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.
Christina - September 22, 2020 6:56 am
Yes it is, and we need it desperately now.
Mary J Rouse - September 22, 2020 9:56 am
Awesome story we need more towns just like this one.
Dianne - September 22, 2020 12:35 pm
The entire world needs more love and compassion. Thanks for sharing this town’s love and compassion for others.
Peggy Thompson - September 22, 2020 12:48 pm
This town sounds amazing…wish people in all towns could show love & compassion like this amazing town…thanks
Stay safe. I’m scared to travel in this crazy time.
Diane Toth - September 22, 2020 12:54 pm
It doesn’t cost anything to be kind.
Patricia Gibson - September 22, 2020 1:39 pm
Alexandria is a cool place. I lived there years ago❤️
Jane Elder - September 22, 2020 1:51 pm
Thanks. I have met my share of crabby stressed out people these days…good thing I reside in Paradise aka Luna MO….neighbors are still neighbors and sweet love grows on our rocky hills and green valleys.
MermaidGrammy - September 22, 2020 2:08 pm
Are you and Jamie still on bikes?
Beryl - September 22, 2020 2:32 pm
I am reminded daily that it is not “person” who is bad, ungrateful, rude, or surly. These are behaviors that demonstrate fear, longing, alarm, and trauma. If I strip away the behavior, I am able to find the humanity that connects us all. Love is the only way to see the “person” before you…even the one in the mirror.
DWS - September 22, 2020 2:36 pm
Sean, I love your column and your focus on the positives. It is always worth celebrating people being kind to one another. I would point out, having lived in NOVA for 3 years, and traveled and worked there for a dozen more, Alexandria is not like the rest of America. Working people in many areas of the country are suffering much more from job losses than NOVA. The federal government never stops spending money, so businesses haven’t missed a beat and in fact have ramped up to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars the government has approved for stimulus. I recall hearing at one point when I lived up there that 6 of the 10 most affluent counties in the country border the District of Columbia. The area has its own economy and its own reality. They are less stressed by the covid precautions because they are less impacted.
MaryBeth Patten - September 22, 2020 2:56 pm
I may be looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but I bet if each one of us really stopped and thought about it, we could all recall the good things that folks in our towns have done. I was born in Virginia, and lived in North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Texas and now in Montana, and I have witnessed people being kind and doing unsolicited good works in all of these places. Perhaps more in some places than others, but it’s there all over. As someone said, it starts with a look in the mirror. Above all else, be kind.
sharon suleski - September 22, 2020 3:23 pm
I t0o have a small tattoo a red heart with my sons name on it on my chest over my heart in honor of my son who died at 35 years old he was my sunshine He biked at age 25 10,000 miles of America and he too met wonderful people all over on his 1 year adventure so conclusion when the negative people get under your skin keeping seeking out the good people who will bring sunshine to your life
Linda Moon - September 22, 2020 5:11 pm
A Southern Baptist I know and love has two tatoos in homage to his two daughters, but not on every limb. Spring Breaks in Panama City (of which I have a picture of teenage me and girlfriends right here beside me) spark memories, Sean. You’ll have a lifetime of memories of the places you’ve been to, the stories you’ve told, and the people you’ve met while on the Trail. Those and the brother of an ‘Andy Griffith Show’ fan….well, that’s about all the love you’ll ever need, Sean.
MAM - September 22, 2020 5:35 pm
Thank you for another burst of positivity, which we all need nowadays!
Linda Daughtry - September 22, 2020 6:19 pm
My daughter and her husband lived in Alexandria while both had jobs in DC. People there have a true southern spirit. Glad you ran into some!
Mike Bone - September 22, 2020 7:12 pm
Thank goodness the tattoo didn’t read FORD.
Jess Rawls - September 22, 2020 10:25 pm
It’s good to read about people being kind to one another now with the virus, or at any time. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be friendly or kind…..you might not always get friendly and kind in return, but that’s the chance you have to take when you try to be open to strangers. Several years ago my wife and I visited Huntsville, AL. The people there were super-friendly, it was amazing. We ate lunch at a bar/restaurant and those folks were just as friendly as could be. I was ready to buy a house there and settle down, but we had to drive back home to Athens, GA, because our dog was being boarded and we had to bail her out. Nice place, Huntsville, AL.
Kathy - September 23, 2020 4:40 pm
I believe there is good in the world that overcomes all this crumminess. It starts with me and you. My daughters were taught that way, and the men they married practice it, too. Now my grandson is learning it. Just keep writing. It helps.
Elizabeth - September 24, 2020 2:33 am
Safe travels! What wonderful people!!!🥰
Donna Manchester Korbe - September 24, 2020 5:24 pm
I am from this area! We live in Alabama now. Love that you saw what I always see when we go home for a visit! Thanks for another wonderful story!♥️