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The Quality of Life Reportby Meghan Daum
Open Arms, Open Minds
For the sake of those involved, I will say only this: my moral, ethical, and, if not spiritual, let's say existential coming-of-age took place in a more or less rectangular-shaped state in the Midwest-closer to the West Coast than the east by maybe one hundred miles, closer to Canada than Mexico by maybe one hundred-in a town populated by approximately ninety thousand government employees, farmers, academics, insurance salesmen, assembly-line workers, antique dealers, real estate agents, rape crisis counselors, certified massage therapists, girls volleyball coaches, and a whole lot of other people who, as they would tell it, just wanted to live in a peaceful place where movies cost six dollars and the children's zoo was free, and where library fines, even if you kept the book for a year, even if you dropped the book in the bathtub and returned it looking like it had been rescued by search divers, were rarely known to exceed five dollars. The state, dogged neither by oppressive Pentecostal leanings nor a preponderance of Teva-shod rafting guide types, was neither in the Bible Belt nor the Rocky Mountains. It had few lakes, only a handful of rivers, and none of the kind of topography that might attract Japanese tourists or inspire bumper stickers of the this car climbed variety.
There was very little to climb on this terrain. It was flat and treeless and cliffless. Even so, Prairie City had made the most of itself. It housed a state college, a public television station, and an independent movie theater that had screened The Last Temptation of Christ when the commercial cinemas had dropped the film because of picketers, most of whom were a small but vocal group of Seventh-day Adventists and a few of whom were Lutherans looking for a diversion. Generally speaking, though, all points of view were welcome. For years, Prairie City's welcome sign had read a great place to live until, under an initiative to promote diversity, the city council voted to change the motto to open arms, open minds. It was a fitting kickoff to the other placards in town. For every billboard reminding passing drivers that during an abortion, something dies inside there was another encouraging HIV testing, pet spay and neutering, or two-dollar mai tais at the Thirteenth Street TGI Friday's, which, though not all citizens realized it, was a major hangout for the community's sizable gay and lesbian population. For seven years running, the town had ranked in the top twenty in U.S. News & World Report's Most Livable Cities. In addition to its low rate of violent crime, good public school system, and four meticulously maintained municipal pools, Prairie City had the good fortune to have been hit by only six tornadoes during the entire period of the Clinton administration, just three of which killed anybody, all in trailer parks.
In Prairie City, trailer parks rubbed right up against elementary schools, public playgrounds, and houses of worship. Train tracks crisscrossed the city like lattice work, leaving little room for right sides or wrong sides. At Effie's Tavern on Highway 36, assembly-line workers from the Firestone tire plant gathered after their shifts and downed Leinenkugels alongside insurance agents in short-sleeved dress shirts and choir directors in Birkenstocks and attorneys and social service case workers and even local politicians, most of whom got off work at 3:30 on Friday afternoons and began drinking around 3:54. Prairie City was a good-hearted place, not so much in the sense that moral aberrations never occurred but more in that when something did go wrong-a paleontology professor got caught downloading child pornography from the Web, an elected official was discovered freebasing coke in the public restroom behind the band shell-community head shaking took the form of bemusement rather than scorn. Everyone understood that everyone screwed up once in a while. What mattered was that you showed some class about it. What mattered was that you still helped your neighbor build his back deck. You still sat on the symphony board or at least volunteered to pick trash off the median of Highway 36 once a year. You accepted both your co-worker's gender reassignment surgery and the possibility that, during any given summer, golf-ball-sized hail could give your dog a concussion.
The concept of acceptance was vital to Prairie City. It stemmed from the legacy of its first residents, most of whom, in the mid-1800s, were bound for the West Coast on the Oregon Trail. Since Prairie City marked a point where the trail often became impassable in winter, the pioneers used it as a stopover until spring. Except that many never left. As legend has it, Prairie City was imbued with a mysterious force that kept its supposedly temporary residents from resuming their journeys. Of those who did leave, countless numbers found themselves coming back after just a few years on the coast. It was hard for them to explain what had brought them. The tug of that land was as strong and invisible as gravity. The wind, though it shrieked in every season, soon lulled even the most restless souls into contentment. The people stopped thinking about gold and started building schoolhouses. They had more children. They joined sewing circles. They told themselves so many times that they were going to leave that, as generations died and were born, the Plan to Leave became as much a part of community life as agriculture itself. It was all a matter of holding off until the right time, of getting through the winter and then the summer and then winter again. Long before Effie's Tavern ever served its first draft, the citizens of Prairie City had perfected the art of waiting things out.
