Thursday, July 31, 2008

Roadside attractions

I grew up taking public transportation or walking. When I was a teenager, I walked about a mile to the Long Island Railroad, which would get me to midtown Manhattan in about twenty minutes. My parents did not worry about anything happening to me, and I traveled freely to New York City starting at around the age of 12.

I loved New York City, as you've probably gathered from reading this blog. But I was also fascinated by the rest of America, which was truly foreign to me. I knew New York was different from an early age. I knew that my family's infrequent use of our car was abnormal. And so, for me, when my father asked if I'd like to get in the car and go somewhere, I'd be thrilled. It didn't matter where we'd go because it always seemed like a grand adventure. So many places were inaccessible by public transportation and simply because of that, I found them fascinating. I loved the ugly fast food places, the old diners and bowling alleys. In other words, I loved the outward trappings of suburbia. It was a foreign country that I wanted to see more of.

When I was in my early twenties, I moved to rural Pennsylvania. Twenty minutes away from where we lived was the sprawl that emanated out from Philadelphia. Every weekend, my ex-husband and I would spend all our free time there. He grew up in Greenwich Village and had the same fascination with suburban life that I did. We went to malls, drive-in movie theaters (oh, I miss them!) and played lots of miniature golf. The ugliness of it all was not lost on us, but still we were entranced. We ate at fast food restaurants and whatever new chain restaurants that appeared on the landscape.

At the age of 16, I had not yet eaten at a fast food joint, ever. Then I worked at McDonalds, and I was forced to. I developed a craving for Big Macs afterwards and seriously wondered what the hell they put in that thing that made me want one so much. I still don't know.

Driving across the country when I was on tour, or on vacation, I loved all things kitsch. I loved the ugliness, but now I think, "well, I never had to live in it", for it's true. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I lived in New Hope, a pretty tourist town with strict zoning that kept out sprawl. The place I grew up in had similar zoning, as did the town I lived in before I moved to Maine. Unconsciously, I lived in places where there were conscious efforts to keep the ugliness at bay. So, now I live in the middle of nowhere, where I hear trucks whizzing by all day long, carrying goods to and from all the stores at either end of their journey. And I yearn to get away from even that. I have come to nearly hate everything I once found amusing.

It is the same with things like the "country fairs" that proliferate around here starting in early August. The first time I went to one, the Bangor fair, when I was 15, I thought it was about as much fun as one could have, even if I did throw up after going on a ride. I had never seen a fair on such a large scale. The only game booths I'd ever encountered were on the small streets of Little Italy in New York, during the San Gennaro festival.

In the first years I lived here, I went to as many fairs as I could stand. Now I can't stand them. They hold nothing of interest to me. I no longer want to eat an eight dollar serving of fried dough with sugar on top, nor try my hand at a game that rigged against me (or if I won, pick out some garish stuffed animal). If there is any livestock to see, it's a sorry sight, a couple of kids from 4H standing around with their pet goat or a pig scramble, where children practically kill each other to grab a terrified baby pig.

I once thought it was quaint. What happened? I suppose it's only that the novelty wore off. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But even as I write the above words, I suspect it is more, for that book is haunting me. I stopped being able to see the carnival workers as anything but poor people with no fixed home. I started seeing all the drunken kids who went wild during the fairs and the obese folks who ate all that fried dough. Once the charm wears off, one starts to see what's underneath, the stuff one isn't supposed to see or even think about.

Ah, seeing what's underneath is something of a curse. I suppose someone's got to do it, like the documentary film maker Frederick Wiseman, whose documentary "Belfast", though critically acclaimed, was hated around these parts, for it depicted everything about Belfast (back in 1999, no less) that people wanted to keep hidden. Even I objected, for I felt he was hypocritical in some ways, filming folks talking about multi-generational sexual abuse while leaning up against their beater cars, while the camera crew tooks breaks at the Gothic Cafe, a beautiful place that never once appeared in the movie. But he had a point to make, and a very good one. As I wrote, someone got to see what's underneath, and "Belfast" (the movie) was about that, not a come-on for tourists. Who said it had to be objective anyway

So, I've come full circle here, from Belfast to Belfast. Maybe I'll write a nice post about the town at some point, but not anytime soon, I'm afraid.

Photo note: The Wigwam Hotel,Holbrook, Arizona
I used to find places like this absolutely fantastic. I do like these kitschy roadside attractions far better than yet another row of McDonalds, Wendy's, Dunkin Donuts and all the rest of that lot, but it's sort of like the childhood question, "Would you rather me eaten by a lion or a tiger?" This stuff was only advertising, after all, though it seems creative. Somehow, if it's really, really big it's okay. After all, the same people who think it's fun kitsch or ironic, generally don't like the crap people put on their front lawns, like the back views of people leaning over to pick dandelions, so we can see their butt cracks. But if one blew up those wretched pieces of plywood to 50 feet, they'd be attractions (or even make it into a Whitney bienniel).

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