There is a nice article right now in Rolling Stone on a historic and heroic struggle that is happening just a few miles up the road from me. A while back, a big corporation came to a tiny little community and said, “we’re going to dump all our pollution here.” A lot of the good country folks who live there said “No, please.” The giant corporation said. “Shut up. We’re a corporation. We have human rights and we’ll do as we please!”
So the people went to the state and the Department of Environmental Protection agency said, “What we protect is the rights of corporations to use the environment as they see fit.” And so the people said, “Okay, we’ll do it ourselves.” So the corporations sued them and, to add insult to injury, the government sued them and still this group of renegade rural folks is standing strong, like real Americans, conscientious, committed, and courageous. The people of Grant Township Pennsylvania, and the East Run Hellbenders Society should have songs written and movies made about them. And maybe they will, in the end.
How about a shout-out to my fellow Westsylvanians, 84 Lumber, whose censored commercial is generating a ton of commendations and criticism this morning along with those other legendary political dissidents, Coca-Cola and Anheiser-Busch. I mean, who do they think they are? McDonalds?
84 Lumber had been getting some press in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl about their mysterious ad buy. Specifically, why is a regional lumber company from Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands spending millions and millions of dollars on the most expensive media night of the year. Sources at 84 would only say that they were looking to recruit a new generation of young, career-minded, not-necessarily-college-educated employees looking to exchange hard work for stability in the new economy. So, yeah, that ad was about attracting job applicants, not about selling you nails, shingles, and plywood. They wanted to get the word out, and I think they succeeded with an ad that, with few words and in just a few minutes, sums up the best about America–and the worst of our recent, wreckless indulgence in whining nationalism.
The predictable flurry of hyperventilating anti-immigrant verbal diarrhea immediately began splashing across the internet following the release of this video, “…but, but, but it they’re illegal and illegal is illegal and my grandparents had papers and went through Ellis Island and besides they’re white and learned English and…” you know the spiel.
Do I need to point out that the immigrant in the video doesn’t climb the fence or burrow beneath it? She finds a gate–that’s symbolism, folks–even Donald Trump said his shiny wall would have a lovely gate. The best gate, in fact. Better than anyone else’s gate (and he’s the only one who can build it.) So, yeah. There’s no ass-covering here–the huffing and posting is garden variety xenophobia–and to hell with that. The symbolism that moves me–almost to tears, and in love of this screwed up country of ours–is at the very end when we see what the little girl has been doing with all the scraps of plastic trash and disgarded material she’s gathered through her voyage. Because yeah, I want that kid as my neighbor–not some melanin-obsessed speak-english-only redneck hump shouting just because he likes the sound of his own voice.
Today is a civilization-pausing holiday where I live, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the end of the 5-day weekend: Deer Day. If you also live in a region where NRA bumper stickers outnumber high school diplomas, you know what I’m talking about. If yer City Folk, I’ll spell it out: it is the first day of rifle season for white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania, and the beginning of the an unofficial moratorium on outdoor activity. For the next two weeks, our local newspaper’s sports section will be filled with photos like this. A few folks I know, most of whom have never really spent a lot of time outdoors, and whose relationship with nature is primarily rooted in the “I love furry sweet wittle aniwals” find it repugnant. Though I prefer my meat to reach me as God intended (wrapped in plastic, on a styrofoam plate–or better still, on a bun), I see a big difference between the freezer-filling traditionalist who dominate the culture here in Westsylvania, and cold-blooded trophy-takers who travel the world “bagging” exotic game just to hang heads on the wall. I’ve no time–or respect–for that narcissistic, consumption-driven, savagery.
But hunting deer for food: I’m all for it. As gardeners, we spend too much energy on thwarting these evil critters. Anything that takes down their numbers is fine by me. They are beautiful, graceful creatures but, with apologies to Harry Potter and that magic light-up stag that patronuses his ass out of hot water again and again, they are a living, breathing curse on the land, a plague on hooves. If J. K. Rowling had lived in the country, the odds are she sure as hell would have picked a less diabolical creature as her hero’s totem. But that’s not right, either. The word “diabolical” implies a degree of malevolent thought, where deer are just stupid eating machines who don’t know better than to step in front of speeding cars. They’re more like Zombies in that regard, and as with Zombies, I revel on every bloody deer corpse I’ll see today, on its way from forest to butcher. Because: Deer, if you didn’t get this from context above, I hate them all.
Ironically, the white-tailed deer owns a stirring story of ecological recovery here in Pennsylvania, where the species was eradicated about a hundred years ago, along about the same time that 90% of the state was denuded to feed the ever-hungry iron industry and build the communities that grew up to support it. Such was the totality of the carnage that what remained was referred to as “the Pennsylvania desert.” For those of you who ever drive through the northern forests of my fair state, consider this while traversing those 3 hours of nearly endless, desolate forest along Interstate 80.
When it became clear that things had gone too far (typically:this came after the damage was done) efforts were made to repair the damage along with the brush fires, flash flooding, soil erosion, and so forth that followed unrestrained deforestation. As a treat, a small population of white-tailed deer was imported to Pennsylvania for re-introduction. They took hold in those days of slowly recovering forests, and continued to thrive in today’s many transitional areas where farm meets forest, where forest meets sub-division, or where anyone in the state tries to grow a tomato.
The problem, of course, is that while deer were brought back into a re-made landscape that has proved perfect for their species, none of their predators were brought along for the ride. No wolves, no mountain lions, and no coyotes–and it stayed that way for a long time. There haven’t been wolves for over a century, evidence of transient lions appears rarely, and mysteriously, but there is no population. Coyotes have only very slowly been recolonizing, presumably from the Adirondacks in New York above us, and they are hunted with a vengeance, pretty much 24/7/365 as a “furbearer” species–but really because licenses for hunting deer, and the ancillary economic gains from the hunt, are a major economic engine in the state, and coyotes could be a significant competitor to the state government.
And so, with interest in hunting declining, as well as a shrinking population, the deer population is growing, especially within the confines of rural and suburban communities where a standard hunt is not practical. That’s how I end up putting my dog out at night anf finding fourteen deer in the back yard–and gods help us if we forget to take the bird feeders indoors at night. And we live on a busy street, in town, not in the country. Sadly, because of that the deer hunt doesn’t give us any relief–our resident deer maraud the neighborhoods by night and retreat into a nearby park by day, staying well outside the firing zone.
I’ve learned to do the same. Only a fool would not. I’ve been shot at in the woods (out of season, by jerks, poachers, moonshiners, meth cooks?) and most everybody knows someone who has had a close–or close enough to be scary–call. A friend of mine was shot in the back while kayaking, and the guy who did it got off because “he thought he saw a deer.”
So, it’s not perfect–but I grew up around it, so I’m used to it, and from a pure vengeance standpoint, I’m good with hunting.
My novel features a frontier city called “Joyland” that is inspired by, in unequal parts, nascent Las Vegas, Bogart’s Casablanca, Deadwood South Dakota, and just about every “Little America” truckstop along the highways of America–but the name came from a ramshackle little roadhouse in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Cramer, PA just north of Johnstown near the Conemaugh River.
The upside to the rainiest summer in my memory: the lawn and garden are more lush than ever before. My wife’s tireless gardening and newly cultivated photographic eye have made for some vivid scenery around these parts. I’m not sure why I never posted this before–but ain’t it pretty?
This is a companion picture to this. The ensuing meal introduced me to that culinary marvel which would sustain me for many summer nights in the thirty years that has passed between then and now: the Mountain Pie. The girl in the photo was my date for my senior prom.
When I realized that the day of shopping for prom gowns my wife had scheduled with my daughters was not a much-anticipated day of mother-daughter bonding, but a drudgery to which my wife was looking forward with all the eagerness of shoeless pilgrim standing before a road of broken glass, I grimaced and stepped into the breech. Maybe it had something to do with the disgust in her eye when I presumed I wouldn’t be part of the expedition–or maybe I’m just a great husband and dad. Pfft.
“Of course I’ll go with you,” I said, my soul sighing miserably from the depths of each individual cell. She brightened considerably not, I suspect, with glee for the chance to spend a few hours in my delightful company, but at the prospect of sharing the pain.
