Downtown Richmond was a knotted, muscular jungle of cement. Tangles of overpasses, thickets of freeways, and jutting skyscrapers obscured the afternoon’s bleak light.
As we drove, my driver talked about his daughter’s exorbitant private high-school, and claimed he’d worked for the CIA up in DC.
Relieved to have arrived in Virginia, I was too happy to question him, and too elated at leaving Tallahassee to care.
I moved to Richmond to go to college, but also to leave my hometown behind. Tallahassee —whose young-adult residents dubbed Tallanasty — was a swamp turned college town: a sprawl of pop-up bars and strip malls, and it had a god-awful heat that seared each sinew.
Oil-slicked oblongs of rainwater filled the potholes in the streets; roof tops created a hodgepodge mosaic against the sky. A few people walked through the drizzle of rain, but the area through which we drove was nearly as vacant as a mock city in the Twilight Zone.
Because I wanted food, my driver dropped me off at a restaurant a ten minutes’ walk from my AirBnB. I stepped out of the car and hunkered behind the nylon blockade of my suitcase.
After eating, I headed towards my Airbnb, luggage trailing behind me—its neon pink carry-on tag signaling my Richmond virginity to the few people I passed. The overpass’s guardrails rattled; weeds grew up through the cracks in the sidewalks; drops of rain pelted the pavement. I turned right, and before me the avenue sprawled forth.
My bloodshot eyes burned as I walked, looking for the correct house. It was the last residence on the block: an off-white row house with sagging shingles.
The chain link fence clattered like a child’s rattle as I fumbled with the lock and stepped inside.
A maniacal relief flooded my veins: I was in Richmond.
I spent the first week scouring Zillow, scavenging Trulia, and touring fusty century-old sublets. Quarantine confined me to my Airbnb and impeded my search for homes.
It was now four days after my May 24th arrival, and I had yet to find a place to live.
On memorial day, news broke that another black man had been killed by the police. George Floyd’s death buzzed through the telephone wires and undulated in the radio waves.
I recalled how, on May 27th, a procession of trucks hauled rusted dumpsters of debris down Main Street.
On May 29th, protestors incinerated two police cruisers and a bus. Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy, became the first Southeastern city to be ravaged by riots. Now, the Government of Virginia considered removing the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.
Each day, I surveyed the effects of the prior night’s chaos: streets sparkling with the shrapnel of shattered glass; boarded-up windows; the remains of buildings set ablaze.
I refused to let this historic event pass me by, and I became a witness rather than observer.
My car clattered along Monument Avenue’s cobblestone as I drove towards the Robert E. Lee memorial, the focal point of the George Floyd protests. Beams of decaying sunlight ricocheted off my windshield as night fell. Parked cars constricted the street. I continued inching forward, the monument slowly coming into view. I wedged my car into the nearest parking space.
Barricades were set up around Lee Circle, where the monument stood. People crowded within, seemingly close to breaking through the barricades.
Before the protests, I thought, summer’s harsh sun had probably stripped the statue of any regal air, rendering it nothing more than an object: lifeless stone, tarnished brass. But now, kaleidoscopic graffiti had resurrected it, the neon tags stark against the carbon backdrop of night.
I had expected the noise of a crowd; but the night was soundless. The violent protests, it seemed, had died down. I walked towards the statue and waded into the murmurous sea of bodies. A mist coated my body, and a low, rolling rumble of thunder hung in the air.
Within Lee Circle, time seemed to hang as still as the humid air between each shallow gust of wind. Sandals squeaked as they slipped across rain-slicked grass. The odor of spray paint mixed with cigarette smoke; hushed chatter seeped from the crevices of makeshift tarp homes.
A dense shroud of raincoats clustered at the base of the memorial. A man, as if rising from nothing, ascended the monument’s base with cat-like agility. He stopped, crouched to light a candle, then vanished into the sea of faces — the tremble of the flickering candle was his only trace.
The rain thickened, and I returned to my car.