The Towns America Never Met

Lately, I have been feeling pretty nothing.  Today, I learned that “poorly educated middle-aged whites” have the highest mortality rate of any demographic in the United States as of 2016.  “Poorly educated” meaning a person with less than a bachelor’s degree.

A fact like this would normally make me think about abstract things like policy or culture in America today.  However, under the present circumstances, I think about the people in my own life and how they’re living these days.  And what comes into my head is the hopelessness of living in a never-known-about town in a popular state with no immediate prospects embedded in a world full of noise.

The town I grew up in is named after a Dutch city of the same name.  Long ago, New York was New Amsterdam.  No one has really heard of my town so when people ask me where I’m from I say near Albany, New York (the capital of the state).  If they press, I say I live in Schenectady, New York (an old GE hub with some kind of vague cultural significance).  But really, I was raised in Rotterdam, New York.

Rotterdam is a town  of 29,094 people as of the 2010 census.  I believe today the population is smaller, but some people say it has grown.  The town is about 36 square miles.  It is located near the eastern edge of New York’s Heritage Corridor at what Wikipedia calls the “Gateway to the West.”

In my head, Rotterdam is several neighborhoods, two school districts, a few busy streets, and a lot of old or desperate people.

My neighborhood–called Coldbrook–is a maze of replicas of the same two story house.  There are several other neighborhoods, but they all follow the same kind of repetitive construction.  Today, I see more apartment complexes although I believe they were there before–it’s just that I notice them more now since I’ve lived in apartments for a few years.

I went to Mohonasen schools (a mash-up of the names of the Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca Native American tribes), but there is another school district called Schalmont in Rotterdam as well.  Mohonasen is a little bigger; Schalmont is a little more rural.  Otherwise, the two schools are birds of a feather: poor to middle class white kids who prioritize partying, drugs, and screwing around followed closely by athletics with academic achievement being a distant honorable mention (except for the few at the tippy top of the classes who base their entire existence on their GPAs–as is, I imagine, common throughout the U.S. today).

In my area of town, there are three “big” streets to know: Altamont Avenue, Curry Road, and Hamburg Street.

The Wal-Mart, the grocery store (called Price Chopper), and the string of fast food restaurants are located on Altamont Avenue.  A ton of kids I went to school with worked at the grocery store there.  The grocery store is kind of spiritually significant because of that common fact.  Communion in modern suburbia occurs through hourly employment.

Curry Road runs perpendicular-ish to Altamont.  Curry Road touches all of the neighborhoods of Rotterdam and in a way connects the seemingly wealthier/more successful town of Colonie to the outskirts of Schenectady proper.  Further, Mohonasen’s junior high and high schools are located on Curry Road.

Hamburg Street connects downtown Schenectady to the town of Guilderland.  My dad grew up in a small house across from the fire station on Hamburg Street.  The little league baseball park is located just off Hamburg.  Mohonasen’s primary school is located off Hamburg as well.  At least four churches are on Hamburg.  There’s a big water tower visible when driving on Hamburg that my uncle allegedly licked as a kid.  There’s also three gas stations, a roller-skating rink, a self car wash, a small plaza of shops, two diners, a sub shop, a sports bar, a self-storage facility, a laundromat, a senior citizen center, and what used to be a grocery store, but is now something else entirely.

Hamburg Street is where the decay of the town starts to become evident.  There used to an ice cream shop, a drug store, a bowling alley, a card store, and a video rental store, which have all been boarded up and spirited away.

Curry Road isn’t much better.  What used to be a series of small stores across from a CVS is now a Walgreen’s.  So, you know, two drug stores across the street from each other.

Altamont hasn’t lost too much, but it does seem less cheery or bright these days to me.

In general, the people I know in Rotterdam are nice enough.  They also are very private.  No one really talks too much.  People are politely neighborly, but not compassionately caring or really happy to be together.

The kids are alright, but there’s drugs and what not.  Drugs are not bad when they’re used for sport; drugs are bad when they’re your life.  And for a lot of my friends and the siblings/friends of my friends, Rotterdam offers nothing to a younger person other than a decent backdrop for an okay-to-scary high.

Rotterdam is just an okay, unremarkable place.  And that would be okay if people were okay with unremarkable.  American mythos dictates that small town America is as close to God as we come on this Earth.  But, in places like Rotterdam, which somehow instill big city expectations in people, being small town shatters the hope of the young people.

Rotterdam produces probably three kinds of young people: those that get out, those that stay and are okay, and those that stay and are hurting.  The first group is small, but special: skilled professionals, travelers, musicians, etc.  The second group is decent sized and appears to be made up of people just reliving the same year over and over again unceasingly, with only other people’s problems to entertain them.  The third group is small-ish (maybe bigger) and full of troubled, damaged people who find no hope in this world.

Rotterdam represents a flaw with America’s self-diagnosis of its problems.  From a national perspective, the problems with impoverished, “poorly educated” white people exist primarily in Appalachia and have to do with the downturn in manufacturing or mining jobs.  However, at least from my hometown, the root causes existed before or separate from any macroeconomic downturn.

Rotterdam, like other places, does not cater to the creation of new opportunities.  It’s a place run passively (also known as “traditionally”) where what has been done is prioritized over what could be done instead.  It has a lot of older folks, which means having nice lawns, lots of drug stores, and quiet streets are more important than excitement, risky (albeit legal) operations, and newness.

The best thing a person can be in Rotterdam is probably a cop or a teacher.  One keeps the streets quiet and clean; the other keeps the kids quiet and clean.  A nice place to live, or so they say.

Rotterdam discourages young people from taking the reins of society and pushing it in different, more appealing directions from the past.  Rotterdam encourages silence and obedience over unpleasant voices and non-conformist behavior.

This isn’t political to me though it probably is to some.  To me, it’s just the product of different priorities.  If a place decides that the older people call all the shots, you get a CVS across from a Walgreen’s, you lose your ice cream shop, and you never get your skate park, your real concert venue, or a young person’s bar.

The other big issue with places like Rotterdam is enabling hypocrisy.  A lot of adults talk tough about how young people need to take care of themselves, work hard, be independent and sober, yet they also put money in their kids bank accounts, allow them to stay indefinitely in their homes, and go to the mat with a whole slew of administrators for their kids from school to the Pop Warner football office to the college admissions committee, and so on.  They act like drugs and addiction just happen to other people even though their kids keep coming home buzzy, bloodshot, and broken.

The young people of Rotterdam are not blameless.  They openly accept the doting of their parents and the other adults in their lives.  They benefit in a sickly kind of way from the patronage of their enablers.  They don’t ever wake up and realize all of this “caring” and “family” is killing them slowly.  Sometimes, it is better to be really hurt for awhile than to have your senses dulled into a slow, complacent walk towards whatever bleak future these places incubate.

All told, everyone in these little never-discovered corners of the country lies to everyone, including themselves, and no one allows themselves to learn anything new because that could upset the apple cart.  Everyone just keeps on mowing their lawn twice a day in summer and complaining about how cold it is in winter.  They keep passively existing until their friends and family start dying.  Then, they get real sad and start taking pills until they die.

I’m from a place that’s probably pretty common.  And what’s sad is know one really knows that.  The people from my hometown feel unknown and also unique, or so I think. A large problem with where I’m from is a lot of the people there want to feel good today no matter the cost tomorrow.  So, they keep building drug stores.

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