Just the facts

Just the facts

The subtitle for John Grisham’s new book, The Innocent Man, could easily describe one of his trademark legal thrillers. Indeed, Murder and Injustice in a Small Town has been the theme that keeps on giving for the Albemarle County novelist, one of the planet’s most successful living writers. But this 360-page work of nonfiction (Grisham’s first after 18 novels) cannot yield Grisham the kind of semi-satisfying conclusion that he could write into something like A Time to Kill or The Pelican Brief. The grisly rape and murder of Debbie Carter, a young waitress in Ada, Oklahoma, ends with a string of broken lives and ruined reputations; the guilty and innocent alike suffer.
    But none suffers more than Ron Williamson, the mentally ill, former small-town hero at the center of the story. It was Williamson’s New York Times obituary in December 2004 that inspired Grisham’s foray into nonfiction, and in Grisham’s hands this self-destructive baseball player with the string of missed chances becomes a heartbreaking symbol not for blind justice but rather justice hell-bent on seeing things one way only. Carter was killed in 1982; in 1987, without a single shred of evidence linking either of them to the events, Williamson and a friend, Dennis Fritz, were arrested for capital murder. Williamson’s true crime, it seems, was to be the kind of loud-mouthed, alcoholic character that earned scorn in a self-righteous place like Ada, where the population of 16,000 is served by 50 churches, “two on every corner,” Grisham writes. Under the surface, Williamson was wracked by the effects of serious mental disorders that most of the time went untreated. He was big, noisy and incoherent; nobody seemed to mind getting Williamson off the street and pegging the unsolved murder on him though he had an airtight alibi.
    With this kind of material, it’s no surprise that Grisham weaves a deft story. As usual, the book is a page-turner and will probably make a stirring movie. Especially chilling and well suited to his hand are the descriptions of Williamson’s 12 years on Oklahoma’s grim and sadistic death row; nearly tear-jerking are the passages describing Williamson’s bewildered and ultimately sick existence in the five short years that he lived after DNA evidence exonerated him.
    Grisham’s passion for justice should be well appreciated by now. Still, it is unexpected to read sarcasm and anger in his prose. Perhaps the real-life material has liberated him somehow. His description of the moment that the prosecutor conceded that he could not try the two defendants based on new forensic evidence is a pointed example: “At no time did [the prosecutor] offer any conciliatory comments, or words of regret, or admissions of errors made, or even an apology.
    “At the least, Ron and Dennis were expecting an apology. Twelve years of their lives had been stolen by malfeasance, human error, and arrogance. The injustice they had endured could easily have been avoided, and the state owed them something as simple as an apology.
    “It would never happen, and it became an open sore that never healed.”
    Reading The Innocent Man one could fervently hope that Williamson’s case is a rarity; alas, it clearly is not. Grisham makes this point crystal clear, too. Ultimately this book, though it reads like the best of his novels, sits uncomfortably next to those works. In other words, it’s a “John Grisham book,” but it isn’t. It forces upon its audience the kind of wider examination that a thriller can never really demand.—Cathy  Harding

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Just the facts

Q: Who the heck are you, Ace, and how do you know so much? 

A: The details of Ace’s life are quite inconsequential. But, since you asked (and Ace never could resist a question), he’ll give you the need-to-know details.

Ace was found on a dark and stormy night on the doorstep of Albemarle County residents Mr. and Mrs. Atkins. Tucked in a wicker basket with a letter that read "Answer me," they took in the inquisitive tyke and indulged his penchant for TV quiz shows, 20 Questions and third-person references.

Ace grew up fast and strong and eventually explored the wonderful world of Charlottesville. He scoured the storm drains, hung out in the coal tower and lounged about Grounds. In 1989, he hooked up with the new C-VILLE Review (later renamed C-VILLE Weekly when it started publishing—you guessed it—weekly), which rewarded his gotta-know personality with a Q-and-A column, "The Bottom Line." And no, Ace never understood the title, either. On January 21, 1997, he got his name up above the title where it belonged all along, and "Ask Ace" was born.

For 14 years Ace has pounded the pavement and worked the phones to get the answers that you, the dear readers, desperately want to know. How does he have all the answers? Well, since Ace has to bug sources every week for the details, you could say he doesn’t have any answers at all. You could say that. But you’d be wrong.


A dash of creativity

October 3, 1989 

Q: Why is it that your magazine uses a hyphen in the spelling of its name instead of an apostrophe, as is the usual abbreviation?—T.C.

