Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.

McChristianity

Christianity isn’t known for its sense of humor.  The same can be said of other religions as well, of course.  What else should we expect concerning belief systems that claim eternal consequences?  A story by Colin Dwyer on NPR explains that the Haifa Museum of Art had to remove a sculpture titled “McJesus” due to public violence.  The sculpture depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, and a number of althoughs follow: although Haifa is in Israel a large number of Christians protested.  Although the practice of crucifixion was uncomfortably common in ancient days it has come to be associated with one particular case.  Although the message might be interpreted as a condemnation of commercialism, protestors took it to be aimed at their faith.  Perhaps it was.  Artists can be notoriously ambiguous in that way.

Ronald McDonald is a liminal, if ubiquitous figure.  Instantly recognizable, he has been challenged before as a threat to christendom.  I once heard a priest lament that children recognized the golden arches more than the cross.  Well, that’s not surprising—we don’t go around telling our kids about crucifixion daily.  (Or shouldn’t.)  A massive Ronnie, on the other hand, floats down Manhattan every Thanksgiving Day.  He’s on posters, commercials, and 42nd Street.  He’s the patron saint of branding.  With his garish clashing color palette, his red and yellow never mix to orange and they linger in our minds to ensure us that no matter where we might be there’s always cheap, if unhealthy, food nearby.  Mr. McDonald has become a religious symbol of capitalism.

Even as a child I noticed the great deal of excitement that accompanied the opening of the local McDonald’s.  In a small, corroded corner of the rust belt, families piled into cars to drive to Oil City to see this wonder.  It was like an epiphany.  Eating out that the poor could afford.  Just about everything in downtown Oil City is now closed, but the last time I was there that McDonald’s still stood.  Back in Haifa an ironic depiction led to real violence.  Angry Christians carrying stones couldn’t see the statue as a condemnation of consumer culture.  Their beleaguered religion was at risk.  Blood flowed and the art piece was removed and packed off to Finland.  Although the point of the display was to question religious appropriation in the support of consumerism, and although that message could ultimately support the teachings of the religion it evokes, the branding came across all wrong.  Church is your kind of place…

Lingering Memories

Visiting northwest Pennsylvania always makes me think of oil. I suppose the fact that I attended high school in Oil City has something to do with the fact. Many people suppose that the oil industry began in Texas, but Pennzoil and Quaker State have earlier roots back to the days when people flooded to Oil City and Titusville to get rich from the petroleum underground. I grew up in a refinery town that is becoming a ghost town, like Pithole City and Petroleum Centre before it. And when I returned home to New Jersey I wanted to find my Oil City book. Yes, there is a book. I first saw it in junior high school and I coveted it. Hardbound and large format, it was a book about my town. I had no idea where to get one, however. There were no bookstores in Oil City, or nearby Franklin. Any further afield than that and nobody cared.

I used to work as a janitor in my junior high school. It was my summer job for several years. One day our task was to haul out the garbage bins. I saw my opportunity. The library was discarding several copies of the book. They were in the trash. I dumpster-dived for the first (but not last) time in my life. I had the prized book. It had been locally printed. There is no publisher listed. It bears no ISBN. Nothing like a book to validate where you’re from. You see, I’ve always wanted to write a history of the area where I grew up. No major publisher would touch it—it can’t possibly sell enough books to cover its costs. It would be a labor of love.

Not that I’m a fan of Big Oil. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t appreciate their proprietary arrogance toward ownership of the planet. Of their pollution of the world to gain more money for themselves. I support alternate energy. But still. This is where I’m from. Not that anybody’s making much money off of oil there these days. The shallow wells ran dry long ago. The local oil companies were bought out by larger corporations but they kept the local names. Once in a while I pull out my old, salvaged Oil City book and scan the pages with wonder. Many of these towns wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the prehistoric sludge that flowed under the rocks and stones. It’s easy to believe that the town would stay the same forever. Heading out of Oil City there is a church. A crude cross stands atop a truncated oil derrick. I stare at it and the irony is only half complete.

