In traveling through the endless layers of time, in exploring pocket worlds, vast vistas and deserted downtowns, in watching countrysides and forests and cities blur by with frightening speed, while knocking on the door fully expecting no one to be home, while snapping the photo in the instant before the clapboards and rowhouses are gone, I've generally come to the same conclusion.
I missed it.
In fact, I've had that feeling my entire life, right from the get-go. Before I even knew what a "downtown" was, I was playing with Transformers in 1991 and watching as they disappeared from shelves for what seemed like forever. I spent my whole childhood rummaging through yard sales and fleamarkets, searching for some evidence that better things once existed. I missed them.
I would go to Sounds Easy Video in Wiscasset and pick through the Super Nintendo cartridges, selecting the best-looking ones and playing them in the sample system they had set up there. But what I really wanted to play was the NES games, the previous generation, which I had missed. And then the workers unplugged the Super Nintendo and replaced it with a 3DO, and of course we all remember how fabulous and well-known that system became (no we don't). But that's another story.
And now, while I rode the rails from Little Rock to San Antonio, here spying the crumbling, pleading remnants of railroad towns and there rumbling through the ruins of urban train culture, while driving the interstates and catching a glimpse of a derelict drive-in theater, while watching the men in fedoras and overcoats in 1940s film footage, I always get that exact same feeling.
I missed it. I missed it all.
So here are the things I feel I miss the most. And let me take a second to disclaim. This will be my grumpiest post. It will be full of ire, poison and downright disdain for many things that probably some people hold dear. Sure. That's fine (they're probably not reading this anyway). But these are the thoughts that constantly visit my brain, every time I explore, every time I'm in a new town, every time I'm in an old town. And I need to write them out, so here they are.
10. Soft drinks/fast food.
Let's start with something less consequential. Yeah, we've heard it all before (hopefully) so it's low on the list. But it's still important to me.
American didn't survive on sugar, sodium, partially hydrogenated oil, corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors mixed into one delicious cocktail of obesity and super-corporate ad campaigns aimed at children. Was that vitriolic enough?
Sure, Coca-Cola goes back to the 19th century, and yeah, it did have actual cocaine in it for a while in those days. But it still exuded something resembling class (and still does sometimes). But fast food didn't become the norm until post WWII. Before that, people were okay with waiting a bit longer for something that is less likely to murder you.
Well, I pretty much already said it. And to be fair, America has come a ways in badgering the fast food companies into at least having some options that aren't just flagrantly too large and fattening.
But I especially felt this when I was a kid, when I simply hated all sodas because I couldn't handle the carbonation. Sometimes it really alienated me in a world where all drinks seemed to be soda, no matter what. Nowadays I drink soda every now and then, but I can't believe that some people basically survive on the stuff. Anyway, let's move on.
Fast food has been around for about 50 years and probably won't go anywhere anytime soon. But I hopefully have enough life in me that I will see some severe changes in the industry.
9. Fiction Famine
This is coming from a writing perspective. I am trying to keep most hobby-type stuff out of here to fit with my Time Fishing theme, but this continuously irks me enough to make the list.
Beginning writers could submit stories to a vast array of fiction-centric magazines, ranging from sleezy books like Eerie and Weird Tales to high-class selections like Colliers, Cosmopolitan and, yes, Playboy. A short story author, with a bit of drive and chutzpah, could survive on his short stories by selling them to fiction magazines.
Television. That's the short version. People read less. Because of that, magazines stopped having fiction sections. Just about all of them. A writer who wants to be published now looks mainly towards literary journals, most of which pay solely in contributor's copies (I.E., nothing). So good luck.
Lord, who knows. People still obviously read a lot, and I'm not ever going to try to say "literature is dead," because that's just dumb and wrong. It's not dead, it's just...slim. And that saddens me.
8. Cheap Design
You will find more and more that my topics on this list have to do with aesthetics. Frankly, aesthetics are very important to me. To a certain extent, you can judge a book by its cover, and modern covers look pretty bad.
Advertising was handled manually, usually with hand-painted artwork and logos with the addition of movable type. Beautiful advertisements were painted on buildings in business districts by trained artists. In later years, ornate logos of normal business hung throughout downtown and lit up at night. Design was tasteful and usually meshed well with its surroundings.
Pictured: Capitol Avenue, Little Rock, 1958 (note the abundance of signs and how they complement each other)
Any schmuck with a computer can slap together wordart and call it a day. Hundreds of free gimmicky typefaces are available. Signage is usually bought ready-made. The result is a mess of sloppy designs that project an overwhelming vision of cheapness. Take a look at any commercial suburban sector and you'll see what I mean. Take a look at any downtown and...well, you probably just won't see anything.
Because this country focuses on efficiency over everything, there's no way we'll go back to those more tasteful days. No one has the time or desire to design ornately, except for huge corporations, and do they care about the built environment?
What? Automobiles? We love automobiles! Yes, as a country, we do. And in fact I use them all the time. If you read this and you know me, feel free to silently judge me as a hypocrite because I am. Sometimes I eat fast food when I would rather not. Most of the items on this list I begrudgingly support because I'm not enough of an activist to resist them.
Cars have existed through most of the years I've chosen as my range, but never as many as there are now. And through that time, they shared the country with other options like trains and streetcars. Oh, and they looked awesome.
Pictured: 1930s awesomeness
Cars cause constant consternation for parents of small children and animal owners. Drunk driving accidents happen all the time, mostly because we rely so much on cars that the town drunk is actually from another town and has to drive himself back there. There are one million cars on every given street, and because we rely 100% on them for traveling, we never meet any other people, just other cars, and the only sort of communication from car-to-car is limited to bird-flipping, horn-honking and fender-bending.
We've created this completely egotistical and alienating way of traveling. And because car companies are basically all-powerful, plus some other factors, those aforementioned publicly-available items like trains and streetcars are all-but extinct in this country. Buses, subways and taxis exist but only in urban areas.
Oh, sure, there are streetcars in San Francisco and Little Rock, and yeah, if you're in a very specific location you can sometimes take Amtrak to other parts of the country. But mostly there are just the miles and miles and miles of highway.
Americans are are about as likely to abandon their cars as they are to hand over their guns. It just ain't gonna happen. Even though we hate holding our left ankle in the same position for hours on end, we just can't seem to stay off of the interstate. Which brings me to my next point...
Continued in Part 2!