Recently we were out after dark. In the city. During the coronavirus.
Almost everything we like to do was missing. Soft lights, loud cheerful voices, clinking glasses, the maracas sound of ice cubes in a silver shaker, good music, interesting conversations with friends or strangers we’ve just met. Chatting with the bartender as he or she pours a tall mug of cold beer from the tap. Live or jukebox music. Sharing new and complicated food we don’t cook at home. Discovering new wines and whisky.
I miss eating out and sitting at a bar because when it’s just the two of us we always sit at the bar. Rich and I have been married for 29 years. We’ve been together for 38 so when we leave the house we like to chat with other people.
I miss other people. Bartenders. Locals in a new city or small town. New to me people in my own town. The regular workout fanatics who belong to the gym where I work. And then there are the carpenters, plumbers, oil burner repairmen, another guy we call the bug man, the cleaning ladies, the UPS guy, and contractors who stop in to get keys to the condo units where they are working on any given day.
So now when Rich and I get bored and stir crazy we hop in the car and go for a ride. Our date night began at one of Roanoke’s landmarks that stands out as you drive through the city on Interstate 81.
The new coronavirus church hours were taped to the locked doors. The parking lot was empty. The school behind the church was closed. Rich and I are not churchgoers. I am an atheist. Rich has no opinion on the subject. We are both fans of architecture and stained glass. We have visited churches in places as diverse as San Francisco and Hoven, South Dakota. I have been to Notre Dame in Paris but I skipped the Vatican in Rome.
The doors were locked at St. Andrew’s when we got there at around 6 p.m. but the parking lot had a beautiful view of the city.
The church is on the edge of the Gainsboro district of Roanoke so we took a little tour around the neighborhood.
Soda advertisements on old brick buildings are popular in Roanoke and they also happen to be one of my favorite subjects to photograph. Public art and murals are other favorites.
Roanoke was once a segregated city. From 1911 to 1917, there were city ordinances that required blacks and whites live apart, including a law that created segregation districts where blacks were required to live. Everything outside those districts, which were mostly in the Gainsboro neighborhood and to its north, was the white area. In 1917 a U.S. Supreme Court decision knocked down the ordinance.
Roanoke is also a front porch town and in the days of the pandemic the porches in the various neighborhoods we have explored are a lifeline in these communities. Spring is in full bloom here in Virginia and front porch conversations between the folks on the front porch and the neighbors on the sidewalks go beyond the six foot CDC guidelines.
We have all learned a lot more about the CDC in the days of the pandemic. It’s too bad more people weren’t aware of the fact that Trump gutted the agency when he first took office but now that we’re all at home and glued to the news hopefully everyone’s paying more attention and watching and reading the real news.
Urban renewal in Roanoke helped launch projects such as an expanded Coca-Cola bottling plant (that explains all the soda advertisements on brick buildings), and the conference center at the Hotel Roanoke — but it also moved many Gainsboro residents from their homes and left numerous properties vacant.
We did see boarded up homes and small businesses. This area lacks a grocery store which is a common problem in many lower income neighborhoods in America’s cities. What we mostly saw were people walking their dogs and stopping to chat with neighbors sitting on their front porch. Kids played basketball and rode tricycles up and down the driveways. Homeowners mowed lawns and weeded gardens. A few people were grilling as it was dinner time. And yes, it appears that although the segregation is no longer legal it is still, again like many American cities, prevalent. If you’d like to find out more about segregated Roanoke you can read it here.
Date night moved onto a Greenway we wanted to explore. Hiking trails, biking paths, and city parks can be found throughout the Roanoke Valley and they really add to the livability of a city.
Wasena is one of our favorite Roanoke neighborhoods. There are a wide variety of bungalows in this neighborhood and it reminds me of Bethesda and Chevy Chase, Maryland. The photo below is one of our favorite bungalows in Roanoke. I doubt the owners would ever sell this place. Their pride of ownership is evident in the gardens, the porch furniture, the tiffany lamps seen through the windows, the all season porch on the side of the house, and the lovely carport where a car with the license plate PRFCT is parked. Perfect indeed.
When we first got here we stopped in the Roanoke Co-op for food supplies and to check for toilet paper (nada!). There is a small Trader Joe’s sort of parking lot here that requires a parking attendant who was extremely friendly. It was early on in the pandemic and he was one of the first people I saw wearing a mask. Standing 6 feet apart from each other we asked where the sculpture trail was and he directed us to it. He also told us about Wasena and many other trails. He used to work for the town, but now handles traffic in the parking lot in his retirement, and was a wealth of information on the area.
At the time we didn’t know the sculpture park, which was recently closed due to coronavirus, connected with the Roanoke River Greenway. On date night this river trail was still open so we took a walk and two miles later we really wanted to head into the Wasena City Grill for an icy cold beer but out on the patio the chairs were stacked on the tables and the sign on the door said Closed Due to Coronavirus. Damn, that’s right. We are in the midst of a pandemic. For a moment out along the river we almost forgot.
Rich had thought ahead and brought a cooler with beers. We checked out the bike and kayak rental place and added that to our list of things we still might be able to do.
We walked past a condo in a renovated old factory building near the defunct railroad tracks along the Roanoke River.
We walked past a cute al fresco dining spot. There were no signs but we assumed it was for residents only.
Then we turned the corner and I stumbled upon pure gold. The mural was on the side of a self storage building.
Wrapped around the corner was an absolute gem. I love bird murals. I’ve photographed them from San Francisco to Providence, in Burlington, Vermont, recently Frederick, Maryland, and everywhere in-between. But this was perfection. Coronavirus may have closed all the museums but you can’t shutdown public art.
We stood there finishing our bottles of beer and admiring it for awhile then we walked back to the car and drove the quiet empty streets of a usually vibrant city.
It was when we were driving through the wealthier neighborhood on the edge of downtown that I saw it. The Star.
Rich and I hiked the Star trail numerous times when we 1st arrived here. It is a loop trail with views of the city and a wildflower garden next to the zoo. It was one of the first Blue Ridge Parkway trails to close, most likely due to the picnic tables and the families congregating on Friday nights with takeout dinners. We were sad when we saw the Road Closed sign. It’s a nice moderate hike ten minutes from our temporary home. We’d heard it was lit up every night but we had yet to see it because we’d never been in the city at night.
But here we were, out after dark, in the city, and as we turned a corner in yet another neighborhood, this time with large brick Georgian style homes without porches I saw it and shouted “It’s the star and it’s lit up! Pull over. I have to get a picture.”
We drove home, made dinner, drank wine, and talked about all our favorite restaurants and memorable dining out meals.
I still miss eating out but I did get to see the star in the night sky.
Are you getting stir-crazy? What do you do when boredom sets in during these crazy days?