and got college degrees and realized quickly that they wouldn’t be able to do anything with them unless they left could be made up for by the newcomers to town from Charlottesville, but, nah.
Waynesboro and Augusta County are literally bedroom communities for them, literally just where they sleep.
They don’t volunteer with local non-profits, serve on boards, run for the school board and city council and board of supervisors.
They love the bigger house for much lower mortgage payments, they’re so-so on driving over the mountain in fog on the couple of days a month that’s an issue, but they’re adamant that their kids aren’t going to grow up like the kids of the folks who have lived here all their lives.
This is going to seem like it doesn’t follow, but stick with me for a sec:
For five years, I coached in the youth basketball league at the Waynesboro YMCA, and I got so much into it that I’d spend my mental free time scheming up offensive sets and drills to coach defense.
I was the doofus who took a class in Advanced Basketball Theory as a third-year at UVA, long after my hoops dreams had been extinguished, still enamored with the game.
Lots of reasons that I gave it up. One, the number of talented kids that we’d see come through as middle-schoolers – I coached 10- to 13-year-olds – who would never go on to play in high school because of grades, criminal activity, both.
Two, the parents. And, this is probably not limited to Waynesboro and Augusta County, but I better understand the reasons the stage parents act the way they do here.
I coached in a rec league, meaning as coaches, we were supposed to do things like make sure the kids played an equal number of periods, that we wouldn’t run plays exclusively for our best players to score gobs of points, but rather take effort to spread things out, to emphasize teamwork.
The parents liked exactly none of that. Because, see, my kid is the next LeBron James, so why isn’t he getting the ball more? And why are you playing that chubby kid who doesn’t know how to tie his shoes as much as my kid, who, remind you, he’s the next LBJ?
My last game, another coach threatened to punch me, after accusing me of not playing all of my kids an equal number of periods, following a pregame fight involving players and parents from both teams.
Which, yeah, wow.
The pressure is there because parents think sports is the only way out. You hear that in inner cities, where African American kids are indoctrinated into thinking that the only chance they have is a basketball scholarship.
A step-cousin, also named Chris, was a solid teen basketball player, which I know, because even though I never made any teams, I was a good pickup player in my day, and the last time I beat Chris one-on-one was when he was 14, at which point he turned freakishly good.
Chris only did well in school because he needed to keep his grades up to play basketball, which, OK, as long as you’re keeping your grades up, whatever.
Junior year, Chris decided to go out for the football team, at the prodding of an assistant coach, who foresaw being able to transform Chris’s freakish athleticism into playing cornerback, and watching him play a couple of times, I could see it.
Then it all came crashing down.
Still new to the sport, Chris awkwardly leaned into a tackle on a running back coming around the edge, and fell to the turf.
Turned out to be what they call a stinger, but his football season was over, and the effects of the injury lingered into basketball season, to the point that he had to miss all of that season, too.
Without sports, the incentive to keep his grades up was gone, and Chris fell into a downward spiral.
I was a young reporter at the paper when I found out what had happened to Chris, after losing track of him.
I was covering a tour of the Staunton Correctional Center, now the site of luxury condos, but at the time, local government officials were looking at the site as the possible location for a new regional jail complex.
It was still an active state prison at the time, minimum security. The tour had a mix of local and state leaders, with media members from the local papers and TV stations following along.
I was chatting with the Speaker of the House of Delegates, Vance Wilkins, when a guy in a striped jumpsuit came up to say hi.
Yo, Chris, what up?
It was Chris. Serving 18 months on drug charges.
This is why I don’t blame the folks from Charlottesville who bought homes here because they’re nice and also cheap from not enrolling their kids in the local school systems to keep them from getting our poverty of imagination disease.
Just brought you back.
I guess I don’t blame them, either, for not getting involved in civic life here.
I ran for a seat on city council, again, more on that later, and it didn’t go well. No good deed goes unpunished, in that sphere.
Some of them may feel stuck here now that they’ve been here, and seen the dead eyes staring back at them at the post office, at the grocery store, at the Applebee’s on Friday night.
I kind of feel that way myself, not staying behind anymore out of any sense of loyalty to place, or to family, because I can’t get away from my family fast enough.
It’s that twice the home for half the price thing at play.
And: yeah, I don’t want to give up on this place. There’s so much potential. The views are awesome, of the mountains, of the vast green spaces, with a nice mix of city living and culture.
I drive by that Taco Bell at least a couple of times a week, and I swear, every time I do, I think back to that job interview.
I didn’t throw it, as much as I wanted to. I’m a competitive sort, and if there’s something out there, I want it, in this case, to at least be able to turn down the job.
I was able to turn down the job.
My mom, of course, thought I was crazy.
Sometimes when I drive by, I let my mind wander to speculate on how things would have turned out had I not cashed out for the Taco Bell job.
Diabetic, definitely. Eternally unhappy and unfulfilled, without question.
Probably dead by now, maybe long since so.