Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tulip Tree, Easthampton, Massachusetts, 2004.

I lived in Easthampton, a factory town just south of Northampton (and east of Westhampton and northeast of Southampton) for a few years while I was in graduate school. When I first moved to town, I was impressed by all the people riding bicycles; that seemed very evolved to me, until I realized they were riding bicycles because of DUIs (driving under the influence). Easthampton was always the poor cousin of Northampton, home of the prestigious girls' school Smith College (just kidding! Women's College!). Northampton had stately Neoclassical homes; Easthampton had old houses. Northampton has boutiques; Easthampton has funky shops. Northampton had cafes; Easthampton had breakfast diners. When I moved into a funky old house next to the 7/11, my rent for a one-bedroom was $500; four years later it had climbed to over $600. Northampton was at least $200 more per month. 

Just as artists began evacuating Manhattan for Brooklyn, Northampton artists began finding cheap lofts in Easthampton, and suddenly Easthampton was becoming "arty." Especially for younger folk, Easthampton was becoming a cool, funky (in the cool sense) place to be. An old factory was turned into expensive condos and artist studios, complete with shops, a natural foods store - even the Department of Motor Vehicles. There was a really nice, hip restaurant on the ground floor. An arts center sprang up on Union Street, just a few doors from the hardware store where I worked. There was a great cafe nearby, with good, organic coffee and the obligatory bad art. In short, Easthampton was becoming - hip! 

As always happens when artists make a funky place hip, it suddenly becomes hip and desirable, and the rents go up, and the poor artists move out and the undesireables (the bourgeoisie) move in. C'est la guerre. Just as I have always maintained that Springfield will never really be nice town, I have argued that Easthampton will never be another Northampton, despite what hip Easthampton boosters claim. Posers will always be posers. Besides, the coolest thing about living in Northampton is that you can afford it. Easthampton, despite its pretensions, will never be anything more than a factory town gone bad gone quasi-hip. 

Don't get me wrong: I have a soft spot in my heart for Easthampton, and I don't want to sound elitist. Working in the hardware store brought me in touch with my prejudices about working class people and their lives. I was the privileged hippie kid thumbing my nose at the "hardhats," the conservative purveyors of all things status quo. Somehow, I felt above it, and having to move from Northampton to Easthampton felt like a real step down. 

But I really loved working at the hardware store, with all its dusty drudgery, its banality, its pettiness. Despite the seeming degradation at times - after all, I had a Masters Degree, and was being barked at by some guy who could not use the English language properly to sweep the floor (which didn't really do much good, anyway) - I enjoyed the humility of working in an old hardware store. I was a not-so-glorified stock boy. I thought of it as an opportunity to work on my humility, and get over some of my prejudices, and be of service. It took a while, but slowly these salt-of-the-earth people (is that condescending?) began to trust me, and even like me. It took a few years, but even the "thems ain't no good"-hollering manager began to respect me. I had to tell him off before he did; he was a middle aged bully. 

I loved hearing the stories; I learned more about the checkered history of the town than any of those bourgeois posers. I got to know the regulars; the real estate guy who came in nearly every day to buy something or other, yukking it up with the guys, boasting. And there were the greasy tradesmen who always seemed to be searching for some arcane elbow or fitting or something that hadn't been manufactured since the seventies, and they almost always found it. I even liked lugging bags of grass seed from the filthy basement, going downstairs to find back stock of cleansers, light bulbs, nails, whatever needed to be replenished. I almost enjoyed going up to the 150-degree attic to get swimming pools and rakes to put out front. It was living history. I was working with people who were unpretentious, who had no Big Ideas (which could get a little tedious at times), who just wanted to make a living and go home to their families and live normal lives. It was kind of refreshing after living in Northampton, home of the self-consciously hip, the tragically hip, but, mostly - cooler-than-you hip. 

So how does this all relate to pictures of a tulip tree? There were some really beautiful things about Easthampton: the lake (though sullied by a huge American flag draped over it by long wires) in the center of town; the Mountain that loomed over the town; the tulip tree. I used to drive by the tree on my way into town (read: Northampton; I thought of Easthampton as my suburban home). I used to watch it slowly bud, come to fruition, happily display its gorgeous flowers for a week or two, and then commit them to the ground, where they would lie beautifully in a big circle before withering away into the earth - or get raked up and put in plastic bags and taken to the dump. Anyway, I finally stopped to take some photos; I just couldn't help myself. 

I have often thought about writing a novel about the hardware store, populated with guys named Eddie and Jimmy and Mac and Ernie; how could I even change their names, they were so perfect. And there is a kind of perfection to the hardware store, one of the few old hardware stores left, as they are systematically being beaten to death by the huge box stores like Home Despot. I always loved hardware stores. I remember as a kid... Listen to me, rambling on like an old timer, reminiscing. I'll stop for now, but don't worry; there will be more stories about the hardware store, right on this blog. I'll keep you posted. 

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