Thursday, October 22, 2009

Love in the Heartland




When I moved to Cleveland I'd only ever had one Wal-mart experience.  As I was growing up Wal-mart wasn't yet in the cultural vocabulary.  Plus, you know,  New Yorkers - it would be a long time before they'd have big box stores (if you didn't include Macy's), and maybe forever before they'd like them. 

My Wal-mart experience came as a result of trips I took with my sister, Erika, and my Dad to visit my grandma in Portage, Wisconsin.

My Gramma's husband, Ed, a sourpuss, died when I was maybe eight, and Helen lived most of my life as a widow. She lived to be 94, that entire time healthy, and only for the last year or two under the supervision of a group home, when it just didn't make sense for her to be on her own.

For the second act of her life, she worked as a docent for a historical site in Portage, called The Surgeon's Quarters. The site, the location of a tiny log cabin, had been home to the surgeon for the soldiers of Fort Winnebego, which was occupied until 1845. The fort no longer stands, but the log house of the surgeon remains, along with a one-room school house, also part of the tour.

Grandma herself lived in a small apartment above the gift shop that was provided for her, along with a small salary, by the historical society that owned the property,  for touring groups of  Boy scouts and out-of-owners through the premises which were impeccable, and for kids, contained many wonderful and gruesome artifacts.  For instance, the 'operating theater' such as it was, was a table in the middle of the cabin's living room, that had been handmade by soldiers at the fort. The table's main engineering feature was a hole the size of a golf ball, through which the patients blood would fall, collected by a bucket below.  In the adult bedroom (all the children slept in a loft above the kitchen) there was a trap door that led to a cold storage, dug beneath the cabin for keeping hides, and probably root vegetables.  Grandma took great relish in describing how the surgeon's family had once had to hide from the Indians down there.  She'd throw open the trap door to the nasty crawl space and a damp, distant animal smell would curl out and you'd have to think of the grim little children quivering in terror at the onslaught of the "savages", wide-eyed down there with the smelly hides. It was good stuff.

But after she'd given us the tour, and we'd gone to Denny's for lunch with like fifteen of her closest friends - after that Erika, Dad and I would head back to our motel in the rental car, my dad chain smoking out the widow, while my sister, in the back seat gently wiped cigarette ashes off her newborn daughter's head, to kill a couple hours before meeting back up later for the three-meat-buffet.

You may think that Cleveland is the Mid-west.  Some days I'm convinced. But there's some debate. While its a source of comfort for me personally that we partake of East Standard Time, we are not really considerd mid-westerners.  Cleveland has a wee identity problem. Portage, Wisconsin suffers no such crisis of self-identification.

My grandma's town was a main street with a few stores that sold work shoes and Dickies in one aisle and pleather covered canteens for tourists in another. A coffee shop. A post office. It was a  practical, no frills city plan. The gifts that came from this little town, for birthdays and Christmas, were the weirdest, creepiest little doo-dads - - tiny hand crocheted dolls that were sort of rain-poncho shaped, with hard plastic faces sutured into the weave. Or miniature playing cards with badly rendered faces of the presidents on them, and a few national landmarks to fill what remained of the deck -- all these things wrapped in layer upon layer of bubble wrap and newspaper, as if they were treasures or in any way breakable.

I loved Helen with the full depth of my young heart. She was as exotic and loving a creature as I had ever known.  She adored turquoise rings of a huge, and most garish kind and she'd lovingly pummel you with the brass knuckles of her affection and bad taste.  She was generous and convivial and blindly proud of my dad and his accomplishments, cutting out his reviews and recording his shows, bragging about him to her friends. I'd never seen anything like her, with her hair up in a super high tight bun, and a hairpiece on top of that, a tower of hairdo that she had tuck-pointed weekly at the shop, coming at me with those heavy rings...

By the time I was of college age, Wal-mart had landed on a hundred acres of farm land like the Death Star, and was successfully sucking Portage into its gravity with the pull of cheap electronics and ten-packs of undershirts.  We, as visitors, were no exception.  Across the parking lot from our motel, separated by ten-thousand parking spaces, rose this giant, alluring temptress, promising, if nothing more, a way to kill an hour in the farthest regions of farm country.  My Dad, in particular was fired up for a stroll through the aisles, fondling the merchandise. I can only imagine his take, born and raised in Wisconsin, but a New Yorker by choice, on both the promise and demise that Wal-mart foretold for his childhood way of life. But it didn't stop him from buying his daughters some temporary crap for distraction.

I thought the mid-west was the coolest place ever. For the kid raised in Woody Allen's New York, with all the assumptions of priveledge and the amenities of urban breeding, coupled with the complexities of putrid divorce and unsavory parental maneuverings, the dacron sweaters of Wisconsin, the endless rows of shoddy Wal-mart merchadise, and the simple adoration of my Grandma all combined in a perfectly balanced equation, the sum of which was love.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Smell Something Funny? Your Local Government May Be Off-Gassing.





Our little township, Bainbridge, which is both a part of, and separate from Chagrin Falls, doesn't have a government, per se. It has a group of Trustees. These three elected officials oversee everything the township does. More precisely, they manage the township money.  This body arbitrates what gets fixed, or taken down, which contractor gets to mow the grass at the freeway on-ramp and how the explosive natural gas in the neighbor's well-water is being contained.

The, SAY  WHAT?? That's right, they peek in for a little howdy-do on how things are moving along with the well fix, since that house down the street was blown off its foundation by a natural gas explosion, which subsequently polluted their groundwater.