A: To answer your question, I talked to the upper management at Portico Publications Ltd., the parent company of C-VILLE Review. "The usual, the mundane, the banal—these are not what C-VILLE Review is all about," they said.

But besides an attempt at the unusual, it’s a story of phonetics. Many people write "C’Ville" when abbreviating the name of this town, and many of the letters I receive are addressed this way. But while tolerable in print, this version, when pronounced, would give the magazine a Spanish air ("Seville Review"). And that, as they say, is not what they’re about.

The hyphen separates the word into its phonetic pieces, and besides that, where else would they put "Review?"


Seuss: Who, not ’Hoo

November 28, 1989

Q: Here’s a question that is particularly appropriate as Christmas approaches: Did Dr. Seuss and/or his wife ever attend UVA and/or live in Charlottesville? (Yes, I realize that this is actually four questions in one.) Every year this rumor resurfaces along with the airing of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which features "the Hoos down in Hoo-ville," and I have never been able to resolve it to my satisfaction.—Q.P.

A: At first I thought your question was merely a prank. Later I realized that it was merely an honest response to an urban (or in Charlottesville’s case, a semi-urban) myth. This myth has its obvious origin in the phonetics of the town and its dwellers. As this is a television-weaned society, you are familiar with the story as it is portrayed each year on the tube. But as with most masterpieces of literature, How the Grinch Stole Christmas began as a book. If you don’t have a copy in your personal library, you can scoot over to the public library to peruse its copy. Then you will find that the "Hoos down in Hoo-ville" are actually "Whos down in Who-ville."

Incidentally, Seuss also features the Whos in his 1954 book Horton Hears a Who, in which the protagonist saves the colony of Whos, who live on a speck of dust, from extinction.


A taste of Vinegar Hill

September 18, 1990

Q: Where do Vinegar Hill Theater and the Vinegar Hill Pub in the Omni get their name? I think I understand correctly that the neighborhood they are in goes by that name, but still, where does that come from? I ask, wondering about Vinegar Hill in Limerick, Ireland. Are Irish folks involved or what?—J.H.

A: I turned to the Albemarle County Historical Society for answers. After chatting with Melinda Frierson, the director, and with Margaret O’Bryant, the librarian for the historical collection, I found myself laden with several possibilities:

1) A tailor named George O’Toole called it Vinegar Hill because his family was from Vinegar Hill in Ireland.

2) As the neighborhood was mostly populated by working-class people of Irish origin, it may have garnered the name to commemorate the 1798 revolt against landlords at Vinegar Hill, Ireland.

3) Grocers in the area sold large quantities of homemade whiskey, the barrels of which were labeled "vinegar" to deter the watchful eyes of revenuers.

4) There were several tanneries in the area, and the chemicals used in the tanning process may have smelled like vinegar.

5) One day, a car slowly climbing Ridge Street dropped a barrel of vinegar or whiskey onto the street. It broke, and the smell remained for a long time.

So which of these is the reason Vinegar Hill got its name? I don’t know, but the area was first called Random Row because piecemeal development caused the streets to be placed "randomly" unlike the orderly street layout of Downtown. The name Vinegar Hill appeared sometime between 1840 and the Civil War.


V aren’t going anywhere

October 15, 1991

Q: I just think those big orange Vs on Main Street are so cool. I guess either the City or the University put them there, right? Are they supposed to wash off like the other ones, or are these supposed to stick around a little longer? Do you think if I called MTV they might come down and spray little MT’s right next to the them so that we could have a whole Main Street of MTVs and get on the news? Also my friend wonders if he can call someone and get permission to spray-paint some letters of his own on the road. Can he? Thanks!—Chris S.

A: Well Chris, first maybe you’d better just sit down and catch your breath, you sound a little dizzy to me. The City of Charlottesville Department of Public Works is happy to hear that you have proclaimed their big Vs to be "cool." The Vs were first painted on the street last year before the big pep rally before the UVA football game with Clemson (somewhat like the tiger paws painted on the streets of Clemson but with a bit more literary value). Judith Mueller, the City’s Director of Public Works, doesn’t know where the rumor started about wash-away paint. She says the Vs were always intended as permanent. And she says that this summer when Main Street was resurfaced, covering last year’s Vs, her office was "besieged with phone calls" wanting the Vs restored. The new Vs have been applied (going both directions on Main Street) with "special therma-plastic material," which the Public Works Department uses for all highway markings now; it lasts much longer and maintains that bright, happy color longer than the "old" type of highway paint. The Vs were paid for entirely by private donations; no tax money was used at all to paint the 78 "cool" orange letters.