Of course, I didn't know much about waiting things out before I came to Prairie City. I knew next to nothing about anything, unless you count a deeply ingrained knowledge of the latest sociocultural great truths about the twenty- and thirtysomethings of America, which I discussed with my friends over drinks on at least a twice-weekly basis. Some examples of our areas of inquiry:
A) -No one wears gold anymore. It just went away. Remember how in the 1980s everyone wore gold? Like a gold tennis bracelet? Now it's silver. Nothing but silver. Wedding bands are platinum or white gold. When is the last time you saw a gold wedding band? Seriously? But you're not, like, friends with that person?
B) -More and more women are feeling pressure to not get married until they're at least twenty-eight. But at the same time there's pressure to marry before you're thirty-four. That leaves a very small window. Six years to find a husband. Consider the latest census data that there are seven hundred thousand more single women than single men in New York (not even counting gay people, of which there are more men than lesbians). Ergo, limited window of opportunity plus disproportionate gender ratio equals...imminent spinsterhood for thousands of women. What to call this? The New Spinster? The Spinsterization of America?
C) -Yogurt. What happened? It just went away.
D) -Is thirty-seven the new twenty-six?
E) -Lucinda's apartment lease. Loss of. What is she going to do?
Lucinda was me. Is me. Except the Lucinda who lost her apartment lease on Broadway and Ninety-fourth Street in Manhattan was a person of such a long time ago that I have difficulty even associating that face-pale, unlined, dabbed with Chanel makeup that I never knew how to apply right-with the one who now tells this story. Like so many people in Prairie City, my face has been subjected to a kind of wind that blows in so hard from the north that you find yourself reaching for a tree in order to stay on the ground, only to realize there are no trees, just an ocean of grass.
This is the kind of place that makes you wonder if wind can render gravity irrelevant, if weather itself can make you crazy. You lie in bed and wonder if the Apocalypse has come or if it's just another night in June. The early settlers had a name for this; they called it prairie madness. Pioneers who had migrated from the east literally went insane from the shrieking wind. It seemed to affect the women disproportionately, maybe because the men were insane to begin with. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
When I was twenty-nine and a regular participant in conversations (if we were going to hand in the receipts to our office accounting departments we called them "brainstorming sessions") about What's Happening in America Today, I was an associate producer at a local television magazine show called New York Up Early. Despite not being on a major network, it had two million viewers in the metropolitan area. Hosted by Bonnie Crawley and Samantha Frank, a pair of thirtyish women positioned to "complement" each other (one was perky, the other, who wore nerd-chic glasses, quirky), the program dealt with a variety of New York issues: mob-related crime, the Bryant Park fashion shows, the rooftop gardens of rich people. I was the Lifestyle correspondent, a position I'd achieved after five years of fetching espressos and making restaurant reservations for Up Early's bipolar, metabolically freakish senior producer, Faye Figaro (at five foot eleven, she weighed 119; she also threw staplers at people). Though my annual salary had been raised to a mere $31,900 (this made tolerable only by my rent-stabilized one-windowed cell on West Ninety-fourth Street), I enjoyed the privileges of a minor celebrity in that I appeared on camera and interviewed people about What New Yorkers Are Thinking About Today, which, in most cases, was what Faye, Bonnie, Samantha, I and the rest of the staff (all female except one gay guy) were thinking about.
Some examples of my journalistic endeavors:
* -Lucinda Trout on takeout sushi and how it has replaced the soup and sandwich for the midtown office worker's lunch of choice.
* -Lucinda Trout on thong underwear: can you learn to live with a permanent wedgie?
* -Lucinda Trout on bridal registry etiquette: is it fair to expect your friend to spend eighty dollars on a single piece of flatware (especially when your friend has no marriage prospects!)?
* -Lucinda Trout on adopted babies from China: the Upper West Side is overrun with them.
What are the implications for the future mating patterns of this generation? In 2015, there will be seven teenage girls for every teenage boy on the Upper West Side. Are we not simply creating an equal and opposite paradigm of the unbalanced gender ratio in China? Will these girls have to move to Beijing to find a husband? Will Manhattan become a playground for men with Asian fetishes?
The Chinese baby story didn't delve as deeply as I would have liked. It ended up essentially being a plug for a store on Columbus Avenue called Asian Infant Accessories, which sold teething rings and mobiles in Asian designs so that the children wouldn't lose touch with their heritage. I almost quit over that. But I almost quit over half the stories I did. I had a degree in nineteenth-century American literature from Smith. My goal was to work for PBS or National Public Radio. And somehow I'd ended up holding a microphone in one hand and sliding a finger of the other hand under the thong underwear of a willing clerk at a SoHo underwear boutique to show "how roomy a thong can really be."
The day I decided not to quit over the Chinese baby story was the day my landlord slipped a note under my door saying the building management was changing hands and that starting September 1, my rent would be raised to twenty-one hundred dollars a month. It was June 1. I needed to ask Faye for a raise, though it was unlikely I could get her to triple my salary, which is what would have been required to stay.
