POCATELLO, ID – February is a serious month. The approaching Spring eats at the corners of human patience. Seed catalogs arrive tempting gardeners beyond their means, raising expectations that are rarely fulfilled. We want the soil to nourish us kindly, but there is little kindness in nature. The Earth Mother forces us to color between the lines with her unbridled sturm und drang. As winter storms and gray days oppress us and our aging bodies hug the culture’s imaginary timeline, we dream; we contemplate what our lives are “supposed” to be and not yet realized.
We’ve read the diagnoses of the stages of life. TV “psychologists,” Dr. Phil, Hoda and Kathy Lee, and PBS documentaries, flood us with examples and “cures” for our existence. Think young, they say, keep moving, eat blueberries, add this machine, this costume, to your daily workout, make kale smoothies.
Growing “old” is anathema. The culture requires youth, discontent, a market for the latest gadgets, debt with interest to line the coffers of Wall Street.
The problem with old people is they’re often content with what they have or way too poor to buy stuff.
Those “youthful” Idahoans with money or credit cards book Mexican vacations in February. Money seeks the sun, leisure on a Caribbean beach, foods they haven’t cooked themselves with unfamiliar ingredients and spice, shopping for shell mementos, margaritas on the veranda with handpicked limes from the courtyard. Fleeting luxury.
The poverty of the servers is well hidden beyond the palms so as not to disturb the fantasy.
It’s February, we gotta get outta here; there’s no culture in Pocatello; it’s merely Idaho.
Later on, as the northern hemisphere warms, Europe beckons: Mediterranean fantasies ensnare us. We are drawn to stone walls, vine-covered turrets, open vegetable markets, pichets of red wine at a table on a busy sidewalk. Like pilgrims, we long to walk the cobbled streets where Voltaire, Sartre, Joyce, Van Gogh, Monet trod, and drink in the cafes where they conversed and conjured up their revolutionary ideas.
The life of the mind is elsewhere, certainly not in Idaho.
At this ripe time of life, due to having lived my life backwards, I cannot afford to travel to exotic places. For the most part, my years of reading and nurturing babies have sustained me, as have quiet mornings on the prairie watching mirages ooze and float in the distant landscape.
Instead of travel, I wander among weaving projects, reading odd books about French shepherds who tend their flocks on stilts. I write letters and peruse my cookbook collection. When too tired and achy to read, I watch travel documentaries. When cameras focus on the main streets and plazas of Rome or Paris or Arles, the streets are filled with people of all ages. Mothers push their prams; young lovers walk hand in hand; children feed and scatter the pigeons; groups of elders are seated on the sidelines watching or playing Petanque; sidewalk cafes are filled to the brim with serious and frivolous conversations as tea, coffee, pitchers of wine are consumed. The atmosphere is relaxed, unruly, yet vibrant, and Americans spend millions every year to travel to experience it.
And then my mind turns to Pocatello’s Main Street. For Idahoans the only good street is apparently an empty one. Pocatello has no central square, no bustling city center. Ordinances prevent sidewalk obstructions such as sandwich boards and outdoor cafes. Holding a glass of wine on the sidewalk is illegal without special permits. Buskers and panhandlers are dispersed, loaded on buses and sent to the next town. Benches are few or non-existent for the elderly to rest, pass the day and watch the world go by.
But then, there’s not much life to watch anyway.
In Pocatello, the elderly are cordoned off into Senior Centers, New Knowledge Adventures, church basements, and retirement homes. The young are incarcerated in prison-like schools and sports clubs. The workers, blue and white collar, are hidden behind dark windows sharing afternoon cocktails in secret NO CHILDREN ALLOWED. Every age in their “proper” segregated spaces.
One-way streets move traffic quickly through our downtown; there’s no stopping or browsing at that pace. Two-way streets with angle-parking, slow people down so they can see what local delights are available.
Americans have nearly completely wiped out the teenage “cruise” in the public eye. It’s messy. Never mind that our youth have few places to go for camaraderie. Instead of enduring a little honking and giggling, we puzzle over the secret beer parties in the woods and tragic, drunken traffic accidents on the ride home.
Studies indicate that people need destinations. Burger joints are destinations, I suppose, but we can’t say that Yellowstone Avenue is a charming atmosphere. The entire boulevard wreaks of get in, buy quickly, and get out. Don‘t linger in the parking lots or the cops will send us home. We want your money, not your society. And how does eating in our cars encourage community awareness? (See James Howard Kunstler’s THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE and his TED talk).
In European cities, the squares or main streets, are spaces where life happens.
In today’s economy with shopping malls dying out, with bricks and mortar stores disappearing in favor of Internet shopping, what can small cities do to keep dollars in their communities? Our spring and summer Farmer’s Market, local farmers/gardeners selling truly local fruits and vegetables and crafts, funny hats and chatter among the tomatoes, is one positive step.
And there’s another idea that I’ve thought about a lot, and that’s plopping a full-size Carousel, a lovely, colorful Merry-Go-Round, in one of the open lots in downtown Pocatello. Keep it running Friday through Sunday all year round — a destination for families, all ages. Think of all the marketing opportunities on the fringes of such a spectacular enterprise. And in tandem with the Farmer’s Market, the colorful Chief sign, a jolly community may converge all around, and make my Private Pocatello a little less so desperately private.