Sunday, December 10, 2006

Self-hating towns and their residents

Saturday Night Live had a very funny bit tonight co-starring guest host Annette Bening as part of a duo of self-hating local morning show hosts whose contempt for themselves was only exceeded by their contempt for their audience. Their show was called "I Hate This Town."

Memory is a funny thing, and you never know when a web of associations will spin away from something and veer off into a completely new direction, completely different in tone and emotional resonance. My flashback, inspired by the skit, took me back to a very different meditation on self-hatred -- a vivid essay I read a couple years ago, which intertwines the theme of urban decay and moral decay to fashion a powerful statement on self-loathing. It was called "Little Man in the Woods" and written by novelist Jaimy Gordon a professor of English at the University of Western Michigan in -- yes -- Kalamazoo.
I feel at home in a town that hates itself. After I left it, Baltimore came up in the world and in its own eyes, but for me it was too late. I gravitated to another city rich in self-disgust, Kalamazoo, whose burghers sneer at its mistakes and whose youth can't wait to get out, or say they can't. If they are still here in their thirties (they usually are), they slouch around in jeans and flannel shirts, smoking cigarettes and grinning sheepishly. They blame no one else for their troubles. I like them, these good-natured volunteers for their own defeat.

If you want to meet the living creatures of a place, naturalists say, go to the edge of it, the wet meadow between pond and forest, the strip of brush between the last yard and the first farm. And this is how I've happened to meet orphaned deer in Kalamazoo, on the overgrown property of the old Home for Boys--three of them, milling about in confusion near the still warm body of their mother, who had been hit by a car on Oakland Drive--or a puff adder on my jogging path, nervously spreading its faux cobra hood; or, in the bog called Kleinstuck, with his back up against the largest bald cypress in Michigan, a scared little man masturbating. The modus operandi of this man's pleasure was to make women joggers run screaming out of the woods at the sight of his naked penis. And I make him the hero of my story, for an exhibitionist is the very flower of self-hatred, its extruded, visible sexuality. In showing his sex to you, he asks not for your love, but for your loathing. Kleinstuck, his chosen backdrop in this case, is what is left of nature in Kalamazoo. A leftover scrap of nature in the city is all edge. In such a place, neither this nor that, or rather this but also that, self-hatred, like wildlife, feels at home.

No city can have always hated itself, you think; but once a town begins to have that habit of mind, it colors the water, rusty and styptic, like tannin in an old cask. A self-hating town like Kalamazoo will long ago have buried the living stream it built itself on. Kalamazoo sank the wild Arcadia, which must have run amok in the mud streets of the pioneer town once too often. And when, in the restoration-minded nineties, the downtown authority decided to let the creek out again, they confined it like a bear in a zoo to a concrete trench so deep you have to stand at the railing even to see it. For acts of faint heart like this, Kalamazoo has nothing good to say of itself. Why? It still has handsome old neighborhoods, natural ponds, so many big trees that, flying over in summer, you might not know a town was there. It has history: an old railhead once on every self-respecting hobo's list, it gave the world the Checker cab, the card game Flinch, the Upjohn "friable" pill and the Gibson guitar. Abraham Lincoln slept here.

Nevertheless, Kalamazoo prefers to hate itself. Dan Mancilla writes that at a wrestling match put on by some low-budget promotion in a gym near the airport, the visiting "heel" tried to heat up the sparse crowd by telling the folks they were all losers for living in Kalamazoo. The people nodded their heads serenely. Hating itself is second nature to Kalamazoo; it has forgotten its first nature, whatever that was. True, Checker closed, Gibson went south, Abraham Lincoln never came back, Flinch sold out to Milton Bradley. The great paper mills shut down one after another, leaving great Superfund sites behind them. Maybe all that closing, all that submissive coming down in the world, poisons the mind of a town forever, as the paper mills poisoned the river. Still, some towns love themselves. Grand Rapids, fifty miles north, thinks well of itself, though it sports the fishy brand name Amway on its Grand Hotel. Ann Arbor, one hundred miles east, loves itself, and what does it have over Kalamazoo? A thousand restaurants. Houses cost half as much in Kalamazoo. Those who sneer at themselves in Kalamazoo are sneering in mansions, while those who gloat in Ann Arbor gloat, like as not, in shacks.
Partly an overview of the history and sociology of Kalamazoo, partly a personal meditation on the self-loathing malaise she sees running through her adopted Rust Belt city like a buried stream of toxic waste, Gordon's essay is about reclaiming her space, the “bog called Kleinstuck” where she regularly goes running, from the sad and self-hating exhibitionist who lurks there. But why is it part of Gordon’s personal story that she feels at home in a town that hates itself? She never says, and the question gives her essay an added dimension of suggestive mystery.

Check it out. You can read the entire essay here on Gordon's homepage. It's also available in book form as one of the essays collected as part of In the Middle of the Middle West: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland.


ChinaLawBlog said...

Wow. Wow.

I am from Kalamazoo and I am doing a post right now on Gibson guitar moving so much of its operations to China and I am going to link back to this post.

I cannot believe how well this writer conveys Kalamazoo -- a place I do not hate, but love.

Thanks for the great post.

Madison Guy said...

Chinalawblog, thanks for linking to my post. Here’s a direct link to your Gibson post. It adds a whole other dimension to the story.