The Soviet Union had these state-run neighborhood grocery stores called “Produkty.” “Products” was an accurate enough translation, although “Goods” or “Groceries” is probably a bit more precise. A number of these stores were still around in Moscow and St. Petersburg when I went to Russia on a summer immersion program in 2002. The most memorable one, a bit south of Nevsky Prospekt and a mile or two from the waterfront in central St. Petersburg, was staffed by a dead ringer for The Rock who told me two or three times, roughly verbatim, “All of our vegetables are disgusting. Just look at them.” I’d been sent out to buy zucchini for a crappy pasta dish that some girls in the exchange group wanted to make. When I tried to describe what I was looking for in Russian (like a cucumber, called “zucchini” in English), another customer told me that he knew exactly what I meant in English but needed to call a friend for the Russian translation. When this dude got his buddy on the phone and translated my question into a less tangled and childish Russian, the Rock of Russia inevitably told us that he did not in fact have zucchini in stock. Looking at me like I was becoming a greater fool every minute I spent in his store, he pointed at his produce again and reminded me that–who could even guess it?–it was all disgusting. The Rock of Russia was right on all counts.
This is a true story, by the way, as true as a story about Russia can be, I suppose (and the Western press assumes). Another story I heard about Russia, from a doddering emeritus professor of the humanities, was that Mushrooms are the Soul of Russia: absolute bullshit, no idea how he came up with that, according to one of our local language instructors. Less full of it but no less confused was the old lady housesitter who answered the phone when one of the guys in our group tried to reach his parents in Massachusetts, on around June 1: “Who’s this? You’re where? Where? Oh, Russia! How’s winter?”
By most accounts, Soviet-era Produkty stores sucked ass. Worse, entire city sectors, even entire cities and neighborhoods, had no alternatives to these shitty stores and their shitty product lines. In the worst times, customers had to spend hours waiting in line just to get into these dumps and see if they were selling anything that was worth buying. These stores were classic Soviet state enterprises in all the worst customer-service senses. The only workaround was whatever local barter and black markets had arisen in the shadow of the totalitarian state. These emergent markets were said to be much more robust in Poland, the radish of the Eastern Bloc (“red on the outside, white on the inside,” snork snork) than in State-Patriotic Mother Russia. So, yeah, shopping sucked.
We have nothing like that back in the US, back in the USSA. It’s not as if we have a car-owning bourgeois population that shops at properly stocked and managed Kroger stores with tenuous connections to the bus system while Mike Brown huffs it through a desolate urban food desert to the neighborhood QuikTrip. Don’t be a silly comrade. We have markets, bitch. And we couldn’t possibly have the highest incarceration rate on the face of the earth, aside from an obscure juntastic oddity or two, or a notoriously violent prison system teeming with convicts whose interrogations and trials featured procedural irregularities.
Nah, that’s crazy. So is the driveway plowing market where my parents live. For an area supposedly populated by a flinty, hardy, independent stock of country people who don’t like meddlers telling them what to do, it’s a sorry-ass excuse for a free market. It’s actually a hillbilly cartel, and the hillbillies who plow driveways in my parents’ part of the county seem to be a bunch of derelict shitheads who should never have been licensed to drive. They do sloppy, incomplete work and extensive damage to the graveling, which would cost thousands of dollars to have professionally repaired. Much worse, they drive like bats out of hell: I’ve seen them rounding narrow blind curves at forty miles an hour in their heavy-duty work trucks. It’s a miracle that they don’t regularly cause fatal accidents. These guys are the single readily identified threat to driver and pedestrian safety on my parents’ road. They often scare the hell out of my dad.
The side-by-side contrast with the comprehensive state could hardly be starker. My parents’ road is plowed and treated by the county highway department, which rarely allows more than a few inches of snow to accumulate. County trucks usually come through several times before the hillbilly cartel shows up to do $40 (sic) of work for my parents in all of five minutes. The county trucks are a foot or two wider than the hillbilly plow trucks and three or four times the unladen weight, but they’re always driven at safe, cautious speeds. Similarly, I’ve never seen state troopers or sheriff’s deputies go hot-dogging down my parents’ road. There are sections where too slow is a hell of a lot better than too fast. Some of us don’t want to be struck dead by lunatics.
