Thursday, October 24, 2013

Empty

Drove up I-5 today to a work site outside the vanished town of Dryad and the fading one of Doty, Washington.


I've visited this site now perhaps ten or fifteen times. to the point where the drive up the highway and then west down the valley of the Chehalis River is hardwired into my head like a map.

North along the east margin of the great river to where it bends west at Longview, then the easy slalom through the low hills that make the rumpled skirt of the Cascades to the outskirts of Centralia, where the shades of Wesley Everett and Warren Grimm seem to roil the gray fog that hangs in the valley like an uneasy conscience.

Uncle Sam's billboard grin seems more sickly than usual, grimacing at the idiocy of touting the government "shutdown" as a great idea for balancing the federal budget.


Yesterday I sat through one of those interminable safety classes and enjoyed one of those death-on-the-highway sort of scare videos about driving. Among the more ridiculous claims this treasure made was about driving as a demanding and attention-absorbing task.

As I turned off the highway I was reminded that, instead, driving combines perhaps the two worst elements of any human task; relentlessly grinding boredom with sudden, completely random, occasional hazard.

Unless you're a complete idiot or some sort of driving-geek driving a car on the open highway requires almost no conscious thought. Speed and direction are managed by autonomic reflexes of hand and foot, and the awareness of the surrounding vehicles is almost completely negated by the lack of relative motion. You sail along at over a mile a minute with little or no actual attention to the physical act of driving.


Its only at that moment when the unimaginable happens, when the lazy routine of pedal and wheel suddenly freezes, when the scream of tires begins and ends in the sudden collision of metal and plastic like an immense door slamming down the end of a distant hallway, that you are violently recalled to the great inertia of a thousand pounds of mass propelled at tens of miles per hour.

By then its usually too late.

But, still; when the fog parts and the sun shines golden through the maple leaves, when the wheels hum and the dappled shadows pass like flickering fingers over the glass it's hard to remember that the danger is there but not there - not gone, just busy somewhere else.


The east side of this to-be bridge is called "Dryad" but is not nearly so much a place as an idea, the remnants of a place, the scattered tag-end of busy lives and workday worlds. The little white church sits, hands folded, in the autumn sun, patiently waiting for a congregation that will never return.

The schoolhouse, on the other hand, has chosen undignified life over graceful unlife in the form of tacky Halloween decorations by the door and two beater cars in the drive. The paint is weathered and the lawn is ragged; the overall impression is "lived-in" but in a hard, grinding sort of way.

The old building crouches under its sparse tree canopy with a sort of sullen and smouldering vitality that rejects the vanished town that has already disappeared from around it, denies the children now elderly that have deserted it.

In the brushy streamside forest a single male picoides woodpecker forages for the last of the season's insects among the devil's club and the hawthorn, his bright crown just another red spot among the turning leaves.


West of the work site is the living town of Doty, said to be home to some several hundred people.


This seems frankly excessive unless all the people living in the small outposts and farms outside the town are counted in. The small general store that serves as post office and town center balances at the edge of hardscrabble and twee, between dusty cans of spam and ranked beers behind the cold glass doors, the faded paper books of hunting and fishing regulations, and the precious postcards and storybooks of the Olde Dayes.

The black safe in the back corner recalls the the real old days, the first decade of the old century when the Doty and Stoddard Company ran the town and the town stank of raw lumber and coal smoke.


But the great days ended in the Depression and the company folded in 1929.


In the late autumn afternoon the town looks placid instead of moribund, drowsing in the golden drifts of fallen maple and the lingering greens of fir and cedar. It seems to dream not of today but of a yesterday freed of uncertainty and fear, from the reality of hard work and poor pay, of mean company stores and shoddy company houses.


A yesterday, then, that is no more real than the future, as the empty streets of Doty now fill only with the scratching brawl of fallen leaves of a long evening drawing on towards the night.

14 comments:

rangeragainstwar said...

