ALEXANDRIA, Va.—This is a pretty cool town. The historic Episcopal Church on Washington Street catches the fading sunlight the way it once did in 1773. The neon signs in the commercial district are flickering on for the evening.
The downtown sidewalks are littered with young, hip people who wear trendy clothes and have multiple tattoos on each limb.
My friend, Izaak, lives in this town. He says tattoos are popular among urban professionals. Izaak himself has a few tats. So does his wife. And I’ll bet Izaak’s 2-year-old daughter will probably get a couple for Christmas.
I personally do not have any inkwork. I was raised by Southern Baptists who wouldn’t even keep NyQuil in the house.
Although, as a teenager I once came awfully close to allowing an older woman named Ursula to tattoo the Ford Motor Company insignia on my shoulder, one regretful spring break night in Panama City.
Thankfully, my cousin hid my wallet.
Tonight in Alexandria I see a lot of ink. I stand in line at a burger joint where I meet a clean-cut guy with a tattoo on his neck. The artwork crawls down his shoulder blades.
I ask him about it. He is generous enough to show it to me.
“My own design,” he says, pointing to his neck. “This one’s for my sister, she died in a car accident. And this one’s for my dad, he’s my best friend.”
On his forearm he has another. It looks like a portrait of Don Knotts.
“My sister was a huge ‘Andy Griffith Show’ fan,” he says.
After supper, my wife and I buy ice cream at Jeni’s and stroll the sidewalks. The residential streets are lined with colonial row houses, painted with colors from the early American palette.
I see elderly people sitting on porches, reading non-electronic books. A woman is watering her ferns. I pass two kids who look like Wally and the Beav, playing catch.
The people here are nice. And I really needed to be around nice people today. We’ve been traveling a lot lately and I’ve been running into my fair share of not-so-nice people.
Believe me, I’m not pointing fingers here. I know this year hasn’t been the best ever. But humans are changing. Society is changing, too. You don’t get many people holding doors for strangers. Fewer greet you with smiles or hellos.
Sometimes I wonder if modern folks haven’t forgotten what it means to be courteous. Sometimes I worry I’ll forget how.
But it’s not like that tonight. The outdoor cafes are bubbling with real laughter, clinking glasses, and the noises of forks on ceramic ware.
A ranchero band in a nearby Mexican restaurant is playing “Cielito Lindo” with an accordion.
People here are social distancing and wearing paper masks, but nobody seems glum about it. Life in this town has obviously been altered by the coronavirus, but it hasn’t been ruined. And I find this remarkable. Especially in today’s spite-happy world.
When my wife and I have finished our ice cream, it’s time to leave town. We have a long drive ahead of us tonight and several days left on the road.
Before we hit the interstate, I jog into a local grocery store for some essential highway rations. The store is quiet. Customers with tired eyes and untucked uniforms are doing their nightly shopping.
I meet one pregnant woman named Jessica who moved here from Tennessee after her husband lost his job due to COVID. She works in D.C.
“When we moved here,” she says, “we had a full moving truck and didn’t know a soul in town. We were so nervous about starting over, having no friends, we almost didn’t come.”
But they were in for a surprise. Because ten minutes after her husband parked the U-Haul at the curb, a handful of random neighbors appeared from nowhere. They helped unload everything.
“They didn’t even ask,” she tells me. “They just started lifting.”
I meet another young man, originally from Pittsburgh. I ask how he likes this city. The kid has a lot to say about it.
“Last year I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, and I was afraid I’d get fired, ‘cause I was in a lot of pain, it was hard to work.”
But the kid’s boss didn’t fire him. In fact, he paid the kid even when he called in sick. He gave the kid plenty of time off for physical therapy and doctor appointments so he could get his chronic pain under control.
The kid had such a positive summer in food service that he’s considering going to culinary school.
“I wanna be a chef someday,” he tells me.
Soon, I am standing in line to pay for my few items. My cashier rings up an old guy in front of me. The man’s total comes to around $7.16 altogether. But something is wrong.
The man pats his pockets. This is, of course, the universal gesture for, “Uh-oh. I left my wallet at home.”
So the man is apologizing to people in line, and his face turns the color of a candied apple. He tells the cashier to cancel his sale and he’s about to leave the store with his tail tucked.
But the cashier won’t let him go. She only stares at him from behind her surgical mask.
“Hey,” she says, handing him the bag of items. “Don’t worry about the money, sir. I got your back. This one’s on me.”
And I notice a small tattoo emblazoned on her inner arm. It’s very small, but I can still make it out. It reads: “Love.”
I’m telling you, this town is a cool place.