STRANGERS FROM A STRANGE PAST

Friends,

For the past 40 years I’ve lived in the mountains of Northern Vermont, in what Governor George Aiken in the 1940s called “My Northeast Kingdom”. I came here for the wilderness and isolation. What I found here were people just like my relatives in Cleveland: working class, uneducated, kindly (for the most part) people who struggled–really struggled and without complaint–to get by. I felt at home. What has happened in and to this place in the past 40 years troubles me greatly.

The last time we did JUDEVINE, one of my plays, in Vermont, we treated it as a period piece since it takes place from 1970 to 1990 in Vermont and also because most people don’t know anything about Vietnam anymore. But recently I’ve been thinking how all the characters in Judevine–not just Vietnam Vet, Tommy Stames–are characters from the past.

Vermont has changed so much in the last 40-plus years that all the characters in Judevine are now strangers from a strange past. You can still see these people; they’re still here, but you’ve got to look. They have become genuinely invisible, in Ralph Ellison’s sense of that word. They’re the carpenters who come to work on your house or chambermaids in motels in Stowe or waitresses or cooks or the people who clean your house or other people who serve you in one way or another. Other than this contact between the servant and the served, there is little or no contact between the old and the new Vermonters.

This is not the way it was before we new Vermonters overwhelmed the old Vermonters. Forty years ago or more–when the Back-to-the-Land-Movement began–there was a modicum of equality between the new and the old Vermonters, if only because there were so few new Vermonters. We were the few students and the old timers were the many teachers and this place was the classroom. But now the old timers are almost all dead and we newcomers are the old timers and our children have joined the recently arrived to make the new newcomers.

All this is the inevitable march of time, of generations, I suppose, but with it has come, at least for me, a sadness about what has happened to this place. There is a separation, a segregation, here now that was not here 40 years ago, and that separation, segregation–choose your word–is economic. The newcomers, whether they are older, middle aged or young, are now the rich and the older Vermonters are the poor.

I suppose this is a nationwide phenomenon now since we have become a nation of servants and the served–it is after all a service economy now–but when I came here forty years ago I had a dream of escaping that rich/poor way of living life and living life instead in a more egalitarian way. This, by the way, is why poor artists have always moved to poor neighborhoods, first because it was a cheap way to live and second because it afforded the artists a way to escape from the rich/poor divisions that so often separate, segregate, people in a place.

I have no conclusions, no recommendations. This is instead an expression of grief, of regret for a time that is gone and will never return. This is a moan for the loss of those strangers from a strange past that some of us used to know.

Sincerely, David Budbill

P.S.–I’ve been blogging every Monday morning faithfully since November 28, 2011. With this blog, I’m going to begin blogging irregularly for a while.