Pangs for other places (abetted by Karen Olsson)

Man. I have gone through my periods of disenchantment with New York City, no doubt about that, but the visceral revulsion I’ve started to feel on waking and moving through my days is something new. Thus the quiet. Also, the redesign (a million thanks, Max), which hasn’t proved as motivational as I’d hoped.

I know it’s not just where I live — though a mushroom did spring fully-formed overnight from the bathroom wall this summer — it’s also what I’m doing. Namely: working the 9-5, avoiding TGBIW, and trying not to wilt like my hibiscus plant as the daylight hours shrink.

I’ve had a serious flare-up of college-town pangs. And reading Karen Olsson’s Waterloo, a sharp but empathetic political satire set in a lightly fictionalized Austin, is doing nothing to quell them.

While I try to drum up some enthusiasm for life, or at least posting, here’s Olsson’s prologue, which offers a taste of her sense of humor, but didn’t prepare me for the vibrance and complexity of her characters or the richness of their conflicts.

Waterloo (Pop. 600,000). This provincial capital, known for its friendly, laid-back atmosphere and vibrant local music scene, is nestled between blackland prairie to the southeast and limestone plateau to the north and west. The Alameda River drops below the center of town like a fat man’s belt. The city is home to the state’s flagship university and its governing assembly.

Surrounded by attractive hills and spring-fed streams, Waterloo is regarded as a pleasant city by locals and visitors alike. Its climate, however, is often unpleasant. In most years a thick, hot haze descends upon the region in mid-April and suffocates the populace until mid-October.

A north-south interstate highway, built fifty years ago and annually responsible for dozens of traffic deaths, divides the city: poor sections to the east, downtown to the west. Farther west are violet hills that used to afford genial vistas of the town, before the smog and subdivisions of arrived. “From the hills it is possible to view the city overall, and draw therefrom an impression of sweet curving streets and graceful sweeping lawns and the unequivocally happy sound of children always at play,” a writer once observed. “Closer on,” he continued, “the feeling is only partly confirmed, though it should seem enough to have even a part.” That writer died in 1978.

The majority of Waterloos’ residents don’t bother themselves with the city’s history, such as it is. During the early years of the Republic there was much debate over where to locate the capital until a commission of the region’s gouty elder statesmen chose Waterloo, a frontier encampment, over a more civilized but fever-prone rival on the coast. The encampment became a town, and pioneers arrived, full of grand ideas, but they soon discovered that the thin soils were inhospitable to their more ambitious schemes. They settled. They suppressed their fantasies and consoled themselves with books, music, and ale. Waterloo grew to be a center of learning, a good town for live entertainment, and an incubator of laziness. Rather than visionaries, the city would eventually harbor state legislators and musicians, two populations who, despite their very different styles of dress, were united in their desires not to have to work too hard, to be locally renowned, and to drink beer paid for by somebody else. In this they were generally content, though when the weather shifted, one could occasionally catch a whiff of old buried ambitions.

Only then, only after Waterloo had spent more than a hundred years wallowing in the sun, was it hit by boom times, much as this ran counter to its indigenous spirit. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the city sprung an economy like a leak, like a tear in the cloud cover, and money poured down, into new enterprises created with the toss of a wrist, a couple of keystrokes. High technology sent its conquistadors; builders rushed into action. The air grew thick with sawdust and receipts.

And the poor old musicians, the state employees, the bookstore clerks — they stumbled through the malls and office parks, bewildered, uneasy, cursing under their breath, hoping that some portion of the windfall might find its way into their own ragged pockets, yet forever wishing it had all turned out differently. They couldn’t help themselves.

Idealized Austin picnic table image found here.


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