Only someone badly lost would find himself driving through a village as unremarkable as this, I’m thinking. The lights are on in the post office, but the parking lot is empty: no one, I imagine, is in a hurry to pick up their mail when it consists, mostly, of bills. The two-storey elementary school is quiet: it’s as if they’re waiting to hear the answer to some question the teacher has posed and it’s been a long time coming. All along the road there are small family graveyards. They have stones with barely legible dates that coincide with old and mostly forgotten wars, the short lifespan of the buried indicating that they were the casualties of such conflicts, and their last names that their descendants continued to live in this area and may rest in this same ground, next to these woods and these fields covered with rocks they never quite succeeded in clearing.
Northern New England is beautiful in the fall. The leaves turn pretty colours and the days tend to be bright and mild. Once the rains come and the trees and gardens turn bare, one can see how modestly many people live, their homes in need of paint and repair, the cars and trucks parked in their driveways looking more than a few years old. Of course, when Christmas decorations start appearing in doors and windows and on some of the lawns, the small towns have a cheerful and welcoming air, especially after night falls, although this year the decorations are less extravagant than in years past. Everyone around here is broke and worried about the future.
The bigger towns in the area, except those on the coast, which lies half an hour away, are in bad shape. Though they never fully recovered after the last mills and factories closed in the early 1970s, they managed to get by and recently even showed signs of recovery. Not any more. Formerly their downtown streets were lined with modest, locally owned stores selling hardware, stationery, medicine, newspapers and clothing; they have now either gone out of business or are doing poorly. The people one sees in the streets or in the remaining stores look downcast, unhealthy and unemployed. The sight of a young woman pushing a wobbly stroller with a sickly looking little girl past a boarded-up gas station is a sign of the future.
For sure, there are worse places in the United States. Towns like Detroit with their abandoned neighbourhoods and gutted train stations, banks and hospitals overgrown with weeds and littered with trash wouldn’t look out of place in some country devastated by war. Is this where we are all heading? One hears every day about towns and cities that are unable to pay their bills, or the salaries and pensions of their employees, while they cut basic services like street lighting, snow clearing and police work, as well as funding for libraries and the maintenance of parks.
How anyone here can support a family is unfathomable to me since there are no decent-paying jobs any more. The official national unemployment rate is 9.8 per cent, but everyone knows the real figure is much higher, since 9.8 per cent doesn’t include the huge number of Americans who can only find part-time employment or who have stopped looking for work. Most larger businesses have outsourced their jobs or moved them overseas, so that when one calls for technical assistance about a malfunctioning cell phone or computer one is now connected to a man or a woman in India. Given the indifference of our corporations, banks and politicians to the plight of American workers, it is hard to imagine where the salvation of these communities will come from, particularly since many of those who suffer the most don’t bother to vote, or give their votes to politicians who can be counted on to ignore their growing despair.