[ed. note - via Andrew Sullivan, Sridar Pappu at the NY Observer reports that the NY Times is putting on their pith helmets for a dangerous safari to explore the conservative jungle. It prompted me to pull out this old piece that I wrote for CNS in August 2001. For a related piece, see In New York, Scrappy Local Newspaper Struggles For Survival.
Extra note to Times staff who stumble upon this: Bwana! Raita Winga place danja danja, bad mojo! Me makey good guide boy, two dolla!]
Crawford, Texas - As the relentless midday Texas sun broils overhead, Beverly Bowers makes her monthly four-mile trek to the Crawford Craft Fair and Flea Market, her only protection the six-zone air conditioning system of her 1999 Chevrolet Suburban.
Bowers, 56, will spend the next two hours scouring the bric-a-brac, refrigerator magnets, Beanie Babies and Hummel porcelain, searching for a treasure with which to decorate her aesthetically modest, if sprawling, ranch house. A gaudy wide-eyed 'Precious Moments' ballerina figurine catches her eye, and she pauses to admire it.
As I point out the ironic similarities between the grotesque piece and the deliberately kitschy mega-sculpture of Jeff Koons in his pre-Ciccolina ouvre, Bowers gives me a quizzical glance.
"Who's Jeff Koons?"
Haute Cuisine, Drag Shows Noticeably Absent
While shocking, Bowers' question underscores the growing cultural underclass in America; a voiceless society deprived of even the most basic access to transgressive sculpture, conceptual performance spaces, experimental cuisine, cutting-edge urban fashion, or drag queen pageants.
For most members of the Washington and New York media, their existence had, until recently, been only a vague rumor. But a jolting reality awaited those consigned to this remote hamlet to cover the working vacation of President George W. Bush.
E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post described a common experience of the visiting press. "When I arrived in Crawford, I had a sudden craving for a quick brioche and mineral water, and set out in search of a decent Belgian patisserie," he recalled. "Two hours later, the horrible truth dawned on me. In Crawford, there are no decent Belgian patisseries."
Panic stricken, Dionne said he began asking for help from local passers-by.
"I kept asking them, 'where can I get a brioche? Where can I get a brioche?', only to see blank stares," he recalled. "Finally, one man in a pickup truck said he hadn't heard of that brand of beer, but offered me a Shiner Bock."
It was a scene that would be constantly repeated throughout the first weeks of the Bush retreat; dozens of panicked media professionals wandering the streets of Crawford, searching in vain for alternative weeklies, gallery openings and Peruvian-Vietnamese tapa parlors, only to be met with blank stares and offers of free beer. The experience stunned many.
Primitive Accommodations; Making Do
"I spent at least three hours yesterday hailing a cab, with no luck," noted Frank Bruni, the New York Times' White House correspondent. "I guess I'll just have to take the subway."
"I thought three years living in a rural backwater like Seattle, Washington would prepare me for the primitive conditions of Crawford," added visibly shaken Slate correspondent Bryan Curtis. "That was before I spent six straight mornings without a venti double mocha skim latte."
His eyes welling, Curtis described how he was forced to survive on 89-cent coffee from the Chevron Gas Mart.
"This place is some sort of third-world hellhole," complained a Newsweek staffer, who asked not to be identified. "It's like a neutron bomb hit, destroying all the Dean & Delucas and Restoration Hardwares and REIs."
CNN anchorwoman Judy Woodruff expressed surprise that Bush administration officials did not attempt to prepare the press for the dark ordeal that awaited them Crawford. "Being around these people is hard enough, but thirty days? Frankly, I would have constructed a wall or something."
For Woodruff's husband, Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt, the biggest shock was witnessing the locals' strange allegiance to the president.
"These poor wretches claim to genuinely like Bush, despite his callous indifference to their plight," he noted. "And it's almost as if Bush gets a sadistic thrill from being around the unhip."
A Bleak Landscape
The rampant cultural poverty that afflicts Crawford manifests itself in unanticipated ways. It even impacts basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter and transportation.
For instance, a severe arugula shortage means that salads here must be constructed out of crude iceberg lettuce. It is nearly impossible to find a restaurant that serves balsamic chervil aioli, or a simple bone marrow gnocchi in white wine reduction; diners are forced to subsist on a diet of jumbo enchiladas or the $6.99 all-you-can-eat Brisket Buffet at Sonny's.
Without a single Prada or Moschino or even Emporio Armani within a twenty-mile radius, the fashions of Crawford are dictated by the clumsy designs of local courtiers like Wal-Mart, Sheplers or Tractor Supply Company.
Even more shocking, during a recent Salvation Army clothing drive, local residents were seen giving away what appeared to be dozens of designs from Jean Paul Gaultier's new fall collection.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the desperate straits of Crawford better than its bleak housing situation. While homes here appear plentiful and clean, most residents are forced to live in the numbing isolation of gigantic floor plans that often exceed 300 square feet, separated by as much as 50 yards from their nearest neighbors.
