Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Place to Start Again

[Media prompt] “The only way of addressing [the white working class’s] plight is a form of political hospice care,” [George Mason University professor Justin Gest] said. “These are communities that are on the paths to death. And the question is: How can we make that as comfortable as possible?”


A Place to Start Again

Although he had no inkling of it, John Caulfield’s decision to shutter his bakery set in motion a sequence of events that were irreversible and catastrophic for the town of Carson, Nebraska. His was not the last business to close – Tilley’s General Store was still open three days a week, and a man could find the Shoot First Bar and Grill open most nights – but the town was an emaciated version of its glory days. When he heard, Jim Moffatt begged John to try and hang on, and afterwards some took this as proof that the mayor had been forewarned of what was to come. But that was just fear talking. Mayor Moffatt knew as little as anyone else in town until the first busload of refugees turned up.

At its peak, on any given Thanksgiving, when families spread over the country reunited around good food on the table, Carson had a population of 1,574. On the day a pencil pusher in Washington greenlit the Gest Rural Renewal Program for what to him was just another Midwestern dot on a map, it was scarcely one-tenth of that. Farmhouses lay vacant. The white lines between parking bays on Main Street had started to fade away. Storefront windows got so you couldn’t see through them, then were broken and stayed that way.

The Gest Program’s algorithm was complex, rating a thousand variables of rural decay, from the speed of population decline and the ratio of births to deaths, through to analysing household purchases and credit card debt, to livestock carrying capacity to acreage cropped. Every town was different. In some, the baker closing his doors was not the point of foreclosure. Was not even close to it. Sometimes it took more. Some towns were foreclosed as soon as cropped land dropped below a specific threshold. In others, it was the lack of machinery repairs and pig feed shipments. This was not renewal by numbers; it was a sophisticated science, utilising some of the keenest minds in America.

It was a clear day in October, the kind of day that made Mayor Moffatt wonder if there wasn’t still a chance for things to turn around. The long straight line in the distance where the sky and prairie met was as clear as the line his tuck hood made against the blacktop on which he drove. But when he eased his foot off as he reached the town limits, it hit him again that Carson was doomed. He pulled up outside of Tilley’s, and walked into the darkness to kill time with Mrs. Tilley. By silent consent they avoided mentioning the town’s demise. As the conversation flagged, they heard the roar of a large engine working its way down through the gears, idling to a halt just outside the store.

Mayor Moffatt smelled it before he saw it, a converted Greyhound with busted windows and a stench worse than a rig hauling pigs in summer. Mrs. Tilley covered her nose, and together they walked out onto the road. By then, the first of the passengers were materialising onto the pavement, like caged animals seeing the wild for the first time.

“I hope these boys have money,” said the mayor.

That’s when he saw a UN four-wheel drive, a white Toyota with blue lettering on the doors, pull in behind the bus. Two men in suits emerged, a marine carrying a weapon close behind.

“Mayor Moffatt?” one of them called.

“How the hell did he know that?” said the mayor, taking his hat off and scratching his head.

“Good, good,” said the taller of the two men. “There’s a convoy of military trucks about a mile behind us, and we’ll be collecting you town folk over the course of the next six hours and shipping out before sun down.”

The mayor spat in the dust. “Like hell you will,” he said.

“And we’ll be settling refugees here, eight hundred and change all told,” the man said, ignoring the mayor and smiling.

A black man with yellow sclera looked at the mayor and Mrs. Tilley. 

“You white people have to leave,” he said in thick English.

The man in the suit nodded in agreement, turning around to look at the first of the army transports as they arrived. 

“Let’s make this comfortable as possible,” he said. 

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