Today’s earthquake in Amatrice, Italy prompted the city’s mayor to say, “The town is not here any more!"
There are no sadder words. It is obvious when an earthquake or natural disaster wipes out a place that the future will never be the same. So much is lost when the icons and life of a community are wasted. Desperation seeps in.
Over the summer, I was back in my hometown of Lyons, New York and witnessed another moment of community evisceration that I want to share with you.
I was sitting on the front porch of the house where I had been born and raised, visiting with my 92-year-old mother, when I saw the newspaper “boy” walk up our sidewalk and climb the 12 steps to the porch. He was certainly not the newspaper boy that I had once been when I did the street route with Kevin Maine many, many years ago. Kevin went on to become an English teacher in Virginia’s school system (his son pitched for the New York Mets) and I am with ICF in New York City.
In fact, I recognized this thin, worn-down man. His glasses were bent and smudged. He had stubble on his face, which showed grey patches, and his hair was unkempt and seemed to scream sideways, like Einstein’s. But he had not had the same fate as Einstein, nor Kevin nor Lou Zacharilla.
I recognized Al from high school. He had stayed in town, worked in a factory that made school supplies and managed to stay on the edge, which over time we came to call the working poor. The company closed, and he looked for the work that they all say is “out there” if you just look. Wal-Mart, K-Mart, part-time stacking in hardware stores, seasonal work at the Post Office. Go ahead, name the rest for me. It is a familiar litany in many parts of the world. Al had no choice but to take the job delivering the local newspaper. As a college student, over summers, I both wrote for and sold advertising for that paper. I can tell you, there isn’t a lot of cashflow and revenue there for living wage salaries or for their delivery “boys.”
While it is a familiar story, and one that is evolving into a near-cliché during elections in many nations, it is the storyline for the frustration and apparently irrational behavior of voters and groups.
We spoke about USA’s political race, and he was for Donald Trump.
“Why shouldn’t I vote for Trump?” he said simply and with tense conviction. “Can my life get worse?”
Can my life get worse? is not the question we want our citizens and our neighbors asking in 2016, no matter who they want in office.
A few summers ago I made the front page of that newspaper he carried up my mother’s steps, being cited for my work at ICF. I would like to see a story not about broadband and my efforts next time, but about how new companies are growing there and how a new school and branch campus of Cornell University are being built. Recently there was a report that Lyons had been cited for the restoration of its downtown area. That is at least a start.
I would like read that Al’s kids or kids like his, rather than peddling drugs down on Broad Street and carrying concealed weapons and getting pinched for DWI, are running for the Town Board of Trustees and running successful insurance businesses.
But for this summer, ICF’s work in places like this, for lives like my mom’s newspaper delivery “boy,” are merely stories that may be relayed at a class reunion, in a bar, perhaps after the mass at St. Michael’s Parish (now consolidated with three other area churches because of the loss of parishioners) and on the occasional front porch after supper. However, the Internet of Cities, and the great hope that once defined the towns along the barge routes of the Erie Canal, are either fiction or history. Ancient history and rich peoples’ dreams.
Better to build a wall to keep what is left of the past there before the town completely goes away. For me, the village will always be there, and I will never stop trying to deliver better news to tear down that invisible wall that is rising and being fortified with seething despair and anger.