Chief,
I grew up in a company house in the coal fields. This month we drove to middle MI thru IN/OH/KY/TN etc and my impression was the natural wealth of the country -there was corn everywhere for at least 8 solid hours of driving and yet the gov't was shutting down and Americans are still fighting to maintain a middle class presence.
The symbol and reality are not in synch.
Nice post.
jim

Podunk Paul said...

Beautiful post. It amazes me how someone who lived for decades in bleak, hard-scrabble military world retained such sensitivity and openness to experience. It must have been difficult.

FDChief said...

Jim: I wonder if in our dotage we won't look back on the first two-thirds of the 20th Century as the High Water Mark of the American working man and woman. These tough little towns birthed the tough guys who fought the owners and the company stooges and the Pinkerton and the National Guard for a 40 hour week for decent pay, for an end to the company towns, for schools for their kids to do better than their mom and pop working in the fields or the mills or the mines.

We forgot that hard fight in the 70s and 80's and 90s; we tore down everything we built that made these sorts of towns the place where the America we grew up in was made.

We let the grifters and the con men, the fat cats and the slick operators take back what we'd fought so hard to take away from them after they shit the bed so bad back in '29 that finally no one could pretend that they were "job creators" or working for the good of their fellow Americans instead of fattening their own wallets by stealing from the very people who made them that profit.

And now we look around and it's too late. The towns, and the people who lived in and made them, have lost, while in our capitals the thrones and dominations squabble over the scraps handed them by the rabble of nobles that wrecked the joint in the first place.

I think we will be immensely ashamed of ourselves. And we should be.

FDChief said...

Paul: The deeper the manure, the richer the crops.

Lisa said...

A lovely post -- thoughtful and beautifully captured in pictures. I like how you impart a presence to the place.

The NYT recently ran an interview w/ dir. Ridley Scott who said:


"Universe to me is, if you’d like, the final character. Your landscape in a western is one of the most important characters the film has. The best westerns are about man against his own landscape. I think people have lost the ability to do that"

Podunk Pauol said...

This is off the topic, but there’s no place else to post it.
Veracruz is alight with political posters. A candidate for congress runs on the slogan “Iqualidad y Justicia” under his photograph. He appears thoughtful middle-aged man, who might be an accountant or a specialist of some sort used to dealing with delicate matters.
Can one imagine a North American candidate for political office running on the notion that equality a good idea?

FDChief said...

Lisa: Ta. And interesting that from Scott, a director who is perhaps as well known for the way his pictures are set as anything else...

Paul: Sadly, we seem to have completely abandoned the notion of "equality". The phrase "All men are created equal" is no more than boilerplate in the time of the New Robber Barons and the Return to the Gilded Age.

Mind you, I'm not sure that Mexican governance is exactly something I'd aspire to; as bad as conditions are getting here they still are a fraction of the savage inequality in Los Estados Unidos de Mexico...

Lisa said...

Yes, when thinking of Scott's Alien and Bladerunner, one remembers the elaborate sets, but he understands that it all comes down to man confronting a disinterested environment. It is simple naturalism, even if the denizens of that world look wacky.

His latest will be a Western with Cormac McCarthy, I understand. I've always loved Westerns for this reason: unburdened by our familiarity with people in a place we know, the character appears as an individual stripped of our "knowledge". We can see him -- and us -- anew.

To me, that's a very refreshing perspective.

Lisa said...

Podunk Paul,

Thank you for sharing the candidate's slogan.

In South America is a President, Jose Mujica, who seems to truly live by that dictate, Jose Mujica. We could never have such a President here.

After Years in Solitary, and Austere Life as President

Podunk Paul said...

Thank you, Lisa, and, Chief, you are, of course, right. The level of social discrimination here is far more categorical and ruthless than in the States. Imagine a country where 98% of the inhabitants are expendable, ignored so much as possible, and (in the minds of the middle and upper classes) dismissed as immoral. My associates are, I have been told, sexually promiscuous, lazy and incapable of deferring immediate pleasures for long-term gains.

Yet, when you live close by with the victims, the discrimination is hardly thought of. It’s what life in the States must have been like in the 1930s – everyone you know is in the same leaky boat. We buy groceries from hole-in-wall tiendas, grow vegetables, ride the ramshackle buses, and have a profound reluctance to spend money. I used to think the Yankee dollar had magic power; believe me, the peso is more definitive when you only have a few. Our big problems are medical bills: people get hurt, develop chronic diseases, and, I think this is probably true, suffer more than Americans. Mi amigo Clemente, a man in his mid-60s, swung a machete the day long until a few months ago when he went blind. He will never see the light again. His wife is dying of diabetes. So it goes.

There are compensations. We laugh a lot and experience flashes of generosity from people whose situations are as tenuous as our own. The physical work involved keeps the old fart active, although I wish there was more time to cruise the Internet and drink Tecate.

Lisa said...

Paul,

I remember your writing a thoughtful tribute to your friend Clemente. In talking to an older British relative I was shocked to learn how many people in my grandmother's generation died of poor nutrition or simple infection (most likely). There was no money to go to a doctor, and less to buy luxuries like meat. They mostly ate what they could scavenge or grow, and some ended up in pauper's graves.

And so it goes. We have so much in this country, and it is painful to see the poor and/or venal leadership fritter away so much of everything.

Podunk Paul said...

Lisa, I read the article you cited about Jose Mujica, who became president of Uruguay after 14 years of imprisonment. Imagine what a Uruguayan prison must be like!

While the ex-cons I have known seemed worse for the experience, long-term hardship sends one down private roads. As Chief put it, “the deeper the manure, the richer the crop.” I suppose this is why people join monasteries or exile themselves to one desert or another. One certainly can’t find what one is looking for by owning things or watching television.

Charles Flaum said...

Thank you, Lisa, and, Chief, Battery Led Picture Light

FDChief said...

"We have so much in this country, and it is painful to see the poor and/or venal leadership fritter away so much of everything."

Well...

How much "we" have here depends a hell of a lot on 1) who our mommies and daddies are, and 2) dumb shit luck with a dash of hard work thrown in. The old "outhouse-to-outhouse-in-three-generations" rule is as dead as the dodo; if you're born to the upper class in 2013 it is increasingly unlikely that you will die anywhere other than Millionaire Acres. Conversely, the old "rags-to-riches" fairy tale is ever more that.

I read an interview with some "self-made" (i.e. he took daddy's $$$ and made more $$$...) douchenozzle who said that the great thing was that someone who was poor in Baltimore "was poor in the richest country on Earth", like that made it better instead of, as you point out, Paul, worse; at least when you're all poor together you can see that it's not "just you", that poverty isn't a personal failing or problem but something that's built into your life and the life of your community.

And the promise of the United States is that We the People ARE "the leadership". We vote for these people who "fritter away so much of everything". We choose to pull down our pants and hand the birch rod to the oligarchs and their kapos who proceed to whip and starve us.

Unlike many places in the world where the system really is overtly set up to rape and pillage on behalf of the elites, the U.S. has the potential to be the most egalitarian nation on Earth.

That it is not is our own failing, not some faceless other or some distant "leadership". Here in Oregon we've done our best, sent the most liberal legislators we can to our state and federal government in spite of the lackey press and the constant lying of the Right.

I hate to sound this way, but we know that about 25-27% of the country is just batshit crazy; obsessed with guns and God and FREEDOM! while they happily let their overlords pick their pocket and break their legs. These people will NEVER vote for anything to restrain the oligarchy built into the U.S. government system; these were the 40% of We the People who voted for fucking Herbert Hoover in 1932.

But the rest of us need to stop dicking around and FIGHT these people and their Hoovers, and we need the newspapers to fight them and the television stations to fight them and the radio to fight them.

But those media outlets won't. And so the lies fly about unfought, and the "center" - the lazy, the stupid, and the uninformed - is pulled to the Right, and we're screwed.

And I have no idea how that changes; 2008 was as bad a bed-shitting as 1929, and yet there is no New New Deal and no new Glass-Steagall and no new taxes. We're standing here like a bunch of idiots while the looters and the vandals sack our country.