ALL PHOTOS BY CLAIRE O’BRIEN
I’ve watched so many parades all over the middle of America, that they have come to form a kind of map, marking the contours of the landscape I know best. I always feel rooted when I see a parade, a banner strung across a remote Main Street announcing a parade, or even an arrow pointing in the direction of a parade, because then I know exactly what to do: document it as if there’s never been another parade like it – nor will there ever be again. That this is so exactly not the case is, in fact, a large part of what makes my ” job” so important.
This was a literally pressing and specific responsibility when I was a staff reporter, but even now that I’m just a freelance bum, there are times when I can’t avoid the sense that I’m on some kind of endless asaignment to cover every little parade I may encounter or – worse – have just missed. Fortunately, these bouts of delusion are tempered by the many hundreds of local newapapers who try hard to cover the parades of every ouyllying community.
I’m always unreasonably happy to see a reporter at a small-town parade.
It may not look like that reporter is doing much, but he’s actually working very hard – he’s keeping track of a dozen things at any given moment, and if he misses just one of them, he and his editor will hear all about it – in detail – about ten minutes after his newspaper comes out the next morning. Farmers will pull up chairs in the editor’s office, uninvited, and make themselves at home , as the reporter mentally pulls out small chunks of his hair and rethinks his vow to boycott a career in PR or marketing.
These parades are not the substantial Frank Capra-like expressions of small town life that continue to maintain a fanciful grip on the popular imagination. In fact, they often seem to consist almost entirely of people on trucks, tractors, four wheelers, motorcycles, various little scooters, and open convertables. There are always resigned-looking horses, ridden by people in cowboy hats or pulling a version of a covered wagon, no matter how far East you get.
Over the past five or six years it has seemed to me that the parades I know have become less and less substantial.
In fact, there is now something almost fragile about small town American parades. They
have begun to give a broad, non-specific impression of having been stuck together with Elmer’s Glue and multi-colored drinking straws from the Dollar Store. Often, I’m struck by the sensation that a strong wind could blow them away , leaving Main Street littered with limp balloons and handmade cardboard posters decorated with glitter.
But more often there’s no reporter at, say, a small parade celebrating a tiny town’s football season in a league where every kid in every school plays every sport, plus one or two band instruments, and also volunteers to keep the cafeteria running, the grass mown, and the gym open. It’s not too uncommon to find entire K −12 school districts in one building – and overcrowding is not a problem.
These communities go to remarkable lengths to provide students access to resources their districts can’t afford, begging distant symphonies for clarinets and trumpets, and hooking lone seniors up to paleontology lectures in Chicago via computer. They are obsessed with preventing consolidation, and squeak through each year with the state breathing down their necks: their schools are the absolute center of community life.
The coaches are volunteer working dads who just get to call in box scores to the nearest little newspaper, which may be two hours away. They’re so surprised and glad when a stranger with a notebook and a camera shows up and asked them to talk about their kids.
Or, the town may be crowning the Chile, Soybean, Wheat or Corn Queen, usually an 11th grader sitting awkwardly in a open covertable with a sash draped over her shoulder, who also deserves to have a strange, real reporter approach her with pen and notebook in hand.
Somehow, it’s still my job to make sure that this is done right. Yes, of course social media – in this case, meaning the residents themselves – is as capable as I of doing this. But its difficult to exagerate how densely intertwined small town lives are. Everyone really does know everyone else’s business, and they are all merciless gossips: this is actually more tiring than an urban person can know.
They don’t want to comment to one another. They want to comment to a stranger who asks the right questions, writes down their answers, and goes away. This is a part of a deep-seated sense of propriety re. documenting what these community prioritize as their history. If I can’t always get it into a newspaper, well, at least a school district or a chamber of commerce has professionally written copy for its newsletter.
The vast majority of Americans live in metropolitan areas. If they give any thought to the huge region dotted with small towns that is also America, they either romanticize it or imagine it to be homogeneous and intellectually deficient. This foolish attitude needs to go ASAP – not only because rural people are aware of it and pretty much despise the urban majority for it, but because urban and rural are too intertwined to permit such ignorance. Two years of drought in a row would effect urban lives; a third would make Brooklyn residents feel like our cousins.
Rural America is not a white place, and huge masses of it never have been, particularly the Southwest and the entire South, where rural regions have practically been defined by African-American culture. And the rest of it has been as transformed by Latino population growth as has urban America. Latino people are in every distant place you never thought of, reviving everything from local industry to property values to the Catholic church. They don’t just work and go home. They build communities.
Indian and Asian immigrants run small motels in places said to be empty, such as the Oklahoma Panhandle. Black people began founding towns in the Great Plains in the 1870s. It has never been static out here in the middle of nowhere. But life, for most people, has always been hard.
In general, people are worn out in rural America. They are trapped and angered by the weight of a poverty that has become deeply entrenched, and at the very point by which they had been promised signs of a turnaround. As a group, Latino people remain the most hopeful – I can’t imagine why anyone would want them to leave.
Still, there’s just nothing more unmistakeable than a small community without jobs. Nobody’s bothering to fool anybody out here – there’s no one to fool.
Methamphetemine has cut a swath as wide and deep as the rural nation itself, where entire regions have been as shattered by the scurge of an insane toxin as any urban neighborhood infected by crack cocaine.
For example sixty-five percent of the 7500 people in the New Mexico town in which I am currently parked survive soley on some form of public aid. BUT, an additional 15 percent who work full time receive food stamps. This includes many city and state workers. That’s 80 percent of the town! And it’s just one town among many.
People go hungry in this town when their food stamps run out. There is no food pantry, aside from the small supply of canned goods at the food stamp office that disappears within a few days.
The entire police force seems to be under the age of 25, and these young patrolmen, supporting families on pennies, food stamps, and Medicaid (for their children only) are swamped by a methamphetimine epidemic. They earn $9 an hour.
People shoot one another on a regular basis, the meth labs are continualy blowing up, and children taken to hospitals to have their entire systems de-toxified.
Still, every day you can hear stories of beauty, forgiveness, endurance and hilarity that will make people with money bore you for the rest of your life.
I guess I have come to think of journalism in this way: if your voice can be heard better than those who have a story to tell, then that’s the story you tell: if it’s a little parade, so be it, as long as you respect it.
If you can’t be heard beyond that, then you know that’s as far as you can go, whether for now or forever. So you make sure you give that sphere, however limited, that remains open to you everything you’ve got as a journalist and a person. If you have been knocked down and been silenced, as I was for telling the unwavering truth, you have to find one story that doesn’t get you muzzled and keep following every trail it leads to, no matter how innocuous. There is no such thing as no story, and no one can take away your ability to find and tell it.