Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Strange Town Revisited (Your Hometown, Newly Unrecognizable)

Found myself in a strange town
Though I've only been here for three weeks now
I've got blisters on my feet
Trying to find a friend on Oxford Street
I bought an A to Z guide book
Trying to find the clubs and YMCAs
But when you ask in a strange town

They say don't know, don't care
And I've got to go, mate
--The Jam, "Strange Town"

"Strange Town" is arguably the Jam's forgotten single. Released in March 1979, the song peaked at #15 UK, right in the middle of a sterling chart run. "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight" preceded it; "When You're Young" followed it, yet "Strange Town" only found an outlet on the Canadian pressing of
Setting Sons -- issued that November -- and, light-years later, on the Snap! singles compilation.(A US single duly followed, but didn't chart -- fiercely dedicated Anglophile fanbase aside, the Jam remained "a spaceman from these UFOS" in America for much of their career.)

There have been two notable covers, including a Noel Gallagher duet with the song's original composer, Paul Weller, and one by Garbage (albeit a B-side)  All in all, it's a curious position for a song whose theme -- the newcomer struggling to make an impression amid shrugs of indifference from his newfound fellow residents -- sadly, feels truer more relevant than it seemed back in the pre-Internet era that Weller and his Rickenbacker guitar inhabited.

You appreciate the relevancy of those lyrics in your own life. About a decade ago, you moved back to your old hometown for a job that evaporated under your feet. Vague promises of coaching and mentoring were made, then rapidly forgotten, with little or no help from a management that kept itself to itself. Eventually, inevitably, they cut you loose, leaving you adrift in a landscape permanently altered by the imprint of big money -- professional types pouring in from Kalamazoo, northwest Indiana and Chicago. 

Once upon a time, they only came for a weekend getaway here, a seasonal rental there, but lately, the unthinkable has become habitual: they're buying houses and putting down roots, having followed business opportunities, jobs or social relationships that took them there. (In unguarded moments, they even refer to this place as "The Riviera Of The Midwest." Make of that what you will.)

Big money's arrival doesn't take long to make itself felt. As always, the most visible signs happen downtown. The dive bars and mom-and-pop burger and sub shops that typified your youth are disappearing, surrendering to overpriced gastropubs, double-digit wine bars and corporatized coffee shops whose pricing leaves nothing to the imagination. The same reality goes for the beachfront, where "park and pay" is now the rule. You make do by driving past it, or idling your van for a few minutes in a remote area that attracts less attention.

They worry themselves about feeling low
They worry themselves about the dreadful snow

They all ignore me, 'cause they don't know
I'm really a spaceman from these UFOs

The gastropubs make their mark in all the wrong ways: separate charges for similar menu items like burgers and fries, long waits and lines that wind down the block. You shrug your shoulders and stick with the burger joint on which you grew up. The prices aren't creeping up into double digits yet, and the owner brings the food out to you. All that spoils this low-budget vision of paradise is a conspicuous absence of trees, whose next door neighbor has cut most of them down.

A similar all-or-nothing mentality characterizes your hometown's housing stock. This town boasts three major apartment complexes, all built during the '60s and '70s housing boom, when rent didn't gobble up three-quarters or more of your paycheck. For now, though, it seems best to tinker with your current situation -- whose rent has grown from $650 to $760 per month -- than gamble on a tight housing market that's tilting toward an influx of eggshell white or earth-toned brown condos downtown, or crackerbox palaces that charge lower rents -- in most cases, topping out at $500 or $600 per month -- yet offer little or nothing in  services or amenities.

For a further reminder of your place in the scheme of things, you only need look no further than your current complex's parking lot, where it's not unusual to see Hyundai hybrids, Kias and Pruises competing for parking spaces with your 11-year-old Dodge Caravan, which is now beginning to show conspicuous signs of rust along the bottom...and that's before we get to whatever surprises lurk beneath the hood.

