August 11, 2005

The Hive and the Town

DURING MY YEARS IN THE CITIES, returning to New York by air at night mezmerized me during the long approach. Sliding down over the Alleghenies from the west, curving in over the Atlantic from the South, or throttling back and easing off the Great Circle Route from Europe, the emergence of the vast sprawl of lights that defined the Hive always enraptured me. On moonless nights, after the humming hours held in that aluminum cylinder hoisted into mid-heaven, you saw the long continents of dark water or land dissolve into shimmering white-gold strands connecting to clusters of earth-anchored constellations that merged to expanding galaxies of towns, suburbs, and cities until all below was a shimmering web of man-made stars.

As you swept down still lower, these massive meadows of stars resolved to highways and streets, boroughs and neighborhoods, houses and buildings and the yellow prongs of headlights darting under the streetlights. Then you were over the boundary, the runway blurring just beneath your seat. A bump and a bounce, engines reversing, weight shifting forward then back, and you were down and rolling towards the gate. If you were coming in from the Caribbean there was grateful applause for the pilot for the miracle of a safe landing.

You deplaned, grabbed your bags, hailed a cab and soon lurched along the Long Island Expressway, part of those headlights hazed beneath streetlights you'd looked down on only minutes before. The meter clicked past $30.00, the skyline of Manhattan rose behind the gravestones of the vast cemetery, a bridge and a toll and you were back in the Hive.

I loved the Hive across all the long years I lived within it. It was at once exciting and exasperating, densely communal and achingly lonely, empowering and eviscerating, inspiring and degrading. It never stopped coming at you and, on those days when your mental defenses were weak and your emotional shields wavered, it could splatter your soul. The same random evening stroll through downtown that would show you six people ambling along dressed as gigantic baked potatoes (complete with a pat of butter, gob of sour cream and chives), would also show you a wizened bum so diminished that he would drop his trousers, squat, and defecate in the middle of the sidewalk as bond traders in bespoke suits and handmade English shoes stepped carefully around the spectacle seeing nothing, nothing at all.

An old friend with little use for it describes the Hive as, "Hell with good restaurants."

But Hell has its charms no less than Heaven; more it would seem than mere Heaven for how else does it hold so many in thrall for so long? Did not Milton, who being blind saw so deeply, declare, "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven?" In the Hive as in Hell, there's always someone lower in the ranking than you, until, of course, you become the defecating bum or another one of the soul-gutted homeless set out randomly on the streets as both warnings and talismans of what can happen should you fail to toe the line, talk the talk, and walk the walk that the Hive demands in exchange for your small but continuing prosperity.

These small skills of toeing, talking and walking I mastered early during my time in the Hive. I continued to deploy them with some modest success. I say modest since, just as there was always no shortage of those beneath you in the Hive, so too did the head of souls piled there rise far above you. Exactly how far their relative altitude was above yours was always measured only by the cold metric of gold. And if the Hive is long on anything, it is gold. Except of course that no matter how gold much you acquire, you only have a little of all that there is to be had, a fact that keeps people in the Hive long after there's any real human need for being there. In the Hive there's always more gold to be had. The only thing asked for in exchange is time, of which the Hive never has enough since to be in the Hive is to squander your time at a greater rate than you realize until you turn around, three decades are gone, and at last you know you're running low.

Soon it will be three full years since I left the Hive and I've no inclination to return. It's easy to say that my love affair with that life ended in fire, smoke and ash on the crisp and clear morning of September 11, 2001, but that's only a convenient peg on which to hang the more complicated dissolution of an unwritten pact. It more probably began in a car northeast of the city some ten years before when my first wife decided to redefine the word "normal" for my 11-year-old daughter. Or perhaps it began in a hundred other equally mundane moments. In truth, you are either growing into a thing or growing out of it and towards something else, some other phase of this long series of repeated lessons handed out by existence for what you hope is some purpose, although what purpose that might be is always obscure. No matter. As the early Portuguese explorers knew, "It is important to travel. It is not important to arrive."

By the time I left the Hive, whatever had once bound me to it had long since frayed away. The upward pace of a "career" seemed more and more like a pointless marathon, a mere job. Long days spent striving to "exceed corporate goals" came to resemble a game of pick-up-sticks played with cows. Efforts to save an enterprise that one didn't own came down to admitting that the enterprise had no intrinsic worth other than maintaining the vulgar lifestyle of an aging monomaniac who could no longer reason his way through two and two to four. Add to that the compulsion to continue connections with past friends and present family that only seemed to use and never to give, and it all combined into a vast cloud of detritus that obscured the plain and simple fact that while government employees were working 24 hours a day printing more money, nobody anywhere was printing more time. And so, at last, you've got to go.