No, there is not an office you can call to get permission to paint other letters on the street, and really, having MTV in my television is about as close as I want it to my life, thank you. However, there is a bridge on Rugby Road that you can paint to your heart’s content. Letters, paw prints, names, portraits, you choose. Maybe you can find out what the behearted "Frescoln" message meant a few weeks ago while you’re at it.


Filling the Bodo’s hole

September 16, 1992

Q: What’s the deal with the new Bodo’s Downtown? We want our bagels now. Is it going to be another one of those "bagels are coming" deals in which the sign goes up but the bagels take years to show up?

A: Maybe. Before he earned a reputation for great bagels, Bodo’s Bagel Bakery owner Brian Fox earned a reputation for restaurant delay. The immensely successful Bodo’s on Emmet Street was once a sort of Charlottesville joke as it taunted Charlottesville for over a year with a "bagels are coming" sign. But they quit laughing and started gobbling when the place finally opened up. History seems to be repeating itself at the additional Bodo’s location. For more than a year, Fox has owned and worked at the new place to get it just right. "We gutted the place from stem to stern" and performed a lot of "remedial work" on the building, Fox says. Perfectionist Fox also says he performs much of the work himself and even admits to repainting the exterior sign twice. (An earlier color scheme made it look "like a motorcycle shop.")

So when will it open? Fox is mum. Though admitting that he receives plenty of ridicule for the slow pacing, he will only say that the opening is "close." He says he works at both locations every day—managing at Emmet Street and building at Preston. "My projects are laughably slow," he says, "but they work."

Update: The Bodo’s on Preston did open at last, in March 1993. Since then Fox has added another location to his bagel empire—1609 University Ave., on the Corner—but like its two predecessors, the "Coming" sign has remained unchanged for years. But like Preston, that might soon change, he says.

"Well, I would say that I wouldn’t want to make any definite predictions," Fox says. "However, I hope to open it this fall. Can’t say it’s going to happen, it will have largely to do with staffing matters, feeling that I have a strong staff, enough managers and bakers and that everything feels comfortable that we can do it successfully and without a lot of stress."



October 20, 1993

Q: I hear the Dave Matthews Band has signed a recording deal. True?—B.T.

A: Ace called the band’s manager, Coran Capshaw, a few days ago to inquire. "Nothing’s final yet," Capshaw said. The rumor is that RCA is the label with whom things aren’t quite final. Capshaw declined to confirm or deny.

Update: As you may have heard, the band signed a contract with RCA, and in 1994 released their first major label disc, Under the Table and Dreaming. Since then they’ve gone on to become international über-stars (although several of the band members still call Charlottesville home), and Matthews himself will release his solo debut, Some Devil, from BMG on September 23.


Ice to know you

June 1, 1994

Q: I keep hearing that that Danielson guy is building an ice-skating rink on the Downtown Mall. Is it indoors, or is he going to try to keep it frozen all summer? Fat chance on the latter.—C.D.

A: Neither. It’s an outdoor rink. But Danielson expects that it will only operate with ice October through April. At other times of the year, it will be a rollerblading rink.

Update: Um, yeah. Ace got this one wrong. As anyone who has strolled on the west end of the Mall knows, the Ice Park is indeed a year-round indoor ice rink. The $4 million project opened in 1996.


The plots thicken

August 10, 1994 

Q: On the UVA Grounds, at the corner of Alderman and McCormick, there’s an old graveyard—I’ve seen students sun bathing and having picnics there. Is it still "receiving," and, if so, who can be buried there? Is it privately owned, or does the University own it?—Janet

A: The cemetery in question is owned by the University, and yes, people are still being laid to rest in it. (Someone was buried there as recently as July 29.) The in-ground plots sold out almost 30 years ago, according to Jeff Ertel of the University Cemetery office. But the University has recently built a columbarium—a wall that holds urns—and there is still space.

The cemetery has been around almost from the beginning of the University. "Just about everybody who was anybody in early Charlottesville is buried there," said Ertel. Ace poked around the cemetery recently and found that, indeed, the markers read like a UVA version of Who’s Who: Alderman, Humphreys, Manahan and Echols—just to name a few.

