I’ll always remember Virginia Beach as the place where I checked off and “frolic on a sunny, legitimately oceanside beach” from my bucket list. Two of Earth’s treasures are inaccessible here in Indianapolis and are a bit glamorized — possibly even mythologized, given our muted responses in the moment. It’s not the first time I’ve had my first encounter with something beloved by billions of other humans throughout world history only to discover my personal response is “I don’t get it.”
Moving forward from there, we turned to the rest of the Virginia Beach and sought other forms of fun, meaning, and/or bang for our buck. Results continued to be, um, mixed.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.
Our 2007 drive down to Orlando had one personal milestone for me: my first contact with the Atlantic Ocean. My moment lasted about ten minutes before thunderstorms chased us away from the coast. As Atlantic beach experiences go, Florida gave me a lousy first impression. For 2008 we decided a second try was in order. Rather than take back-to-back trips to the same state, we researched other east-coast beach options, judged them by their nearby attractions, adjusted for our modest budget that couldn’t possibly afford upper-class oceanfront accommodations, and settled on what we hoped would be a suitable sequel.
Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Virginia Beach!
By lunchtime my son was gasping for fluids, so we headed back to the storefront side of Pacific Avenue and walked down to the Tropical Smoothie Cafe, where he refueled and I tried their Chicken Mango Habanero wrap, with pleasant success. Their chairs pleased my aching muscles. My son refused their imaginative cuisine and would accept only a sour smoothie. He’s a lifetime fan of sour foodstuffs, so this was only half the martyrdom it may sound like.
We window-shopped along the street at a variety of stores…many of which sold nothing but cheap touristy crap, and some of which had several locations along the same street, so beach-goers could leave the sand at any point along the way and easily locate their favorite cheap-crap shop with only minimal questing. Virginia Beach’s tourism guides boast its family-friendly atmosphere, supported by signposts proclaiming the local no-profanity ordinance.
I’m sure the club on that block with the sign advertising “POLE DANCING” was in full family-friendly compliance in its own way. I just didn’t ask.
Our next planned stop was for another new experience: glow-in-the-dark 3-D miniature golf! You don freaky plastic glasses, enter the following room, and try to shoot nine holes without breaking their props or tripping over your opponent. It was more fun than most 3-D movies, and not just because I won.
We left the scary golf place just in time to walk right in the middle of a surprise rainstorm. This is the glorious part where I, the stocky eccentric in black with the giant dorky umbrella, instantly became Hero of the Beach. We three continued walking and had the street almost to ourselves. Our fellow vacationers either fled to their convenient expensive oceanside hotels or ran to hide inside the cheap-crap shops. We stopped briefly at a few more places along the way, including a post office where Anne insisted on picking up some postcard stamps. My son and I waited outside near the door. At one point I tried to help a young mother leave through the door with her child in a flimsy stroller, but the deluge changed her mind. Halfway out the door, she pulled into reverse, made the situation twice as awkward, and withdrew inside.
A bit further down, we took refuge inside another restaurant called Our Daily Bread. The name really spoke to us, as did the mural covering their south wall and their replica of da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. The Christian music was broadcast from a large boom box rather than the standard overhead Muzak P.A. Loud but harmless.
Since the smoothie place had only been a couple hours earlier, we ordered light — I had a cup of chowdah, my son had a turkey sandwich, and Anne had a handmade shake after the proprietor tempted us all with free samples. Despite having more employees on the clock than customers on hand, this simple order somehow took about an hour to complete. Sunday night’s urban-blighted Pizza Hut seemed like a model store in comparison. The employees who were brave enough to attempt eye contact with us were quite affable, but I couldn’t fathom where everyone was spending their time. The owner certainly kept busy enough — when the rain began to dissipate, he started accosting the few remaining passersby with more shake samples.
Our shared moment with Our Daily Bread ended with a ten-minute ordeal of paying for our order. Not much farther into our walk, we decided to take a break from the beachfront with a planned digression to a large-scale attraction over in Norfolk, a bit west of the beach. We’ll return to that waste of an hour in a future chapter, but for now let it be noted that the digression became several more minutes in our lives that we wish we could have back.