The Nor’easter that’s coming in overnight is expected to limit travel pretty severely and make roads impassible in its heaviest hours. If the highway crews can’t keep up with it, it will be due to the sheer force of the storm, not official incompetence. Having spent my teens and early twenties in Southern Pennsylvania, I appreciate governments that don’t stick their thumbs up their asses all day and let critical infrastructure get shut down every time it snows. The fuckjobs at PennDOT were always blaming the freeze-thaw cycle for the poor condition of roads that they didn’t feel like maintaining. New Jersey had the same freeze-thaw cycle, and mysteriously, its highways weren’t such shit. I’ve seen enough of NYSDOT and the county crews up here to be confident that they aren’t jackoffs.
This doesn’t excuse the private plow cartel. They’ve left my parents snowed in for hours after eight-inch snowfalls that didn’t come close to producing whiteouts. It doesn’t excuse my parents for putting up with that bullshit, either. They’ve been stuck in their house solely on account of the last two hundred feet leading up to their garage. They don’t have a snowblower because that would be expensive and shit. They don’t have an old truck with a plow on standby because that would be too rednecky. They don’t try to get their neighbor from across the street, a responsible and upstanding local redneck with whom they’ve always gotten along wonderfully, to plow or sand their drive when the regular plowboys drop the ball. He jumped in and sanded the base of the drive from the bed of his truck free of charge when I ran into him a few years ago, and he’s definitely more responsible than whoever the hell my grandmother’s boyfriend’s surviving cousin is dispatching. If the neighbor and people he saw fit to hire were running the local plow business, none of this horseshit would be happening. Instead, anyone in the neighborhood who wants to hire private plowing help is stuck doing business with these reckless assholes.
It’s scandalous. As far as I know, it’s true, i.e., it isn’t some local whopper that my parents were too credulous to disbelieve. They’ve heard corroborating details from people who seem perfectly honest and are not Cousin Gigolo’s known plowkin. I shouldn’t be that harsh on Cousin Gigolo: he’s just a low-rent sugar baby, not the holder of a semiformal monopoly franchise on gigolo services in his town.
What keeps upsetting me is that every time something around here just doesn’t fucking work, my parents act like it’s local color, and if anything about it isn’t aesthetically hideous, they gush about how it’s so “cute.” Why in hell should I give a shit about the cuteness of the Saratoga train depot? It’s all right, and I don’t want some megalomaniac going full Robert Moses on it, but for fuck’s sake, it has only two scheduled Amtrak trains a day each direction, and at least half the southbound runs have shit for connections beyond New York City. It’s okay for travelers who don’t mind getting in at midnight or half past three in the morning. I don’t see a way to make that work.
My parents are even more captivated by the dumbass Polar Express excursions that the Adirondack and North Creek Railroad runs seasonally around Christmas, which have the depot mobbed with children in pajamas around the time the northbound Ethan Allen Express arrives. Even if I enjoyed children in bulk, I’d be offended to listen to gushing about how a station that is lucky to secure public appropriations for once-daily increases in intercity passenger rail service every twenty years has no trouble lining up private funding for vanity runs to take brat packs up the Hudson in pitch dark so they can pretend that they’re on a magical mystery train to the fucking North Pole. The fact that these twits are running a real train based on a fictional train is crazy enough; that they’re doing it in a region where the public transit varies from mediocre to useless to nonexistent is truly pathetic.
A few years ago, my mom carried on about an item in the local free rag out of Lake George that mentioned a couple of old ladies who had traveled from North Creek to Saratoga on a sightseeing run and connected to Amtrak, or vice versa, the idea being that the A&NR was a common carrier now. Of course it fucking wasn’t. I’ve driven across the tracks recently, and they look like they haven’t been used in months. I’m glad that the tracks are finally back in service and that the line hasn’t been irrevocably converted into a rail trail (irrevocably not for technical reasons, but on account of nimbies), but if it were viable as an Amtrak connecting service, I’d be the first to learn of it. I hate to have to drive everywhere, so I stay abreast of transit news. There isn’t much of it in the North Country.