So who can buy space in the cemetery? "Current faculty, assistant professors or higher can buy space as well as current or retired University administrators," said Ertel. "There’s a cemetery committee that makes the final decision." Apparently, there is some question regarding the burial of alumni in such a prestigious resting place.

Adjacent to the University Cemetery is a Civil War cemetery, a large grassy place surrounded by a wall. In the middle is a monument listing the names of 1,097 (including 55 northern) soldiers buried therein. At seemingly random intervals, there are a few markers. "Originally, all the graves were marked with crosses," said Craig van Castle, who is currently working on an article about both cemeteries for the UVA Alumni News, "but those rotted after about 20 years. At the time these young men were buried, their families couldn’t afford to make the trip to mark the graves; it was an expensive proposition, and most of the men came from families who simply couldn’t do it.

"The soldiers who are buried there aren’t necessarily associated with UVA," the authority continued. The sick and wounded were sent to Charlottesville for its medical school and two other hospitals.

So are sun bathing and picnicking O.K.? "None of the cemetery’s residents have ever complained," Ertel laughed, "and to my knowledge, neither has anyone else. One elderly visitor commented that she was delighted to see students keeping the occupants company while enjoying themselves. Those large flat stones do get nice and warm in the sun and make a really nice place to sit."

Update: According to Vicki Bradt, office manager of the University Office Business Operations, UVA is still accepting applications for those interested in being interred in the cemetery’s columbarium, a second of which is set to be completed in October. Of the 180 vaults in the original (finished in 1991), 150 have been sold. In addition to the eligible parties listed above, active and retired members of Board of Visitors and alumni of the University and friends and students of University can also apply for vaults, with acceptance based on distinguished service to UVA. Vaults cost $1,800 for the original columbarium and $2,500 for the new one, and interested parties should contact the University Office of Business Operations.


Ruined to perfection

December 19, 1995 

Q: I have always wondered why Barboursville is left as ruins. Why doesn’t someone restore this original Thomas Jeffersonian building?—B.K.

A: Jefferson’s design for the home of Governor James Barbour (1775-1842) was built in Orange County in 1822 and must have looked something like T.J.’s own pad, Monticello. But, on Christmas Day, 1884, the home burned to the ground. It has remained in ruins ever since.

Immediately after the fire, the remaining walls of the gutted mansion were stabilized, and the slave quarters and carriage house next door were upgraded so that the Barbours could move in. The family lived there, just a stone’s throw from the shell of their former mansion, until they sold the entire estate in 1947.

The Barboursville ruin is on the Virginia Landmarks Registry as well as the National Register of Historic Places. Inclusion on these registries does not, however, preclude changes to the structure. "There’s no restriction on what a private property owner may do," says Kathleen Kilpatrick of the State’s Department of Historic Resources. Although, as she notes, "Part of its historic value is as a ruin. Virginia and the entire country have very few ruins, unlike Europe."

The present owners, four Italian brothers named Zonin, run a vineyard—Barboursville Winery—on the 131-acre estate and apparently have no plans to restore the mansion. Winery CEO Gianna Zonin lives in Italy and was unavailable for comment. However, Vineyard assistant manager Mark Scheurenbrand would say this: "The ruin is too fragile. If we [reconstructed the mansion], we’d have to tear it down and start over—it would be a Williamsburg kind of thing."

So there you have it, B.K.—it would be more of a reconstruction than a restoration. Besides, ruins are beautiful and fascinating in their own right.

However, I have learned that should the brothers Zonin ever change their minds, the original house plans survive and are kept in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society.


The stalker among us?

November 5, 1996 

Q: I was driving on 250 the other night, and a police car pulled alongside me and the officer just stared at me until I smiled and waved, then he drove off. That’s the third time this has happened in the past few months, and I’m getting sick of it. I just had my truck inspected, so I know there’s nothing wrong with it, and I don’t think I was speeding. I drive a Nissan pickup, is that illegal?—H.G.

A: There might be some die-hards at the Ford or Chrysler factory who think so H.G., but technically no, it’s not illegal to drive a Nissan pickup truck. My guess is that you are one of many small truck owners here in Central Virginia who have been getting the once-over as a result of an unexplained abduction and murder case.

