It was almost a good day Sunday–we looked up friends from Pittsburgh and met them at the Beaver County Maple Festival (story and pictures to follow–maybe) and had a great time. On the way home, fat on stacks of buckwheat pancakes and fresh, warm maple syrup, we decided to check out some terra incognita by driving down along the Beaver River and heading home–eastward–via the town of New Brighton and on the Zelienople, PA. Now, I can’t tell you how much it pleases me to have a town called Zelienople that is closer to my house than it is to the Parthenon. Of course, I live right up the road from Homer City, PA–which is named after the Greek poet, not the Simpsons patriarch, so I should be more jaded.
New Brighton seems to be connected to another town, Rochester, perhaps with the river creating the the difference, but it wasn’t easy to figure out–we saw a bunch of signs that said we were in one or the other, and signs in what we took to be Rochester for places like “Brighton Terrace” and “Brighton Garden” or whatever, but wherever the hell we were it looked much more promising than a lot of the old industrial towns that line Westsylvania’s bountiful, clean, recovered rivers–they’re clearly put some effort into the downtown, with newer sidewalks, nice facades on the stores, and decorative fences–think wrought iron–where old buildings had obviously died that hid the empty space but allowed one to look through towards the river.
The trouble came when we tried to get out of the damned place. We needed to get from Point A to Point B, but our paper road map lacked the detail we needed, and as far as a navigation system, well, I’ll be damned if I’ll let a machine tell me where to go. My friend Ken has one–his wife calls it “the other woman”–but not me. I’ve seen The Matrix. It’s a slippery slope, you know? One minute you’re trying to get Siri to say something stupid, the next she’s got you sucking gruel and living in a tank of goo, charging her batteries.
So, we had to follow the signs, which led us on the insane path outlined above (blue) that led us to turn left, then right, the left, cross the river, turn left again, do a 180 turn on a ramp, cross the river again on a second bridge one block downsteam from the first bridge, and so on. With apologies for language, it was simply the most fucked-up traffic routing I’ve ever seen in my life. The path shown in black would have been the most direct–but no chance on that.
At one point, where the red and blue lines split, we were actually one block from where we wanted to be, but no–we had to cross the river, go under an underpass, do a 180, merge onto a second bridge. The purple line indicates where they could have sent us–from either side of that line one can easily look across down the block and see where one had been 6 minutes ago (yes, these routes were liberally scattered with traffic lights). Agh!
One of my favorite books of all time is Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent–it’s about this geeky, intellectual, hilarious guy who spends a year driving around the country making fun of people–especially himself–and just about everything else. You’ll want to buy this book right away–in fact, just take a moment right now…..
Bryson would have loved this non-sensical SNAFU-ery–there’s either an underlying political reason for the route (cities wanting traffic to go through both of their communities? but for what? subsidies? bragging rights? speed traps?) or maybe it was the only way they could pay for the second, newer, uglier, more modern bridge–of the local officials just said screw it and let the PennDOT engineers (may they burn in hell) design the traffic flow from their cushy offices in some Harrisburg industrial park. Or maybe it was just a really, really incredible practical joke?
Either way, if I’m an investor or businesswoman (look at me and my gender equity, kiddos) and I come to this town I’m immediately thinking about what’s going to happen to all the trucks coming and going from my factory all day–or all the large German luxury cars coming and going from my white collar-whatever office. Trucks could vanish forever. Smarmy executives could leave for 4-hour golf course lunches and never show up at the club. Either way, I’m out of there.
And I’m not going back myself until Siri puts one of those big kung fu plugs in the back of my head.
God bless America, Land that I love
Stand beside her And guide her
through the night with a light from above–
from the mountains to the prairies
to the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home.
My friend Laura shared a link on her facebook page that led to a copy of the photo above, and a small paragraph about Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old girl who was the first student to participate in the integration of the New Orleans, Louisiana School system. If you’re anything like me, you learned her name for a few moments in school–maybe not even her name, only glancing at the iconic photograph, recognizing that integration happened, and moving on.
What stuck with me–not her name, sadly–was that while several students volunteered, passed the requisite tests, and were permitted to transfer to the then all-white school, Ms. Bridges was the only one who actually went. I recall thinking, they let her go alone. Of course, she had the federal marshals to protect her–a six year old girl!–from the angry crowds, but what company is a marshal to a little girl? She would later say that she thought the crowds at the school were gathered there to celebrate mardi gras!
And what about these bitter, angry, terrified southern housewives and mothers who–I guess–in some unfathomable, deeply misguided, ignorant way looked at the arrival of this small child as the destruction of their good, Christian way of life? (note the chubby blond kid has a sign that says “All I want for Christmas is clean, white schools”–ironic, isn’t it, that the arrival of a small child–just before the holiday season–could throw everyone into such a tizzy?) Did they grow to understand they were on the wrong side of history, did they pray to their god for forgiveness of their hate and cruelty? Or did they live out their lives, poisoned by spite and fear, huddled in their shacks and mobile homes? Note the placard held by one of these pleasant ladies above–“states rights”–and its relevancy today; the Teabag Party is still using the same strategy to cloak their own angry, bile-soaked agendas.
The ignorant masses didn’t just reserve their spite for the black kids, mind you–white families who sent their children to school were harassed mercilessly as well, harangued as traitors and “communists”–a word the lunatic fringe still uses today to describe their adversaries, though I’ve convinced there isn’t a single one of them the actually knows what the word truly means–they employ it as a convenient catch-all, a synonym for “bad.”
The thing that sticks with me about this story–and the many more like it–is that apart from all the tales of individual and small group heroics–from little Rosa Parks to the Kennedys, from determined, defiant black sharecroppers demanding their right to vote to the young, ivory tower idealist freedom riders who joined them in risking their lives in a struggle to make this country what was meant to be, not what the smallest among us would have it be–the fight is so long, so drawn out, so utterly ridiculous. More than 50 years has passed since Ruby Bridges took that walk, and our nation still bears racism like a cross on our shoulders. And heck, we’re all about building a giant wall to keep out the tired, the poor,
the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, not to mention the wretched refuse of teeming shores, the homeless, tempest-tost…and so on. And then there is discrimination against folks whose definitions of love and attraction lie in the swift waters and eddies outside the mainstream persist, our squinting suspiciously at a world full of people whose skins come in countless shades of brown–as if every one of them has a bomb in his underwear.
Imagine what we could accomplish if that energy was directed elsewhere, at genuine problems, instead of all this static. The thing is: I can’t. I can’t imagine that better world, and doesn’t that just suck?