Confessions of Front-Porch Realist


Ardent localist am I! This much is obvious, I am sure, to anyone who has followed this Weblog or read my contributions at Post Right. Although I have recently been absent from the comment boxes at Front Porch Republic (not to mention from blogging, as well as most other intellectual pursuits), I remain one of the firmest believers in the front-porch ethos around. Nonetheless, I am aware that FPR is not immune to mistakes, many of which PoMoCons, inter alios — including Front Porchers calling out their own — have aired. Perhaps, however, the most damning criticism of the localist ethos is neither “We can’t pretend that the Enlightenment didn’t happen” nor “Markets, markets, markets!” (Besides, what matter are marketplaces, not abstractions known as “markets”, but I digress.) Rather, it is reality that besmirches most effectively the glowing visage of the front-porch republic: Not the reality of lattes, Target, and LCD-television comfort, but the reality of brain drains, blinkered bumpkinism, and economic evisceration, of low-brow, low-church culture illiteracy. Neither the sages of the porch nor their combatants would deny this, but I fear that, too often, this is glossed over amidst much of the very important head-butting held over Bourbon and banjoes on the rickety veranda.

Since late May, I’ve been living — again, at age twenty-five and possessing a master’s degree, yes — with my parents in rural North Judson, Indiana. In theory, this place is the apotheosis of the front-porch republic: a small, fairly compact town with an obvious central business district that still has some businesses left facing it; houses positioned fairly close to the street (often, though not always, with sidewalks betwixt the two, and with garages off of alleys, rather than facing the street); people who know each other well, and so on. One of my greatest joys these days is ambling down the street (really, along the right-of-way of the non-existent alley, behind my immediate neighbor’s fence) to neighbors Mike and Becky’s place. I divide my time there between drinking beer (usually, I lamentably note, mass-produced, canned swill, but, hey, it’s Mike’s beer, it’s free, and de gustibus non est disputandum — and it’s beer!) and watching football with Mike and assisting him (in, for instance, the effort to turn his garage into a “Mancave”), and entertaining their four absolutely wonderful children. A good number of people in town and the surrounding area know me — either because I worked at the grocery store years, or because they know one or both of my parents —, and most think fairly highly of me. One member of the town council, knowing that I have my degree in planning, has spoken to me about working on a master plan for the town, and some years ago, the then-president of the council implored me to run for the open seat in my district. (I apologize for the self-aggrandizing digression; I aim merely to emphasize the Mayberry-esque side of my humble hamlet.)

Alas, for the educated, community-oriented, twenty-something localist, the dark side of small-town life rears its ugly head ferociously and frequently. Living on my own, in suburban Maryland, I had to feed myself, and when I did so, I ate much healthier — more conscientiously and consistently — than I ever had or have since coming home. Granted, now, Mommy does most of the grocery shopping, and does so at a number of stores, independent and chain, locally and regionally, but when I do buy for myself, I prefer to give business to my former employer out of persistent gratitude, because he’s (one of the) local grocer(s), and because the store has historical familial significance to me — and because I rarely have the time or desire to travel just for food. This makes eating well difficult: most problematically, the variety and quality of fresh fruits and vegetables leave so much to be desired; finding diet or low-calorie anything to drink (other than pop, or “soda”) is typically just as troublesome. And that’s to say nothing of eating well: To be even a novice epicure is unfathomably difficult here. (And our humble liquor store, reliable as it is for a decent surprise six-pack and your typical booze fare, keeps in stock neither a one single-malt Scotch nor a bottle of wine that costs more than ten bucks!) Get me started not on other retail options: The day I can find a book (other than some trashy used romance novel!) in town, or a c.d., let alone clothing or accessories in North Judson, oh, happy day!

Ah, but I complain too trivially.

Right now, my pittance comes to me for a half-time internship that I hold thirty miles away. Now, nothing compelled me to take the internship, but getting my feet wet, so to speak, in my field has been good for me, and although I received my degree without fulfilling the internship requirement, I felt something of an obligation to uphold a gentlemen’s agreement made with my program’s director. Moreover, I wanted, at least for the time, to remain (close to) home: Despite the entire point of this disquisition, I am quite fond of this little burg, and I felt, and still feel, the tugs of familial obligation. And there just ain’t a lot of good work in these parts. One evening, out for my post meridiem perambulation, I stopped at the grocery store to visit. The cashier that night, who had worked under me during my tenure as night manager, remarked, “Everybody’s on food stamps.” Apparently, we Americans have escaped the recession, but in North Judson we’ve been enduring a depression for quite some time. I am fortunate to have the options afforded to me by a bachelor’s degree from a top-tier university and a master’s degree in a field in which demand for drones still exists, so I’m not doomed to remain here, as others are. However, as is the case for some others, I should like to remain here. But money, I hear, talks, and slowly, but surely, it has been speaking more loudly. I have student loans to repay; someday I hope to raise a family; and we have a wonderful Sears Catalog Home on the farm, built in 1913, in which my grandfather was born and raised, that I should positively love to restore.

