Friday, July 14, 2006


Once I had a friend who became a millionaire. He had belonged to a church near Los Angeles where the minister had been a big help to him in hard times and he wanted to reward them. They were in desperate need of a new roof for the church and just beginning a fund drive. So my friend went to the minister and proposed that he simply write a check for the cost of the new roof.

The minister was enraged.

My friend was stunned! He had a very hard time understanding the minister’s explanation that his donation would destroy the congregation by removing their need to work together for a common and quite real goal, to say nothing of their democratic process and self-determination. My moneybags friend knew little about groups or what held them together, to say nothing of their internal dynamics. But in a sly way, which he denied even to himself, he was trying to buy the congregation, make them like him.

This little village and others like it have a similar problem. Very rich folks have come to the area, finding it delightfully spacious and inexpensive compared to either coast, but inevitably they want to be instant big shots in a place that doesn’t think anyone is “real” until they’ve lived here a couple of decades. And they always start wanting it to be like what they left, so they press for sidewalks and flowers and cute little shops and a source of espresso. Night lighting for the little crop-duster’s airport, so they can land their commuter plane.

Our particular rich person is a wife and therefore needful of things to do. Our particular village has a female mayor who is quite impressed by money and not particularly experienced. (She has worked as a bartender, mostly, and is presently an Avon lady.) Soon the village’s lawyer quit because his advice was no longer taken and a new female lawyer was hired. They just KNEW she would be great because she dresses so well.

The infrastructure costs of my house have doubled since I came in 1999. If they double again, I will have to give up either water or sewer or electricity or gas. I live on social security, which is not likely to double -- in fact, they say, is likely to be reduced. I’m not the only one and the pressures are making us mean and angry, though rather covertly so far. The village council, which includes two young, handsome, competent young men (who are quietly left out of some doings where they might make problems), does not like trouble. People who grew up in this town are very sensitive to criticism and blame, so they hate having to be on the council, except they’re afraid that if they don’t, the town will simply be destroyed by debt and overblown projects.

Last night one problem was the new little park on the highway, augmenting a much bigger and more pleasant park a few blocks away IN the town and FOR the town. A man has adopted it and has been fertilizing, mowing and watering to suit himself. But the mayor sees it as HER baby and wants everything cleared through herself. Big brown spots have appeared. Is this the man’s fault: fertilizer burn? Is it the mayor’s fault: not authorizing enough water? Turns out it is the fault of those who built the park: there are relic gravel parking pads just under the dirt and they will not hold EITHER fertilizer or water. Anyway, they are probably contaminated and ought to have been dug up and trucked out.

There’s a moose on the loose and it was hanging out on the little island in the irrigation reservoir that the two women insist on considering a recreational bonanza, though for the last years it’s been mud for a hundred feet around the edge and even the ice has been undependable because of global warming. (Ice fishing is big around here.) The men’s bathroom has a single toilet which has broken again, but this time it’s not vandalism. Luckily, there is a urinal, but it’s not enough, as reflection will confirm.

Water and sewer are the major issue. One old man insists that though he lives in a little old house, he uses no water. Indeed, he never turns on an outside faucet. Some claim he pees in a can and dumps it outside at night. What to do? We do not have metered water -- it’s just divvied into even shares, which bugs me because I have no washing machine (I use a laundromat in a town thirty miles away because the laundromat in Valier was removed because the young new owners of its location thought it was too much work), no dishwasher, a shower instead of a tub, and otherwise am pretty water-sparing -- but I pay the same as people who have houses with three bathrooms, who run loads of clothes all day long, who have teenagers who live in the shower, and automatic subterranean watering systems that never forget to turn on. The only real answer is meters, but the cost would be enormous. On the other hand, there are people who use Valier as their weekend home only, yet pay full fee.

We are all forbidden to use outside water between 10AM and 6PM. And if our grass gets too tall, it will be mown for us and we will be billed $150.

