A Pretty Goddamn Good Ode to Flyover Country
Here is the thing about America: There is ultimately no center to anything at all except for the one you make for yourself.
I've been a fan of Splice Today even before that excellent website saw fit to treat Matt Welch and me kindly around the release of The Declaration of Independents, which happened, what, like a couple of thousand years ago, right?
Splice Today is the shoestring-budget brainchild of the bracingly foul-mouthed Russ Smith, who as much as anyone energized the great third wave of alt-newspapers in these United States. He created Baltimore and Washington City Papers and then helmed The New York Press, writing the barely pseudonymous and epically great "Mugger" column and effectively forcing the Village Voice (part of the great first wave of alt-newspapers) to stop charging a buck a copy. (The second wave of the alt-revolution came in the '60s and included pubs such as The Berkeley Barb, The New York Review of Books, and Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.)
Russ's son Nicky Smith is a regular presence at Splice Today and as much as I hate to acknowledge any sort of inherited talent or position or title or intelligence or you name it, Smith 2.0 is a damn fine writer and observer of life. I've never met him and I assume he's 10 or 15 or 25 or some awfully young age and from reading his shit over the past few years, I know he's been in bands. That's all.
He's published another characteristically sharp and fun and smart-beyond-his (and mine) years piece about "flyover country." It's worth reading in full, but here's a couple of long grafs that hit me like a tornado siren while sitting at my computer on a beautiful late spring/early summer day in Oxford, Ohio:
Every other time I've been in the Midwest was to play music—Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky. That would be a fatal travel itinerary for most New Yorkers. Oh, there's nothing to do! They're hayseeds! It's boring! No culture! Hayrides and cowhide—get me out of here! The same people who'll tell you off for mis-gendering someone, not donating to their charity of choice, or being "problematic." The same people who major in radical feminism and use the term "townie" without any self-awareness. I was blown away that everyone at Oberlin called the people that actually lived in the town of Oberlin as "townies," and talked about them like they were circus freaks. I'll remember that for the rest of my life, because the laughter comes in waves. Even the colleges where "problematic" emerged from has its own dirt class, locals regarded as ignorant podunks with no sense of style, culture, or worth. Meanwhile, they're carrying on about intersectionality, which is fantastic, but it gets bleak when admitting you fucked a townie is like saying you fucked a goat.
Everyone I know who was raised in the Midwest was dying to get out, and it's easy to understand—in the words of one suburban Chicagoan, "Friday rolls around, you've got nothing to do except go behind the 7/11 and smoke pot. That is not a future, that is not a life." Beaten down by years of that, that majestic sky probably becomes oppressive pretty early. I can't say I've ever spent more than a week at a time in the Midwest, so I'm still in a swoon, enthralled by the vision of platonic America I only saw on TV as a kid—white fences, playing with action figures in your yard, walking around the neighborhood and playing with friends in the woods unsupervised. It's a memory received but never experienced, and I get giddy just thinking about looking out the window in Indiana, or Illinois, or Michigan and seeing sky for miles and miles. It's a privileged position, and I would never complain. But grass is green.
I am a part-time midwesterner by circumstance not by birth but I feel like I understand the urge to get the hell out of the "dark fields of the Republic" (as Fitzgerald called them in the elegiac final grafs of The Great Gatsby) the first shot you can. It's the middle of things, the heartland, and all that, and you've never felt as peripheral to where the action is until you've spent New Year's Eve in midtown Manhattan. Here's the thing about America. New York (and Los Angeles and Chicago…) is made great not by the people who are born there and raised there but by the bridge-and-tunnel crowd who flock to Gotham the first chance they can. The locals are next to useless because they have no place they'd rather be and they're smug and unmotivated and most of all as parochial as hell. Lou Reed probably wouldn't have gotten electroshock if he'd grown up on the upper East Side instead of Long Island and that would be that. Would Patti Smith (and virtually all the acts piling up at CBGBs) have had the same hunger and drive if she hadn't grown up in Nowheresville, New Jersey? Even the Ramones, once hilariously described by a clueless Brit as "dead enders from Forest Hills," migrated from Queens, for chrissakes.
Here's another thing about America, as refracted through every mythical national narrative from the Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson to the Little House books to On the Road: There is ultimately no goddamn center to anything at all except for the one you make for yourself. When you're finally in the city, you assume that somewhere out there in that "vast obscurity beyond the city" (Fitzgerald again) is "the heart of it all" (to use one of Ohio's license-plate slogans). And when you're in the "country," or the suburbs, or some small town where you hear like I do right now the chirping of birds and the growl of three different lawn mowers, you just know that everything worth a damn is happening in cities like Chicago or LA or SF or NY or god help us even Washington, DC. Now more than ever, in an age of intensifying decentralization—of population density, of cultural power, of political power, you name it—the center doesn't hold, or at least not for long. It's like what Bob Dylan, the ultimate troubador not of the American road but of America as the road, said about happiness in an interview with AARP(!): "A lot of people say there is no happiness in this life and certainly there's no permanent happiness…It's like water — it slips through your hands. As long as there's suffering, you can only be so happy." The maestro of "the neverending tour" knows of what he speaks. In America, the tension is between the need to live in a town where the houses are known by the names of familes who lived there for generations (Fitzgerald yet again, Dylan's Minnesotan cousin) and that the only way to live a full life is to be constantly moving and reinventing yourself and where you live, of heading to another joint.
I was born in Brooklyn in 1963, during a period in which anybody who could was getting the hell out (it wasn't just whites but a rainbow coalition of urbanites lighting out not for the territory like Tom, Huck, and Jim but for the rapidly expanding suburbs of New Jersey, Westchester, and god help us all Long Island) and I thank my late parents every day for getting out. And so I grew up in good old Middletown, New Jersey, where you could see the rusting-out Coney Island parachute jump across the Raritan Bay from the ironically named Ideal Beach (sandwiched between a sewage-treatment plant and a World War II ammo dump, it was anything but). The parachute jump stood there like some sort of weird Ozymandias skeleton, a decaying reminder of a time when New York and even Brooklyn of all misbegotten destinations could generate great works and not just despair. You could even see the lights of New York from Sandy Hook, the northernmost ocean beach in the Garden State, at night time and to this day I experience something close to existential despair if I can't see the skyline of a major city from whatever beach I'm at.
The point being: My parents got the hell out of Dodge and I spent my adolescence longing to get back to Dodge, which I did, working and living in New York for a chunk of the mid to late 1980s until I'd finally had enough and then hit the road, first to Philadelphia (a phenomenal place with a bigger chip on its shoulder than the Mandlebaum boys in Seinfeld), then to Buffalo (a mix of internal exile and entry into a vast, untapped civilization), then to LA (where the sun set over the ocean, freaking my East Coast shit and the endless lights of San Fernando Valley prove that Americans can terraform even the most hostile planets), then to Huntsville, Texas (the death-chamber capital of the world, all in the shadow of a gloriously insane 70-foot tall statue of one of the great wandering heroes of U.S. history, Sam Houston), and then Ohio and DC and everywhere in between.
Which is a very roundabout way of saying: It's all flyover country, unless you make it into something else. And make it into something else yet again the day after that…and the day after that.