Walking on the crust

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Geez, Ben, has it really been nine years since you checked out? It was late January, I remember that. Three or four days after getting the news, I was still consumed by violent fantasies of revenge against that unrepentant son of a bitch who got you hooked. I needed someone to blame, I guess. I went out for a walk around the mountain, which was a bit of a struggle due to a deep snowpack with an icy crust that wasn’t quite strong enough to hold me up. So I lurched along, trying hard not to slip and falling through at unpredictable intervals. I made a bet with myself: “If I can take twenty steps on top of the crust without breaking through, I’ll stop fantasizing about violence and try to forgive.” And what do you know? Twenty steps later, I still hadn’t broken through! So I amended it: “If I can make it all the way down this hill on top of the ice…” Damn, how’d I get so light all of a sudden? It was spooky! Finally, I said, “If I can make it all the way back to the house” – and I almost did. I guess it had just been a matter of concentration all along. I could see the smoke from my chimney rising straight up, lighter than the air.

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You know, it’s funny – I’ve never actually sat on your bench. Well, it’s all wrong, the way they installed it facing away from the street. Probably when the plan for downtown benches was first put forth, someone in the Borough Council objected that they might become an inducement for the Wrong Element to loiter and scare people, so they compromised by putting in benches that no one would actually want to sit on for more than a few minutes – shoppers resting their weary arms, someone taking an important call. But your family did well in putting your name on the closest bench to the record store. You know, they have a new bus stop across the street, now. Big new library, too. And dude, right across from your bench, someone just opened a Jamaican restaurant! I heard it’s good.

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The kids still sneak down into “Little New York” to drink. They think they’re gangbangers now – it’s pretty funny. You should see them walking along with their pants down around their knees, all rebelling in step. I’m sure it’s no easier than it ever was to grow up blue-collar in State College, PA. But these days, as every place gets more and more like every other place, probably the only towns that aren’t full of fake-ass shit are the ones that are just about dead. And State College is booming.

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There’ve been a hell of a lot of changes in town and on campus in the last nine years, but one thing hasn’t changed: no matter where you go, in the borough or the surrounding townships, someone is always tearing something down or putting something up.

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“Happy Valley” may have started as a tourism promotion campaign, but then people started to believe it. Penn State even runs its own retirement community now on a hill above the bypass. Who wouldn’t want to grow old on the frontiers of utopia? Somewhere in State College, there’s always a light left burning in broad daylight to reassure us that progress is on the way.

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Proof that at least some people in State College can laugh at themselves: the State College Centennial Pigs. I guess you’d remember this. The official story is that the sculpture was based on an historic photo of a sow nursing two piglets right in the middle of College Avenue, but with the Penn State campus right across the street, the symbolism is pretty hard to miss.

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The shoppes and restaurants downtown come and go, seemingly unaffected by all the new box stores on the outskirts. I’ve never seen so many upscale clothing stores and hair salons in one place. You can actually buy pre-ripped jeans now – imagine that! Instant authenticity! And there are more pizza places, coffee shops and tanning salons than ever. The owner of one tanning place just got busted for making secret videos of his patrons. Sick bastard.

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There are not one, but two Wal-Mart Supercenters now, one for each end of town. A group of about forty local activists staged a protest outside of one of them last month, holding signs and handing out literature. The funny thing is, according to the article in the paper, nobody really gave them a hard time, and some people were downright friendly. Does anyone actually enjoy shopping in a place like that? Go into Wal-Mart and all you hear is stressed-out parents yelling at their kids. I think being greeted at the door by people who are paid to act cheerful sets the tone – the whole place stinks of humiliation.

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Bouyed up the university, State College is still bubble-land surrounded by Bubba-land, metastasizing suburbs with no urban core, its bounty untroubled by the occasional small mutiny.

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Anyway, I don’t want to bore you. I saw your bench sitting there empty next to the record store and thought I’d just say Hey.
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Please note that the last photo is not a double exposure, simply a shot of reflections in a store window to the inside of which a poster of John Coltrane had been taped.

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