Notwithstanding one beer-and-Bourbon-fueled night at Brantwood with one of my best friends since elementary school, intellectual stimulation has excused itself from my real, social life in North Judson. Multiple stacks of books line my bedroom, and I read — too slowly, too infrequently —, but reading loses its luster when I’ve no one with whom to discuss what I’ve ingested. So, it is the Internet that is my solace: Weblogs and instant-messenger conversations constitute the bulk of my mental activity these days. Although this is far better than nothing, and often truly enjoyable, it lacks something. I hate the dependence on technology that it demands, but I also bewail the incompleteness of the conversations. Tenor, timbre, pitch, tone — these are all lost in the flatness of typed discourse. I travel to Chicago every weekend for a Latin class, the only social intellectual stimulation upon which I can count regularly. I have to drive ninety miles to make muh brain wurk. Exercises such as this posting help, but, even if I have the pleasure of replying to a dozen comments, from a dozen people (Not holding my breath!), it will not be the same as if I were discussing this topic with only one person over coffee.

Presently, Nisbet’s The Quest for Community has my all-too-easily distracted attention; I sincerely doubt that anyone else in North Judson has even heard of this work. How am I to venture into the local coffee shop hoping to discuss Nisbet under such circumstances? Perhaps I am too harsh in making this point: Folk needn’t all to be intellectually oriented as I am, but this total isolation become impoverishing.

Regrettably, perhaps it is spiritually that the reality of the front-porch-with-holes-in-the-floor life most deeply impoverishes. As I noted above, every Sunday morning (save the Friday evening when I headed up early to attend a debate held by a fantastic conservative student organization at the University of Chicago — talk about stimulation!) I drive to Chicago for an hour-long beginners’ Latin course. A parish, St. John Cantius, offers the course, and I remain at the church for Mass, usually spending seventy-five minutes reading between class and the twelve-thirty Mass. That I have not attended Mass at my home parish in more than a month saddens me: This is the parish in which I was welcome into the Church through all of the Sacraments of Initiation, where my parents were married, and where my paternal grandmother played the organ for sixty-five years. It’s my parish, in my hometown, where I was an altar boy for years, a church to which I can walk in a few minutes.

And yet, despite the very un-front-porchiness of it all, I cannot really regret eschewing the local Mass for that offered by Cantius. Excluding the occasion rendering of the “Gloria”, I recall no point since 2002 at which a parish priest has uttered a word of Latin; at Cantius, I attend Latin Masses exclusively, sometimes the Novus Ordo, but generally the Tridentine High Mass. At Ss. Cyril & Methodious, altar girls (and, on rare occasion, boys) wear sandals while serving the altar! At Cantius, only males serve, and the sense of reverence and decorum that they show is impeccable. The æsthetic grandeur of St. John Cantius is truly awe-inspiring and spiritually uplifting. Despite a respectable attempt to improve the church’s interior appearance a few years ago, by and large, Ss. S&M remains the mutilated victim of post-Vatican II whitewashing. Lastly, Ss. C&M is a parish; Cantius is a community of faith (and I mean this in the best way possible). It’s vibrant, with families of four and five children, classes, reading groups, a schola cantorum, the church-basement café where I do my reading, and the Canons Regular. And orthodoxy! My home parish, yes, has the Knights and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, but it just isn’t the vigorous stronghold of faith that encourages the flourishing of the Faith.