After that non-event, we waffled about what to do next. We already had dinner plans, but after two back-to-back restaurant stops it was too soon for more food. All of the other attractions on my list were either closed by now or too far out of the way from Norfolk or Virginia Beach. After some hemming and hawing, we returned to Virginia Beach and parked on the south end, where we hadn’t finished looking around yet. I convinced myself that the time spent in the driver’s seat counted as actual R-‘n’-R, so I figured I’d be up for some more walking and maybe the pains of the day would fade at last.
Our jaunt along the south end was more balking than walking. The same cheap-crap shops repeated like a Hanna-Barbera background. We found a few tacky-looking fun houses. We walked along the Virginia Legends, a stone path beset with decorated columns saluting famous Virginians throughout history, most of whom were Presidents and politicians from previous centuries. There was a modest carnival, but none of us were in the mood. We entered something billing itself as the Oceanfront Aquarium, which permitted free admission to a cramped location filled with a handful of large fish tanks and some sales reps pushing one of those free-vacation-with-endurance-of-a-ridiculously-high-pressure-hard-sell sales-pitch traps. I’ve endured two Amway presentations in my life that left me with a furious aversion to sales presentations no matter what goodies are promised. We backed away slowly from the life aquatic and escaped with a few extra minutes of our lives intact. Despite the gleam in the eyes of the fish handlers that said sell! sell! sell! sell!, it wouldn’t be our worst animal-related experience on this trip.
We gave up on Virginia Beach as a shopping option or even as ironic entertainment ’round seven-ish and headed a mile or so northwest to our planned dinner stop at a joint called the Purple Cow. They had more than one location, so it wasn’t as unique as we’d first thought, but still. “The Purple Cow”. How could we not eat there? Everywhere inside, it was purple, purple, purple. Purple uniforms, purple merchandise, purple menus, purple decor, and even purple fries.
Monday nights are usually pretty slow for restaurants, based on the twelve years I spent in the biz in my youth. Unfortunately we checked out the Cow at a time when “slow night” held all the wrong meaning.
I didn’t expect to have to wait forty minutes for a table or another thirty to have our order taken or another thirty-plus for our food to arrive. They had plenty of teenage waitstaff, but platters seemed to emerge from the kitchen in very slow spurts. Refills were barely offered. The shift manager seemed like a professional guy, albeit half my age, and making excuses to anyone who asked for one. I won’t comment on the limited, claustrophobic bathroom facilities, except where I just did.
Most immediately problematic for me was that their seat cushions felt like they’d replaced the stuffing with a double helping of rusty springs. In my aggravated condition, it was impossible to find a painless sitting position. I would’ve considered eating my (eventual) meal standing up if the building planners had bothered to leave space between the tables. It was all I could do not to have a cow at the Purple Cow. After a time, I think I was turning purple.
For the record, for what it’s worth, my sandwich of choice from their random menu selections was the Old Dominion, basically a big cheeseburger with a crab cake as an added topping. It sounded like a fun idea when I ordered it, little knowing the years that would pass before its delivery to me.
Our shared moment with the Purple Cow ended with a twenty-minute ordeal of paying for our order. By this time the Hampton Pizza Hut now felt like a Nordstrom’s. Once our transaction completed processing in the most slothful method possible, we were finally ready to blow this joint after a solid two hours of discontent. To his credit, our waiter was as polite as could be during our entire visit, from the time we sat down to his greeting us a day later, to the following eon when he dropped off our receipt.
Most restaurant receipts include some empty promotional boilerplate filler that no one reads. The Purple Cow’s receipt had the the following Easter-egg message in fine print at the bottom:
“Thank you for allowing us to serve you!! Our purpose is to glorify God by being faithful stewards of all that He has entrusted to us.”
I was sobered, stunned, flabbergasted, and vexed all at once.
Fellow Christians. All throughout the last two hours’ three-course fail. Including the guy whose tip suffered because I rendered unto Caesar but not so much unto him.
