by Mary Kate Skehan
Well, I finally met the mayor.
I was minding my own business, drinking a beer and reading a magazine at the bar on the ground floor of my apartment building on a hot bright evening in early summer, when a middle-aged man with a German shepherd asked whether he could join me. Openly sitting alone, like bicycle commuting, riding mass transit, and crying in public, is one of those little luxuries I often enjoyed when I lived in New York City. They are all frowned upon here. But since I happened to be reading an article in the former Atlantic Monthly about the public-health scourge of thirty-something white women drinking alone, I agreed. I’d already paid my bill, anyway.
This man was not the mayor, but between asking me whether I like bourbon (I don’t) and giving me a detailed account of the renovations on the several houses he owns (right around the corner, by the way), he repeatedly and pointedly asked the waitress whether she’d seen the mayor; he was meeting him here. I believe this was meant to impress me, and it did. I’ve wanted to meet the mayor for months, and it seems the best way to do it is to run into one of his drinking buddies.
The mayor has a lot of drinking buddies, actually. Hang around downtown enough, and you’ll see him greeting constituents around one a.m. in those carpeted backroom smoking bars still legal in Pennsylvania, the ones where you buy rum-and-cokes in plastic Yuengling pitchers and Parliaments from a vending machine. Last August, a police officer resigning from the force announced, as a parting shot, that the department had received repeated complaints of the mayor smoking crack cocaine in late-night bars. The mayor denied the allegations and released a clean drug test, but you don’t have to watch The West Wing to know that once officials are forced to deny public crack cocaine use, they’ve pretty much already lost that battle. The good news for the mayor is, nobody seems to care.
He’s not our first rather beleaguered mayor; when I was a kid, the guy with that job was arrested on actual murder charges. He was a former police officer accused of participating in a drive-by shooting with a white supremacist gang during the race riots in the Sixties. He was acquitted of the murder, though not of the white supremacy. After that, the mayors were pretty boring for a few decades. Then the populist wave of 2016-2017 swept our current mayor into power. His politics aren’t specifically populist—his job before mayor was “Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper”—but he has a ponytail and a marijuana charge from the early Nineties, which more or less qualifies you as an “outsider” around here.
Running a third-class Pennsylvania city is not for the faint of heart. My five-square-mile city is surrounded by seventy-two independent municipalities, little villages and townships and boroughs with a dozen houses, a swingset, and a low-Protestant church. Because of the antiquated finance rules governing cities like mine, we have no way of raising revenue from these municipalities, though we do provide them with services (police, fire departments) and infrastructure (roads, water, sewers). A century ago, my city limits contained thriving factories and mills, whose laborers lived in these little townships, but now that manufacturing is gone, and more than half our real estate is non-taxable. Healthcare and pension obligations far exceed our revenue. This is a pretty familiar story: Altoona, Scranton, Harrisburg, and even Pittsburgh have all been in similar positions.
The state of Pennsylvania has dealt with the problem of its small cities going broke by instituting the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act, known ominously as “Act Forty-Seven.” This is a kind of austerity plan for struggling cities like mine, involving some benefits—more flexibility in the taxes we can levy—and a lot of discipline. Think Dave Ramsey in City Hall. To avoid the invocation of Act Forty-Seven, the mayor enrolled the city in a risibly named “Early Intervention Program,” which of course arrives decades after the jobs left. The state sent us a troupe of financial consultants who pored over our books for a few years, and in the end recommended that the city sell its wastewater treatment system to a publicly traded company called American Water for two-hundred thirty-five million dollars. American Water’s Pennsylvania subsidiary will now collect the sewer bills of every county resident in the system, trading us an immediate cash infusion for a recurring source of revenue and control of our vital infrastructure. To put this another way, the consultants advised the mayor that the city’s only option for staving off bankruptcy was to sell our own shit on the stock market. Which we have done.
The sale was controversial, and the mayor won support for it by going door-to-door and pleading with constituents: if we didn’t sign the deal, property taxes would double, he would have no choice. But now, with our last real resource and recurring revenue stream (so to speak) sold off, the city is desperate for lasting economic development.
