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See You Can't Please Everyone So You Got To Please Yourself
I make some effort to give you people what you want. Some. Nothing heroic, but some.
I wouldn't pander, and I won't sell out. Not for what they pay me now. But I'll consider at least the possibility that I may direct too few or too many of my works toward particular subjects, and although it may not be immediately apparent in any week's product, I do regulate, temper, control, edit, simplify and humanize the wild thoughts and savage surges that erupt when first I seize my keyboard long past midnight.
But you are little help to me in sorting out where I should root and what sorts of moral and intellectual truffles I ought turn into the light of our consideration. Some say No More War! That is, "Enough on the war! We already know what you think about that." But others (many more others) tell me "Thanks for trying to shake people awake. Keep the faith."
A man shuffled up to me after the close of a town meeting a few weeks ago, gripped my arm as if to prevent my escape, and muttered darkly, "I don't like the way you've been treating our commander-in chief lately." But then, in a nicely timed and executed turnaround, he revealed, "I don't think you've been nearly hard enough on him."
And the road commissioner called me one morning last week. He wanted something. He always does. Don't ask what your road commissioner can do for you, wait for him to tell you what you can do for him. "Cooper, your columns are crap." And "That paper you write for is crap, too."
And how might we strive to be less crappy? "Get off that political stuff. Nobody cares about that crap. Leave Dick Cheney alone." And, incidentally, I understood I should not anticipate any road improvements. Then he gave me a list of local persons whose actions or opinions or lifestyles aggrieved him and suggested I might more productively and to the point investigate whatever much I could find about their dooryards or places of business while I gave poor old Dick and sad, dumb, brain-damaged G.W. a break.
So that's two who are fed up to here with my lack of support for The Long War in its various glorious and bloody manifestations, several sordid sidebars, surges, extensions to surges, midnight renditions, domestic spying, exacerbated lying, crimes and misdemeanors of the highest and most base sorts, press cheerleading, public apathy and ignorance and Congressional complicity. So, "How about something on illegal immigration?"
So, OK, fine. What'll we have? Build a higher, longer wall? Fill the tunnels with water and drown the damned wetback rats? Round 'em up and shoot 'em? Make English the National Language? Ban the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner" in foreign tongues? (Except for the obvious free speech consideration, I'd ban the lame, insipid, pointless, painful ditty altogether.)
You can understand why a Mexican man, woman or child might want to sneak across the border for a chance to gut chickens for minimum wage in Arkansas, of course. Who wouldn't brave dehydration and death in the desert or rough handling and deportation at the hands of la Migra for such an opportunity? And, putting aside my customary sarcasms, I do understand that in some agricultural or industrial communities subject to large numbers of migrant workers there are collateral problems of homelessness, crime, and large burdens upon hospital emergency rooms.
But my sympathy for hospitals is minuscule, and in any event, Maine is not Texas or California. I have seen Mexicans in Maine, of course. More than thirty years ago I worked with a young Mexican-American man named Carlos as we built a recreation facility for yuppies in Brunswick. But Carlos was entirely legal. And he and I were more likely of similar opinion about the self-satisfied tennis players and exercise bike riders for whom we labored than I was of a like mind with them against my humble brown brother.
I know that some Maine farmers import seasonal help because they say they cannot interest Mainers in hoeing row crops or harvesting fruit or vegetables for the wages they are able or perhaps inclined to offer. Probably most of these willing workers have the requisite documents. If a few don't, they nevertheless seem to do no damage to our quiet rural culture or by their presence scare the Massachusetts people away from Vacationland during the months the sun shines, the surf slaps against the sand, and sails snap satisfyingly in the salt breeze.
I did discover a startling invasion of one cherished part of the Maine experience when I took my grandson to Bath Heritage Days Fourth of July weekend. We bought exorbitantly priced tickets so that he could enjoy being spun and elevated on some of the less dangerous contraptions maintained by Smokey's Greater Shows. He liked the Carousel. I was disgusted by its shabbiness. We both enjoyed our two rides down the high slide. (No motors-one is pretty safe here unless it collapses from rust or just tips over.)
The "balloon ride" baskets that turned us in a moderately fast circle perhaps eight feet above the ground he did not like, and he told me so from the floor where he huddled for the duration. I thought it was just about dangerous enough. We avoided the tilt-a-whirl, the scrambler, the dive-bomber, and all other manifestations of the scream-'til-you-puke variety.
