Sunday, January 01, 2006

If You Go Away

In a column today, Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Carlos Santos offers some thoughts that reflect accurately the ambivalence that Charlottesville residents possess in regard to University vacation periods. When the students are away, our town has a completely different atmosphere, which has its positive and negative aspects.

It's Christmas vacation for University of Virginia students, and here in Charlottesville the absence of so many energetic men and women, many of whom are teenagers, makes everything a bit more mellow.

The city without students is like a 1970 Ford Pinto, which was the car I drove in college, with one of its four cylinders misfiring. The city moves to the slow lane, limping, unglamorous and a bit listless.

We become an outdated, older, underpowered little town of about 45,000 people, most of whom, I'm guessing, go to bed by 10 p.m. weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends like I do.

Drive by downtown or up West Main Street, from Vinegar Hill to Rugby Road, and the silence is deafening now. The sidewalks are empty. The Lawn is desolate. The streets are iPodless.

The Corner, a student-intensive section of the city offering T-shirts, beer, bands, fast food, bad food and more beer, is ghostly, especially at night when it usually vibrates with a frenetic life that only the young can exude.
The most visible sign that students are not around is the availability of on-street parking. Santos' column is accompanied by a photograph of Rugby Road looking like a Hollywood backlot set up to film a movie about a ghost town. (You can nearly imagine the tumbleweeds blowing down the center of Rugby Road.) Nearer to where I live, Jefferson Park Avenue has more empty parking places than Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House does.

I suppose the businesses that cater to student customers suffer a bit at the cash register this time of year, but the breathing space and opportunity to do work in the storeroom and on the end-of-the-year accounting books must be welcome nonetheless.

Still, student absences are cyclical. They are gone for a few weeks, then back for a few months. This happens several times a year with banal regularity. As Santos notes:
But in the end, Charlottesville is U.Va. and U.Va. is students, both rowdy and serious, and it makes the city a unique place. Their energy, their dreams and their exuberance spill over, goosing those of us who might be a little more world-weary. I may not want to join a frat party as I drive by and hear the music boom through my car window and rattle my soul, but it still makes me smile. You only get to do that stuff for a short time.

So come mid-January when the Wahoos pile back into Charlottesville, cutting me off in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, hooting senselessly in the night on the Corner or backing up U.S. 29 on game days, I'll welcome them back. But Christmas break is nice for us, too.

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