Again, the localists at FPR are hardly ignorant of these issues, but these concerns receive far too little attention, except, perchance, as a criticism of those of us who raise high the small-is-beautiful banner. North Judson needs front-porch republicans: The free-market social conservative, however much he sympathizes, ultimately gives in to the forces of Progress, pronouncing the inevitability of the desiccation of Middle America, embracing his suburban lifestyles, and taking comfort in the absence of government meddling in economic affairs, consequences be damned. I decidedly do not believe that small-town America is doomed, but it needs help. I’m not ready to abandon it; as I said, I want to raise a family in that restored farmhouse (on to which I shall make one addition: a real front porch), and I have much interest in doing whatever I can to help to devise a master plan for this town that guides it on the path to rebirth. But the front-porch right has to reconsider a few things. When industrialized agriculture and what remains of heavy industry in the Gary area are two of the more lucrative sources of employment for people here, our caterwauling against big, ugly, and mechanized — however on-target it generally be — needs to be tempered. Our highfalutin talk ‘bout Aristotle and Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch and the Anti-Federalists — as great as all them folk are — means very little to the great bulk of citizens of the crumbling republics; sometimes, we need to get into the nitty gritty of it all, realizing that, as much as we idealize the agrarian way, it is so far off of these people’s radars that to speak of it when trying to act meaningfully is almost pointless.

I love my front-porch republic; I can only hope that, someday, it is truly worthy of the mostly unconditional love that I shower on it. I hope that its loveliness becomes such that people choose to stay here — can choose to remain —, rather than be compelled to do so.

Architecture, the Public Realm, and Small-Town America

Returning to North Judson typically leads to my resuming a favored pastime, to wit, engaging in crosstown perambulations that usually lead me to no destination other than, ultimately, home, the starting point of these jaunts. In such an eminently walkable small town where I know as many citizens as I do, these generally prove to be most enjoyable ventures: often, I find myself conversing with a local shopkeeper (or barkeep!) or clers; buying a milkshake (a real milkshake, from our drive-in restaurant!) whereof my spare tire, vetoed by my taste buds, certainly has no need; or being beaten up by a cadre of small children who know me from the grocery store, my days umpiring, or my parish. Beyond these social benefits, of course, lie the salutary effects of exercise and breathing in fresh air, quite the change, literally and figuratively, from the time I spent inside the Capital Beltway, where the noxious fumes that I receive now only through the purifying filter of the television screen permeate the opaque gas that passes as “air”.

Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A Time


These frequent strolls are not without their more disheartening effects, though. The overly romantic vision of North Judson that I have consistently painted, in my mind and for others, whenever I have lived elsewhere over the last six-plus years, stands in stark contrast to the dilapidated, struggling hamlet that I call home. Most of the lots along our main drag fall into one of the following categories: Vacant, hosting an abandoned building, hosting some form of second-hand store. Most of the sites not doomed to one of these are home to only mildly successful businesses; few, if any, operations in North Judson truly thrive.

 

And Today

And Today

What, perhaps, vexes me most, though, is the tremendous decline in communal self-respect in North Judson, as evinced by the absolutely dreadful conception of “architecture” that has come to dominate. I recognize the folly of expecting to experience the emergence of neo-traditional architecture — or many new buildings, period — in these parts, but the sheer contrast between, for instance, the “chicken coop” (In my sharp-as-a-tack ninety-five-year-old grandfather’s words!) dance studio and the simple, but highly public Hoppe Hardware next door, is simply unbearable — and indefensible.

Learning Tap or Laying Eggs?

Learning Tap or Laying Eggs?

Hardware Americana

Hardware Americana

The grocery store to which I’ve given so much of my life offers a further example, one dating a few decades. The blame, I regrettably confess, lies not with present proprietor Ray Wajda, but with my antecedents, who replaced an incredible Victorian structure, burnt to a crisp in the late 1940s, with an all too unexceptional post-war grocery store. Find the original building here (and try not to vomit as you stumble through the prose) and the current monstrosity here. I note that, originally, the post-fire structure was no more insufferable than any similar building, and at least continued to meet the sidewalk. However, tired of damage done to the great plate-glass windows by children’s bikes, my great-uncles (I think!) opted to cover the glass-and-brick façade with that horrendous material now dressing the store; the giant plasticky “awning” I simply cannot explain.

Far more problematic than the civic disrespect shown by businesses (Certainly, this is not limited to the locals; quite contrarily, as we all know, the placeless giants positively thrive on flipping the proverbial middle finger to the public realm.) is the disregard shown to aesthetics by civic institutions, both governmental and private. In North Judson, three instances stand out.

