[My new friend Larry Baker writes novels. I don’t think I have it in me. I draw pictures of life, I don’t tell stories. Novels require focus and attention to details for weeks, months, or years. I don’t have that capacity and telling a story on top of it. If a novel is like a movie, I write more like episodic television. Still, I’d like to try to stretch myself, so this is the first “episode”, maybe, about a place I know.]
The town I grew up in, Chicopee, Massachusetts, is hard to describe to folks who don’t know it. During this time of year, with the trees in full foliage mode, it is hidden beneath all of the colors that fall can bring — flaming yellows and oranges, bright reds and dark purples all covering the town’s bleakness and left-over-from-the-industrial-revolution factories.
Perhaps it is toxic chemicals in the soil that creates leaves that look like this, but that is the legacy of Chicopee in one metaphor. People in town are creative and colorful and steadfast in their desire to be alive, even though the environment from which they grow their souls is toxic to start with and may kill them sooner rather than later. It used to be that when you came into Chicopee, there was a sign off the highway saying “Welcome to Chicopee, home of the world’s largest Kielbasa!”. For those of you who don’t know it, Kielbasa is a polish sausage usually folded into a “U” at the grocery store. It’s tasty, but greasy, full of fat and protein, so it stays with you for awhile. To come into town and see a sign saying “welcome to Chicopee, home of the world’s largest sausage!” always struck me as a bit humorous and odd, but there it was. About 20 years ago, the world’s largest sausage was stolen from the nearby five-state fair, where it was on display. I guess someone must have liked it. That’s also Chicopee.
Chicopee is, as you may have guessed, full of people. The people there tend to be very “take things in their stride”. The problem is that there are a lot of things to take in their stride, so they get a lot of practice. People who live in Chicopee now are the kind of people that aren’t leaving Chicopee any time soon. It’s not that they don’t have talent or dreams or goals and visions of a better life. They do. Chicopee people, though, have dreams like going to junior college, or being a hairdresser, or getting a really good job in a factory. Of course, the world now requires a four-year college degree, being a hairdresser is a scam, there are no good jobs, and there are no factories. Their talents lie in working hard, which they need all that Kielbasa for. They are good people, for the most part. There are criminals out there, but many people from Chicopee believe that whether you get caught depends on which side of the badge you are on. If working hard made your dreams come true, they’d all be rich, but none of them are. That’s why they’ll never leave Chicopee.
Chicopee people’s wounds are, more often than not, self-inflicted. It is Chicopee culture to make mistakes. Women in Chicopee do as they have for years: they have sex young and they get pregnant. Why do they have sex so young? Well, what else do they have to do? Besides, their boyfriends want it and there’s no arguing with that. Their boyfriends are the product of the last generation of women who had sex with a guy at a party and continued to drink throughout the pregnancy. Impulse control is an issue. They drink. Their boyfriends drink. What could go wrong there? Hmm… let’s see.
In the old days, this pattern existed, but — if you “grew up” emotionally and became a reasonable person, you could work your way out of it at the factory, maybe get a decent house, and raise another generation of generally good people who made mistakes. The pattern is still there, the factories are not, so that “pull yourself out of it” part is gone now.
Costs have gone up, like every place else, but the ability to meet the cost hasn’t. I don’t know that many people who have jobs which pay more than minimum wage, but I heard recently that an apartment can cost $1500 a month now. At about $8.00 per hour, that’s 42 hours per week just to have a place to stay. Food and clothing costs are on top of that, so options are fairly limited: work 50 or 60 hours per week and never see your family, so you can’t raise your kids, have both parents working, or share the rent with someone else. This “blending” of families is fairly common in Chicopee, or used to be. The drama that ensues out of this living arrangement is also fairly common in Chicopee. DCF, (child protective services in Massachusetts) doesn’t like it when your kids call the latest partner “dad”, but that’s what he is in some form or another. They see it as a “boundary violation”, but Chicopee families see it as a necessity.
This latest generation has found work appropriate for their education level and ability, work which they think will lead them out of poverty — selling, transporting, and making drugs. Did I mention there were parties and impulse problems here? Somebody’s got to supply them. Local industries, as they always have, feed off of the needs of people they have in their community. It’s just that the local industries have changed. This latest generation, though, are transplants from the nearby town of Holyoke, which used to be the poorest, most violent city around. When those people decided they’d had enough of the violence in Holyoke, they moved to Chicopee. Still, Chicopee people are stubborn and — as I said — generally good people, so they haven’t accepted the new “industry” in their hearts. It’s a job (unless it’s an addiction) and if something better came along, they’d take that. But there isn’t anything different coming for the foreseeable future — and if it is, it’ll be high tech, which they are not trained for.
What can be done for a people like this? There are Republican solutions (make better personal choices — don’t have sex or drink and do drugs) and Democratic solutions (spend money on education, bring in job training, give these people something to do like having playgrounds) but no one has the only answer. Things need to change from within and from without.
People in this Kielbasa capital watch the world go by and they are not particularly impressed. “New” isn’t right and “Old” no longer works. Some give up, some go crazy or depressed, some move to the South but that takes vision and they don’t have much of that either, so most take the first few options. There are lots of stories here, maybe I’ll tell some of them. After all, they’re not going anywhere.