A Graduate Returns to Virginia Tech

Reporter Jen Poyant, a graduate of Virginia Tech, returns there to find out how her friends are coping with grief — and the onslaught of the media in Blacksburg.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Blacksburg locals gathered in downtown restaurants and bars to talk and try to make some sense of the past week's tragic events. Members of the national media also gathered in those spots to take the pulse of the community or cool their own heels.

Reporter Jen Poyant is a Virginia Tech graduate and a former resident of Blacksburg. She had to see for herself how her former town is coping and recovering.

JEN POYANT: In downtown Blacksburg, it's normal to see the same faces and cars pass by several times throughout the day. So when I returned to Blackburg, I'm never surprised to see familiar people.

For as long as I've known it, this town has had an easygoing pleasantness to it. But as I drove into town on Wednesday, I prepared myself for a different place. The mood here is somber. People that obviously know each other walk by and nod but don't speak.

(Soundbite of music)

POYANT: This is one of my old haunts, a local coffee shop called Bolo's. When I got to Bolo's, the regulars I know didn't look up to say hi. But after a minute or so, a student who I've known for years acknowledged me, and we sat down to talk. Cliff Trombley(ph) is an architecture student at Tech. He's finishing up his master's degree next month.

Cliff says downtown Blacksburg has always been a comforting place because it has a strong sense of community. But now, Cliff worries for this community. He feels like the people are so burdened with sadness that they're physically weighed down.

Mr. CLIFF TROMBLEY (Graduate Student, Virginia Tech University): I think the last few days have been slow and, you know, it's one of those things where you look each other in the eye while you're walking and just, kind of, you both know. And there is this kind of connection with everyone that's not there every day. At the same time, it's just sadness.

POYANT: When you walk down the street, you can feel the sorrow. But occasionally, you'll notice some people who don't look burdened. They're strangers with huge cameras and recording equipment. They sit by with determined faces, and then they head to downtown restaurants like The Cellar once they've filed their stories.

Julia Fuller is a bartender and waitress there. She says that not all but many of the reporters she has encountered here have been nasty. She says it's hard to wait on them while she and her friends grieve.

Ms. JULIE FULLER (Waitress, The Cellar Restaurant, Blacksburg, Virginia): Last night, I had, like, three guys at the bar and they were all, like, you know, we're media, blah blah. We're from the city. We're big shots or whatever. And it's, like, okay, you know? And so, you know, I gave them good service and I would, you know, Cliff - I was, like, in the middle of talking to him, like asking what he wanted to drink and seeing if he was okay and stuff, and they're, like, waving at me. And I was so fed up with them that I just, like, turned around and I was, like, you know, can I get you something? And they were, like, yeah, we want more beer. And I was, like, well, you know, when I get done with Cliff, a regular, a guy that comes in here almost every day, you know, then I'll get to you, you know? Like, you can't - they don't want to wait for anything.

POYANT: Julia says she's talked with many of her friends who work at other bars and restaurants who've dealt with the same thing. Normally, rude customers are no big deal; it happens all the time. But she says to take that from people who are telling the stories of the victims and then watch them forget that one of those victims is waiting on them is insulting.

Ms. FULLER: I have been - you know, they're trying to do their job too, but they should have some sympathy and compassion for the people that live here that are going through it and have to work, and like, wait on people that are, you know, hounding other people.

POYANT: But the media won't be here forever, and neither will I. While my fellow reporters came to cover a big, awful story, I came home. I came to witness my friends grieve, and I came to cover their story. I knew them well enough to know they'd never talk to a guy from a big network. But most of all, I knew if I didn't come back here this week, I could never go home again. For NPR News, I'm Jen Poyant in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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