You might recall that Alicia Showalter Reynolds disappeared near Culpeper on Route 29 on March 2 of this year. Her body was found in early May near Lignum, Virginia (Culpeper County). Though there is a composite sketch of the man believed to be responsible for the murder, no arrests have yet been made.

Besides a description of the suspect, a detailed account of his vehicle has been circulating over the past few months. My guess H.G., is that the police are checking out all the trucks like yours that resemble the one used in the crime.

To confirm my suspicions I called the Virginia State Police Hotline about the case (1-800-572-2260), and talked to a friendly young woman who requested that I not use her name. I asked her about truck owners getting the extra long stares from police.

"What you’re describing is probably a result of officers seeing if the driver of the vehicle matches the description of the man that’s wanted."

What exactly is the type of truck they’re looking out for?

"A dark-colored Nissan pickup with a teal-colored design on the side."

And the police are looking in the window of every dark Nissan truck?

"That’s probably what they’re doing," she said.

Have you had many leads?

She laughed and shuffled some papers. "Right now we’re at 6,300 leads."

I later spoke with Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for the State Police in Northern Virginia.

"It makes you feel bad," she said, "There’s been so many people that we’ve been called about just because they own a small, dark pickup. Most likely the suspect is not even in a small pickup anymore, which is why we’re not stressing that quite as much now. Logic would dictate that he got rid of it, but you just never know."

Caldwell says that the case will be featured on TV’s "Unsolved Mysteries" in November, and that hopefully that will spark some fresh leads.

"We’re whittling away through many rumors now, and that can be difficult. It is a long process."

Update: Unfortunately, no arrests have been made in the Showalter case, and the "29 Stalker" remains at large. Ace put in a call to four different harried State policemen who seemed to have too much on their plates to deal with the case, but was told it is still open—merely in the "cold case" file (where cases go when leads have dried up).


Strip tease

October 21, 1997 

Q: Why doesn’t Charlottesville have a strip joint? Or more importantly, could it have a strip joint if somebody wanted to open one?—C.C.

A: Charlottesville does have a long history of brothels—the most famous of which, Marguerite’s, wasn’t torn down until 1972 (though Marguerite herself had passed away in 1951). But as for exotic dancing or the like, I don’t think Charlottesville could compete with places like Florida.

Ace remembers his days down in Tampa, for example, where strip joints line the main drag like fast food restaurants. And in "strip" malls throughout the Tampa Bay area, there are any number of massage parlors and lingerie modeling businesses.

But here in Central Virginia, things are obviously a bit different (thank goodness).

As far as your first question goes, C.C., why Charlottesville doesn’t have a strip joint, I’m not sure—I don’t think it’s on the To Do list of any of our gung-ho Downtown developers.

In answer to your second question: We sure could have one if it got past City Council (haha, good luck).

I talked to Deputy City Attorney Craig Brown and asked him if there was any law that specifically prevents someone from opening a striptease club in Charlottesville.

"There’s nothing that expressly addresses that," Brown said. "But as a business, it would still have to meet the normal requirements" (like being in the appropriate commercial zone and all that).

Brown also pointed out that our hypothetical nudie club—if it plans to serve alcohol—would have to jump through all the hoops of the A.B.C. board to get
a license.

So I called Jennifer Toth in the A.B.C. public relations office in Richmond. She set me straight on some facts about Virginia law.

"If it is a business that has a mixed beverage license (i.e. liquor not just beer)," Tosh explained, "then 45 percent of the total gross must be in food sales and non-alcoholic drink." And the monthly sales of food must be at least $4,000—so the joint would have to serve up plenty of French fries and sandwiches.

That makes sense; the same law applies to all our area restaurants.

Toth also drew my attention to the Virginia Administrative Code, which expressly speaks to the naked dancing issue.

According to the law, the strippers can shake and twist all they want to, as long as they are on a stage that is "reasonably separate from the patrons." However, they can’t get too naked—as the law suggests they must keep on pasties (to cover the nipples of the breasts) and a g-string or such to cover the genitals.

Update: In 2002, the City Department of Neighborhood Planning and Development initiated zoning codes for "adult-use" proprietors, which include any bookstore, bar, massage parlor or movie theater devoted to "specified anatomical areas." Those include "less than completely and opaquely covered human genitals, pubic region, buttocks or female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola, or human male genitals in a discernibly turgid state, even if completely and opaquely covered." Any adult-use enterprise must stay 1,000 feet away from nearly any structure in town and 1,000 feet away from each other to prevent a "red light district."