But here's the shocking thing, my friends: the alcoholics are gone! Yes, I'm here to tell you that the scrawny, wasted, tattooed, needle-marked, do-rag-bedecked bums, young and old, who have operated carnival rides for as long as I have lived and attended fairs and festivals are no more. What a terrible loss this is to anyone who has grown to love the nuances of the carnie tradition in America. I do not, of course, worry for the surly alkies themselves; they are survivors if nothing else. So long as a man might beg borrow or steal the price of a bottle of Mad Dog, as surely as pigeons die every day and lie to be discovered, lifted from the sidewalk and roasted over a scrapwood fire in a patch of broken-stemmed boxelder, the American street drunk shall endure.
But what of our youth? We have entrusted our toddlers to the care of these gentle outlaws for generations. They have turned the switches and heaved the levers and greased the gearboxes (or not) of the great machines that send our laughing, happy youngsters, the beloved fruit of our loins and the desperate hope of our future civilization, arcing skyward in delight. They have stared into our wives' and mothers' and daughters' cleavages. These mostly toothless gentlemen, stubble partially concealing their heart and dagger neck tattoos, have held to the bargain of trust and service, have extended their warmth and love to us and our families, and we have (or Smokey has) told them they are no longer necessary to us. We have told them they must hasten down the wind.
Oh, the City of Bath prepared the lot as it always has, a rough gravel base padded quickly an inch deep in cigarette butts and damp litter. The air still stunk of fried dough and vile sausage made entirely of snout and penis meat and hot spices. There were enough three hundred pound women in halter tops and short shorts (and some with pink crew cuts and multiple piercings, too!) to satisfy any normal man's desire for ambulatory erotic fantasy on a warm Independence Day evening.
I thought the Elvis Impersonator was quite good. I say this and I mean it. He had the moves and he had the blood. Or at least the spirit. He sang rockabilly Elvis and Vegas Elvis and maudlin, gotta-love-yer-momma Elvis and insipid Sinatra Elvis and inspired go-to-Heaven-with-Jesus Elvis, and it was, as they say, All Good. And he was black. He looked like a young Smokey Robinson, but he sang like The King. Don't the moon look good, momma, shinin' through those trees? Don't that black man sound wonderful, laying open his heart in his white suit, down on his knees.
But every damned ride was manned by a Mexican. Legal, illegal-who cares? The carnival is ruined. Because what can I tell you about these Mexican men? They were clean. They were sober. They were polite, neat, well-mannered. What a contrast with their predecessors, with, truth to tell, a good number of the public they served.
So there it is. My Mexican story. Apparently several dozen (maybe hundreds) of Mexicans (possibly some Guatemalans or Hondurans) have accepted positions as amusement ride operators in New England (and I doubt not other Northeast states and possibly the whole Atlantic seaboard and even into Eastern Canada). The bums are gone. They will not likely be back in our lifetimes. They are replaced by foreigners who are not in any degree frightening or dangerous or, in the traditional carnival way, interesting.
Because we know what they want. They want what most of us want: to live their lives and feed their families, and to do this they will work long hours at low wages in jobs that you and I will not do. They will do this above the law or, if necessary, outside the law.
And if I lived in Brownsville, Texas, I might complain about groups of men hanging out on street corners or in the Home Depot parking lot hoping to be selected for a day's cash work at five a.m. Small complaint. But I don't live there and I won't live there. Brownsville is too hot for human habitation and it's too close to W's. ranch for my taste. My good feelings about Brownsville are entirely vested in the words and music of Bob Dylan's glorious long song, "Brownsville Girl", which, additional to the title character, with her "teeth like pearls, shining like the moon above", also features the great Gregory Peck, a busted down Ford, the sun coming up over the Rockies, a gunfight, a trial, perjury on the witness stand, and the author's admission that he didn't know who he was or where he was bound.
"Sometimes," says Bob, "you just find yourself over the line," and that's true for certain, and you know it and feel it as well as he does or I do. And "people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content." And if you haven't suffered, alone or together, then possibly you can't understand why a man would leave his home and family in some Mexican village and risk death and break the law (repeatedly if required) for the chance to go over the line to pour concrete or shovel shit or pick blueberries or prune shrubbery or stand at his station in a filthy parking lot and help loud, spoiled, rich (by his experience) American kids waste their parents' money on a soft July evening.
"You know, I can't believe we've lived so long and are still so far apart." That's a part of the message one takes from "Brownsville Girl" after some decades of listening to its manifest marvels. And it's a big part of the lesson of this country. That some do hate the Mexicans so, and others fear them. Or the blacks. Or the queers. Or the Iraqis. Or the bugs and the beasts that make the noises in the night woods beyond the campsite as July erodes into August in Maine in this new uncertain century.
The fairs will be starting soon, from Pittston next weekend through Fryeburg in October. I've promised my grandson one fair this year. I'll be happy to do business there with any hardworking Mexican, even one who might be less than legal, he no more a threat to me or my country or my way of life than I am to him or his.
Now, Dick Cheney-there's a scary alien for ya, friends!