This would be no quick jaunt down the block. We would be embarking on a 2-hour drive to the dismal, post-industrial remnants of the town of Sharon, PA–a once vibrant steel town that is, well, surviving “despite all that.” Our particular destination; a store called “The Winner,” a three-story former department store filled with tens of thousands of dresses that bills itself as “The world’s largest off-price fashion store.” I don’t think they’re exaggerating, at 75,000 square feet of historic charm, the place was a bit overwhelming.
I have to admit that I was dubious about the whole endeavor. It sounded too good to be true–a treasure trove of deeply discounted formal gowns set a city for which the term “post industrial wasteland” is a compliment? Have you seen that movie “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?” Well, welcome to the Thunderdome. The last time we’d been through Sharon they had been using stop signs wired to barrels in the center of the downtown as substitutes for broken traffic signals, and while the lights had been fixed this time around, we found that the streets had been only partially cleared of snow after a storm several days before, and had become uneven obstacle courses of packed ice and slush. I expected to see a sign on the outskirts of town that said: Welcome To Sharon. We’re Well Past Trying.
The sidewalks in the business district were no better–some were clear and some were treacherous. Nevertheless, we reluctantly parked our new car on the streets–would it be there when we returned?–and found our way to the store. It wasn’t difficult to find–along with the well-kept diner next door, and a dodgy-looking Army Navy store, there’s just not anything else going on in the downtown. It’s got the feel of a place where folks have just given up.On our last visit there had been a decent used book store, but it was gone, replaced by some sort of off-brand tax preparation storefront.
Inside The Winner, however I began to be convinced. You walk inside and the first thing you see is a vintage Jaguar E-type that belonged to the owner of the store, in front of which is stationed a genteel matron at a small desk who welcomed us and politely explained the layout of the store. And what a good thing that was: the place is huge, filled to the gills with thousands upon thousands of gowns. I followed my kids around for about twenty minutes before I ambled back over to the lady by the Jag and cracked a joke at one of the clerks, “you guys should open a sports bar next door, you’d make a killing.”
The pleasant, distinguished woman leaned in close and said, “haven’t you visited our men’s lounge adjacent to the fitting rooms?”
Why no, I hadn’t.
I glanced at my wife, who nodded indulgently. I’d already become an anchor despite my good intentions, and both she and my daughters were eager to have me out of their hair. With some trepidation I found my way down a narrow hall, past a knot of women outside the fitting rooms, and around a corner. I half-expected to find a door with of those little slide-open peepholes like you see in speakeasies in the movies, but what I found instead was brotherhood. Well, maybe not brotherhood–but there was a TV set to ESPN, a half dozen la-z-boy recliners, a sofa, and one of those cute “theater style” popcorn cart poppers and…a keg of Rolling Rock on tap.
Genius. Free beer and popcorn! I settled in to watch Tennessee versus Auburn, but soon enough a bunch of us–mostly dads but also a fiance, two boyfriends, and a “family friend.” Given the date and location (western PA, the day before the superbowl) we talked a lot about football, but also a little about shopping, a bit about women, and–to my surprise and delight–our mutual admiration for regional hero Fred “Mister” Rogers, which was unanimous.
Of course, it’s not uncommon for even the hardest among us to wax misty-eyed over Mister Rogers–there’s a true Pittsburgh story, in fact, about how Rogers’ car was stolen from outside the WQED studio. The story was quickly reported on the local news, and the car showed up back in front of the studio in short order, with a note on the dash that said something like “If I’d known this was your car I never would have taken it.”
But I digress. My children are smart, efficient shoppers–they found beautiful dresses in little more than two hours, for a grand total of about $300 (if you’ve shopped for these formal gowns, you know we got off light). I bid my compadres a reluctant adieu, lingering in the main gallery to listen to the pianist stroking the keys of baby grand piano–talk about atmosphere!–and we were gone, with a brief stop at a local hand-made candy shop.
On the drive home, my wife decided she had a hankering for a Primanti Brothers sandwich, so that was dinner, a satisfying end to a relatively painless day. Heck, I didn’t even have to drive, with two learner’s permits in the family: one daughter drove north in the morning, one drove south in the evening–all in all a painless day.
I love to tell stories with words and images, often with a darkly magical twist. While speculative fiction & dissecting pop culture are my primary passions, I also work with clients & brands by assisting with content creation, editing, marketing & design.