Suite to be the Feds

April 7, 1998

Q: On Emmet Street just north of Barracks Road there is a white building up on the hill with an official-looking entrance that says "Federal Executive Institute." What in the heck is that? And are my tax dollars paying for it? —H.T.G.

A: According to a glossy brochure I got up at the Institute, this country-club-looking place is the "Federal government’s training and development center for senior executives"—which means high-level bureaucrats come here for four weeks at a time to sit through a bunch of lectures about increasing performance and building corporate culture.

Oh, and they get to enjoy a mini-vacation in the heart of Charlottesville as a perk. And taxpayers do pay for the $9,000 per person tuition—who else would?

Originally this 14-acre complex was the home of the Thomas Jefferson Inn, which opened on May 19, 1951, and was heralded as a "hotel of the future."

Designed by renowned local architect Milton L. Grigg, the 50-room hotel bragged about its "modernistic" features, which included air conditioned rooms for only $10 a night.

The TJ Inn was where all the glitterati shacked up when they came to town, including Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis and Rock Hudson.

The popular hotel was closed in July of 1968 and reopened as a training ground for Federal executives—where career civil servants come to learn about leadership and "improving the quality of government"—sort of a summer camp for suits.

Although it seems that cutting back on expensive government programs is a good thing, you can’t blame the private sector for offering something Uncle Sam will pay for.

Update: Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Federal Executive Institute changed its sign from the proper name to simply "1301 Emmet Street." The reason, said Robert Gest II, deputy director of the institute, was "for security reasons and a reaction to the state of heightened awareness that the President has us all under."


Grease is the word

July 27, 1999

Q: I’ve worked in several restaurants in this area, but I’ve never seen what I saw last week outside Downtown’s Mono Loco. It was a black bin, not terribly unlike a small trash dumpster. The sign on the side said something about restaurant grease. I guess they must put excess grease in there, but where does it go, and what becomes of it?—Deep-fat Donnie

A: Well, Deep-fat Donnie, your question about the afterlife of grease almost made a vegetarian out of me. It turns out that most local restaurants recycle their grease, but if you’re like Ace, that’s not something you want to think about.

I sped over to Mono Loco to inspect the mysterious black plastic box that’s tucked discreetly behind the restaurant. After propping open the lid, I almost lost my cookies. Inside was dark, oily pool of nastiness that smelled like a deep-fried bad dream. Worse, when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in all that grease, I couldn’t help but take it as a grim reminder of my poor eating habits. Gathering myself, I spotted the name "Valley Proteins" on the side of the bin and jotted down the company’s phone number. I tooled away in the Acemobile, shivering as I passed my usual fast-food stops.

Next I called the Valley Proteins plant, located in Linville (on the other side of the mountain), to get some quick answers. At first, finding someone who could explain the company’s grease recycling process was harder than untangling a clump of fried onions. Several employees transferred me to the voice mail of company president Gerald Smith Jr., but they cautioned me that he only works on Fridays, long after Ace’s deadline. Finally, after doing the trademark Ace grovel, I got a call from Smith, a jovial man who chuckles about his obesity.

As Smith proudly explains, Valley Proteins is a…er…beefy national company, with rendering plants spread out from Pennsylvania to New Mexico. About 10 percent of its business involves picking up grease from restaurants. Since local health codes forbid restaurants from throwing out grease, which has been known to clog sewer drains and contaminate landfills, they must store the icky mess in special containers. That’s where Valley Proteins comes to the rescue. Company drivers in trash truck-like vehicles make the rounds to pick up the lipids on a regular basis. Big grease producers like McDonald’s need pick-ups every week; slower-paced restaurants are on a bi-weekly schedule. Smith estimates that his company picks up a total of at least 10,000 pounds of grease from more than 200 Charlottesville-area restaurants each week. If you ask me, Donnie, that’s a whole lotta heart attacks.

Essentially, America’s fried food addiction keeps companies like Valley Proteins in business. They pay restaurants for the grease, not the other way around. Why? Simple: They can sell restaurant waste right back into the food chain. After collecting thousands of gallons of the slop, drivers haul it back to the Linville plant and dump it into a giant, gurgling vat called a "grease hopper." The grease is boiled to cook out the impurities. Then, the company delivers truckloads of the resulting product to big-time customers such as Purdue and Southern States. They in turn make the guck into poultry and animal feed. Seems like some agro-companies think the high-fat, high-calorie stuff is swell for growing bigger birds and beefier cows. So, next time you’re marveling at the robust cuts in the poultry aisle, thank the grease men, thank the restaurants, and thank yourself. After all, your taste buds helped that chicken to grow up big and strong.

