Saturday, March 7, 2009

The One That Got Away

So this morning on the way in to Buffalo, I stopped at this ridiculously popular five and dime - even still so called. I wanted some birthday baubles for my daughter who will become an adult (!!) tomorrow.  There was the owner, namesake of the store, gamely cashing people out. He must be several generations on. The floors are still oiled wood, which creaks and slopes and smells right.

This is also the town where another five and dime family got its start, long since moved on to more imperial wealth I think. One son was a classmate of mine in college - I met him once and was too put off by the class divide to act other than an idiot. It would have been different if he weren't from my hometown, having his name all over it.

Of course this store reminded me today of that visit on my motorcycle to WalMart's home town, and a similar old man there who charmed me with his old-timer's wit. These days most shoppers visit old time stores with ironical intent, or to entertain the kids. And the store well knows its niche, stocking old-style shelves with toys we baby boomers might have played with as kids when to grandmother's house we went, plus all the goofy stuff you might buy on a whim when you see it. That's why I was there.

I had already found a Sponge-Bob lunchbox, when I went to check out a birthday card. A quick repartee ensued about taking my lunch to work, the economy, who knows where we're going, then sudden agreement that of course we all know where we're going (down the drain). But then all talking has to stop, because you're not quite sure that you'll agree about the causes. The elderly clerk offered "greed". 

I could readily agree with that and countered about the size of the void some people have to fill, and how it might be approximately the size of the growing bailout (well, I think that might be tautology, right there).

And we chatted about how stores should go back to what they used to be - grocery stores selling groceries, and drug stores selling drugs, and clothing stores on the corner with what you really need (she'd gone to four stores before finding a simple raincoat - it's thaw time hereabouts). 

Talk inevitably turned to Walmart, but both of us instantly knew a hot topic when we hit one. This small town is unique for having successfully turned them away. But she talked up the place, and was proud that she goes there all the time. It's the only place she finds things. And of course, it's cheap. (I might have looked like one of those metro types who used her old town as a suburb, but she stayed friendly enough)

The irony of it all was right on the counter between us, so we smiled broadly at each other, and laughed to turn some heads. I was so happy, the postman greeted me as we passed each other on the sidewalk! (They must train them around these still cobbled streets to recall some better days - "Hello Sir!" he said. Sir??) Well, I took it, as they say, in good stride.

I'd had in mind all the drive here (it's a good two hours) a theme I wanted to tackle now. It seems that over most of my adult life, often while driving, I have these brilliant thoughts for a novel, say, or an angle to something I've been trying to figure out how to say. I take copious mental notes, often having considered buying some recording device, so that I can take thoughts down without crashing. 

Some times I can hold the idea for a few days. Never do I have the time or energy to write. And then it disappears. So you, gentle reader, will never have the opportunity to read the one that got away, though, I'm serious now, it was really awesome! I'm talking freaking brilliant!

(well, I tried once and got quickly shot down by a schoomarmish friend, who noticed things lacking in my writing which you too will likely find)

Today, though, I had in mind this equation - and it must have conditioned my chat - between the mysterious black hole in the financial economy and the gap I've written about between the cost of, say, a Nike shoe and its actual labor content. I don't know enough to be a Marxist, so I'm not claiming that the labor content is all that should count, but I still do think it's fair to claim that the gap consists of want. It's what get called, perversely, "good will" on the books of larger companies when they get valued so much more than their capital equipment and inventory. 

I guess it's what General Motors lacks right now, and can even go negative to where the company magically is valued less than even the firesale value of its equipment and inventory. (Don't you just wish some Silicon Valley whiz would buy it all up and start making smart cars and trains? We retooled fast enough during the real war. Why not during one of these metaphorical wars we keep having???)

Brand value. Logo meaning. I think it's what this old time store clerk meant by greed. It's what gets collected to make some people grotesquely rich. The beauty factor in a movie star? The steroidal prowess of an athlete. But also the shared meaning of "refresh" when you're drinking Pepsi (or is it Coke?). 