Yes, as Jack Kerouac, Bard of the Road, wrote "Man, you gotta go." Then he went home.

Okay. Fair enough. But go where? Here? Maybe. But where, exactly, is "here?"

Today, for a week or so, "here" turns out to be a small town up on the northwest edge of the nation. In size and composition, architecture and attitude, it is just about the exact polar opposite of the Hive. Where Central Park in the Hive is a large, long oblong of struggling overused green in the center of an immense slab of asphalt, steel and concrete, the central park of this town is about 15 yards on a side. It's a pleasant patch of cool grass studded with picnic tables and ringed with oaks that drape it in a shawl of shade. At the east end is a brick and cedar bandstand where banjos, guitars and fiddles sing out on odd afternoons and evenings. You'll hear some country and some rock, but mostly you'll hear the strains of bluegrass brought down out of the old Alleghenies and carried far west to these higher, more distant and demanding mountains.

On the west side of the park is a five-foot by three-foot marble faced granite slab in the shape of two tablets donated and erected there by the local chapter of the Eagles. Carved into the marble face in polished script are the Ten Commandments, King James version. It would seem that whatever local chapter of the ACLU exists in these parts has chosen to ignore this blatant eruption of the Christian tradition in the secular town park. One might suppose the ACLU has done this simply because it hasn't gotten around to it. It would, however, be much more likely that the organization is aware that in this town an ACLU suit to remove the Ten Commandments would be answered not with a five year legal argument, but with 30 rounds of semi-automatic rifle fire into the offices and automobiles of those seeking its removal. Since, for all its posturing, the ACLU has devolved into a refuge for moral and physical cowards with law degrees, it's not difficult to see why this stone, largely unread and unnoticed, has been given a pass.

This is a heavily armed part of the nation and, as a result, it is a very civil and polite part as well. The local army surplus store, called "Army Surplus," offers a selection of 40 MM artillery rounds (disarmed) to those locals who collect vintage ammunition or simply to those in need of a paper weight with authority. The local classified bargain hunter newspaper ("Nickel's Worth – One Copy Free") offers free rabbits (with hutch), free pigs (no accommodations included) and free kindling ("2 cords U haul"). One the same page you're offered such amusements as a 50 pound keg of black powder ($75.00) and a pistol grip pump-action Mossburg shotgun with a short 20 inch barrel ("Used twice, like new, make offer.") There are rumors that some folks outside of town own used Army tanks, but these are not listed in the paper although large tanks for storing diesel and gasoline on your land are, along with military level first aid kits. Just the thing for a sucking chest wound.

As I get up and walk away from the shaded picnic table where I've been writing, a man sitting on the bandstand with a lunch sack and a large bottle of Mountain Dew smiles and asks, "Are you vacating that table?" Like I said, when the people are well armed people are very polite.

But of course, that's not the driving reason for civility, only a part of the general community background coloring. Another reason in this town of about 6,500 souls is that -- for all the locals complain about the summer traffic -- the town is not very crowded at all. Yet another reason is that the town is very, very white; so white that even the Native Americans here are, well, sort of pale.

Currents concerns and tensions over ethnic diversity make it to the town via television, radio, and the puffed-up editorials scribbled in the distant Spokane newspaper. A shabby local rag parrots the received line of the American Left, but it is largely ignored except by the 20 odd people listed on its gigantic masthead. The love of diversity is probably taught in the schools along with the other two vital educational truths of our era -- Tobacco, bad; New York Times, good -- but other than that diversity and the other tendentious tenets of these times are just a wisps of smoke on far distant waters. In this town, being white is simply what you are.

If you had any doubt of this, a haircut at the local barber shop ("The Last Male Outpost") would trim your notion shorter than a Marine flat-top. Although sporting a red, white, and blue barber pole outside the shop boasts a Confederate Stars and Bars barber pole on the inside. Taking a seat you can leaf through vintage copies of "Field & Stream," "Guns & Ammo," and the long defunct "The Mother Earth News" ("Build a Compost Tumbler from Your Hot Water Tank!"). There's no New-Age elevator music here, but an always on police scanner so you can be among the first to know "when it all goes down." If you listen while the clippers are whirring in your ear, your barber will tell you that what all women secretly and shamefully want is the one thing they can't have, "The natural power of the male." He'll also reveal that he's trying to get this power working on his third wife.

If you said the right things and listened harder and came by for haircuts at regular intervals for a year or so, you might find out a few other things concerning high-caliber automatic weapons and ammunition stockpiles against that fateful day "when it all goes down," but blunt inquiries from a casual summer drop-in would probably be met with silence and a very bad, very close haircut.

