Habits of Despair

Two hours from Detroit, the recession has played out with a vengeance

A spicy chicken burger, a small bacon cheese burger, and a large order of fries with a chocolate malt to dip them in…

It had been over a year since I had been home, and all I thought I had missed was local food. The deep-fried feast, it’s wax paper place settings, and the apathy in which patrons regarded this particular restaurant made it clear that this place rarely saw new faces. It seemed an ideal place to re-introduce my body into the greater mid-western culture. I had been living in Vienna for the last two years on modest means and was still using the original notches in my belt, I had some catching up to do.

Pulling off Interstate 75 toward home, it was also the only place open that late. Part bar, part restaurant, part truck stop, a typical service stop that serves all purposes to its clientele. Taking simple pleasure in all those English-speaking voices around, I began to hear first hand opinions on how the recession had effected the area. The recession that I had essentially missed.

A large man sat at the bar as if there were sixteen wheels underneath him. From behind his beard, he barked on about his life and his truck, and made sure everyone got their share of his two cents….

“The CNN keeps jabberin on Wall Street: Why we bail’n ‘em out? I don’t wanna bail out a suit that can’t handle his money.”…

“I wish Mr. 0 Hussein Obama would give me a bail out,” chimed in another. “In fact I wish he’d give me two bail outs, one to shit in and one to cover it up with.”…

“Yeah! And why they worried about our main streets? Every main street in my America moved to them highway exits 20 years ago.”

Main street was never much to speak of in my home town of Gilboa, Ohio.  After a cholera epidemic in 1849 and several large fires that repeatedly decimated the wood-frame houses, the town was stunted early in its growth, never growing large enough to need more than one blinking red stoplight. More recently, in 2003, our school was deemed no longer fit for occupation under the no child left behind act and was torn down, a new school was built in the next town over.

Today, Stinky’s Country Well, with it’s 10 foot fiberglass bull in the parking lot, and the old stone quarry, now used for scuba diving, have been a source of pride for the town’s 200 some residents. With Detroit only two hours to the north, the recession seemed to have played out in our back yard.

But to most of population of Gilboa, this was nothing new.

While larger surrounding towns take big hits from any new recession, many of the smaller ones remain unchanged, pockmarks left from infections past. While the current national recession may compare to the deepest economic contractions of the last fifty years, regionally it was the recessions of 1974 and 1981 that left the biggest scars.

In these previous recessions, the average pace of job decline in North-Western Ohio was more than five times the national average. In 1982, the region bounced back as gas became cheaper and consumers returned to Detroit. That seems an unlikely solution to the current issues, though Gilboa’s aging population looks ahead optimistically.

“Corn will always grow in the summer,” a motto I heard repeated several times. Although the grey skies and endlessly flat, snow covered fields did little to engender such warm feelings.

I can’t say that I was shocked to see empty storefronts and sparsely stocked auto-dealerships; but somehow the reality of it feels brutal nonetheless.  But a local analogy shed’s light into a broader consensus about financial hardship and failing businesses:

A man cannot grow the same plant in the same field for too long, the locals say. As the years go by, the harvest will become smaller and smaller, as the plant strips the soil of the nutrients it requires.

“When the corn won’t grow anymore, you have to plant beans.”

Detroit may have been labeled too big to fail, but some claim it maybe to big to change.

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