(Sometimes it’s tough to feel at home in your own city. Which is why I’ve given myself a challenge: each day, for forty days, I’m going to find *one* thing I love about this place. And then I’m going to tell you about it. If you want to follow my journey, start here. Today is Day Twenty-Four.)
Yesterday was one of those days when all of Roanoke seemed to conspire to convince me that this place is good.
That I belong.
Around lunchtime, I headed over to Grandin Village to snap a few photos. The Village is the beating heart of my neighborhood — a little three-block hub of picturesque shops and a movie theatre, mostly built in the 1920s and 30s.
But I barely got ten pictures snapped before I ran into James Tarpley, known to some as the “Angel of Grandin Village.”
If you’ve ever spent any time in the Village, you’ve probably run into James. A small, sweet-faced, brown-eyed octogenarian, James is a longtime Grandin resident who dedicates most of his days, in a completely unofficial capacity, to keeping the place safe and friendly and clean. When I first met him, he was sweeping up litter at the Grandin Community Farmer’s Market. On any given day, though, you might also see him planting flowers, taking a swarm of little ballerinas from the Roanoke Ballet Theatre to lunch at the Village Grille, or even defending the local bank against bank robbers (yes, that actually happened, once upon time). Mostly, though, you can find him resting on the park bench in front of the Co-Op, bending ears with a good yarn or two (or three).
That’s where I ran into him in the middle of my photo shoot, smiling slyly up at me and asking me about my project. And – as so often happens with James – the next thing I knew, I was swept into his cheerful daily docket of peacekeeping and goodwill-spreading.
We went to the bank to meet his friends and see a few old photographs of him where they’re kept framed on the wall.
We headed over to see how the paving of Memorial Avenue was coming along.
Then James invited me over to Pop’s to have a sandwich with him while Anna, the owner, prepared cups of ice cream for him to take to the teachers at nearby Virginia Heights Elementary (James’ urge for giving away ice cream is, admittedly, legendary).
A quick sidebar about Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar: I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I seriously love this place. Housed in what used to be the Village’s public library, Pop’s is like a tiny, happy temple to ’50s nostalgia, friendly faces, grilled cheese and other ice-creamish goodness. There’s a vintage milkshake machine up at the bar, which, on most days, makes a terrifically welcoming racket as soon as you walk in. There’s a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, throwing glitter and light all over. A juke box jangling by the door. Every once in awhile you’ll see a table or two sagging under the weight of old vinyls, with a hipster browsing through the boxes while stroking his beard (kidding about that part — well, almost).
Yesterday, though, it was quiet — about 30 minutes before the usual lunch rush. Which meant that I had time to sit and ply the owners, Brandon and Anna, while James enjoyed a cup of lentil soup.
I learned that Anna used to be a massage therapist. That Brandon used to be (and still is) a mean bagpipe player and rockabilly bass player. That they met, married, and established Pop’s almost on a whim, nine years ago.
We told stories. Swapped advice. James bought me a grilled cheese. And a cup of ice cream. And a $20 gift card. Brandon invited me to hear his band play at Annie Moore’s on Monday night. And the next thing I knew, I’d made friends, and had a free lunch, and I felt like I belonged.
And I had hardly taken any photos at all, but I didn’t care.
“I’ve checked out the whole world,” James told me at one point in his conversation. “But this is home.”
For once, I felt like I could agree.
This: this is what loving my city is really about.