Monday, February 19, 2007

The Reluctant Townie

When I was attending Penn State back in the 80s, fellow classmates would often use the nearby town of Bellefonte as a prototype of hick towns to be avoided. We were cool kids in State College, this oasis in the middle of nowhere.

Shit. It was a college town. Packs of kids puking in hedges. Passing out on lawns. Year after year after year. I’d have a hard time living in a college town now. Frankly, I’d be more inclined to live in a town like Bellefonte. Close enough to partake of all the cool stuff a rural college town offers, without having to live in that peculiar time warp. I’ve probably referenced this before, but the movie Breaking Away has that great scene where Mike, the “retired” high-school quarterback, sits on a hill overlooking the college football team practicing, with all his other Cutter (i.e., townie) friends, and comments: “Every year, I’m going to get older, while all these guys stay the same.”

I often make fun of Bloomsburg, PA when I get back home for a visit. My brother and I are in the habit of hitting a pretty good Chinese buffet in that town, and afterwards we’ll drive through downtown Bloomsburg, a much smaller college town than State College. And we’ll see all the kids out, having their heavy conversations: “Dude, like, I can’t go home for spring break, I’m in this big thing with Marcy, and we have my dorm room to ourselves, so, tell all the guys back home I said hi, and I’ll see them in a few months.”

Fucking Bloomsburg. The guy probably comes from Danville, i.e., about a 20-minute drive away. But that’s the sort of mindset kids get in college: away from home, even if it’s only a few miles. I was about a 2-1/2 hour drive away from State College, but got home a majority of weekends, which I took endless shit for from guys who never went home. Part of it was I just loved driving at night with the tape deck blasting, but part was we were already drinking two nights a week, during the week, and I didn’t feel a burning need to do it all weekend on top of that. And I somehow understood then that I wasn’t Bob Dylan, looking to completely dump an old identity for a new one, and that I’d rather maintain a straight line to my home and not pretend those people didn’t exist.

And then you'd get these kids coming home, acting like aliens, unable to connect with old high-school friends, and feeling some strange gulf when they did, not quite realizing they were the ones solely responsible for creating it. We all had that tinge about us in college, but some kids acted like they were Prince or something. The funny thing to me now is I walk through a town like Bloomsburg, and I’m sure these kids are looking at me and thinking: “Fucking townie!” Not quite realizing I’ve lived in New York almost two decades now. Just don’t feel any urge to rub their noses in it. (Recognize after two decades that there really isn’t much about this city worth rubbing anyone’s nose in. And I can’t stand New Yorkers who do that anyway.) Would rather be myself than adopt some fucked-up attitude about where I live. Which is pretty much the temporary illness clouding their judgment. It’s no different from the attitude so many people have who move to New York, and start acting like what they think a New Yorker should act like, which is a hyperactive stereotype of self importance and bad manners.

But back then, I was placed in the new and uncomfortable role of being the “privileged” kid as opposed to the humble townie, who quietly went about his life, grumbling all the while about all these spoiled rich kids running amok in a place they had no respect for. I don’t think a lot of townies in the State College area quite grasped that a lot of us came from areas far more economically depressed than State College, which seemed like a boomtown compared to where I was from in northeast Pennsylvania.

Rich? My father never made more than low 30s, and that was after a few decades in the same factory, supporting six other people on that salary. My older brothers got lucky in that the state and federal grant systems were much more charitable in their time, allowing them to go to college almost for free. By the time I rolled in, four years later, Reagan had taken an axe to the federal college grant program, the state program wasn’t as bad, but I had to start taking out loans after my first year. (All things considered, especially with how expensive most colleges have grown, I was lucky to walk away with only $5K of debt. I think what it cost me to go to Penn State for a year in 1985 would probably cover one semester now.)

A lot of townies didn’t quite realize some of us kids were worse off than they were financially, just inclined to go to college, because it made sense. Yet, I would occasionally get attitude from clearly working-class guys on the street, or in bars, to the effect that I was some spoiled rich kid invading their turf. And I didn’t like it. Never to the point of fighting, but thinking, “What’s your problem, asshole?"

