This is a nervous country. I’m not sure that hanging Osama Bin Laden on the White House wall like a coonskin really helps that much. Already, a familiar darkness sets back in, a loss of purpose of the kind that Lindsay Lohan must feel when she gets out of rehab. This is exactly the situation that empty rhetoric was designed for, so we got a week of talk about “bringing our nation together” when the truth is that Fox News would like to send Team Six into the oval office with guns blazing and helmet cams on “record.”
We have no idea what we’re going to do as a people and absolutely no credible thought on this emanates from the upper echelons. Leadership is more than telling people what they want to hear. In the middle ranks of society, a sullen docility rules, no matter how many affronts to reality we witness. You ride this wreck until the wheels come off and think of what to do next when you’re sitting in the drainage ditch by the side of the road. There’s no period in US history that matches this for lassitude.
I had a strange experience, driving north about fifty miles along Route 22 in eastern upstate New York, from Canaan to Cambridge, a very rural stretch that roughly parallels the Massachusetts and Vermont lines. Aside from a few convenience stores serving up gasoline, slim-jims, and pepsi, there was no visible economic activity in any of the towns along the way. The little town of Berlin, NY, was especially striking. A “for sale” sign stood forlornly in the parking lot of the lumber yard, the inventory sheds plainly empty of stock. The Seagroatt wholesale flower company – where, years ago, I picked up roses as the delivery guy for a Saratoga retailer – was shut down, with rows of empty greenhouses standing vacantly in the late day spring sunshine. The little downtown on a street one hundred feet off the highway was not only empty of businesses, but the old wooden buildings themselves had gone lopsided from a lack of regular caretaking, while the paint was all but gone. A number of old houses were still occupied – cars in the driveways – but they looked battered and worn, one bad winter from roof failure, and often with front yards strewn with plastic detritus.
One thing you didn’t see a lot of along Route 22 was farming. Columbia, Rensselaer, and Washington Counties used to be all about farming. For much of the 20th century, it was dairy farming after electric milking machines and bulk refrigeration came in, and you could run larger herds. That’s done now, since the giant factory farms in the Midwest and California started up, where the business model is you jam hundreds of cows into a giant steel shed where they stand hock deep in their own wastes all day long, with their necks locked into a stanchion, and it’s “economic” to truck their milk back east. Who needs pastures with grass growing in them? Who needs a happy cow? That will change, by the way, yet it is one of the many things we’re not having a conversation about in this demoralized land.
I saw teenagers here and there along the way, wherever a convenience store exerted its magnetic pull of sweet and salty snacks, the boys all wearing black outfits, those dumb-looking calf-length baby pants, and death-metal T-shirts. This must be the longest period of history for a particular teen fashion – going on two decades now? When even teenagers lack the enterprise to think up a new look (that is, to make a fresh statement about who they are), you know you’re in a moribund society. I saw some young adults, too. You could tell more or less because they had young women and babies with them, and they were stopping for gas or groceries (if you call a sack full of Froot Loops, jerky, Mountain Dew, and Pringles “groceries”). Their costume innovation du jour is the cholo hat, a super-deluxe edition of a baseball cap with special embroidered emblems and a completely flat brim -presenting a look of equal parts idiocy and homicidal danger. The day was warm enough for “wife-beater” shirts, all the better for displaying tattoos, which are now universal among a working class that has no work and no expectation of work, ever. I tried to think of them as the descendants of men who had marched off to Cold Harbor, Virginia, and those who built the great engine that the American economy once was – but it was no go.
Up the highway, I passed through the classic Main Street town of Hoosick Falls, just outside of which were the haunts of “Grandma” Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses), the painter of rural scenes. Try as you will to find them, there are no characters in her paintings wearing cholo hats and no indication of tattoos under the stiff frock coats and bodices. The little burg’s downtown has a quirky main street that doglegs twice in an interesting way that you rarely see in this country. It contained some wonderful old buildings that radiated confidence and noble aspiration from a time that is bygone. We couldn’t reproduce one correctly now to save our lives. I don’t think there was any business besides a pizza joint and a consignment shop along the whole length of the main street. All was vacancy and desolation in Hometown USA. The victory of the national chain stores is now complete. I hope our citizens are happy with the result.
The time will come when that disposition of things will change of course. If that time is at hand, few are aware of it. Perhaps they get an inkling in the moment when they realize that they have no money to spend in the chain store, even if they could buy enough gas to get there. The chain store executives must sense something themselves in those dark moments after closing when they have to send the day’s report to Bentonville, Arkansas.
These are the spring sights one encounters in the background of a time in history when a society slides toward change nobody wants to believe in. Not believing is easy, especially when you don’t pay attention. Meanwhile, somewhere off in a European bank, an executive reads a computer screen and gags on his lunch. In Shanghai, a Chinese government banking official wonders what it means when he lends money to an army general to buy an enterprise owned by the government. Down in the heart of Dixieland, Memphis drowns and New Orleans once more looks anxiously to the levees. Who was Osama Bin Laden, anyway?