Faye wanted to see me in her office anyway. Though it was muggy and 87 degrees outside she was wearing her usual getup-skintight black leather pants, a sleeveless (apparently wool) turtleneck sweater, and Jimmy Choo mules with three-inch heels. Her black hair was tied in a severe French twist that appeared to be pulling back the skin on her temples (a do-it-yourself face-lift technique? This itself was a possible story idea...). Faye's background was in the art world-she was rumored to have been, in the 1960s, the lover of either Gerard Malanga or Cookie Mueller, depending upon who you asked. From there she had migrated into the fashion world and eventually into television and she was as out of place in the business as I was, though in the completely opposite way. While she looked like a fifty-year-old version of Lara Flynn Boyle (though every year that I'd worked for her she'd claimed to be thirty-seven) I looked like a graduate student who sprang for good haircuts but wouldn't shell out for an iron. I was perpetually rumpled. Faye, for her part, was practically illiterate. She had been hired for her celebrity connections; I for my ability to write all of her memos and anticipate the fluctuations of her volatile brain chemistry.
Faye was looking particularly reptilian that day. Her eyes were reduced to mere slits underneath a puffiness that suggested her weekend at Donatella Versace's South Beach villa had involved some kind of head-on collision that activated a set of air bags beneath the sockets. She leaned back in her chair and draped a lamppostlike leg over her desk, knocking over an ashtray and a stack of videotapes and causing her shoe to fall off and reveal a set of contorted blackened toenails.
"Lucinda!" Faye screamed, though I was three feet away. "I have received a memo from upstairs."
"Are they firing you?" I asked. We had this sort of relationship. Sparring, playful. Though there was always the possibility that she would lunge unexpectedly, like a big cat.
"They want to move the show in a new direction," she said. "They think it's too provincial, too New York centric. They want us to cover issues of concern to average Americans. Maybe even humanitarian issues. Of course, I find that profoundly uninteresting. But I have no doubt that you can tap into the psyches of fat housewives in trailer parks."
"Actually I've always thought the show was too limited," I said. "Are we going in a more, like, Frontline-ish direction?"
"Don't get uppity," Faye said.
I caught her noticing my shoes, which were scuffed and from Banana Republic and utterly beneath her standards.
"I'm sending you to the Midwest," she said. "There's a very dangerous drug there that women are doing to help them lose weight and clean the house. Basically it's coke for the Payless shoes set. It sounds disgusting and I'm sure you can find a bunch of disgusting people who will talk on camera and give the show a dose of realness."
She handed me a story memo.
To: Up Early Exeuctives
"You had lunch with Roseanne?" I asked.
"They set it up," Faye said, lighting a cigarette and snaking her foot around under her desk in search of her lost mule. "She's actually quite brilliant in her way, given her cultural context."
"Where would I have to go?"
"Hello?" Faye yelled. "That's your job. Figure it out! You're going on Friday."
"For how long?"
"I don't know, a week. Make it in depth. They're serious about this getting serious thing. But no fat people, please. I'm not throwing all our standards out the window."
Faye softened as the nicotine worked its way through her nervous system. She slid her foot into her shoe and returned her leg to the desk.
"So how are you, Lucinda?" she asked, turning suddenly empathic. "Are you well?"
"My rent is being raised to twenty-one hundred a month," I said.
"Can't you ask your parents for money?"
"Faye, you know my parents are retired schoolteachers."
"Well, then I guess you'll have to move to Queens," she said. "Can you redo this memo for me?"
I took the memo and got up to leave.
"Can you pick up my ashtray?" Faye asked.
"Faye, I'm not your assistant anymore."
Faye was on her fifth temp in fourteen months, a sweet woman who had made the mistake of wearing a plastic tortoise-shell headband to her first day of work.
"I don't want that girl coming in here," Faye whispered, an inch-long ash breaking off her cigarette and landing on her Palm Pilot. "I'm serious. It messes up the feng shui thing in here."
The prospect of the show's moving in a serious, more humanitarian direction slightly abated my dismay over the hopelessness of getting a raise. I went to my desk and did an Internet search on drug rehab facilities in the Midwest. I then left messages with twelve clinic receptionists in places like Missouri, South Dakota, and Kansas, seven of whom were themselves in recovery and wanted to discuss their drug abuse at length. These discussions effectively completed my preliminary research. I rewrote Faye's memo and then typed up my own.
To: Up Early staff
The first person to call me back was Sue Lugenbeel. She was from some place called Prairie City and ran something called the Prairie City Recovery Center for Women. She said she had subjects for me. They would talk and appear on camera. She really wanted to help get the message out.
If only I had been away from my desk when Sue Lugenbeel called. If only the first clinic director to return my call had been some no-personality lout from some shabby town that I'd actually heard of and was therefore less exotic. But no. It was Sue. In Prairie City. I was on a plane with a cameraman the next morning. And from there began the end of my life as I'd known it.
Copyright © 2003 by Meghan Daum
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