Update: Grease remains a problem, as an August incident in Forest Lakes proves. Late in the month a greasy substance that allegedly smelled like french fries covered the body of water. The nearby Arby’s was blamed, although management denied culpability while pledging to help with clean up.


The fix for Ix

January 4, 2000

Q: After C-VILLE’s big story on the Frank Ix & Sons company, I was hoping for an update. I heard that some rich guy bought the mill for mega-millions. Who was it? Is some big-time business going to move in there or what? Will the building be razed? What’s the deal, Ace?—Ware Street Wally

A: It’s a rich man’s world, Wally, and if Ace had the right map, or maybe a law degree, he would find a way to reach those green fields. For the moment, however, your poor sleuth can only marvel at rich developers like Bill Dittmar, the Albemarle County businessman who bought the 17-acre Frank Ix & Sons property last month for an unbelievable $5.3 million. Dittmar, owner of Enterprise Travel, is no stranger to the redevelopment game: A few years ago, he started turning the former United Way building on Market Street into upscale office space called, oddly enough, the Enterprise Center.

As you recall, Wally, Frank Ix & Sons, once a large textile company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last spring after years of fierce competition with Asian imports. Yet even as Charlottesville’s oldest business was slowly dying, heavyweight developers were drooling at the thought of purchasing the Ware Street property, just around the block from the Downtown Mall. Heavyweight developers Lee Danielson and Charles Hurt were among those who sniffed around the site during the last few months. But it was Dittmar who signed a $4.1 million preliminary contract to purchase the choice chunk of land last month.

The deal, however, wasn’t done. Five other bidders had a chance to make higher offers until December 20, so the final price soared well beyond the initial offer. Last month, Danielson—the man who brought you the Regal Cinema and the Ice Park—bid $5.3 million, a Santa-sized sum that wowed local real-estate types. But Dittmar’s contract entitled him to match any offer, and match it he did.

Lest you have any doubt about the strength of the local economy, Wally, take a look at the property’s value and compare it to the final price. Earlier this year, the City assessed the Ix & Sons property at $4.1 million, about 30 percent less than Dittmar will shell out thanks to Danielson’s competitive bid. The mostly windowless structure may not be pretty, but in a town where business property is increasingly scarce, developers obviously think it’s worth a pretty penny.

As for a "big-time business" occupant, we will have to wait and see who moves into the mammoth mill where hundreds of workers once wove countless fabrics. Dittmar says that he plans to convert the 300,000-plus-square-foot brick-and-block building into warehouse and office space.

"Information technology firms" Dittmar guesses, might savor the site for its size and location. So while it doesn’t sound like the building itself will come a’ tumblin’ down, the new tenants definitely won’t bring hulking machines with them. As far as Ace can tell, some company (or companies) will make a lot of money at the Ix property someday, but compared to the mill’s bustling golden years, their labor will seem very, very quiet.

Update: The gutted Ix building has been enjoying renewed life as the City’s coolest industrial-chic arts venue. The Fringe Festival set up shop there last fall, for instance; C-VILLE used it as a location for a fashion shoot. Also, last fall owner Dittmar and his developer partners, including Allan Cadgene, Gabe Silverman and Ludwig Kuttner announced plans to convert the Ix building into a shining example of mixed-use Downtown renovation, creating business spaces on the ground floor and residential condos above. Ace still stands by his prediction that somebody will make a nice chunk of change out of the project, especially as demand for Downtown condos skyrockets.


The potty breaks

September 25, 2001 

Q: Hey, Ace, everyone’s always talking about how Downtown Charlottesville has this certain European feel to it, what with all its open air cafés, street musicians, etc. But one thing is painfully absent from this supposed euro-ville: public restrooms! What’s a loiterer to do when he needs to use the john while Downtown?—Ready to Burst

A: Don’t duck into a back alley just yet, my micro-bladdered friend. Word around the C-VILLE office has it that there are already plans for public restroom facilities on the Downtown Mall. (I know, I know, have we nothing better to gossip about?)

