Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond
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An Open Letter to the State of Pennsylvania.
BY B.R. COHEN
Listen Pennsylvania, I don’t care how rectangular you are, we’ve got issues. I don’t want to make this weird or anything, we’ve got to live together and all, so let me say right out that, no, I’m not writing with some crack about Scranton (a lovely place) or Rick Santorum or your obsession with fracking or your so-claimed invention of the word “jagoff” or your asinine alcohol laws, it’s not about those. I’ll let those be.
But I cannot, cannot abide your roads. The highways, the turnpikes, the tolls, would it kill you to clean up a little? You’ve got roadkill lying there for weeks, maybe months. Hire a pick-up crew, please, even part-time would help. And all those papers, bags, the trash clumped along every single roadside? That trash-blown look is kind of dated. It’s like something from the ‘80s, like feathered hair. I think you can do better.
Lord help me too, you’ve got billboards like I don’t know what, telling me how great coal is and how far Hershey Park is and what hand-crafted Pennsylvania Dutch furniture awaits but three exits away. I mean, I get it, there’s stuff to advertise. But it’s unseemly, these billboards, it’s tacky, you know? That, plus there’re so many road signs telling me so many things, you’re daring me to focus on all that signage and give up watching the road. Yes, I will STOP AHEAD/TURN LEFT ONLY/NO EXIT/DEAD END/STAY OUT/CONSTRUCTION/REDUCED SPEED. Ever occurred to you that you need all those signs to keep the roads safe because you have so many signs making the roads unsafe from all the driver-readers? Can you dial it down a bit? I think that’s what I’m asking here. Just dial it down.
I respect your industrial heritage, so I understand that a lot of these roads and a lot of those ads are reflecting a once mighty commonwealth. I know about the pioneering ways of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I understand the steel belt and the slate belt. I saw that early-season Mad Men episode where they’re pitching the “Bethlehem Steel Built America” ad campaign, or something like that. But you can’t hold on to that forever. I think it was Charles Grodin in Seems Like Old Times who told us if you can’t leave the past behind you can’t live in the present. I may have that wrong, but you get the point.
There’s another thing, and I’m not sure the best way to say this. Your stores? The store names? Are you for real? Drinky’s the bar? Fuglees the pub? Woody’s? Are you kidding me with this shit? Chubby’s? You know how when the high school principal thinks it’s a fun idea to let the students pick the new mascot and they end up voting in Chesty McDinkle the Bikinied Beer Bong? And the bylaws or whatever say your hands are tied and so you have to let it stand? Is that what happened? I’m new here, let me be clear, so maybe there was some decision by a former councilman who’s since been voted out or something. What do I know. But that’s my best guess.
Though I’m seeing a theme develop, where that teenage level of propriety kind of rules, like with place names too. Butztown, Hellertown, Hecktown. These are your towns? California would’ve renamed the shit out of those a long time ago. I know New York already did. Let me be clear that I respect the heritage angle, and I know the names must be remnants of old Germanic influence. All I’m saying is, you add it all together and it’s not painting a good picture.
Hey, you think that explains why everyone here denies being from “here”? Have you noticed that too? I mean, when you move to a new place it’s pretty standard fare that bus stop and water cooler chitchat will include, “Where did you move from? How are you finding it here?” True to form, we’ve had fifty-eleven conversations just like that. But here’s the thing. If I just made it clear that we moved here from several hundred miles away, from several states away, and I return the conversational favor to ask “are you from here?” or “did you move here recently too?”, then you can’t say, “No, we’re not from here either” only to then say you’re actually from the town seven miles down the road. The town seven miles down the road, let’s be clear, is HERE. That’s what “here” means, that counts as this place. I know, you want to disown Drinky’s too, but that’s not the way to do it. Come on.
Sometimes I think you’re basing your identity on the quirks, that it’s a point of pride how difficult it is to get a driver’s license and insurance, going to four separate offices to get the job done; that it’s a three-day block of time to navigate the electricity, and cable, and phone, and internet, and water, and sewer, and trash; that even though after two days we dubbed our new hometown the “dental district” because every single corner had a dentist’s office, let me see you try to make an appointment only to find it’s seven months before you can fit us in? What the? Is it like how people in Seattle take it as a point of pride that the weather is horrible or, or New Yorkers think its charming to be so clueless about the entirety of the country, Saul Steinberg cartoon map and all? But if your identity is based on how far you are from acceptable norms of behavior, then you’re just a teenager or a hipster. It’s fun for a phase, but you can’t live your life that way. It should pass. Eventually you grow up. I thought.
I wasn’t sure if I should include this too, but why not, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. New Jersey. It’s your neighbor. It has a reputation. Deservedly or not, let me just put that out there. People make assumptions when they move to a state that borders New Jersey. I want to be the better man and admit I had some of those assumptions. I’ll admit too, since we live right on that border, I’ve been doing a lot of cross-state comparisons. There’s been a visible increase in public sweatpants wearing since we moved here, that’s indisputable. There’s an unbearable roster of Italian restaurants too. And who doesn’t love Italian food? But how can pizza be so bad at so many places? Did you know you’ve got a pizzeria putting Cheez Wiz on its slices as a topping?
I’m sorry, yes, I’m digressing. But you know what my point is? It’s that you’re making Jersey look good. It’s like they’re off-shoring this stuff onto you. You realize that, right? And this is okay with you?
I know, I know, you can save the ink. I can tell you’re about to take quill to inkwell, Franklin style, ready to blast me for a classic parts-for-wholes fallacy, for taking a localized, short-term experience in just one part of the state as representative of the whole place, for thinking I could live here just this year and come to some reasonable conclusions about your grand commonwealth, that I could confuse my own frustrations and insecurities about living someplace new after all those years a few states down and put them back onto you, that this is what goes on, this is who we are, we move and we adjust and we find our home in new places, that it takes a long time, this settling, this place-finding, this homemaking, so why don’t I just back off? I see that, I kind of feel like you’re gonna write back and say something like that and I’m not even sure you’d be wrong.
Whatever. That still doesn’t give you the right to air Car Talk on Friday night. That’s bullshit. Car Talk goes on Saturday morning. You should know this. Good lord, Keystone, I can’t believe you had to hear it from me.
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