From all of this, if you live in the Hive, you might think you have a clear impression of this town up along the northwest edge of the nation, and file it with similar impressions of other towns out on the edges of the grid and far from the maddening crowd in the Hive. You'd have that impression but it would be a false impression. Not because of anything I've put in, but because of what I've left out. Like any other place, the town has many faces.

It's a town of small houses and tin roofs ("So the snow slides off easy.") A town where the teenagers drive the five block main drag with rap music blaring from their parent's cars. It's a town where there's comedy and tragedy inside a small house with five kids and a hand lettered sign on the fence welcoming the father back from Iraq. It's a town with the plagues of drugs and festering resentments. In that, it's like a hundred thousand other towns and not so unlike the giant Hives of our cities. Looking at only the darker parts of these towns, you'd miss the many other things that there are to see. You'd miss a lot.

You'd miss the rope swing hanging down from the tree over the river and the line of teenagers in tight bodies and tighter swim suits arcing out from the bank and then up and letting go with a shriek at the top of the arc and plunging down into the clear, chill water, laughing and scrambling up the dirt bank to go again, an update of Thomas Eakins great painting, "The Swimming Hole," in real life and real time, right now on an endless summer afternoon.

You'd miss the sweeping panorama of the long lake clasped between the ranges of hills and mountains daubed with vast swathes of pine and cedar; the mountains seeming to hold back the piles of white cumulus far to the north and the west leaving the town and the lake warm under a bright clear sky all down the slope of the day and into the lingering twilight.

You'd miss the small farmer's market setting up around me in the park now as I make these notes. A market presenting for those who wander by hand-fashioned bread loaves with thick crusts still cooling in the reed baskets on the table, fresh cut wildflowers in large bouquets, the seven varieties of garlic with soil still on their roots offered up by the "Two Ponies Organic Farm" -- plowed by, yes, two tired-looking ponies hitched to a harrow. You wouldn't see and taste the "Heirloom" tomatoes, the pickling cukes, the golden beets and the mounds of other produce all centered about the local Cult of the Huckleberry and the several dozen different products derived from this fruit.

You'd miss the ever increasing overlay of people migrating in from other, larger places, other Hives, bringing along with them the omnipresent espresso and pastry shops, the Ahi-tuna centered restaurants, the downtown rock and salsa nightclub where "It's a great place to be gay... or not!"

You'd miss this latest demographic's obsessive concern with a wide and constant availability of mildly superior California wines in their almost infinite sameness.

Following close behind this influx of aging tomb-boomers you'd see the proliferation of shops specializing in giving an antlered, worn-pine, Indian blanket, Western feel to the $500,000 vacation condos and the $2,000,000 lakefront McMansions with floating boat docks sporting 25' Sea Rays. Driving just beyond the town limits, you'd find the immense alien landing sites of Home Depot and Wal-Mart, which haven't managed to kill off the local merchants. Yet. And in all of this you'd rest secure that once in town you'd never be more than five minutes from a Starbucks since, once in town, you're never more than five minutes from anything. Walking.

You'd miss the much-bemoaned (unless you're selling) real estate boom, and the whines about "all those damned Californians that've invaded since that damned Sunset article naming us as the best town in the Northwest." Years back that and, in the manner of magazines that must publish the "same article, only different" time after time, other "best towns" have been named since, but the beat of the boom goes on and prices out those that must work in the Wal Mart in favor of the aging geezers who shop at Neiman Marcus -- via the Internet with free shipping and no sales tax, thank you.

You'd miss the postman actually walking his route through the town clad in regulation shorts, uniform shirt, official US mail sack and baseball cap, with goatee, sleek Nikes, and Blades shades, strolling door to door right down the Oak Street sidewalk where the concrete slabs narrow down to round stepping stones that curve across the shaggy, shaded lawn to the vine-drowned porch of the small yellow house where, quite literally, the sidewalk ends.

You'd miss lounging back on the wide expanse of lawn in the town's Little League field where the peaked white tent has been set up for the music festival like a thousand other small town music festivals, and you'd drink your cold white local wine from a plastic cup as the burning banjos and mandolins of a Bluegrass group you'd never heard of went to work, brought it on, and played their hearts out as the sunlight faded off the hills and dusk rose up by the lake, and they still played on as hundreds bobbed and turned and beat their feet in the looming dark while the red hawk settled down out of the sky onto his nest on the street light above the water.