As we drove back to Hampton — necessitating a return through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (once again, the highlight of my drive) — I struggled to reconcile my impressions of the day, particularly regarding the stark contrasts between Regent University’s crackerjack staff, Our Daily Bread’s wanderers in the indoor wilderness, and the Purple Cow’s distinct lack of purple mountains’ majesties. The closest I came to pinning down a Moral of the Story was in the lesson from Romans 3:23 reminding us that all have fallen short of the glory of God…but that’s simply in reference to man’s sinful nature, not a harsh commentary on work performance. All that line of thought did was make me feel self-conscious about being judgmental. Few things bother me more than watching other Christians suck at what they do…because you can bet other patrons read that same receipt and had even less generous responses than I did, and on all the wrong levels. At the same time, I want to understand and forgive, but…some moments it’s harder than it should be.
Lucky for me, nothing takes my mind off internal struggle more thoroughly than intense physical discomfort, which dominated the rest of my night back at the hotel. While I slumped around the room in various uncomfortable positions, Anne took my son to the outdoor pool for a while. Without me at their side in my assigned role as family navigator, they only got lost once.
Sometime during the night, I finally realized it wasn’t merely back pain. It was an easy conclusion to draw because that’s what I’m used to. I’ve had recurring issues with back spasms since spring 2004, which after a few false theories were diagnosed as the consequence of lifelong poor posture. But with lights out and noises off, I could finally pay attention to the signals my body was sending, and realized the worst pain was coming from somewhere close to my right hip. I had to keep flipping from one side to the other every 15-20 minutes because lying either way for too long brought the pain once again. When the bed conspired to reactivate my back pain on top of that, I gave up and switched to our room’s other furnishing options — an armchair and footstool beside the bed.
In trying to sleep upright, my excruciating wake-ups scaled back to a comparatively merciful hourly basis for the rest of the night.
To be continued!
1. Glow-in-the-dark miniature golf was a new novelty to us in 2008. A few months after this trip, one of our local dying malls announced another round of renovation plans, which our local Indianapolis Star reported would include one of these very establishments. The writer of the article kept the quote marks around “glow-in-the-dark golf” either out of upper-class mockery or out of fear of the unknown. That aspiring venture was shuttered in 2012, giving that journalist the last laugh at the expense of a relative of mine who’d worked with the company. On the upside, another glow-in-the-dark mini-golf joint opened several years ago down the street from our church. We should probably check it out someday.
2. My bouts with back spasms have grown more infrequent with age, but I have sensitive weeks from time to time. Whenever I’m going through one of those times, I have a handful of mental rules that help me avoid exacerbating the pain. One of those rules was inspired by the Purple Cow experience: no restaurant booths. Some booths have firm, ergonomically sound seating. Many booths, especially older models that have grown old and dilapidated, feel like you’re sitting on a bag of hammers. We may be one of six families in American history who have ever responded to a server’s question of “Table or booth?” with me pleading for a table.
3. The Tropical Smoothie Cafe appears to still be going strong today, but I can’t find any evidence that Our Daily Bread lasted long enough to celebrate New Year’s 2009. Their location later became a Mexican restaurant that befell the same hardship near the end of 2017.
4. The Purple Cow’s Virginia Beach franchise shut down unexpectedly in January 2009, six months after our one-star dinner, an apparent victim of the ensuing recession that The 700 Club foreshadowed for us. After sitting fallow for the better part of a year, the location was transformed into its successors, Planet Pizza, who lasted from roughly July 2010 to (at best) November 2014. Next came Calliente Cantina, which opened in October 2016 with high hopes but shuffled off June 2017. Exactly eight days later the doors reopened as Americana Roadside Grill. Sadly they met the same fate in October 2017, four months after an interview in which the proprietor denied the location was “cursed”. As of today this 45-year-old building can be yours on lease for $9200 per month. If someone takes them up on it, be sure to let us know here at MCC, #1 in Purple Cow curse coverage!]
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