Last week, I was a writer in residence.
I’d volunteered for the gig, but that morning, I moaned on Facebook.
What was I thinking? I’d be talking to a bunch of snarky middle-schoolers about my writing process? Reading my little pieces about pets and kids and the Czech Republic to kids who were probably expecting some kind of mini J.K. Rowling, when the most I’d ever made from writing, in a year, was $1,500?
Yes, I’ve hung out in front of rooms filled with variously misbehaving adolescents for a decade and a half now — but that was with the benefit of some kind of topic, sometimes even a clearly set out lesson plan. Not to talk about my ever-nascent writing career.
Turned out I needn’t have worried.
Yes, I decided to address the not-Rowling issue up front — but then I read my stuff, asked the kids questions and they responded like they always do, everywhere. Adolescents are easy — disclose that you feel as vulnerable as they do, let them share and they’re fine.
Later it occurred to me that these kids, living on prairie just recently converted to a housing hive, are the sons and daughters of those most strongly opposed to the political issue that is now closest to my heart. To them and their parents, ballot Issue 2C is irrelevant. Why care about public pools, when you’ve got a YMCA membership? Why do you need parks, when you’ve got the mall? What’s the point of a lively downtown — they have P.F. Changs, Barnes and Noble, even a Whole Foods.
And if you require a more public venue, well, Denver’s just a few miles up the highway and so is Douglas County with its wealth of open space.
Pioneers Museum? Huh? Can’t you see better stuff online?
I thought about the grittier school where I actually teach, and about one student in particular: Antonio.
His smile belies his total incomprehension of most written text. When his language arts class is supposed to read independently, he simply looks around smiling expectantly — he knows that someone, usually I, will soon decipher the text for him.
The other day I tried to help him write a paragraph about the use of the telephone for business.
“Haven’t you seen your parents call their job about, maybe, not being able to go in to work?” I asked.
“They don’t work,” he answered.
Would Antonio benefit from 2C, I wondered? And I answered “no” — no more than the Briargate kids. I doubt if his parents have ever taken him to the pool, much less to the Pioneers Museum or to Ute Valley Park.
Face it, I thought: The people who care about Colorado Springs as a beautiful, culturally thriving city most are people like me.
We’ve got vaguely intellectual ambitions that we assuage with National Public Radio, the Discovery Channel and ganders through Slate. We take our kids hiking and up an occasional 14er.
We go to all the street and park fairs we hear about because it’s cheap entertainment and we meet friends and acquaintances there. Our kids have only seen farm animals on television and at Rock Ledge Ranch.
We love Uncle Wilber, and at one point in our kids’ toddler years, we went there every chance we got.
But how many of us are there, really?
Then I remembered Ely.
Jake and I experienced Nevada on a see-America car tour last summer. I expected to be overwhelmed by the open spaces, but ended up liking the “loneliest highway” part of the trip, quoting John McPhee’s “Basin and Range” essays as we ate up the miles, marked only by shoe trees.
We were almost out of the state when we descended into Ely from one of those high ranges.
Ely was sad. Main Street was all plywood-facade casinos, boarded-up buildings and billboards advertising the same bankruptcy services we saw in Reno.
What passed for a park was a dirt patch with a few sad trees and some flat cracked-concrete sections. We were hungry; we could only find a convenience store.
Except for one or two people entering the casinos, and the store clerks, we saw no people on any of the streets. On the way out of town, we passed a truck stop that, in contrast, seemed a thriving metropolis.
This, I thought, is what happens when a city core is simply abandoned. It’s almost like a ghost town in downtown Ely; no one lives there, and no one goes there but gamblers and lost tourists.
Some years ago I spent part of a summer in the basement of the Pioneers Museum, reading the diary of Landell Bartlett. He lived on Wood Avenue and worked for Holly Sugar around the middle of the last century. He walked through downtown Colorado Springs, shopped at the department and grocery stores, and nodded to friends he met every day.
He and his peers built this city. We owe it to them not to allow Colorado Springs to become another Ely.
Eva Syrovy lives, teaches and writes in Colorado Springs.