And you'd miss, late into that same crisp summer night, when the freight train rumbles over the long bridge across the lake on the edge of the town and the sliver of the new moon jumps up over the ridgeline and the train fades off down the tracks and the dark deepens in the yard, you'd miss lying on the cool grass a long, long way from the fine restaurants of Hell, looking straight up forever into an infinite hive of stars.

Posted by Vanderleun at August 11, 2005 11:20 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Enjoy the Perseids, peak's tomorrow morning but they're good for a week before and after. And if you've never see the space station come across the horizon and pass over you on a dark sky night, you really ought to. You've probably not seen anything like it. (Depending on where you are, you can see Alpha cross, probably southwest to northeast, sometime between 4 and 5, the next few mornings (NASA, J-Pass, put in your zip code and clock time for the star map).

Posted by: hank at August 11, 2005 3:17 PM

Wonderful descriptions. I have lived as a child and teenager in two of this type of town. I think the country is full of them still, and when the rubber meets the road, and the megopolises have panicked, these are the towns and people that will survive and save the country.

Posted by: Bill at August 11, 2005 7:42 PM

Thanks for the essay. It makes me want to pack up and move tomorrow to a small town where commonsense and decency trump "if it feels good, do it."

The wife and I have been kicking around the idea of moving to Texas. My stepmother asks, "Why on earth would you want to move to Texas?"

To which I reply, "What's so great about California?"

Crickets.

I'd like to live in a place where "God-fearing patriot" was not something said with a sneer and contempt.

Sounds like your vacation town might be close.

Posted by: Mike Lief at August 11, 2005 7:55 PM

Wonderful and true. Thanks for both the evocations of New York and the small towns.

Posted by: Iam Doubt at August 11, 2005 8:20 PM

If I may ask...where was this written? I get the feeling that it's close to my neck of the woods. (Tacoma, Washington).

I like to check out small towns within driving distance, and I'd like to check this place out before the 10 month rainy season sets in.

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at August 11, 2005 10:53 PM

"Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way."
Thomas Gray

There're a few things that always remain in that labyrinth called life. As usual, a great essay. Thanks.

Posted by: mixedmeta at August 14, 2005 4:22 AM

What a great post. I dropped in here tonight to see if you had an update on the nuclear thingy, and this was a welcome sight.

The town's name--is it "Willoughby"? Kind of reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode... ;)

Posted by: rickl at August 15, 2005 10:43 PM

I am so proud of you.

Posted by: DeborahAdams at August 16, 2005 10:29 AM

"Did not Milton, who being blind saw so deeply, declare, "'Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven?'"

Absolutely not! Those are Satan's words, of course.

Gerard, I am surprised and shocked to have caught you out. You are usually so wonderfully astute in your choice and use of literary materials.

I did Milton with Stanley Fish at Berkeley in 1965.

Best regards,
Rick
UCB '66

Posted by: rick at August 17, 2005 9:07 AM

You are, in a strict sense, correct. And being an English major at Berkeley ('67) I am quite aware that Satan in Paradise Lost is the speaker of these words. At the same time, unless we assume that Milton was an early Ramtha channeling Satan, we can attribute the observation to him as well, don't you think? Indeed, given the political climate of Milton's time there might be reason to think that what "Satan " says might have some relevance to the world of men.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at August 17, 2005 9:52 AM

Of course, I could point out that I "did acid" with Stanley Fish, but that would be a lie. It was Thom Gunn.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at August 17, 2005 9:53 AM

I wonder how often our paths might have crossed. I remember Thom Gunn well, but I didn't do acid with him. Actually, doing acid with Stanley would have been the real coup--prior to his flower child incarnation circa 1972, he was the most buttoned-down human I have ever met.

No, honestly, I don't think we could attribute that notion to Ol' blind John. That's one thing I think he was pretty clear about--at least in his conscious mind, which, of course, was the only mind he would have benn conscious of . . .

Here's the context from Book I:

"So spake th' Apostate Angel, though in pain,
Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare:"

And

"So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain'd on the burning Lake, nor ever thence
Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag'd might see
How all his malice serv'd but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc't, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd."

Let just say reality is not very appealing to Satan and not his situation is not likely to improve.

So, when he then says:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

And

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.

Isn't he making the perfect postmodern, multiculturally correct argument? After all, Zarqawi just begins from different culturally determined assumptions and argues to equally valid conclusions . . .

Milton was a very sophisticaed rhetor and philosopher, as you know, and not likely to buy into an anti-Christian sophistry of this sort. Or do you think with Blake that Milton was "of the Devil's Party?"

I don't think Shakespeare was contemplating suicide when he wrote "To be or not to be . . ."

Best regards,
Rick

Posted by: rick at August 17, 2005 10:40 AM
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