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Becoming the Past

Back home for a flying visit over the final dregs of the summer, I find myself in a hotel in my hometown. It’s an odd place to be. As I’ve often remarked to those who know me, I remember living in three houses in this area and all three have been torn down. Looking over the vacant lot where my elementary school once stood, I have a feeling of being erased. Just up the hill from my hotel is a blank space, like when a molar has been removed, where my junior high school once stood. Even the seedy shops I remember from childhood are gone, an entire block of buildings torn down. Wal-Mart opened up just a couple miles away outside of town, and all small businesses got down on their knees and prayed before dying. Being from somewhere is more than just a matter of going away. It’s also coming back.

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Standing outside in the misty morning sipping my coffee, I watch the river flow. There’s a fog rising over the Allegheny this morning and it makes this place look mysteriously beautiful. I think back to New Jersey, where I was at this time the day before, and how I can’t step outside without seeing other people. I go jogging at 4:30 in the morning sometimes. I’m never alone. On this balcony over the river I see no one. That person down by the river is really just a statue. Maybe I am too. What is left of a person when their hometown disappears? My fascination with ghost towns is catching up with me. Once someone said they thought I disliked small towns from the way I talked. Quite the opposite, the statue whispers. Quite the opposite.

If it weren’t for the people I know, would I ever come back here, I wonder. The warm coffee through the styrofoam cup reminds me of Judas. Even he knew how to kiss. This town, shrinking with age, gave me life. When I stamp the streets of Manhattan on my way to work, I know I’m a different man than I was back in this town. I would’ve found it difficult not to want to help anyone in need, back then. This homeless guy’s been sleeping in the same spot all week while millionaire wannabes look the other way. There’s a mist on the water this morning. The Allegheny flows on to the Ohio, and the Ohio on to the Mississippi. Down into the gulf that’s part of the ocean than encompasses us all.

Oil City Millionaires

Oil City Junior High School. Ninth grade. As a kid who grew up politically naive, Mr. Baker’s words felt like the Gospel. “People will never elect a president against their own economic interests,” he once said. Then came the Reagan years with “trickle down” bs, and, let’s be honest, the working class has been hurting ever since. Reading the political headlines, I’m frankly distressed that politicians no longer have any clear idea what working class life is like. Online I see working-class friends following, zombie-like, the richest man to ever run for President, daily proving Mr. Baker wrong. I’m not naive enough to think that most career politicians of either party know what it’s like to struggle for a living, but I have seen time and time again the Democratic Party trying to stretch out safety nets for those who receive no trickle down hand-outs. I do know what it is to struggle, and I do know that getting an education does not equate to getting a job. I also know that no Republican since Eisenhower has tried to be fair to the working class.

I grew up just outside Oil City, Pennsylvania. It was a town founded by potential millionaires because petroleum had been discovered in the region. Many get-rich-quick schemers settled these pleasant hills and valleys, but the oil pools were as shallow as a politician’s sympathy, and some of the towns in the region became ghost towns. The Oil City I knew was working class families, trying to get by; many grasping religion when politics never ceased to disappoint. We were children of Damocles. Somehow the message has morphed from when I was a child paying attention in school. The issue is now, “I’m not well off, but I sure as heck don’t want the government helping those worse off than me!” Trickle down indeed. To me it seems obvious why the wealthy skew “pro-life”—their schemes cannot succeed without a constant stream of desperate workers. Keep those kids coming!

Because as a child I read all the time, I knew there was a life outside Oil City. Paying my own way through college with crippling debts, I managed to get out and earn an advanced degree overseas, just to be fired by a Republican who thought my advocacy for fair treatment had no place in a seminary. Yes, I’ve felt the barbed lash of unemployment. I spent years wondering what might become of my small family as trickle-downs began defying gravity and wormed their way back up to the wealthy. I’ve never owned a house; none has ever trickled down to my income level. Those Oil City millionaires never gave me any handouts. But Oil City did give me an education. I learned to see through those who say they are protecting me and my future. The only thing they are protecting is securely tucked into their back pockets. I’ve seen their ads castigating Jimmy Carter, a president who is actually out there building houses for the poor. I’ve heard them blaming Obama for not filling in a trench that took Bush the Less eight years to dig. I say let’s just let trickle-down fill that hole. I’m sure the Oil City millionaires will be glad to kick in a greenback or two; after all no one ever votes against their own economic self-interest.

Trickle down.