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Old Haunts Project: Roanoke; Downtown

March 7, 2011

Roanoke Farmer's Market

April 27th, 1996. Just four days earlier an article ran in the Roanoke Times titled “It’s a Blood Sport”, which introduced Roanoke to a new role-playing phenomenon called “Vampire: The Masquerade”. Specifically, the L.A.R.P version of the popular table-top game. They had followed a group of gamers for a night of gaming, interviewed them, and reported the late-night gaming session to the Roanoke Valley for the first time.

In doing so, an explosion of interest followed…

On this night over a hundred people showed up for the game. I was one of those people, a 15 year old kid whose idea of a night out still involved a friend’s house and a Sony PlayStation. I hadn’t come strictly because of the article… Several of my friends were already involved. However this was the first time I had shown up and the first time I’d ever been downtown at night. Without parents.

The place to meet was a little gaming shop called “The Eccentric Wizard” (run by a guy I didn’t know at the time, but later became a very dear friend), and it was well packed. My buddy who drove me down and I were brand new at the L.A.R.P. and we both needed direction. Unfortunately, there were many newbies present that night and only so many gamers willing and able to help them create characters.

By the time he had gotten his character written up, it had already been an hour or so and he was impatient to get started. This meant I didn’t get to create my own character. So we “compromised” and we both played essentially the same character. This annoyed me at the time, but I also was impatient to get out there and experience the game. So out we went…

We didn’t really know what the hell we were doing, but man was it exciting! People walking around with their arms crossed indicating they were invisible. Others were listening in on a group’s conversation by holding their hand up to their ear (indicating they were really standing out of sight, but could still hear using their extra-sensory powers). Even more people battling each other using paper-rock-scissors and calling out their physical traits or supernatural powers. It was geek heaven.

The sheer amount of people participating was staggering and never really matched since. To be part of something that big, playing a game with people who you’ve never met and didn’t know in the slightest was thrilling. Add to that the thrill of being out for the first time on your own and I don’t know how my little nerdy teenage heart handled it.

We even split up for a time. He went off and ended up leading the Prince of the city on a chase through Elmwood Park. I stayed closer to downtown and tried to inject myself into the intrigue and undercurrents of the current political situation, feeling out the power structure and considering how to make myself useful to the strongest powers of the city. We each found our own way to interpret our shared character, so that little sheet of paper we had argued over earlier meant less and less as we came into our own.

After a few hours of game (and a cappuccino from Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea) it was time to go home. During the drive we entertained each other with tales of our accomplishments while separated, the night’s high built on itself as we lived through it all over again. By the time we got to my house I was a ball of energy. It must’ve been palpable because my mom met me at the door and with a smile asked me how the night went.

“I don’t know, it was really cool… I can’t really describe it… I just feel really good.”

“Oh, I know what it is” she said with a mixed bag of shared happiness and hesitant loss. “It’s freedom.”

That night sparked almost a decade long love affair with Downtown Roanoke. I’ve hung out there, I’ve worked there, and I’ve lived just down the street from there. Sure, there’s a lack of things to do for the younger crowd. Sure, the cops get uppity once in a while and kick you off from sitting on the farmer’s market tables. Sure, you get your share of pretentious assholes who act too big for a small city.

But I’ll never forget the coffee and rice krispie treats from Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea, piling into a Macado’s booth with 3 or 4 friends to a bench, $5 midnight pizzas from Chico & Billy’s, freshly roasted peanuts from Agnew Seed, and double bacon cheeseburgers from Ernie’s (why do so many of my memories involve food, I wonder?).

Strolling through Elmwood Park on my way to work in the morning, turning off the lights in the Crestar Plaza parking garage elevator, hours long sessions of full-out UNO war on the sidewalk, and dancing in the street with my crush to someone’s old radio. The stink of gingko seeds on my shoes, the neon glow of the old H&C Coffee sign, and the sound of Jack babbling on the street corner (King Cobra hit me one mo’ time!).

The people have changed. The L.A.R.P. is as good as gone. The market doesn’t look just right to eyes changed by newer and broader experiences. But the entirety of Downtown will to me forever symbolize the things that make young adults and kid’s hearts beat with expectation and anticipation.

Independence. Friendship. Freedom.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011 12:36 am

    Ah, halcyon days….

  2. mark permalink
    March 11, 2011 12:07 am

    wow that brings back memories…those were fun days. thanks for the well written piece, it really took me back

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