1. Our civic center, home to the police department and setting of civic meetings. Though hardly grandiose, it previously was an appropriately humble, attractive local-government building, perfect for a Mayberry-esque burg in rural Indiana. (This holds true, at least, for the building’s anterior: The police garage, added to the rear of the building, makes for an absolutely abysmal view from our wonderful WPA park, Norwayne Field, our closest approximation to a town square, painstakingly renewed in the 1990s.)

We're just kidding when we say "civic".

We're just kidding when we say "civic".

The town building sits next to our Carnegie library, and the two complemented each other well. Until, that is, in an effort, understandable enough in itself, to permit less heat to escape through poorly sealed doors, our community leaders decided, rather than to spend a few more dollars to replace the doors with a more efficient entrance, to block it with cheap, too-bright siding that simply does not match, equally out-of-place windows (too small, with disproportionately small “decorative” shudders, to boot!), and a bench wholly useless to the public except immediately before and after meetings. (Boy, I sure am tired! I’d like to sit down; how about I ascend those steps, first?!) How better to show your contempt for those who elect you, whom you ostensibly serve, than to add to the denigration of their public realm?

Our Carnegie North Judson-Wayne Township Library

Our Carnegie North Judson-Wayne Township Library

2. The Masonic Lodge. I wish I had a photograph (I apologize, I should note, for the terribly amateur photography herein: I still refuse to purchase a digital camera, had no interest in lugging about my 35mm, and, so, resorted to my phone.) of the building that came down a few years ago. In truth, it was hardly spectacular: Thirty-some years ago, the Masons, dedicated to bettering their community as they are, probably in an attempt to stymie rising heating bills, bricked over their windows, thereby greeting those coming toward downtown from the east with an unfriendly gesture of totalitarian architecture. Finally giving up on what likely was a rundown lodge, they demolished it and, with much volunteer help, erected a new meeting hall. Now, I appreciate that construction ain’t cheap, but, surely, somehow, those nefarious anti-papists (I jest!) could have done better than this:

How Queer: No Masonry Required!

How Queer: No Masonry Required!

3. Finally, the newest visual assault, our in-the-works firehouse. The present station is far from exceptional, and that it needs to be replaced in undeniable: The roof is in terrible shape, mold has infected the interior, and its eventual destruction could pave the way, one hopes (perhaps too idealistically), for, ultimately, the removal of the water building, police garage, and water tower from the space — all in the name of complementing Norwayne Field with a small park (as once stood where the station now sits) or some other sort of civically pleasing addition. However, when I wrote a letter, on Ray’s Super Foods’ behalf, in support of the fire department’s request for grant money to make possible the construction of a new home, I had no idea that our community “leaders” would seek the lowest common denominator.

The Acceptable Current Station

The Acceptable Current Station


In one respect, notwithstanding the clear view the gap-toothed nature of Lane Street affords of this disaster, that the town has placed it off of the main drag, on land generously donated by a former businessman, pleases me. However, the urban planner within rarely fails to accompany me on these walks; long ago, I decided that I want, even at the cost of demolishing one of the senior-citizen apartments along Main St., to extend Railroad Street all the way to Main, and to extend the cross-streets from “downtown”, thereby creating additional blocks, ready to go when I succeed in turning North Judson into a small slice of thriving rural paradise. Thank you, perspicacious, short-sighted town leaders!
Our Atrocious Pole-Barn Fire House, Visible Through A Lane Street Gap

Our Atrocious Pole-Barn Fire House, Visible Through A Lane Street Gap


Again, I realize that building attractive stores, homes, and civic buildings costs more than most businesses, organizations, and government agencies in North Judson easily can afford. But I can’t shake from my mind the comment my grandfather, who is more than cognizant of the worthlessness of the dollar, especially relative to its value in his youth (Thank you, Federal Reserve!), made a couple of weeks ago: “Why is it that buildings today are so ugly, when they made such better buildings a hundred years ago? They didn’t have a lot of money.” Yes, finances play a part. However, deep down, the problem is more a symptom of cultural enervation, of the death of the public realm and community spirit, than it is of perpetual residence in or near the red. We need to demand more of our civil servants, of our entrepreneurs, and of our civic organizations. We need to demand more of ourselves, because we owe it to ourselves, to our forbears, and to our children. My great-grandfathers wouldn’t recognize the dump that their once-bustling, quasi-idyllic railroad town has become; I’d prefer that my descendants — should I have any and, God willing, should I see fit to raise them here — never have to experience a home so obviously torn apart by the predilections toward deracination, the cheap-and-easy, and the transient inherent in American “culture”.