I've finished with clubs where the music's loud
'Cause I don't see a face in a single crowd
There's no one there

I look in the mirror
But I can't be seen
Just a thin, clean layer of mister sheen
Looking back at me

The cultural climate proves equally unforgiving. For awhile, you and the wife attend a writer's group at one of the local art centers downtown, until the leader starts charging a hefty fee for everybody's time and participation. "Dig deep" is the motto here. Not  long ago, you saw the fruits of their labors -- chapbooks nestled quietly in a display box near the counter, priced at nine or ten dollars, now barely disturbed and stacked on top of one another, quietly gathering dust.

A similar vibe dogs the other artistic events that you try. Now and again, the art center hosts a couple of poetry open mikes: but those feel formal and stilted, compared to similar events that you've done before.  You must tell the organizers ahead of time what you're reading or performing, and no real audience participation is allowed until you finish The whole thing feels like a hellish piano recital, minus the black keys.

On your own, you play guitar at a handful of open mikes. The experience is a hit-or-miss affair, depending on who shows up -- although you can always count on a healthy contingent of people trafficking in flavors that leave you cold (Birkenstock rock, warmed-over folk and stuffy roots music). 

And, just like when you first tried these things in college, you can count on hearing certain chestnuts again and again -- anything by the Grateful Dead, for example, or Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" -- to the point of listening for mistakes. Needless to say, most of the traffickers don't bother talking to you -- when they can peel themselves away from the mega-entourages that they often bring with them, which is rare.

You've got to move in a straight line
You've got to walk and talk in four four time

You can't be weird in a strange town
You'll be betrayed by your accent and manners

You've got to wear the right clothes
Be careful not to pick or scratch your nose
You can't be nice in a strange town
Cause we don't know, don't care
And we got to go, man

Needless to say, you don't fit in with all the bug-eyed careerists that you encounter, In most cases, their empty chatter revolves around work -- what they're trying to accomplish there, or not, depending on the management's anally retentive tendencies -- or what new toys they've recently acquired, or what they're doing this weekend. 

You tend to avoid such drones if you can, because Stockholm Syndrome isn't part of your psychological makeup -- "How do they get them to identify with your oppressor so vividly?", you often ask yourself -- and neither is bowling alone. In fairness, though, your hometown's soaring new pricing structure makes it tough to sustain social relationships, as everybody's spending so much more time on the work-earn-spend treadmill (yourself included).

You're savvy enough to understand that you're hardly on an equal footing. In most cases, an unspoken expectation hangs in the air: "Play by our rules, or forget it." You give up making suggestions -- whether it's to the local grocery chain store, the municipal powers that be, or the art clique with whom you've already butted heads -- because they seem to humor them. For the most part, however, your ideas will dissipate into the ether, never to be aired again. 

Naturally, this unequal relationship doesn't stop them from pressing you to cover this or that event they're hosting, or pat you on the back and say, "I always read your stuff." You grit your teeth and smile at the predictability -- not to mention the chutzpah -- of such behavior, while you count down the time till you can work on projects that seem more satisfying.

The lack of disposable income makes itself in unusual ways. The other day, you drove past the budget thrift store -- where you and the wife could count on better pricing breaks than the likes of Goodwill, whose unapologetic profiteering would cause Marx to spin in his tomb -- only to find numerous signs announcing its death knell: "PRICES HALF OFF." 

None of these things seemed imaginable as you grew up here. Back then, your hometown seemed fated to remain a coastal backwater, where -- if a place was really swinging, it might stay open till eight or nine o'clock. Nowadays, however, everything's up for grabs. The air hangs thick with the scent of power and prestige that reminds all concerned to either get in line, or get out of the way. "We're a lakefront community," the city fathers constantly remind us. "We're winners now. We better act like it."

You, by contrast, have never felt more alienated and isolated -- "a spaceman from these UFOs," just like the song says. Solutions remain maddeningly elusive, though you're sure of one thing: you didn't pledge allegiance to the in-crowd then...and you're not ready to do it now. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Click 'Em & Steel Yourself)
Carnegie Community Action Project:
A Small Mountain Town Fights Gentrification:

Chairman Ralph (Guest MP3): "Tourist Trap":


Is There Such A Thing As "Rural" Gentrification?

San Antonio Express News:
Quirky Marfa Feels Growing Pains


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