Brattleboro, Vermont has been my home for thirty-eight years. When I first arrived, I was told by a number of people that I would have to be a resident for sixty years in order to be considered a Vermonter. Fair enough. I was there to get through college. I had no intention of staying on, as I had no desire to strike root in a place where I didn’t feel especially welcome.
I did stay, however – in fact, I never left – because I happened to have landed in Brattleboro and Brattleboro was the kind of big small town that just took you in. Whether you were a low-residency psychiatric patient from the Brattleboro Retreat, a Colombian or Japanese student from the Experiment in International Living, a Cambodian refugee, an aging hippie or a transplanted artist, writer or musician, you were tolerated, you were absorbed.
While at college, I began writing the books and lyrics for five musicals that were being produced as fast as my collaborator and I could turn them out. One of my lyrics shaded my nostalgia for Beaver PA, the hometown of my parents, into my new sentiment for Brattleboro, which was beginning to feel like home.
If it were mud or made of stone,
If it were cobble or clay,
I still would never walk alone
Down Main Street USA.
I could tell you more about Brattleboro (and I probably will eventually) but if you live in a small town or a big town, a reasonably sized city, a city with distinct neighborhoods or a village in Surrey, Guangxi or Mpumalanga, you probably know what I mean.
There would be no one to disturb
But an old friend on the way;
There’s always someone on the curb
Of Main Street USA.
This summer, the town of Brattleboro, which proudly hosts annual events like the Harris Hill ski-jumping competition, the Women’s Film Festival, the Vermont Theatre Company’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park, the Brattleboro Literary Festival, the Marlboro Music Festival (in nearby Marlboro) and the Strolling of the Heifers (a jubilant celebration of sustainable local agriculture), also unexpectedly played host to a series of misfortunes whose psychological effects were very likely magnified by their proximity in time.
The season began with a disastrous fire at Brooks House, one of the town’s historical and architectural prizes on the corner of Main and High Streets. The gutting of the top two floors of this landmark building left seventy people without homes, while smoke and water damage closed ten street-level businesses. Some of the businesses relocated and re-opened within two weeks, some we might see again in a year and others we will never see again. We lost the Book Cellar, one of the smartest independent bookstores I have ever been in, and for a time we feared losing the Brooks House tower, which gives that part of Main Street its distinctive profile and provided Archer Mayor with a suspenseful site for a chase in one of his Joe Gunther novels.
If we were feeling complacent after the fire because Brattleboro expects a disaster of that magnitude only once a year, we were startled and dismayed when a few months later another prized historical and architectural feature on Main Street was wiped out by an impatient truck driver.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, the Latchis Memorial Building (which houses a hotel, a brewery, several theatres and businesses) is one of only two authentic Art Deco structures in the state of Vermont. Built in 1938, the Greek Revival-themed interior of its movie palace and old vaudeville house is near and dear to our hearts. The impatient truck driver drove up on the sidewalk in an effort to get around some cars that were – I don’t know – stopped for a red light? It’s difficult to imagine what he was thinking, but let us be glad he didn’t take out any pedestrians and merely completely mangled the Latchis Theatre’s classic marquee.
People started asking, what the hell is going on?
On July 29 the body of a woman in her early thirties was discovered in the woods off the East-West Road in nearby Dummerston. She had been shot in the head by, it was quickly discovered, her boyfriend and a buddy. All three of them were involved in “drug-related activity,” specifically the sale of crack cocaine. This event, although unfortunate, did not have a notable impact on the local mood and media.
Maybe drug dealers are expected to shoot each other in the head but old hippie types who subscribe to wellness, social change and sustainable living are not. The death of the woman on the East-West Road acquired a new significance and air of menace when it was followed two weeks later by a shooting at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. The Co-op had just opened for the day when an employee who had recently received a poor job evaluation walked quietly into the store and shot and killed the general manager.
Since I am a working member at the Co-op, I felt close to this tragedy, close but oddly calm. People were shattered. I was not. (Why should Brattleboro be different from the rest of the world, where things like this do happen? Why should this event be any more shattering than the murder of the woman in Dummerston?) The Co-op is supposed to be a place where people show genuine care and support for each other. (That hasn’t changed. Wait until the vigil, wait until the Co-op reopens for business; you will see an extraordinary outpour of caring and support.) Brattleboro has been changed forever. (How so? I’ve lived in this town for almost forty years; other bad things have occurred; we’ve survived.) But I don’t feel safe anymore. (I never felt safe to begin with; that’s why I’ve been in therapy for twenty years.) What’s happened to our town? (Our town did not kill the general manager at the Co-op. One very sick, very angry man did.)
When I reported these conversations to my therapist, he suggested that I was intellectualizing so as not to feel the sadness that others around me were feeling. He told me to keep my mouth shut and let them grieve.
Over the years I have participated in a great many conversations that go like this: sure, it gets cold in the winter here and the winters are long, but I still say we’re lucky because we don’t get things like earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes.
On August 23rd we had an earthquake. It was centered in Virginia, which might explain why I didn’t feel a thing (although many people did) and why the seismic monitor didn’t register enough activity to trigger an alarm at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in nearby Vernon. Nonetheless, the quake-related disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan made our little tremor a troublesome experience and gave rise to seriously unnerving thoughts.
Okay, so we had an itty-bitty earthquake, but at least we don’t get – hurricanes.
If you never heard of Brattleboro before, you probably know it by now, because CNN, the Weather Channel and YouTube, among others, have overwhelmed you with pictures and footage of the flooding inflicted by Irene here and elsewhere in Vermont. It’s pretty devastating. As my younger brother said, “It’s like Vermont took the bullet for Cape Cod.” The damage is still being discovered and assessed, so at this point I can’t even tell you how bad it is.
I can tell you what I felt when I realized what was happening. My small piece of West Brattleboro got very soggy, but that was about it, and I was just coming to the conclusion that Irene had been a bust, when I looked at Facebook and saw Flat Street under water, store front businesses once again endangered, maybe destroyed, and the Latchis – the Latchis – threatened with who knew what. When I saw photos of the National Guard moving in to West Brattleboro, my therapist’s words caught up with me. I stopped intellectualizing. I felt scared. Unsafe, insecure. And sad, deep and all-over sad.
It had been a summer of surprises, a summer of events that don’t normally happen in our wonderful, working town. It’s been a summer of quiet grieving, for material things destroyed and beliefs and assumptions overturned. When I saw the extent of the flood damage, if not in my own backyard, then at least in the yards of my neighbors and on the corner of Main Street itself, I felt the full force of our extraordinary season and experienced a long and lasting sense of loss.
If I should bear a beggar’s fate
When I am hobbled and gray,
The place that still will bear my weight
Is Main Street USA.
For weeks, maybe months, we’ll express our gratitude to the Red Cross, the National Guard and emergency first responders, find shelter for the new homeless and send letters to the editor and post messages on Facebook in praise of the resilience of Vermonters. We will donate our resources and our time; we’ll clean up the mess and re-build and celebrate the spirit of neighbor helping neighbor. My guess is that it will pretty much resemble what happens in other areas surprised and damaged by disaster.
I’m not going to tell you that Brattleboro is different or special or unique (although we do get to say There Is Only One Brattleboro because there is no other town named Brattleboro anywhere in the world.) Maybe my hometown is unique, maybe it isn’t. I can only tell you this: it’s mine.
Just like where you live – is yours.
We never know what one place meant
Til we’ve forgotten the way;
The best years of my life were spent
On Main Street USA.
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