Compounding the loneliness, they are constrained by tiny housing budgets that would scarcely afford a seedy, roach-infested efficiency in the East Village, without the soothing sirens and the security of rent control.
Travel options are limited as well. The glaring lack of subways and cabs means residents of Crawford are forced to rely on dangerous private automobiles and trucks, which are sometimes decorated with "#3" and decals of a urinating cartoon Calvin, as if they were talismans to ward off evil spirits.
Growing Numbers of Culturally Needy
As disturbing as these stories are, they not confined to Crawford. Throughout America, from New Jersey to the various places west and south of New Jersey, there are teeming pockets of cultural naifs.
These are America's forgotten Shadow People: people with no real access to Jean-Paul Basquiat retrospectives, Cuban cinema or chanterelle mushrooms. Few can name Lizzie Grubman's defense team.
Estimates are sketchy, but some demographers put their numbers in the thousands.
"As hard as it may seem to believe to the typical American, safe in their Dupont Circle rehab or West Village loft, there are literally hundreds of their countrymen roaming the streets, having only the vaguest familiarity with Queer Theory, Damian Hirst or Michel Foucault," said Columbia University sociologist Michael Sonnenschein.
"We are quickly becoming two nations," he added, ominously. "One fabulous, one tacky."
According to researchers, the unrelenting un-urbanness of places like Crawford comes with a steep psychological price tag.
"The culturally needy of America have developed unusual cognitive strategies for coping with the bleak realities of non-urban life," said Melanie Davis, professor of social psychology at NYU.
According to Davis, the first line of defense is typically denial. "Even under intense scrutiny, these people will feign disinterest in Frank Gehry, Tina Brown or the lingering feud between Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Some even preposterously claim they wouldn't take a Soho sublease, even if the rent were dropped to $3,500," said Davis.
"I've even heard subjects laugh when shown a Jasper Johns or Pollock painting because, quote, 'it looks like some splattered paint on a dropcloth,'" added Davis. "So that pretty much tells you what we're working with."
Gerhard Fogel, a German sociologist who has devoted several weeks to a comprehensive study of the American artistic underclass, described another, more disturbing, survival skill.
"Their cultural asphyxia has produced a sort of general numbness - a numbness to cynicism, a numbness about artifice and irony," said Fogel. "In their isolation, these people have lost the ability to express even the most basic human ennui."
"You can see it in their eyes," added Fogel. "A haunting, earnest contentment. They've just given up."
Strange Ways Place Children at Risk
For the citizens of Crawford, filling the void of culture often means turning to sinister substitutes.
Shockingly, an apparent loophole in Texas law allows many - if not most - to own firearms, despite Crawford's miniscule crime rate. Some have joined strange religious cults that hold members in sway with weekly ritual performances and bingo nights. Others lose themselves in the cheap high offered by bass fishing and high school football.
Still, perhaps no one suffers Crawford's cultural vacuum more than its children. There are no adequately gritty abandoned warehouses for hosting acid house raves, and there are limited supplies of Crank and MDMA.
Faced with strained budgets, the Crawford Independent School District has been forced to cut back on basic curricula like Self- Actualization, and Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Studies.
"It's almost a form of societal child abuse," said Richard Doherty, an early education specialist at the New School. "Without a basic grounding in the fundamentals, these kids will be at a severe disadvantage at 17 when they're desperately trying to enroll at Bennington, Swarthmore or Mount Holyoke."
Melanie Davis says the smallest citizens of America's cultural Dustbowl are its most poignant victims.
"I find it hard to sleep knowing there are hundreds of children out there in Pennsyltucky or Ohiowa or Nebraskansaw, or wherever, who will never have their own Balinese finger puppets or monochromatic Swedish creativity blocks," she remarked. "I can only imagine how it must tear at the conscience of their nannies and aux pairs."
Learning to Crawl
Despite their constant deprivation, Crawford's Shadow People have learned to muddle through with a stoic dignity.
A fierce, if misplaced, pride guides people like Hector Soliz, manager of the local HEB grocery store, who steadfastly refuses to stock a fresh olive bar or petit syrah section.
The same pride infects Bowers, who says she "enjoys" living in Crawford, but admits she is looking forward to an upcoming vacation in Las Vegas with her husband. She seems oblivious to the fact that her trip will conflict with the opening of the Whitney's Mapplethorpe Retrospective.
Yet, there are sprouts of hope growing amid the barren heartland. With the recent arrival of Craig Hogarth, newly hired loan officer at Ranchers State Bank, Crawford finally can boast a gay community.
Though he claims to have been treated well so far, Hogarth says he and partner Jerry Norris are not planning to stage a local pride parade.
Others in Crawford seem poised to embrace the sophisticated mores and upscale culture of their urban counterparts. Local merchant Bob McAlister credits the influence of visiting journalists.
"I've been studying these press people, and it's about time we local businesses offer products and services that appeal to their sophisticated tastes," said McAlister, owner of Bob's Bait and Tackle.
"In fact," he added, "next week I'm opening Crawford's very first sushi bar."