A Letter from Kansas
The term "disaster porn" has entered popular lexicon. But some disasters are not sexy. They're too slow and personal to be dramatic. A watershed goes foul. The neighbor struggles with cancer. A family business becomes unprofitable and closes. This pasture got bulldozed. A teenager becomes an alcoholic. One drought withers all the sprouts. The noise from the new highway makes a parkland unpleasant. A lady gets her purse snatched. There are too few butterflies. A lot of people are underemployed. The talented teacher retires. A spouse grows obese. The sound of gunshots in the night becomes more frequent. A nearby factory cheats a little on following environmental regulations, accidents happen. And then, one day, the whole landscape is ravaged.
And nobody noticed.
The central United States has become such a disaster.
I was born in Kansas City at the tail end of the baby boom. I grew up in Kansas and Colorado and came into adulthood in the town of Lawrence. I moved away in my mid twenties because I was thirsty to know the outside world that had been called up for me through my acquaintance and friendship with William Burroughs, who lived in Lawrence, and the amazing circle of people who visited him. Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Hunter Thompson, Patti Smith and John Giorno were among the steady stream of extraordinary individuals who came to town and mingled with us locals. Their presence inflamed my curiosity. I packed up and sailed to France on a coal freighter at the age of twenty-five in late 1985.
I lived in Paris for ten years, with short stints in Italy, San Francisco and a fair amount of wandering. In the late nineties, because I missed the creative energy and raucous mythology of The American Dream, I moved from Paris to Brooklyn. My time in New York City was typically challenging and rewarding, professionally and emotionally. I'll always love the place and think of it as home to the person I became there. But in 2008, feeling cooped up and stagnant in the economic crunch that hit me, I decided to take the leap and move to Kansas and near my family, especially my father.
I also hoped to arrange my life so I could get out into the land, a lot.
While I expected that I would experience a period of culture shock upon returning to the Midwest, I was not prepared for the extensive changes that confronted me.
You can't (if you're concerned about your health) eat the fish out of the many lakes and streams around here because they're contaminated with much heavy metal, dioxin, PCBs and toxic industrial agriculture/livestock run-off. (Back in the eighties I often caught and ate fish during the warm months -for fun and fresh fish.) There have been egregious spikes of the herbicide Atrazine found in the drinking water of many districts throughout the sate and the Midwest in general.
There is a company here in Lawrence, Kansas called Vangent. They specialize in "Talent Acquisition Systems" that help government and corporate institutions hire people. They're a big employer in our local economy. They have received numerous grants from the Department of Homeland Security. They managed the hiring of something like seventy thousand individuals over eight months to fill positions in the Transportation Safety Administration. I went to their place of business last fall to see if I might be able to get a job there. The campus is a high-security gulag and does not even have a public entrance. Computers robotically manage all of their communication with the outside world, especially anything related to "HR", or "Human Capital Management" as they call it. As I was looking for some kind of reception area, I saw the "designated smoking area" where employees can take a break: a bunch of sad-sack hollow shells silently puffing in depressed silence. My on-line application/resume submission got an automated rejection letter. Their computer is programmed to express courtesy.
I've made frequent work-related trips to the southeast section of the state, particularly to a town called Coffeyville, and seen such reckless toxic industrial waste it staggers the imagination. Whole cities and sections of cities have had to be evacuated (Treece, Kansas, Picher, Oklahoma, Galena and Coffeyville, Kansas). There is a refinery in Coffeyville that is owned by Goldamn Sachs, does $3 billion in sales every year, that dumps its waste straight into the Verdigris River and can be smelled throughout the town and, depending on the winds, from twenty miles away. A business called Safety Kleen (you can't make this up), owned by Viacom, dumped enormous quantities of dioxin and PCB into the regional ecosystem. No one has yet figured out how to clean up Safety Kleen's lethal mess. The populous of Coffeyville demonstrates a bizarre array of skin afflictions. The tap water tastes like something you would use to clean a rug.