Being Home.

Ah, rural Indiana! Fresh air; crystal-clear, star-filled skies; people who, rather puzzlingly, think highly of me. Not even forty-eight hours home, I heard that Ray’s Super Foods “needs” for me to return. For reasons best left unpublished, I cannot return to that place, as important as it is to me (See below, natch.); however, I wish to offer reflections thereupon and, thus, reflections upon living in a real place. Call it my very brief, spur-of-the-moment (a couple of years ago) Front Porch Republic-esque thoughts on North Judson, Indiana. This was initially part of my Facebook profile when I first returned to Ray’s Super Foods, as night manager, during my hiatus from academia.

***

In 1902, Joseph Dolezal and Joseph Sindelar, two Bohemian immigrants, both members of Ss. Cyril & Methodius Roman Catholic parish in North Judson, IN, partnered to enter the general merchandise and grocery business. Naming the store after themselves, they called their business Two Joes, Inc. Eventually Mr. Dolezal bought out Mr. Sindelar’s share and became sole proprietor of the business. After his death in the 1940s, his wife Blanche assumed ownership and three of their sons took over day-to-day operations. After Blanche passed away, son Cyril became the owner of the store.

In the 1970s, a young meatcutter by the name of Ray Okeley hired on at Two Joes. He became a fixture and for thirty years his dedication to his trade forged for the store a strong base of customers who settled for nothing less than Ray’s work.

In 1992, Cyril passed away and his wife Alice became sole owner of the store; along with her son Kenny, she ran the business until 1997, when, after ninety-five years in the grocery business, the Dolezal family sold Two Joes to Raymond J. Wajda, then of Lansing, IL. He renamed the store Ray’s Super Foods, and to this day continues to run the store. He has become a very active community leader, volunteering as a Little League coach and board member and giving generously both his time and his money to various causes.

On the morning of 27 June 2006, one week to the day before his sixtieth birthday, Ray Okeley succumbed to cancer that had, unbeknownst to him, infiltrated many of his organs. He passed away in front of his house, in his wife’s arms, as he prepared to leave for work.

Joseph Dolezal, an incredibly civic-minded individual who dedicated himself not only to his business, but to his family, his church, and his community, was my great-grandfather. I am the last descendant of Joseph and Blanche Dolezal to work at 324 Lane St. Over time Ray Okeley became a good friend of mine, about as close to me as any fifty-nine-year-old coworker could ever be to a twenty-two-year-old college grad. I hope now that people understand why, even though I have a degree from the University of Notre Dame, I continue to work for $8.50/hr in a small small-town grocery store.

Front Porches and Basketball Hoops: Americana Lives

Bill Kauffman had a wonderful piece up last week on Hoosiers, the great, fictionalized account of the 1954 Milan (IN) High School basketball team’s state championship. Things haven’t been the same since the mid-Nineteen-nineties, when the tyrants at the IHSAA ended class-free basketball and instituted athletic socialism, but Indiana high school basketball is still “where it’s at.”

Mr. Kauffman will be happy to know something, I think. Late Friday afternoon, from a gas station in Cumberland, MD, I called the barber in North Judson (Yes, we have only one barber — and a few salons.), Ed, who graduated from North Judson-San Pierre (Hurray, consolidation!) High School in the 1990s. I hoped to find an opening in his Saturday morning schedule, because I haven’t had the hairs shortened since January. (I’m very loyal to my barber!) Ed informed me that he’s not open this Saturday: He’ll be in the gym of our high school, rooting on our Blue Jays as they compete in the tournament regionals for the first time since 1996.

“Most of town will be there,” he said to me.

I pulled into town about twelve-thirty a.m.; along State Road Thirty-nine, I saw numerous homemade signs supporting the young basketballers; in storefronts downtown, I saw more of the same.

If I can get myself out of bed in time, (A dubious hypothetical!), I might just be in the high school gym come ten o’clock.

Go Jays! Long live the real America.

Update 1: I slept too late, and didn’t attend the game, but the Blue Jay won game one. They play again tonight. The chances of my attending are much greater.

Update 2: I missed the night game, too. I’m lame like that. BUT THE BLUE JAYS ARE HEADING TO SEMI-STATE!

Update 3: I can hear the fire trucks’ sirens, as town celebrates. God I love small-town America.

The scent of the mint on a warm September night is reassuring. It’s sexy.