There are people who are urging the building of new houses, even as the businesses in the town close, one after another. The population grows and the part that is growing is the high-income part, coming in from outside, people who live on capital rather than labor. All the small people, now living on Social Security after a lifetime working as gas jockeys and clerks and waitresses for local citizens, are feeling desperate and oppressed. Because they are. The infrastructure is shrinking in many small ways. The town clerk is only working four days a week now, to save money. The rich lady wrote a check to buy a $12,000 K-9 German Shepherd for the county sheriff to use in this village of 350 people, mostly over fifty years old. It will take six weeks to train the deputy at a special location in the midwest. The mayor is thrilled. This deputy will take another two weeks to be trained for the DARE program. (No one here has any awareness of research showing the DARE program doesn't work.)

The most exciting part of the meeting was when one of the older and most beloved characters of the town, who has served and helped people for decades, rose on her cane to challenge a letter she’d been sent telling her she was out-of-compliance on one of her rentals. She’s in the commercial zone which stipulates that no one can live on the first floor, which must be a place of business, but can live upstairs, which this woman does. She owns other property where men were living while they did some work for her and that was on the ground floor. (There are few two-story structures at all in this village where the water tower and grain elevator are the equivalent of skyscrapers.)

Beyond that, for relief on hot evenings, they had sat out on the curb drinking. WHAT they were drinking was a matter of controversy. Were they dangerous rough sorts who threatened children as they passed by? Or were they honest working fellows trying to relax a bit? “Govern less by the books and more with your hearts!” scolded the old lady.

The young men on the council writhed in misery. The two women were unmoved. “We MUST reinforce the existing ordinances,” said the rich lady piously. “I don’t want to see our downtown no longer viable,” said the mayor. The location in question is a couple of former bars, now defunct out of sheer decrepitude. One had a basement that filled with water, which was thought to be from the water table until it was discovered to be a sewer leak. The proprietor had been pumping it into a truck and taking it out to his little farm to put on his trees. They grew wonderfully well.

The bottom line was that a local business had complained that the loafers were interfering with their business traffic, but didn’t go straight to the landlady -- just inviegled the council into being their catspaw -- and the landlady (probably knowing this) had attacked the town council (who had quietly granted her a variance at once) instead of her neighbor.

I hope the K-9 sheriff’s dog can solve this sort of problem. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when the first teenaged nocturnal vandal (who are a major part of our crime quotient) gets badly bitten.


Genevieve said...

That's so pathetic that it's funny and it's pathetic that it's funny.

Our county seat has a population of about 30,000, but the mayor and city council don't function much more effectively than the one you describe here.

prairie mary said...

There has been some kind of loss or misunderstanding throughout the whole country. Some say it was that decade or so of anti-authoritarianism in the Sixties and Seventies. Some think it's the schools. Others think life is just too easy. Somehow -- from the boards of major corporations to the smallest village boards -- people have the idea that everything is for the individual rather than the community.

Steve Bodio said...

Same here, same here. Prices going up and town people losing out. Wonder when we are going to lose our feed store as the rich people who bought it are finding it too much work....

Cowtown Pattie said...

Ahh, and the same story for far west Texas. Disgruntled Santa Fe-ians, and Californians newly wealthy from the sale of the family home have moved to Marfa by the droves. The entire ambiance of the little town has changed, and made it impossible for anyone of average middle class means or less to buy property or start a small independent business. Prices for real estate are so exorbitant, a run-down, two bedroom adobe shack will sell for $100K. Ridiculous and makes me heartsick.

Change is not always for the better.

Matt Mullenix said...

Fantastic essay---pitiful situation! I think it's the same everywhere and maybe for the reasons you suggest. We certainly have it easy now, which makes for idle hands and minds.

People would be a lot less nosey if they were more exhausted. Everyone should have twins.

prairie mary said...

The rumor is that our rich lady is planning to adopt a China baby. Maybe they'll talk her into twins.

Prairie Mary