This stuff wouldn’t be bothering me so if I were modestly independent of my parents when I’m staying up here. Instead, we’re codependent. There is something very wrong with their objections to my getting a cheap clunker for my own use up here and to my getting rental cars. They’ve become visibly offended when I’ve complained about being marooned at their place because I’m dependent on them to borrow a car or get a ride. There’s inevitably excessive emotional drama when my mom comes along to drop me off at the train station. I do not like her acting like I’m going off to war when I’m actually going off to Atlantic City for three days. It’s needlessly upsetting. In the past, she has gotten so clingy with me on the platform that she’s inadvertently cut off other passengers in her frantic efforts to walk all the way up to the train door; these incidents upset and alarmed me enough that I’ve started explicitly telling her to stay away from the train while I’m boarding (i.e., allow me to board like a grown-ass adult). A car of my own, either rented or owned, would allow me to stop taking part in public performances of Phil Collins musicals, but my parents are broken records whenever I suggest anything of the sort. They always freak out over minor logistical details that I’d have no difficulty solving. Where would I park it? Well, shit, do I look like I’d be unable to find a storage facility? I’m already renting two walk-in storage units in two states. I’m convinced that they’ll be absolutely useless in any effort I make to register a car in New York State (say, by agreeing to be co-owners of record), just as they have never agreed to cosign on a rental car for me or cosign on a credit card for me so that I can readily qualify for a rental car on my own. I have no objection on principle to bringing a bike up here for my personal transportation, assuming that I can somehow bicycling work over the distances involved, but I’d be surprised if my mom didn’t get all worked up over my bike cluttering up their garage.
One obvious solution would be for me to get a job in the area. But here’s the bizarre thing: I’ve suggested it to my dad two or three times, and maybe to my mom as well, and even though I’m the unemployed failson here, my dad has consistently turned discussions of my getting a job nearby into utterly fruitless and ultimately demoralizing quagmires. He insists on knowing what I want to do for my own optimal happiness and self-actualization, which he infers would be more likely to happen in California. Funny thing, being holed up against my own stated wishes in their retirement house for weeks on end and stress-eating my way through Lent ain’t it, but the truth is that I’d be flat broke if I’d been left to my own wits, and I’m the only child of two aging parents who insist on isolating themselves in the middle of nowhere, hundreds to thousands of miles from anywhere that I’ve chosen on my own to live or work. My parents have repeatedly expressed concerns with or frank opposition to a number of the goals I’ve expressed, including getting work back east where I can visit them more frequently, flying in from the West Coast every few weeks if they’re holing up in the Adirondacks, maintaining California legal residency at all costs, and not being abused by Joe Dirtbag.
The strictly fiscal impediments to some of these goals aren’t as daunting as they sound: for example, I suspect that I could simultaneously rent cheap apartments in marginal but decent parts of California and New York or Pennsylvania for less than a thousand dollars a month combined. The obstacles would be finding willing landlords who don’t insist on prohibitive employment, credit, and reference checks. The sociological aspects of socioeconomics can easily overwhelm the strictly economic aspects. The amount of trust and sociability needed to make couchsurfing and other cohousing arrangements work, for example, is ever so much higher than advertised. Without a doubt it’s safer for me to get a walk-up apartment of my own in any reasonably peaceable distressed housing market in Upstate New York than to trust my safety and welfare to strangers I met over the internet. Honestly, it’s safer for me to sleep in a car at a rest area than to shack up with randos I haven’t had time to vet.
I don’t think I have a prayer of convincing my parents that, given my weird personal circumstances whose development they’ve encouraged, it would not be frivolous of me to rent an apartment on each coast. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent horrifying amounts of money on cheap lodging, some of it seedy or even dangerous, or that I’m the one who has routinely slept in cars or on trains to make ends meet and they’re the ones who spent $420,000 on a retirement house in a remote area where they had no friends. The sheer irrationality that I come up against is stunning. I’m not sure it would make a difference if I put together a spreadsheet showing exactly what cost savings I expected to achieve, line by line, by getting apartments; if they subconsciously found anything eccentric about it, or possibly even anything low-class, they’d probably sandbag it with irrational objections.
