Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Staunton, Virginia: Hand-knotted by the Criminally Insane
The throw rug in front of my back door, is made of heavy cotton loops in blues and yellows and reds. As happy and festive as it seems, it's as thick as a saddle and sturdy as a mud-flap, and was hand-knotted by the criminally insane in the 1980s at the insane asylum in Stanton, Virginia.
The Western Lunatic Asylum was built in 1828. As eastern as it is, everything's relative, and the only other "Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds" was the "Eastern Lunatic Asylum." That's in Williamsburg - the first in the nation, and crammed to the gills with "a poor unhappy set of People who are deprived of their Senses, and wander about the Country, terrifying the Rest of their Fellow Creatures," described an 18th century report.
In Staunton, where the Blue Ridge rises up like a tidal surge, the Western Asylum was built, and, when its last brick was laid and its handsome doors thrown open, it was swamped and "immediately filled to capacity." The deluge of hopeful and ideal patients washing out of the Blue Ridge and up from the muddy coast forced the founders to restrict admission to "the dangerous, the immoral, and those who looked like having a reasonable shot at recovery."
The garden spot of Staunton, the hospital stood on willowed grounds where swans glided in ponds and buttercups starred (as they say) the long grassy slopes. It's the first thing you see as you come into town. Words like "gracious" and "fine" and "big" would describe pretty well the brick buildings and white columns.
The first time I saw it, it was so graceful and ante bellum that I thought it was a Girls' School, full of "Fine Women of the New South" being finished off with pearl-buttoned gloves and dimpled knees under their thick, plaid skirts, wielding field hockey sticks capably, and spending semesters establishing women-owned composting toilet and sustainably grown hemp co-ops in Guatemala. I considered the school quite liberal and Zelda-y as I drove past gazing at the shadowy figures silhouetted in tall windows or outside in the willow shaded verands hunched against the concrete Cupids, cupping their Marlboros, in undershirts damp with, what turned out to be, desperation, and not Estee Lauder at all. It really is crazy how we don't change our stories even when we see the bars on the windows, if you know what I mean.
Coming whipping off the exit ramp onto the main drag of Stanton, Virginia, despite the pythons of razor wire topping the chain link with its top two feet canted inward, those buildings and grounds were The Beautiful South in architectural form: windows as tall and slim as women, chimneys marching across the roof like infantry, the whole thing solid as a Colonel's bristly eyebrows. Rather. But what was the great thing about Staunton, was that, best of all, its Lunatic Asylum was overlooked from a grassy hillside by Wright's Dairy Rite Drive-in Dairy Rite Drive-in) its patrons gazing east over swans and willows.
Up on that hill, all the cars in the drive-in lined-up under the jaunty yellow and white striped drive-in canopy like De Soto over the Mississippi in the sun. Glinting metal trays are clamped to the car window by the sheer weights of their loads: red-checked paper french fry boats, towers of pickle-y burgers wrapped in paper emblazoned with a freckle-faced, plaid-panted dapper kid holding a burger out in his now-giant hand to you There were ketchup squirters and ribs gory with sauce and char like a sacrifice revealed by pulling open hot Reynold's Wrap.
And we'd sit in the sky above Staunton, Virginia chewing and gazing down upon the gracious grounds and bouncing willow tops and gabled roofs that went on and on like the Blue Ridge at our backs.
From that hillside, cheese burger clutched in the right hand, left hand coming too soon gouging you with your own Dr. Pepper straw, you are mesmerized while you chew you - overwhelmed by the immense statement that is Staunton. In one sweeping, charcoal-broiled vista, you've got The Myth of the Antebellum South. You've got Swans, you've got Madness and you've got Barbecue.