A quick call to Charlottesville spokesman Maurice Jones confirms. Public restrooms will be part of the renovation of the downtown recreation center. The rec center, site of the future restrooms, is located on Market Street near the east end of the downtown mall (that’s the "far side" near the amphitheater for the geographically challenged), across from Lucky Seven convenience store.

The entire project has a budget of $1.5 million, including a Federal grant of $500,000 earmarked solely for the rec center renovations, and that extra money has freed up funds to spend on the restrooms. (Ace is suggesting silver soap dispensers and automatic everything.)

Because the specific plan has yet to be finalized (the City has just sent out a request for proposals), Jones is unable to reveal some details of the project, such as how many stalls would be included, though he did say that the facilities wouldn’t have any extra amenities such as changing areas, nursing couches, or towel-toting, perfume-spraying attendants.

Unlike its European counterparts, this facility will be free to all. If all goes as planned, construction will begin in December and the facilities will be open by summer 2002.

Asked if he had heard anything about Charlottesville’s proposed public facilities, Chap’s owner Tony LaBua replies, "Only for the last 10 years!" Until the fabled restrooms are opened, he says, everyone and anyone is free to use the restroom at Chap’s, whether they’ve bought something or not. "If you gotta go, you gotta go," LaBua laughs.

Other restaurants on the Downtown Mall are also potential restroom providers until the public ones are made available. An anonymous manager at Bizou points out that with all the patio dining downtown it’s difficult to tell who is a paying customer and who isn’t. Also, "It would be really easy at Miller’s" to use the restrooms as a non-customer, he says, because of the many people going in and out at all times. Duly noted.

So until the much-anticipated opening of the public restrooms, Ace proposes a new brand of "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. If you don’t ask to use the restroom, they won’t tell you that you can’t, and going about your business will remain a purely private practice—as it should be.

Update: It was a royal flush—the bathrooms in the rec center never opened, and the only other public restroom Downtown in York Place has been shut down. Best prepare your bladder.


The secret’s out

March 26, 2002 

Q: Ace, could you tell me anything about those weird letters painted on buildings all around UVA. I’m not talking about the Greek ones, and I’m not talking about the graffiti on Beta Bridge. I’m referring to the Zs and IMPs I see painted on steps, building sides and stone slabs. Thanks, dude!—Alpha B. Letterman

A: Alpha, you’ve stumbled across one of UVA’s oldest traditions—secret societies.

It’s really quite simple. With, the exception of Yale, perhaps, no other university can claim as many secret societies among its ranks as UVA. A few of these covert clubs have been around almost as long as the University itself.

The largest and oldest secret societies include the super-secret Seven Society, whose members’ identities are revealed only upon their death (by the tolling
of seven bells at the University’s chapel), and the semi-secret IMPs and Zs. Newer and more peripheral groups include P.U.M.P.K.I.N., T.I.L.K.A., Raven, Rotunda Burning, Purple Shadows, K.O.T.A. and Eli Banana.

At present, secret societies are known for their philanthropy. The Seven Society is notorious for making donations in sevens (like $777,777.77). The IMPs give an annual award to a "faculty member who has been outstanding in promoting student-faculty relations." They also give the IMP Student Athlete Award at commencement each year to an exemplary female athlete who has shown exceptional performance and integrity both on the playing field and in the classroom.

But, Letter-dude, benevolent did not always describe these clubs. Many existed for reasons no deeper than good-natured fun. Eli Banana, for example, would often hold Saturday night parades, complete with bass marching drums. They could be heard near and far chanting diddies like "We are drunk boys, yes every one!"

This boyish hilarity got out of hand, at times, however. For example, the IMP’s predecessor, the Hot Feet Society, was disbanded in 1912 by University administration after a night of especially raucous revelry.

On the night in question, Hot Feet Society members removed an assortment of life-sized, stuffed creatures, including a moose, kangaroo, polar bear, Bengal tiger, three-toed emu and boa constrictor, from the basement of Cabell Hall and placed them before the front door of each professor’s Lawn residence. Crazy, eh?

But now, Alpha, let me address this question to you, since none of this history explains why secret societies would have their names strewn all over campus. Like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant, the secret society graffiti has to do with marking its territory.

As for the letters all over the place, the elite secret society groups (the Sevens, IMPs and Zs) have an agreement with UVA that enables them to brand their name on university buildings whenever a member of their society dies who lived or worked in that building. Since these clandestine clubs have been around for so long, their territorial paint jobs are ubiquitous.

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