I’ve already gone through a period of years during which my parents repeatedly insisted that a relative whom I was explicitly accusing of specific abusive acts was ontologically incapable of abusing me; just in the past week or so I’ve had reason to believe that my parents are starting to provide Joe Dirtbag with cover again. My guess is that I’m really pretty stable and clearheaded for someone who has had a family clusterfuck like that lurking in the background for years on end and coming to a head every few months. Anyone who isn’t insensate would find it disruptive. My parents seemingly can’t or won’t let go of a vicarious desire for evidence that things are fine between me and Joe Dirtbag. This desire overpowers whatever interest they have in letting me protect myself from a man who I swear has serially abused and preyed upon me, so they distort and elide what they must to pretend that he isn’t really that bad whenever I am not actively promising to have law enforcement bar the door against him the next time he tries to come back into my life.
At the same time I’ve been dealing with the bizarre situation of being recurrently homeless but unable to discuss my homelessness frankly, no matter how calm and matter-of-fact I am, without getting the upper middle class completely bent out of shape. For two or three years I’ve consistently found it less distressing to be homeless than my parents, their friends, and some of my own friends visibly find it to hear that I’m homeless. It’s no wonder that homeless outreach services in this country are so terrible. Who the hell wants to be humiliated to walking death by emotionally overwrought concern trolls or religious busybodies for two hots and a cot? The most absurd outburst of this sentiment that I’ve encountered was from the family friend who asked me, almost verbatim, why I didn’t go to medical school instead of being homeless and worrying my mom. I don’t give a shit who you are or how sensible you usually are; to say a thing like that is profoundly and undeniably insane. Housing crises are not fixed by going back to school; they are fixed with adequate housing under tolerable conditions, full stop. The broad socioeconomic conditions of wasting a large chunk of my early thirties in my parents’ retirement house at incalculable cost to my short- and long-term health are less tolerable than I’d hope to have in my life, but beyond a certain threshold, which is never as distant as I’d hope, the alternative looks to be destitution on skid row. Or in rural terms, the Pot-o-Shit Friend Option. There’s no need to be that loser to live around that loser.
Keep this in mind, too: I’ve been watching people who own real estate in Palo Alto have emotional meltdowns because their children are failures as conduits of vicarious success. That statement’s so White, it’ll cause snow blindness. God help us, it’s also true. It’s probably a logical end result of a community too squeamish to buy its disappointing children sinecures and too craven to challenge the yuppie project. As I’ve said before, as failspawn we could be living in Lillooet crack dens, while in point of fact some of us hardly even drink. Palo Alto is a great place to neurotically compare the regression of one’s special snowflake towards the mean to several thousand overachieving Chinamen. It’s madness.
That sounds like something Rob Ford might have said. The big guy wasn’t woke when he put the coke into Etobicoke, but I maintain that he was a strong contender for the most effective cultural pluralist Toronto has seen in living memory. Bougie doesn’t usually do that kind of pluralism. It’s too permissive. It doesn’t give young’uns enough structure to duly impress their parents with great academic and professional success. Sino-Indian tiger parenting is surely a better model.
The adult decisions I’ve had to make are not the ones I expected. It never occurred to me what I’d be willing to do to keep a roof over my head until the projectile domestic acrimony between Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew mushroomed into an implicit but clear threat of sudden domestic violence against me. After that, I consciously admitted to myself that I’d already been putting up with horrific emotional abuse for weeks and months at a time over a period of years precisely in the hope of keeping myself off the streets. If Dickinson College tried to prepare its students for this possibility, it might find its donations being diverted, say, to long-term housing funds, and maybe its tuition money as well. It would be much better to preserve and abundantly refill this rice bowl by preaching abiding faith in gods of great providence. I suppose it’s a more pleasant story, unless one is savvy enough to tell that it’s dangerous bullshit or until one’s ass is thrown out into much more predatory and chaotic communities.
Realize that it is practically impossible for me to discuss any of this with most of my relatives or with many of my friends. I stumbled onto the wrong side of a gaping cultural divide that no one wants to bridge.