She meant of course the shysters, still politically incorrectly so called. The ones on Wall Street and in the banks who simply cannot get enough. Whose hearts are cold and broadcloth fine. But why not all the rest? I guess there's valid wealth and then there's greed. But how come no-one makes the WalMart connection?

She pointed out how well WalMart's doing in this crashing stock market, as have I. I started the line about "yeah, like a cancer which is about to die from killing off its host . . . " but she wasn't following, thank goodness. 

I'm pretty sure we can all agree that it's "goodwill" which up and vanished. And then beyond, even durable goods no longer have any certain value. Not even counting the stuff from China which never did have any.

I'm not sure what the route can be back to some better ecology. Where jobs pay livings and goods are made, cleanly, nearby. I do remember the local hardware store of my youth, still somehow hanging on, where I could bicycle to get everything I ever needed for my projects. Those clerks had families, and wives who stayed at home, and knew us all by name.

Well, OK, I do know the route, but I don't quite know for sure how to get enough people moving in that direction. This right here might be the best that I can do.

Now on the way in to the store, while parking, I was listening to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, who seem almost always to get me to crack a smile and laugh, which is tough to do when I'm all alone. They were talking with some charming girl named "Leah", who'd escaped back to Seattle from college down East. This girl was youthfully full of all the proper stereotypes about uptight Easterners, where everything has to be done just so, as it has been for hundreds of years.

I guess she meant the traditions at Mt. Holyoke, the college she'd escaped. But to call anything in these United States full set might seem just a bit silly to someone from almost anywhere else in the world. Still the Left Coast is laid back and open, and willing to experiment. Click and Clack were the perfect shills for her ravings, happy to make fun of themselves right along with the fruitcakes out West.

I think she missed the Puritan connection, and Congregational propriety. It's not old age makes us this way, so much as early upbringing.

I've been thinking of moving to Seattle after my daughter's graduation. Everyone I know in Buffalo, it seems, works for his father, and has a pretty beer-oriented sense of what's new and possible. A newage silicon valley type scheme back here gets hit pretty quickly with a lot of cold water.  There's rapid fire recitation of why it can't work - it's finding myself doing it that makes me want to get away.

Though I do guess that Seattle, like everywhere else, is just chock full of refugees from here. That all that's laid back and open is just so much failure to launch at home, and a refusal to grow up. (Sour grapes have never tasted so sweet)

But still and all Buffalo has this perfect setting. There's water and plenty of power from the Falls. We're the continent's natural transportation hub, and once had the world's largest railroad switchyard, just after the Canal opened the West. Until the fateful Interstates got built, and the St. Lawrence Seaway bypassed our fine port.  Now there are only a few left of those unique cement grain elevators, which once crowded the harbor. Dad and I canoed through them down the Buffalo River a while back. Like a table set in the house of a dead person, they look as though they were in use only yesterday, though it was so much longer ago than that.

Buffalo too is the one that got away, and, like perhaps every Buffalonian, I've puzzled about what to do with the regret. That the University got built in a flatland swamp, instead of becoming the vitalizer of downtown. That the highway got built right into town, dividing color and class and neighborhood, seemingly forever. That political gridlock seems to guarantee only mediocre eyesores get funded. That backward looking bluebloods lock up all innovation.

But hey, I think I've found it! I'm writing now, at age oh-my-God, and it doesn't seem too late to start. When sprawl retracts, as it surely must, our infrastructure is all ready. There's power, and for trains, still, a natural transit hub. There's wind and water, and all four seasons, and an arts community that will not die.

OK, I still may move to Seattle. I need some people to encourage me too. But I may not. This town has got some promise!

Skillful or not, this writing provides some outlet now for whatever'd been pent up. I think that defined some dullness. Some depression. Some schoolmarmish scolding not to try that. I doubt I'll be able to bring the West back East, but I'd say don't count us out quite yet. After all, we're more grown up than you (though way more politically ingrown). 

Aw, throw the bums out. Let's roll out a barrell and change the system. I don't think there will be a better chance.

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