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WHILE LIVING by
Granted, when I rub my eyes and prepare my ears, I can easily walk out the door and hike quickly to Arby's, McDonald's, the Shell station, and other convenient outlets for news and food. I've lived in major cities with similar noise annoyances, and similar criminal or seriously unhealthy--both mentally and physically--people cruising about, but those cities always had a plus side to them for balance. (New Orleans immediately comes to mind.)
Fredericksburg seems to have missed the Pleasantville bus, instead choosing to hop the boxcar on a runaway train: a loose, homeless friend without benefits, a frustrated semi-urban adolescent with no map.
This particular area by U.S. 1 is where a good chunk of our local population goes for shopping, fun, and recreation. (It's hard for me to imagine such desperation.) But to understand it, we have to take a look at the faces and behavior of the people wandering around here looking either for a good time or for anything to kill the time they have left on Earth.
There's a game I made up and like to play called "Count the Happy People." You don't need all your fingers and toes to play this one. In fact, I've made the game into a bet, sometimes with my brother and friends, and it goes like this: Find me just one happy, smiling (not intoxicated or crazy) person in the next 10 minutes and I'll pay you a buck. I've never lost the bet. Not ever.
Those people are rarities anywhere in Fredericksburg now. You mostly see bumbling, frowning--or even fighting--people, either aggressively rolling the roadways or hobbling through parking lots hoping to get hit by cars themselves. This is true even downtown, the pretty part.
I can keep myself happy here outside the door to my short-term hideaway only by looking at the little blue flowers I recently found in a remote patch of grass between gas stations, or at the interesting circle of bright greenery in another. These colorful rebels defy the horror that otherwise defines this area. I don't remember feeling this way about Fred when I was a kid. What the heck happened to this city? Did it change? Or did I?
Both. I've grown, and so has the population. The number of people in the city alone has grown by
I had dinner at a local restaurant not too long ago and the waitress, a resident of several years, had never heard of the City Dock where I used to fish. She probably knew where the Lee's Hill housing development and the Central Park retail maze are, though. I'm sure she knew where the goofily (and inaccurately) named Towne Centre mall is, too. I doubt she would know about the Kenmore Inn or how to find Washington Avenue.
Our city is no longer really a town, neither is it a city; instead it's just a sorry attempt at being sort of like Fairfax, which--in my opinion--is not a desirable goal at all. It's particularly pathetic when you fail as badly at achieving that goal as Fredericksburg has: In reality, we're now only a very remote suburban nightmare devoid of calm and natural smiles, empty of cosmopolitan thinking, and filled with perpetually angry or sad people roaming around in poor health.
The few Fredericksburg residents who maintain sanity hide themselves away in pockets now, so I do the same thing. I visit my little flowers and the greenery patch, and make treks to the highly worshipped fast-food places for sustenance. I even make it to City Dock and walk up and down Rocky Lane--sometimes even to Washington Avenue--once in a while. Otherwise, I keep to myself in the interest of self-preservation, after seeing what happens to people when they expose themselves too much to the outside world here.
If we really want to be like Fairfax, let's be good at it and do it right. (Start by bringing in better restaurants.) If we want to be like Charleston or Savannah, let's try to be good at that instead by making beauty, manners, and tranquility top priorities. But let's choose one, either way. This faux Southern gentility doesn't mix well with mock attempts at being Northern Virginia, and together they accomplish nothing at all.
Fredericksburg, with all its fantastic potential, is in some nebulous adolescent stage of growth, and a clear direction is badly needed. Until one is picked, it's better to stay holed up, the way Duane Jones and Judith O'Dea did in the original "Night of the Living Dead."
As with all sad, angry teenagers who smoke and eat Doritos all day, there comes a time to figure out what to be as a grown-up. That time for Fredericksburg is now. Conventional wisdom would dictate: Just pick something--anything--and try your best to be good at it. Sloth, mood swings, gluttony, sloppiness, loud noise, belligerence, self-destruction, and bad manners would not be tolerated by any good parent, particularly if the teen has redeeming qualities or any direction. Where are Mommy and Daddy now?
There is still great hope for the future here. Teen Fred has promise, but I'm afraid all we have before us today is the confused identity and acne associated with growth.
Mike Jones is a resident of Fredericksburg.