Monday, July 06, 2009

Searching for the Real America

Flipping through the night's detritus, I stumbled on the story that some lady hyping her website has deemed the best college town in America to be--ta da--Amherst, MA.

An obvious choice perhaps. But while I really haven't spent enough time in Amherst to judge, my impulsive, unedited, untutored, first thought was: boy, I'm glad I don't live there.

Hey, wait minute, Buce, whoa. What is this, reverse snobbism? You know perfectly well that college towns are really nice places, and Amherst surely carries niceness to a power of n.

Well, very likely (including, I suspect, the reverse snobbism part). So, what can I say in my own defense? This at least, perhaps: recall the old rule that too much of anything is funny. Think of a convention of undertakers. Or deputy sheriffs. Or law professors (that last has the loudest elevator conversation, for sure). College towns can indeed be fun. But there is such a thing of having too much fun, and feeling the urge to yelp "Help! Get me out of here!"

Scrolling further down the page, I ran across a new crop of stories on the perennial journalistic favorite, "the real America." Where exactly, I wondered again, is "the real America?" And do I have any part in it?

Let's stipulate, first off, that it probably isn't Amherst MA. Indeed, I used to live in a college town and I'm pretty sure it wasn't there either, probably for the same reasons. Too ingrown, too cosseted, too sleek and comfortable.

I'm relieved, actually, that I moved away from that college town to--um. Well, it's a nice place with a (seemingly) vigorous economy, lots of people on the streets and in the stores and in the parks. But, um, actually another college town. Though in mitigation, your honor, this time the college isn't anywhere dominant a facctor as it was in my previous home (nor as it is, I gather, in Amherst MA).

No; per Wiki, the University (but old-timers still call it "the college") is only the third largest employer around here. Well, hey, that says something for diversity.

Except. Except the first-largest employer here is the medical center and the second is the County government. An FWIW, the fourth largest is the public school district.

You can see where this is going. Palookaville is indeed a thriving, diverse, enjoyable place to live. Except that everything around here seems to be driven, directly, or indirectly, by taxpayer money. County and school district are all public money. The hospital--well, where would a hospital like this be without Medicare? And without the tax-supported insurance bennnies of the public employees.

The University is perhaps a special case. Like all Universities, they've been jacking up prices like crazy over there, and the prospective students are howling. Yet it remains largely public money. And in any event, the employees all count themselves as enjoying the privileges and prerogatives of the public payroll--and don't you forget it.

Still, you have to go all the way to number five on the list before you find a private employer--a (local) bank. And to number eleven before you find a manufacturer--a brewery (and good stuff it is, too, let me assure you). Maybe the brewery ships out; I suspect that even the bank must be regarded, albeit indirectly, as the beneficiary of a public payroll.

Does this count as "the real America?" --a functioning polity, held together by tax dollars? For perspective, I might compare it to some other towns, not at all far away, but with nothing like the same taxpayer base. I'm thinking of one in particular that I drive through once a week. You get some drift of its character from the billboards. There's a huge matched set of before-and-after methamphetamines pictures. There's a wall of big type urging me not to abort the baby, but to give it up for adoption. And another one warning that messing with 12-year-olds is a felony.

I lead a sheltered life; I really don't know a lot about these neighboring towns. Well: I've sat on jury panels a few times (never get chosen, I wonder why). I can tell that these smaller towns have a whole lot of hurt. And that without a big government employer (or equivalent), you're pretty much toast.

Back to Amherst MA, and I realize story doesn't quite mortice at the joints. I assume Amherst is not a giant meth lab. On the other hand, I am not clear that the public payroll looms quite so large there as it does in Palookaville. Best I can tell, the largest employer is UMass, which is a public entity, although I gather the economy as a whole may be more complex and diverse.

Still, I think the general principle may apply. If you've got access to dollars, if you have friends in high places, if you are plugged in, you can have a pretty comfortable life. If not, you'd better have a meth lab or you may have nothing at all.

1 comment:

The New York Crank said...

So, umm, you're living in Brooklyn?

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank