Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Upstate Blues

Christmas has come and gone, even for the Eastern Orthodox, and the stores are looking ahead to Valentine’s Day. But many upstate lawns still have their Christmas decorations: Santa, Frosty, inflated penguins (penguins were big this year, even though they don’t live at the North Pole). They stand like unbudgeable guests who have stayed at a party after the host has unplugged the coffee urn and gone to bed. They are better-humored, for they are still waving merrily, but the feelings they induce are unsettling. They have lingered past their time, like ghosts. They represent the black backside of upstate: depression.

Depression manifests itself in lack of will. That is what the belated Santas show. People, in a burst of holiday cheer or a bout of family obligation, put them out. But those same people are unable or unwilling to take them down. Routine is supposed to be the great deadener of souls; how much worse is the half-completed task, the broken round, the unfulfilled routine?

As usual there is a diagnosis for it — seasonal affective disorder — and as usual it tells only part of the story. The cold keeps people inside and makes them stir-crazy, while the short days put them spiritually to sleep. Cold is no friend: It slips in, through door cracks and floorboards, and slaps your face as soon as you step outside. Bundling up to keep it off makes you heavy and stiff. Dusk at five o’clock is no pick-me-up either. Maybe bears have the right idea: grow a girdle of fat and go to sleep. But, although the cold stays until February, the light starts growing longer after the solstice, and becomes noticeably so by New Year’s. Besides, winter can’t explain why so many people upstate seem depressed all year long.

What are the signs of depression? How about piles of stuff in the yard? This is a tricky point. One of the benefits of owning an acre of land is that you have room to put stuff. Rural residential zoning allows you to put down anything, short of a junkyard, and rural gun ownership guarantees that it will stay put, though who would want a pile of field stone anyway? But sometimes the stack of two-by-fours, or the rusted-out burn barrel, or the boat under a tarp, or the truck with a mismatched hood and fender and a notional price chalked on its windshield (the price and the truck haven’t changed in years), or all of these things together cross the line from husbandry to clutter. “If a man have not order within him, he cannot spread order about him,” said Ezra Pound, who should have known about inner disorder. Some lawns have all the cheer of old cemeteries.

#page#Another sign of depression is the un­painted outbuilding. Here again it is a matter of degree. The weathered barn slat can look like a wise face in an old photograph: Lincoln, Whitman. But when the slats begin to show gaps, trouble has begun. Once the horizontals and the verticals start to slip and sag, the end is near: Only an effort on the order of Robert Moses can save the outbuilding now. I remember a two-storey house on the grounds of a small, broken-down summer resort (but not dead — cars and laundry always decorate a handful of the cottages come July). Its collapse took about two weeks; my friend Doug, who has put up many buildings in his time, said, with grim relish, “It’s moving!” A good wet snow brings the untended outbuilding down, like a bomb. The degrees of serious depression are measured by how long the pieces stay, uncleared.

A more brutal sign of depression is drink. Our drug habits fatten Mexican gang lords and al-Qaeda, but the most destructive drug in America is what it has always been, John Barleycorn. An Indian storeowner — all the gas stations and convenience stores upstate are owned by Indians — took the pulse of his neighbors and opened a warehouse behind his grocery store, entirely devoted to alcohol. It reflects market segmentation: One half is for beer, the other half is for wine and spirits. He is not going broke. As destructive as the booze are the lottery tickets, colored spools of them dangling at every cash register. A mathematician I know calls lotteries the stupidity tax. They strike me as the hope of the hopeless. I can see the rough justice in allowing American Indians to plunder us via casinos. But why do the state governments, which we elect, turn on the credulous who haven’t managed to get to Foxwoods?

Work might be the cure, but where are people supposed to work upstate? The job market is grim. There are the irreducibles: government, including schools; stores; services; professions; restaurants and bars. Then there are the local businesses: resorts; a handful of farms; prisons. Then there are the alternative businesses, which barely make it: You can’t throw a brick where I am without hitting a masseuse. This is the infrastructure of a ghost economy. Resorts and prisons are for outsiders. Schools educate the young (to do what?). Aside from the farms, what is the rest but taking in each other’s washing? Xton, in one direction, used to have an IBM plant (we know what happened to that), and Yville, in the other direction, had a factory that made television antennas. Thanks to a broken oven safety valve, I am now using one of those old antennas as a lever to turn the propane line on and off. I borrowed it from Doug; it has not pulled in a show since Ed Sullivan went off the air, and the factory was sold and moved about then too. Given the tax structure of New York, a businessman who had any choice would be insane to set up here. Few do.

So, in one of earth’s garden spots, Adam and Eve sit. The Santas will come down about March.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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