For a while, this looked like it would come from the unlikeliest of sources: the late-grunge rock band Live. You might recognize Live’s biggest singles, “Lightning Crashes” and “I Alone,” from your local Dad rock station. Perhaps you’re even one of the misguided souls who have listened to those songs a combined two-hundred million times on Spotify. Anyway, the band is from here; they met in the city middle school in the late Eighties. As The Beatles are to Liverpool or Prince is to Minneapolis, Live is to my city. And three decades after their prime, they announced a major project designed to bring our local economy into the twenty-first century.
A note on Live: they haven’t always been such loyal hometown boys. On their eight-times platinum album Throwing Copper, they recorded a song called “Shit Towne” about the city. It includes lyrics like “The crackheads, they live down the street from me.” I’ve always considered this a little harsh; I grew up on that street, and it wasn’t so bad. Heck, the current mayor didn’t even live there. Shortly before Live hit the big time, the whole band came to my big brother’s tenth birthday party with a bag full of autographed merch, which may have been worth something if we hadn’t immediately scratched the CDs and pasted the stickers to our bedframes and walls and bodies. We were not permitted to listen to the music, except for the censored versions on the radio.
Eventually, Live started to feel better about the city, I guess, because a few years ago members of the band announced a major project to revitalize the city’s economy: a high-speed fiber-optic cable that would run from New York City to a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. The neighborhood garage band is all grown up; data is the new punk rock.
Unfortunately, they made some poor personnel decisions, like hiring a C.E.O. with a rap sheet worthy of a Dickens villain, including burglary, fraud, and Army desertion. This C.E.O. appears to have taken millions in public funds—provided recently by government paycheck protection loans, and previously by state and local grants—and spent them mostly on publicity stunts. In 2015, he donated thirty thousand dollars to Kate Gosselin’s charity on an episode of The Celebrity Apprentice. It is also alleged that he used company funds to support his hobby racing Stadium Super Trucks, which is a literal stunt involving tiny pickup trucks with giant wheels doing flips off skateboard ramps. Most extravagantly, before the fiber-optic cable was even laid, this C.E.O. spent fifteen million dollars sponsoring Marco Andretti’s race car.
He’s not the C.E.O. anymore—he’s busy being prosecuted for sex crimes—but perhaps it’s obvious by now that the fiber-optic “solutions” company didn’t deliver on its promise to transform the city’s economy. We are resigned to our fate as a literal Shit Towne. Live can recoup whatever losses it incurred in the fiber-optic fiasco by going on a reunion tour to South Africa, but the mayor hasn’t got that option.
It’s a hard job he has, our poor mayor. When I finally met him at the bar that night with his seedy friend, he looked haggard and exhausted, a cross between a Civil War re-enactor and, well, a guy who smokes crack at the bar: prematurely silver hair in a ponytail, scraggly beard, rough skin, cargo shorts. He lit up when I told him my last name, though: he knows my dad, my brother, my other brother. He complimented my nieces and nephews for being cute (they are) and praised my dad for running the local baseball league (he does). I thought for a minute about doing a concerned-citizen act and confronting the mayor: how could he agree to the sale of our necessary infrastructure, how could he have let these fiber-optic pirates swindle the community, was he really smoking crack at the joint across the street? But it’s a hard job, running a place like this; he looks like he’s aged twenty years since his campaign photo was taken. While I send emails to New York all day from my perch above our city, and occasionally skim the local paper for writing material, he’s actually responsible for this crazy place. I clinked his pint glass and went back upstairs.
These days, I see him often; at the farmer’s market, at the minor league baseball stadium, at the block party. A few weeks ago, he went to see a band of local dads play Led Zeppelin covers at the brewpub behind my apartment. He stood beyond the perimeter of the patio, with his ponytail and tie-dye shirt, smoking placidly. We waved to each other. When my boyfriend returned from the bathroom, I whispered excitedly: Look, the mayor! But he had already gone.
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