I posted the following on my Xanga page at two fifty-nine a.m. on the twelfth of September, back in 2005. So long ago! I had headed home for the day — or maybe only for a couple of hours –, and on my way back to Notre Dame, thoughts emerged in my head, as I breathed deeply the heavenly scent of mint whilst heading north on US 35 north of Knox, that later that night became this post. In the spring of 2006, under a title that I don’t recall, it ran in Common Sense, the left-wing student-run paper at Notre Dame. (Yes, I wrote for a left-wing paper.) Perhaps not the most scintillating piece that I’ve ever written, it nevertheless conveys a degree of emotion that I usually refrain — or at least try to — from allowing to slip into my writing. Doubtless, some edits, particularly for any typos in the original post, occurred prior to the run in C.S.; I published here, at Nathancontramundi in March, and, back in North Judson, have decided to re-post it because, as I drove north on IN 39, about five twenty this morning, the intoxicating aroma of mint hit me for the first time in far too long. Now, as in March, I present it, errors intact, as I posted it on Xanga.

***

A certain security exists in the nighttime drive through mint country in late summer. The calm breeze, wafting that strong, almost intoxicating (but not in an inebrious way) scent of mint, sets the soul at ease. I know that the drought-like conditions of the past summer stunted terribly the yields, and that farmers will suffer this as they continue the struggle required simply to make ends meet. But the sense of safety is still present.

I fear that this is a false sense; perhaps for me it isn’t, but for the mint country of rural Indiana that is my home justification for this fear is plentiful. Maybe, though, it’s not the people, my neighbors, who fear for themselves. Rather, I fear for them.

I don’t, I think, risk misrepresenting myself very much when I assert that I come to Notre Dame from a place inconceivably different from the cities, suburbs, and communites whence most of my peers moved on to Our Lady’s University. A few certainly knew conditions worse than those that surround me whenever I venture home; some, even worse. Most though, without a doubt, can only imagine what life is like for the “ordinary people”. Maybe they can’t.

The student body of this school is known for its involvement in service projects; for this they ought to be commended. Taking oneself out of the comforts of the upper-middle class world, if only for a weekend, or even for an hour, requires a love of neighbor that in many is little more than skin-deep, little more than a clever disguise for self-centered intentions. Some students, quite admirably, have even pulled themselves out of the comforts of this country to cohabitate with some of the most abused, ignored, pawn-like members of our society, starving, victimized humans in Uganda, or Costa Rica, or Southeast Asia.

Most of them barely get it, though. Or so it seems to me. Their concern, their attempt to rally support for their causes, is sincere. Nevertheless, only a couple, maybe just those who’ve freed themselves from the security of living in this country — along, of course, with the very few who emerged from settings similar to or worse than mine — really, truly, deeply understand.

I’ve always been fortunate, lucky, blessed, whatever you will. My family’s roots in my community reach far deeper than most of my peers’; my mom and dad, employed as a medical assistant and a rural mail carrier, respectively, earn income that, for our area, is reasonably high. It’s not the same as the annual salaries of lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers, but it typically suffices, or at least it did before bills from two universities started arriving in the mail; at least it did before my dad was out of work for half a year because of health problems.

I’m fortunate; but I’m surrounded by the down-trodden. Starke County, Indiana, which happens to border the extreme southwest corner of St. Joseph County, is the second poorest, if not the poorest, county in Indiana, by no means the wealthiest of states. This past summer, serving as an assistant manager in the grocery store where I’ve worked since July of 2000, I earned $8.00/hr. That was good money.

Most of the jobs that actually exist in my hometown are in the retail sector. Retail, across the board, across the country, is always at the low end of the wage spectrum. Here in North Judson, wedged in between acres of corn, mint, and hay, it hits rock bottom. Some of us earn, say, $6.00/hr, nothing about which to brag, for sitting atop the lifeguard chair at the country club’s pool. The pay perhaps fails to suffice, but the workload, the seasonality of the job, and our age combine to provide some sort of justification for this.

Single mothers working eight-hour days on their feet, serving up $13.99 prime rib meals or standing at the cash register, allowing their souls quietly to slip away, find any sort of justification or satisfaction to be something chimerical. Or at least they view satisfaction quite differently. For some of our parents, our attending Notre Dame was an attainable form of satisfaction. For many whom I know, clean clothes, functioning shoes, and three (with help often from school lunch programs) squares for their kids add up to satisfaction. The car payment might have to wait; rent, too; but the kids will not go to bed hungry. It takes work. It takes love. It takes every ounce of being.

