I got a job working construction for the Johnstown company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
— The River, Bruce Springsteen
“Man this is the most corrupt town in America… no-one wants to know.” In the only bar on the shuttered main street of Johnstown Pennsylvania, Jackson, a one time major league footballer was holding forth to the assembled Saturday afternoon crowd which was three barflies, plus me and fellow Aussie journalist James Norman.
He halted his disquisition on small town Pennsylvania stand-over crap — the cops chase people away from his bar so they can knock down the price and buy it — every fifteen minutes to hug his wife/girlfriend/chiquita, a hispanic mama with a memorial tattoo — a literal portrait of a dead (usually murdered) loved one — on each arm.
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She was an ample woman, with generous bye-byes under the arms, which, as they shook, made it look like her dead tattooed sisters were laughing. Possibly that was intended.
That morning James and I had been at the Sarah Palin rally at the war memorial arena, a brick bunker soon to host, according to its bitmap electric sign, Franki Valli — can this be possible — and other ghosts of the recent past, now consigned to the small town circuit, the endless whistlestop, playing the old hits.
Johnstown likes the old hits, which is why there were a thousand people queuing on a frozen Saturday morning to hear a forty something energetic airhead speak in a week when the American economy teetered on the brink of collapse, and the only way to save it was a part-socialisation of the economy. But forget that. They were here for a laying on of hands.
Over the other side of the street, about two hundred pro-Bama protestors had gathered, most of them with union t-shirts. The chanted slogans flew thick and fast. Eventually, a phalanx of McCain supporters came over to get in their face.
“Get a job,” they yelled at the protestors.
“Frank come on,” one said to the other, before the police slid a car between them, and chased the Palinites back to their side of the street.
Yes, years ago some of these people had known each other, worked together, been part of the same world. The town is pure Deerhunter, made by east Europeans — Croatians and Bulgarians in this case — going west from the slums of Philadelphia.
On the riverbank beside the town, massive brick warehouses, masterpieces of construction, hang empty, their mouths gaping open. In the scumble of old row houses the onion domes of the Orthodox house point at the sky. As the Springsteen song suggests, even thirty years ago, the place was work, and life.
Now it is rust, and men circling in cars, revving them at the traffic lights, and bars in lean-tos, where you have to buy food to get a sixpack. On every table there’s an uneaten pizza slice, the corner hanging over the paper plate like a dozen tongues hanging out, wanting something.
Pennsylvania, as James Carville once noted, is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle. The churches are lined up on the main street, and in the motel room there is not a “what’s on guide”, but a “directory of places of worship.”
Yet Carville’s theory was oversimplified. Thirty years ago, religion was a quietly-held and traditional thing, now the fundamentalist outfits can build garish tabernacles where the downtown used to be, on the strength of local donations. As the jobs went, the union membership fell, and when it was clear that the jobs weren’t coming back, the churches went up.
“Men must have legends lest they die of strangeness,” as the man said, and this one time stronghold of American socialism was now the place Barack Obama had had in mind when he had foolishly talked openly of the bitterness that drove them to guns and God, when everything else had quit the field.
Palin of course drives them wild. McCain, not so much. For a long time they’d never heard of him, or if they had, it was as that senator who was willing to work with Democrats on bills, the ultimate insider. His reinvention as a “maverick” is a measure of the desperation people have to think the party they believed in has not got it terribly wrong, and become a European socialist party overnight.
“McCain and Palin will fight for us,” one couple holding a “Nobama” sign yell. “He turned that bailout bill into a rescue bill.” Thus do myths of healing by touch start and propagate.
Inside, Sarah Palin, her hair down from the sexylibrarian bun, is giving the audience what they want. The Bill Ayers stuff is on hold, after John McCain — rebelling against his own advisors it would seem — started to talk his audience down from the tower on the question of Barack Obama being a terrorist.
As one woman in one deathful townhall meeting broke down in tears saying she was scared that “Obama was an Arab” McCain talked her and his audience down, saying they had “nothing to fear from Barack Obama … I just disagree with his vision for America.”
Well, big ups to him and that is not meant sarcastically. Commentators are suggesting that this extraordinary statement by McCain — while his campaign is still going around with the babyeating stuff — is a measure of how badly it has played in the polls. If that were true, he’d simply leave it alone.
I think his sudden Damascus road turn is a sign that he thinks he’s lost the election — and he doesn’t want to be remembered as, or to be, the one who hammered the wedge deeper into America at a time when it could do with a bit of common purpose. He is now thinking of his reputation, and of the dark dark thought that he would be the guy who tempted some wingnut to pop off the first black President.
But there is clearly a core of decency in the man that he has tapped back into — much to the chagrin of the nihilists surrounding him — and that may well be the greatest contribution he has made to the republic in his long chaotic life.
Instead of Bill Ayers, Palin talks about abortion and “life”. The audience — most of whom have five to ten years shaved off their life because they don’t have universal health care — applaud wildly. This unique incommensurable issue, abortion, has become for them what the gold standard is for the Ron Paulites — some solid measure of value, against which everything will be guaranteed.
Later in the day Palin will use her kids like chattel taking them out to an ice hockey game in Philadelphia where the working class crowd booed her to a turn — “I thought there’d be less of it if I put Piper [her 8- year-old daughter] in a hockey jersey”, she said later. What a great mother she is.
But what craziness this is. Palin runs a state that is as socialist as Norway in all but its achievements, and she’s lecturing this deprived crowd about free enterprise. And if the people of Johnstown lived in Sweden, the empty warehouse would have a hospital and a social centre and three high tech companies housed in it.
Instead there is … rust. Rust and God.
James, sporting a clubbish pilgrim beard and with bags under his eyes from overindulgence, gets yelled at at stoplights.
“Hey Osama,” they shout.
”Was he yelling at me?”
Yes mate he was.
Springsteen’s song had “the river” as some sort of life force, the rivers that flowed through the mill towns, heavy with metal, occasionally catching fire.
Then I got Mary pregnant
and mister that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday
I got a union card and wedding coat
I typed those lines from memory. What Springsteen sang of as deprivation, Palin et al have elevated — via her hapless daughter — to the level of myth, and good. What greater sign of failure could there be that the grim life of a mill town can be looked back on with nostalgia?
Everyone’s trapped here. Jackon’s trapped too. But he’s knows he’s trapped. Which puts him in the minority.
Palin is here and will be elsewhere because the McCain campaign believes their only chance is to tap into that nostalgia for certainty of any sort, and find it in this political odd couple, this Senatorial insider and Jesus freak sports reporter. Bruce, help them.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse that sends me
Down to the river…
And still after four hours, the queue still waits…