When the fog rolled in at dusk the Safeway parking lot lights turned the gray to a dusky orange and the asphalt was yellow. Highway 1 murmured in the background. On the far side of the highway was the big darkness of the old mill. We have always been separated in our little city from the ocean. It is our existential destiny. Here on the banks of the highway, the town is to the east and to the west is our huge empty space. Our invisible friend. This evening even at dusk the mill site sulks in impenetrable darkness, a void between houses and stores and the barely audible ocean. As the sun goes down behind the fog, it seems to be space without any substance, but the weight of darkness. It is a nowhere. We don’t see it on principle. What is there to look at? A wasted moment entombed in the dense fog.
Down the highway our permanent parade of big box stores are sentinels punching illumination through the fog with their own parking lot lights. The big boxes are commercial diplomats from an unknown world that somehow produces everything we use and packages it in plastic for us. Our camouflage hunting jackets come from China. Safeway, RiteAid, CVS, Denny’s take most of our money. Our local commercial ventures abide in the interstices, modest and utilitarian. Hanging in there. The Fort Bragg Safeway is the most profitable store in the Safeway-Albertson chain, dragging down $43 million in annual gross sales.
Since Judi Bari shamed them in to closing the mill. the city has been on its own. Like any other unemployed wayfarer would logically do, the town got collectively into line at the infinite fountain of public assistance. Our then newly imported City Manager showed us how to do it. When they shut down the mill 54% of the city had declarable incomes below the official poverty line. In almost 20 years that has not changed. Our comparative poverty put us in the top tier of Community Development Block Grant applicants.
The federal money kept trickling in over the years to the wild applause of the retirees and the transplants who bought the foreclosed houses. It was not prosperity, but they did not lock the doors and turn off the lights.
I guess we are a tourist town now. But it doesn’t really fit the local character. Like a middle-aged factory worker schlepping at McDonald’s, we try. Sixteen owners own all the inns and hotels — a local aristocracy, but very unpretentious and practical. City hall would like them to be more interested in getting a favor but they don’t need city hall. We voted them a subsidy anyway, a big fat one out of the sales tax. Linda Ruffing gobbled it up with a sneer. The innkeepers don’t care.
I do not have much to contribute to the well being of society, but what I can do is humbly attend to the public dialogue as it unwraps. I watch the stream of business in our little town as it is chopped up and put over at official meetings. I talk to people. It is about what I can handle. I have not really excelled at it but I have found I don’t mind doing it. It is interesting to me in the way that some people find it interesting to watch birds. The unsustainability of the local political rabble encourages attendance. Meetings provide the stage from which they issue their announcements and policy schemes. The unfurling of official policy has a celebratory self-congratulatory tone that cordially invites mockery. You have to laugh.
In Fort Bragg we buy our government just like you buy a hairbrush at the dollar store. It does not pay to ask where it came from. We hire technicians carefully trained in arcane arts of urban planning, accounting and law to run the show. They come to us from the wide world. We import our managers and strive to keep up appearances by electing the provisional oversight of the City Council. It is democracy diffused. The Fort Bragg City council is basically a voluntary community service. They kick them $300 a month and a nice little basket of bennies.
The pros down at city hall understand customer service. They smile and bow and accommodate the rubes on the council without missing a beat in their uncontestable program of crafted federal funding. They put it over with guile and grace. The City Council looks respectfully on and duly emanates an occasional grunt of incomprehension. Our city water and sewer bill increase arrived just in time to cover a hole in the bucket but the increase was planned and approved long ago. They, unlike you know what is coming down the river. But they have the vision and imagination of bureaucrats everywhere. When they need a good idea they hire a consultant.
The City Council that ran afoul of the public did it by keeping faith with the City Manager. The old council is gone but the situation is the same. Linda Ruffing has a majority on the council. Will Lee jumped the ship he came in on and gave it to her smiling so hard I thought his face would surely crack. The council in opposition to the City Manager is stern and grumpy but otherwise harmless. A council majority is all she needs to run a railroad. Will Lee doesn’t think that is too bad. Like the council that he replaced, going along for the ride seems more productive and certainly easier than mucking about in the uncertainty and messiness of trying to figure out what Linda already understands.
The metaphoric mill site is only an emptiness. We are happy that we have a trail that runs around it. It took 15 years. That is about the time frame city management suggests that it will take to daylight the creeks. In the meantime the empty darkness has become a kind of home. It is where we live, what we are. It is not going to change, and it is not going to lead us toward any future but the quiet and middling one that the professionals already have in the can for us.
As the cars slip by on the highway and the fog breaks down into a light rain I wonder at the intensity of absence. When is something that does not exist not enough? What magic is there in the darkness that will illuminate and inspire and create? Darkness staresback at me. I am waiting for the emptiness to become anger.