Switched-on Gutenberg,Issue 13
Poems of Place & Displacement

NOTES on Place and Displacement: : The Other America

         The Other America is more than a location; more than a sentiment, a point-of-view, and a state-of-the-(shrinking) economy. It’s a sense of place coupled with a sense of being displaced from that particular area. I’m not sure that I can tell you exactly what or where the Other America is, but I’ll try.

          As a point of reference, let’s take my rural neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. Let me jump in and begin with “Employment Prospects” in the O.A. Employment is a good place to start, because that’s what occupies most residents’ time. Not actually working at a job, but looking for work; or, if a resident does have a job, commuting the many parking-lot miles to and from mostly temporary employment euphemistically called “contract work.” Fifty years ago the most common occupations here were logging and farming with a little commercial fishing during the slow season—dairy cows, berry farms, filbert orchards. Then, in the nineteen-sixties, opportunities shifted to the aircraft industry, the military and, in the eighties, high tech companies. Now, other than short-term work without benefits, it’s what? Self-employment, consulting, unemployment insurance, Social Security, early retirement—that’s about the scope of the job demographics here in the Other America. Daily we hear about it everywhere from the tabloids to NPR: the economy is growing again, the job market has taken an upward turn. One commentator recently boasted: This year marks the return of the end-of-the-year bonus. That must be what’s happening in some parallel America, because it’s not what’s happening here. I’ve heard of only one person who got a bonus: two days’ pay—Christmas Eve and Christmas.

          There are reasons, however, to remain positive. Out here in the Other America, taxes are lower, housing affordable. In part, that’s because here in the O. A. we have few amenities. Water: drilled wells. Power: sometimes. Natural Gas: not unless you have your own propane tank. Highways: under constant repair, re-construction, closure, and detour. Though millions have moved to the O.A. over the past 40 years, no new roads have been built.

          The Other America is where, if you call the police for anything other than someone holding a gun to your head (and realistically speaking, if this were happening, would your call to the authorities be allowed?), 911 will answer, but since your call is about a lesser crime, an officer may (or may not) show up the next day to take your complaint. It’s a given that the sheriff’s deputy will ask: do you know who owns the dog that bit you? Do you know of any person who might have burglarized you? Did you know your assailant? If the answer is a “no” or a “that’s your job” expression, your case is no better than cold.

          Small wonder that the O.A. is populated by people who own arsenals and biting dogs. In the good old days of the Twentieth Century, I used to see a sheriff’s car pass my farm at least twice a year. The game warden was a visitor to many who “protected their property against deer infestation” out of season. The building inspector nosed around when construction was evident. I haven’t seen a state vehicle in my neighborhood of Unincorporated Our Town since 2001. I feel lucky if I can get the PUD to come out even for the emergency of downed power lines sparking in the flooded road. Now, in all probability, if you call the authorities for anything less than a capital offense, you will be told that you need to learn to solve your neighborhood’s problems on your own.

          So you’re wondering: did the police stop coming to the Other America because of the guns and dogs or is the vast proliferation of guns and dogs because the police so seldom come around? One thing is certain. And you can quote me on this: There are now more guns and dogs than ever before.

          Before, (and by “before” I mean the burgeoning late 1980s and high flying ‘90s) there was the presence of the Patriot Militia Party. The Patriot Militia Party, the Neo-Nazis, the Skin Head White Supremacist whoevers certainly had some frightening ideas. They also had a keen sense of the rights of private property and what state agencies and public utilities should and should not do for the taxpayer. Citizens arrests? They never hesitated to exercise that right. But this wasn’t the first time that Americans holding wildly different ideas concerning the pursuit of happiness banded together for the common good. My patriot militiamen neighbors helped enforce the “No hunting” signs posted all over my farm—me, an anti-gun Democrat. Example: At 11:30 on a drizzly October night, one of my militiamen neighbors knocked on my door. Holding a trespasser (a man caught near my pond deer hunting with a bow and arrow) at gun point, he asked my husband what we wanted done with the transgressor. Drug dealers and methamphetamine cooks dared not tread here. Sometimes I long for the good old days. I say that with a grain of salt. After all, when my ancestors immigrated to this country, they were so tormented by my neighbor’s philosophical European forebears that they changed their last name, their country of origin, and their religion.

          But enough of Auld Lang Syne. What about now? When you listen to the radio or the TV or read in a newspaper that the economy is growing, that more jobs are being created, that the unemployment level is the lowest in years, do you wonder what America they are talking about? I certainly do. The day after Thanksgiving is supposedly the biggest shopping day of the year. I heard on NPR recently that on this particular weekend, sales at Wal-Mart were down-down-down. Commentary which went like this followed: Supposedly no one was shopping at Wal-Mart because no one wanted to buy budget items for Christmas gifts. With all the rising incomes and expanding opportunities, shoppers wanted the best Arpege perfume for their wives and girlfriends. Arpege? What America is NPR talking about?

          The day after Thanksgiving I went to a mega sale at the Goodwill. Not a parking place in sight, all shopping carts in use; I had difficulty navigating the aisles with a hand basket. These customers weren’t street people or recent immigrants or people who looked as if they lived on a fixed income. One woman, who was so made up I thought that she might work at Nordstrom’s, grabbed the blazer I coveted. High-end retail stores? An acquaintance told me that the parking lot at our local shopping mall was nearly empty. On the biggest shopping day of the year, the Other America heads for Goodwill Industries.