A lot of the kids I knew surely picked up on the vibe, too, and took an anti-townie vibe towards dealing with the locals. Thus, in the long tradition of Hatfields and McCoys, you can see how these sort of senseless divisions take root and spread. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the college, State College would be just another small town in the Pennsylvania woods, there’s nothing else there to suggest that it would be an industrious town thriving on its own. It would be another hick farm town. Like Bellefonte. I could understand if townies had the attitude that we were ruining their way of life, but they would have no way of life if it wasn’t for the college. And there was no "before and after" dividing line, unless you went back to the 1800s when the college came into being.

Referring back to Mike from Breaking Away, that’s about the only valid source of anger I can see for townies having against college kids. When I went back to Penn State in my mid-20s, back in the early 90s, I felt like Methuselah. The wheel had turned – I was looking at these kids, some only three or four years younger, and feeling like an old man. In my 20s! That was a shock to me, and I haven’t gone back there since. (I’d much rather watch Penn State football on TV than cram myself into a bad seat in the stadium.) College towns are an industry of youth, like MTV or denim jeans, they get wealthy off the young, or more accurately, off the parents of the young. It helps in life to get that diploma, so it’s an industry a lot of people are duty bound to support.

What’s strange to me since that time is recognizing that I’ve somehow straddled that fence, and got off it on both sides at times, whenever it suited my purpose to do so. Where I live now, in Astoria, the past five years have seen a housing market boom, with rents and real estate values shooting through the roof. Non-descript row houses that went for $150K a decade ago are now going for $700K. Two-bedroom apartments that went for $800 a month are now going for $1,700. In short, college-educated white folk have moved here in droves – the only reason rents go up in inner-city neighborhoods.

When I moved here in 1997, it was simply to escape the Bronx, where I’d done my time as the token crazy white guy living in the ghetto. It surely wasn’t to hop a trend, although as it turns out, I was on the unrecognizable cusp of a very large wave about to take form. I’m still paying that cheap sort of rent, thankfully, but I can’t even bear to look in the windows of real-estate offices and see the depressing, outrageously high rates they’re charging for apartments these days. I’d have to move if my deal falls through now, probably to another marginal neighborhood in Queens, of which there are a few.

In some strange way now, I’m the townie. Although the real townies in Astoria, the people born and raised here, take one look at me and recognize I’m no townie … and therefore, they’ll lump me in with all these other rich white kids willing to pay $1,000 a month for a marginal apartment. I think for me to pass as a townie in Astoria, I’d have to gain about 30 more pounds, approach people as if I meant to physically attack them, talk in that truly awful Queens accent, grow a handlebar mustache, and wear sweat suits and gold chains all the time. Yet, I’ve also learned how to carry myself in a 718 environment that people new to the neighborhood are going to mistake me for a local.

So, I find myself getting simultaneously pissed off at the townies and the rich kids. I find myself barking: “You have to be sick in the head to spend $1,000 a month on rent … to live in a shithole neighborhood like this.” On one hand, I’m tickled to death that cool new businesses – a Thai restaurant, a good bakery – move into the neighborhood, yet also recognize that these are the first steps towards the neighborhood turning into Park Slope, i.e., a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was slum-like in the 70s, but in the 80s rapidly transformed into a ritzy (and now unaffordable, save for the rich) neighborhood by anyone’s standards.

Whom do I side with? In my heart of hearts, I’m a townie. I come from a small town. From a working-class background. I understand that mindset far more than I understand any other. By the same token, after a small financial boost from my parents in my first year, I put myself through college, I’m clearly learned, could easily assimilate into the higher echelons of the corporate world (if I wanted to … and I don’t want to). For the simple reason that I can’t fathom why anyone would spend four figures on a monthly rent, I’d have to side with the townies … knowing damn well that if my life was reduced to hanging out with the townies in Astoria, I’d be murderous within a week. (I’d have a much easier time hanging out with townies where I’m from, and I recognize that as the huge difference between the rural and urban working class, which is another story.) It would be a moot point if real-estate agents didn’t blow up the rents every time well-to-do white folks moved into a neighborhood. And why this hasn’t become a civil-rights issues, with folks like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton noticing this inexplicable rent discrepancy and its ties to racism, I have no idea. The first people to go in a situation like this are the people of color who are just getting by, and I have no idea where they're going. Push comes to shove, I’m a reluctant townie, with the only reasons being economic rather than cultural.

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