I've sat at a kitchen table with young men who were snorting methamphetamine and calling Obama a nigger. My best friend's next-door neighbor -in a fairly nice part of town was busted for cooking meth in her garage. You don't very often see meth-heads walking the streets in this area, but twenty-five miles south of here and into Oklahoma, it's a common sight. Some cops in some towns are networked in with the methamphetamine industry. The guys who snorted meth in front of me filled me in about their relationships with their local P.D. and the cops' needs for supplemental income.
The courts are filled with sex-crime cases. (My ex-girlfriend from when I was in high school is now the chief assistant district attorney here who prosecutes these crimes.) A few years ago, before my ex-girlfriend was a prosecutor, one of my dearest friends was beaten nearly to death because he's gay, yet the police did not file charges in the case, since the attacker had lured my friend into the situation by promising, then momentarily engaging in sex. As if that somehow excused the violence.
Last year three college students died of alcohol poisoning or accidents caused by extreme over-consumption of alcohol. Alcohol toxicity among young people is one of the highest causes of hospital emergency visits, and peaks around sporting events and certain times during the academic year.
The sports department of the local university effectively runs this town.
More than half the population is overweight to obese. The incidence of diabetes has the health care system severely challenged.
The local franchise bookstore has a tiny closet sized science section and a giant lobby-sized religion section, between the celebrity biographies and diet books.
All but a few of the locally owned businesses here have been snuffed out by corporate franchises, which pay lousy wages and only the barest minimum local taxes. The local businesses that remain standing are beholden to corporate suppliers and mega-banks.
The state government is nearly bankrupt, cutting education and law enforcement budgets back even further.
In the past year the rolls of those accepting food assistance have grown by more than 50%. Officially, unemployment is around 5%. But when you look at the numbers of people who are demonstrably gainfully employed, actually paying taxes, it's only about 55-60% of the work-age population. So that's 35-40% of employable people who are unaccounted for. I, for instance, do not show up as unemployed according to the state criteria. I do show up as one of the people accepting food stamps, however, as of last September.
There are entire strip malls of commercial real estate that are completely vacant at the edge of most towns, and peppered throughout the region. More than a few of these malls are brand new, never occupied.
And then there are the housing developments... sprawling tinderbox agglomerations, most of them sparsely inhabited... many of the units featuring For Sale or Foreclosed signs...
Car dealerships (the ones that are still operating, Lawrence lost two of them this year) have signs offering a new kind of insurance: if you buy a car you can bring it back for a full refund if you lose your job in the first year.
When I hike in the countryside on the weekends, the bucolic quiet is frequently pierced by the sound of gunfire, people doing target practice or hunting with their many types of firearms. The gun stores are very low on ammunition since all the freaks around here (and there are lots of them) believe that Obama is planning a fascist takeover and the only remedy/defense will be an armed insurrection, so they are buying hundreds of thousands of rounds for their assault rifles.
None of this is exaggerated. What's more, it is sprawling, endemic and mostly unrelieved, with only slight variations for hundreds of miles, if not throughout the continent.
What can be hoped for?
Much of it can be resolved by simply stopping the destruction. The landscape has an unstoppable capacity for regeneration. If you don't mow your lawn, in a few short months you'll find yourself surrounded by jungle.
Once erosion stabilizes and wetlands renew themselves, they have a near miraculous capacity to filter and break down most toxins. Wildlife populations race into new niches, adapt quickly and thrive when relieved of the stresses of human encroachment.
Time has a lovely way of repurposing an oppressively glittering, chintzy franchise development into just about any vital form creativity can muster, once the corporate stranglehold is broken. It only takes a fraction of the energy and effort it took to create an isolating, soul-obliterating housing archipelago to turn it into an actual neighborhood where people can walk to the corner store and meet each other on common ground. No social problem can go unresolved for long when it is addressed on common ground, free from fear.
When was the last time you really felt like you were running short of dioxins, PCBs and the products manufactured that produce them. Never? Why not just stop making them? They take a mighty long time to break down and lose their toxicity, but they eventually will. -If we quit making new quantities of them.
All of these regenerative effects are so apparent, such common knowledge, that they have become clichés. What is stopping us from acknowledging the crisis?
My old friend, William Burroughs had a title for what is required to fix the mess: "Naked Lunch", -a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.
It can't happen too soon.