          Okay, you probably think I’m over-dramatizing. So before I lose all credibility, let me put the “Housing Market” on the table. Affordable Housing, Our Town: synonymous. Affordable meaning new construction selling for far less than most houses in the suburbs—which Unincorporated Our Town is rapidly becoming with all these subdivisions, if you can call them that. You could call them plots of fifty homes on ten acres which used to be some local political lord’s cow pasture. Who would buy a house built out of pressboard and a roof that blew off during the first winter storm? Lots of people, though no one seems to know what to call fifty homes that are sinking into the wetlands. Fifty homes plus forty more over here plus eighty homes down there, all of them built without sidewalks or traffic lights or any thought to the already congested two-lane thoroughfares. Imagine: hundreds of homes without bus service, or street lights, or any means of walking to town except on a narrow logging road with a perpetually flooding drainage ditch instead of a shoulder. No parks, no community center, and both parents working (or trying to) to pay the mortgage. What does all this add up to?

          I seem to remember that Cabrini Green, the infamous Chicago housing project, was conceived with the same supposedly good intentions—affordable housing for a struggling middle class. Here, as in the Windy City, you can catch the whiff of a kickback. The political lords who’ve gained control of Our Town’s council and planning commission keep changing zoning restrictions in order to build these housing project-like subdivisions. The mountain view could be Switzerland; the air clean. But how did developers get permits to build in a wetland? How did they get a positive environmental impact study of the effects of added traffic on deteriorating asphalt? How did they circumvent flood control measures? We cannot afford to dwell on such questions. Our Town is millions of dollars in debt and new subdivisions with new residents providing new tax revenues are the only way out. So we are told.

          After the Twin Towers fell, my militiamen neighbors got involved in Our Town’s changes in land use in the unincorporated areas. No one escapes scrutiny these days, especially eccentrics who own underground bunkers of firearms and are convinced that the United Nations and the National Park Service are conspiring to take over all of our property. When the housing developments started going in, my militiamen neighbors saw their chance to cash out and move to the wide open and less taxed spaces of Idaho-Montana-Wyoming. They gave up their vision of seceding from our county in order to start one of their own. Most sold their property to absentee landowners as an investment. The new owners claimed to be building their dream houses here as soon as the kids finished college. To date, not one dream house has appeared. Skyrocketing heroin and cocaine prices, plus no police and no militiamen coupled with unoccupied houses and vacant outbuildings: how could we not have seen it coming—the Meth-Head Invasion.

          Now, vicious untethered dogs roam the streets. But, but, but…remember those housing development kids who once wandered up and down the logging road unsupervised? They’re suddenly busy. Their mothers are happily tweaking their front lawns, even grandma has perked up. Everyone’s on crank. Some manufacture and distribute—it pays for life’s little extras. Everybody steals. My new corral’s fence posts, my neighbor’s horses, nothing is safe. Out here in the Other America not a week goes by without the rumor of a mom-and-pop (or mother-and-son) methamphetamine kitchen. Last week a lab set up in a low income senior apartment exploded and caught fire. The week before the odd activity of three twenty-somethings operating out of a cedar stump on an island nature reserve in the middle of the river in front of Our Town brought in the DEA.

          But let’s look on the bright side. Though new businesses have gone in—mostly pawn shops and (adult) video rental stores—Our Town suffers very few parking problems. Most cars parked on the road haven’t moved in years. There are no lines at the bank or the post office as long as you remember not to frequent the P.O. on the first of the month. The post office is where many residents in the O. A. do their bill-paying. Remember the old-fashioned money order? It’s better than a check. Not only do banks charge too much to keep track of your assets, they allow your accounts to be pilfered by the courts. You don’t want the IRS or the PUD or one of your exes to know your bank account number, assuming you have one. Not if you’re hiding illegal income. In the jargon of Wall Street, we’re called the “unbanked.”

          The good news here is that if you don’t open a checking account, you don’t have to worry about your identity being stolen. Not having the assets to write a check may not do much for your self-esteem, but in our a-pill-for-everything society, there’s a medication for that. Evidence: the local medical clinic and the emergency room at (Death) Valley General are filled with patients hoping to get something that approximates health care. In the E.R., treatment may be dispensed by a doctor’s assistant and at the clinic by a nurse’s helper. But at least their doors are still open. Thank God, because I worry about all the unhealthy-looking people on the streets of Our Town and at the gas station and post office and mini-mart. Overweight children, obese moms and dads, brain damaged young people, stroked-out middle-aged great-grandparents, fetal alcohol syndrome teens with babies, a veteran of foreign wars wandering around on the coldest day of the year in shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and a blue artificial leg; who wouldn’t worry?

          Time for me to unfurrow my brow and offer some kind of summation. The bottom line is: in the Other America, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Much less. And diminishing by the day. The old farm across the street from me bought as an investment is emblematic of the entire situation here. That house and barn used to be part of a homestead; years later it was a landscape painter’s dream. Two decades ago it sold as a fixer-upper, but no owner fixed it. Then it sold as investment property. Now it’s an eyesore. Pretty soon it will be a teardown, and then it will be a tax write-off, a donation to the fire department as a practice burn-down—unless meth-heads move in and destroy it first. In either case, the charred remains will be bulldozed and double-wide mobile homes hauled in. The rains will erode the newly turned earth; the soil, the trailers; the entire hill will start to slide over the road and across my back pasture. The Other America? There it goes down the slippery slope over the housing developments, across the state highway and into the ever-widening river as it floods westward over the derelict shopping mall and into the black Pacific.

          Everyday I ask myself: What can be done?

          We can write poetry about Place and Displacement. We can broadcast it here at Switched-on Gutenberg. It’s a start.

          --Jana Harris


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