I showed up to the township Trustee meeting not because I am a dedicated activist. On the contrary, I am a sedentary anecdotist. But I caught wind of some doings that I wanted to look into, namely that they were planning to tear down a school building that Lily and Lou had gone to preschool in, and that had seemed to me at the time a pretty nice building.  It was nothing special architecturally, but it did have a big old gym, two floors of classrooms and a playing field out back and after all, there it was, built.  Generally I'm opposed to tearing things down and throwing them away. Everything made today is total crap and even older, mediocre shit, strikes me as worth saving.

Also, I'd read in the paper in an unrelated article that the school district was going to try to pass a levy to pay for a new school building in the next five years. My inner-Republican stopped brush clearing and perked its ears.

I attended the trustee meeting with every hope I'd have the chance to go all Norma Rae on their action, but discovered instead the existence of an alternate universe, the slow-moving, groundbreaking world of local government.  The meeting was packed because of the school building issue, the only sentimental item on the agenda. And by all reports it was the most well attended meeting on record. In fact, more often then not, there are only about ten people in the room. But that night, all hundred or so seats had spreading, dimpled asses in them. Everyone from landscapers wanting to bid contracts to the three dedicated activists who attend every...single... meeting, along with the local reporter who records the doings, to people like me who were clearly born yesterday, were present and fanning themselves with agendas.

So, the meeting starts and its, blah blah blah about the road re-surfacing on Pettibone and when can the detour signs be taken down, a few notes on the price for winter road sand, mailbox reimbursement - an "aye'' here and a "seconded" there, and a few hours (!) pass, filled with motions to file later motions (if that's even what they're called) and out of nowhere a woman stands up and asks the two-pronged question, like a serpents tongue, "When will they be transporting the plasma bomb down 306 to blow the clogged drainage dam, and when will the people with the poisoned water be getting access to the city water line, now that they've been drinking bottled water for over a year?" Shazam! I immediately perk up. 
   "I'm sorry, did she just say 'transport the plasma bomb'?" And a guy in a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, so I can see his armpit hair, sort of laughs nervously and says, "I think she did."

I have no idea what a plasma bomb is, but apparently they have to move it on a truck, and I'm imagining something very Doctor Strangelove, maybe a semi with a missile on it, rumbling down the road. They need a special permit for that, don't they?

I take another look at the woman asking the question, and immediately I get it; she's the person in our quaint hamlet who has made it her business to look out for the environmental interests of our community.  She's wearing the requisite lady-poetess outfit, signifying her earlier hippie status, and her grey-streaked hair is held back with combs.  In this woman's hands rests the future of our neighbor's drinking water and the potential for a bomb to be transported down main street. She's not even an elected official, but the trustees know her by name and they clearly respect her commitment to town policy.

I am showing my naivete by simplifying the proceedings to this degree.  Of course this woman is not alone. The trustees themselves are diligent, dedicated public servants, but I don't kid myself, they are also so deeply awash in a shit tide of bureaucracy, they're lucky to find a floating Buick and grab on. 

Many things were decided that night, though each item was heavily coated in procedural molasses.   Budget overages were reconciled, bomb safety was assured (there is in fact no such thing as a plasma bomb, except maybe in science fiction, but there would be a big stick of dynamite shoved in the ass of the clogged dam), well-water sampling results were to be disclosed in the local paper and business, by golly, was done.  Three hours into what would be a five hour meeting, the school tear down item floats to the surface, by which point I am so whip-lashed by the proceedings that  all I can do is whimper out a request for the air conditioning to be turned on. So much for laying in the path of the bulldozers.

I did learn a few things by attending that meeting.  For one, local government is terribly, terribly boring. But also, that the things that directly affect our personages, the water we drink, the roads we drive, the playing fields on which our kids chuck the ball - the real things that we can see and taste, and go to school in - the fate of those things rest in the hands of our town's minor-league officials and the people who show up to keep them in check.

Its great to get excited by Obama, or feel like knocking Glen Beck's teeth in, but if you want to change the world, show up to your town's chamber meetings, in whatever form they take.  It'll blow you off your foundation. 

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Demon Seed




Nothing says death like a pot of Hardy Mums.

I know the season of darkness is upon me when these rigid blooms appear in every flower box, every median planter, at every super market loading zone and every nursery from here to Toledo.  With their clumped stiffness they look to me like flowers that were maybe once beautiful, before they underwent some very aggressive form of plastic surgery. They're taut and happy in a way that says, I'm very very sad, but I can no longer express emotion with any of my botanical muscles. 

The way growers have engineered these blooms, packing them with ferocious density into their plastic vessels, they look strangled by good cheer, and it makes me feel the way I often do, that there must be something wrong with me.  I cannot experience joy when surrounded by this kind of blind optimism. These dreadful pots of glee make me look over my shoulder, make me wonder what harm will overtake me.

That harm, I know, is winter.  And its coming for me, for all of us.

So desperate are we cold climate dwellers to hang on to color, before it is washed away by the greyscale of inclemency, that the market is glutted with these flowers of doom.  The once gay marketplace of uniflorous blossoms, strong in their singularity, embraced by the sultry breezes of summer, give way to these shivering clusters, huddled together for warmth against the autumn chill.  They stand erect and without perfume, elbow to elbow with their clone-like siblings, their fuel injected colors groveling, "I wont die, its not cold, the sun is shining, that's not frost" but they don't convince me.  I see Mums and I want to shout back.

Its their can-do spirit I resent.  Fuck you, little cheerleaders of death, I know what you're hiding. Your congested glee is but a ruse, distracting us from the inevitable - long months inside, no sun to guide us, fighting with the chores of the cold, the endless battle of the thermostat, fire stoking and stoking and stoking, the winter gear, the muddy entry, the dripping boots, the shoveling and sanding, the painful bus stop intervals, the illness, the dry skin.

I know you winter, and I see what you're up to with these dreadful little flowers. I see your omen, and I'm planting bulbs, the equal and opposite show of faith, by way of revenge.