My passionate hatred for Wal*Mart, my detestation of most things corporate, is by now known to many. Nevertheless, criticizing wholly, without any sympathy, those who skip over my employer’s store, or perhaps only “cherry-pick” there, and drive thirty miles to Wal-Mart troubles me too much. When I am aware that a fellow student recently has been to Wal*Mart, or will be heading there, or to Target, or Meijer, or many similar stores, I typically lose the slightest bit of respect for him. Usually a student here need not frequent the store because of legitimate financial hardship. It just happens to be cheaper. We should know better, but we don’t.

People back home, even some who earn those meager wages working in a grocery store that without question suffers from the Waltons’ presence thirty miles away, need to go to Wal*Mart.

Of course, because of the dearth of jobs in town, many flock to this same store seeking employment. Some of them actually make a bit more than they would in town, at least before the costs of gasoline and eventually repair of problems caused by the wear and tear of the trip on the car are factored into the equation.

In a way, the seemingly ever-increasing prices at the pump benefit my home town. Driving thirty miles to W*M does not result in the same overall savings that it once did. As much as I rejoice at the possibility of even slight growth in economic activity on Lane St., this saddens me. The entire system is broken; as long as it is, shopping locally will hurt them as much as it helps them. And now, it seems, the harm of shopping at Wal*Mart has become more visible. Escape, though, is virtually impossible.

What, on cursory glance, at least by “progressive” standards, provides the most trouble is that these people never vote “in their best interests”. Democrats typically in the past, though not so much of late, have retained a stranglehold over much of local politics. But this is the oft-forgotten rural, conservative branch of the Democratic party. The same electorate constantly supports the GOP in the presidential elections, not to mention Senatorial and Congressional races.

A sense of puzzlement, sometimes even resentment, emerges in those who look at this scenario from the left. These lookers-on just don’t get it. They can rant for days about “Jesusland” and “off-shoring” and about the ignorance of these people. But they can’t know. These are two different worlds. The separation between them, though, is far from merely an economic one.

Faith in God, particularly of various Protestant persuasions, drives these people. Even those who end up giving birth to five children by four different fathers have this faith. Even those who get drunk on Saturday night and end up in bed with a near-stranger and then walk into church in their Sunday best without a hint of shame on their faces have it. And it’s not a matter of simple hypocrisy. It’s a matter of existence. Failing always to live up to the standards that one professes indicates not hypocrisy at its heights, but instead humanity as it really is.

This faith is nearly incomprehensible to many of its secular critics. It still baffles me as a Catholic, even though I’ve grown up surrounded by it, sometimes threatened by it, sometimes strangely encouraged by it. The Republicans may someday lose this sector, but the Democrats likely never will gain it. Inroads may be made, but no great ideological shift will occur. Part of it is psychological: the Republicans at least seem to welcome God-fearing people, while the Democrats, at least in these minds, do not.

Something more, I suspect, is at play here, too. Many of these people rely on welfare programs. A heck of a lot of them abuse these same programs. Some of them would be in the street without hand-outs courtesy of you, me, and the rest of tax-paying America. However, a certain sort of unseen, almost undetectable resentment accompanies the reliance on, and even the abuses of, the welfare state.

The father whose job disappeared from under his nose and whose unemployment benefits have run dry often cannot help feeling shame as he opens that check, as he signs it, as he cashes it; cannot help feeling embarrassed as he hands his HoosierWorks card over to the cashier as a teenage boy, perhaps a friend of his son’s, bags the bread, eggs, and lunchmeat for $6.00/hr. Six whole dollars each hour, six dollars worked for, and not received from a helping hand. The same welfare programs intended by the Democrats (and, perhaps still beyond the realization of this father, the GOP by now as well) to help the man hurts him. He becomes a slave, and as long as the system runs as it does, he’ll remain a slave, even if he gets back on his feet. Because wage slavery and welfare slavery, at the core of the matter, are frighteningly similar.

But I’ve digressed even further than I often tend to do. Back to the mint. Dismal thoughts of drought-caused yield reductions aside, the scent of the mint on a warm September night is reassuring. It’s sexy. This is the smell of life and death, of love and hate, of humanity. It’s the smell of fear.

Not until one smells the mint can one begin really to understand what it all means — the plight, the faith, the strange reassurance, the hope. Only then.