Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Argument For Buying Local

I started reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation yesterday, and, twenty pages in, it already has me thinking about a whole bevvy of issues. In it, Schlosser explores not only the history and make-up of our still burgeoning fast-food industry but, more importantly, what it has done to our cultural landscape. One of the arguments he makes is that the fast food phenomenon has effectively taken the local out of our localities. Through mass production standardization and national (and international) ad saturation, McDonald's et al have created a nation in which an alarmingly high percentage of available food choices wallow in fat-laden sameness from town to town.
Some of this, Schlosser points out, can be attributed to the car-crazy culture that came about as a result of the completion of the coast-to-coast Interstate system during the 1950s. The new transportation paradigm dictated a shift in thinking regarding speed, convenience and cost of food. Gas stations and restaurants sprang up almost overnight to service hungry travelers at exit sites. This, coupled with the increasing tendency in recent years for both parents to work, has created an almost insatiable demand for the kind of cheap, reliable food that fast food restaurants excel in.
What all this has to do with the price of tea in China is this: around the same time the minimum wage pool of workers was growing by leaps and bounds thanks in large part to the explosion of fast food popularity, the world was becoming smaller in many different ways. Lower cost, more reliable international transportation, vastly improved communications networks, unionized labor's consistent demands for higher wages and better benefits, and a less protectionist foreign policy resulted in the gradual outsourcing of virtually all product manufacturing for American consumption. Overseas manufacturers, not subject to the same labor and environmental laws as their American counterparts, essentially bargained American manufacturers out of existence. Large chains with tremendous purchasing power brought in quality goods at low prices from overseas, and small businesses were unable to compete. The average American, struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage or slightly better, saw only the bottom line, and who can really blame him? When faced with the choice of patronizing several local merchants and paying an average of 15-20% more for the family's weekly needs or opting for the one-stop shopping and significant savings of a Walmart, who can blame Joe Q. Public for choosing the latter?
But what is the real cost? At what cost do we continue to short-sightedly sell our country to China and India at the expense of our neighbors? Is it for a $7.99 pair of shorts? A $2.69 gallon of milk? A $150 phone that can tell us where the nearest Walmart is? And what are we doing with all that money we're saving? Assuaging our national guilt by buying bigger houses and more gadgets and the super-sized combo at the drive-thru? There has to be a better way, and there is. It may not be the least expensive or the most convenient way. It takes discipline, commitment and a willingness to see a bigger picture. But not so long ago, back before the Internet and globalization and big box stores, it was the only game in town. It involves people doing business with people. It invokes words like accountability, responsibility, integrity, ANSWERING THE PHONE. It's called buying local. It's not too late. There are still lots of opportunities to try it on, and you just might like the way it feels.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Great New Site

So, I'm not all doom and gloom today. I also wanted to share an outstanding addition to Petersburg's intellectual and cultural landscape in the form of a new website. If you haven't been yet, check out This site was formed by a Petersburg resident to bring "the residents of Petersburg, Virginia any and all news, information, events, and discussions regarding our city." They are accepting websites to link through their main page and plan to advertise local businesses through FREE banner ads in the near future! Email for more information. The site features a main page, an events calendar, a discussion forum and a photo gallery. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook under My Petersburg. I look forward to a revival of lively discussions between local citizens regarding Petersburg's issues and challenges.

Things I Should Know Better Than To Do

When I'm honest with myself, it has always struck me as a strange combination: a bookstore next to a tattoo parlor. But for a long time, I naively thought it would be one of those quirky coincidences commonplace in Petersburg, an idiosyncracy that would, in fact, make it somehow more special. For several months, I shrugged it off when I arrived to find beer cans, empty cigarette packs, discarded food containers, used (yes, used) feminine hygiene products and/or the occasional wrecked car strewn about the parking lot. I may have said a few choice words, but I picked the trash up and wrote it off as the price of owning something used by the public. I lived with the gaggles of tattoo-laden smokers hanging out in the alley cussing a blue streak and apologized to my purse-clenching little old lady customers who braved what they perceived as something of a gauntlet to visit me. I dealt without complaint with the fact that my parking is regularly taken up by tattoo parlor customers who can't park in tattoo parlor parking because there are so many employees and other people who seem to hang out all day WITHOUT pay there. I watched without comment as taxi after taxi full of GIs parked in the driveway to unload and clogged all avenues of traffic flow while they went in to collect their $10 per taxi load reward from the tattoo parlor staff.

Let me digress here for a moment and say that it is not the majority of the folks who frequent the tattoo parlor with whom I have an issue. Most of them are decent, hard-working folks who would no more throw their trash down in the parking lot, as an example, than my average customer. I actually know and like most of their staff, and I do get some cross traffic from their customers, even if the majority of them only come in to get a print out of their desired tattoo.

But today, I'm pissed. A heavyset pair of women just cruised down the driveway in their Pontiac Grand Prix aiming for the choice lower tier of tattoo parlor parking adjacent to the door. When they saw there were no spaces there, rather than hauling their fat but otherwise able bodies back up the hill and parking a little further away, they decided it would be just fine to use my handicapped space. I went out to politely tell them that the space was reserved for handicapped and that if they didn't have a placard or sticker, I would have to ask them to move. One of them muttered something under her breath. I asked her to please repeat it and she reared back and belted out, "I SAID, you ain't doin' no business over here anyway." I stayed calm long enough to tell her that I appreciated the comment but that I would still need them to move the car. She replied that the other woman was "gon' move it." I thanked them both and told them to have a nice day. Then I came inside, went in the back and cussed my own blue streak. I can't say that I was all that angry because of the young woman's sense of entitlement or even the comment itself. I was more angry because I knew it to be true.

So let this be a lesson to anyone out there in cyberspace who is thinking of starting their own business. There are some things that would do well in such a location as mine. You might run a honkeytonk, or a little bistro, an Internet cafe, a laundromat, skateboard shop, a bike and boat shop or even a gym out here in the hinterlands next to the tattoo parlor. You will not do well with a book store, and the attempt will be an exercise in head-banging that will leave you with little more than a headache and a rapidly dwindling bank account.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Would-Be Deerslayer

I don't know if I'll ever understand dogs. Harper Lee is probably the smartest dog I've ever been around, but even she shows no ability to differentiate between a dog biscuit and, say, the flea collar that Dwayne Grubb pulled off her neck only a moment before. We spent Sunday morning in the dog emergency room with a sometimes epileptic dog. Dwayne, as if not to be outdone, would not let us leave him home and insisted on riding along. He suffered a panic attack upon arrival, ducked his collar and ran down the middle of Cary Street for a few minutes before I corralled him and put him back in the car. We ended up spending a few hours and a hundred dollars for the folks at the emergency clinic to tell us, essentially, that they wanted to keep Harper overnight and make her poop.

By this time, Harper was fully alert and acting as if she had not swallowed an unspecified amount of neurotoxin the afternoon before. So, after much deliberation, we decided to take her home and keep a close watch on her. Long story shorter, she had a couple more mild episodes before puking up a big ball of rubberized plastic and getting back to normal. She was more tired than usual that night, but showed no more ill effects.

Fast forward to the next day, yesterday afternoon. We were deep in the swampy recesses of the Appomattox River Trail, picking off scores of ticks and scuffling through the fourth or fifth mile, when the bookstore dog picked up a trail. There ensued a chase scene that would have made Natty Bumppo proud. Harper Lee, fully recovered canine athlete that she was, had scared up a baby deer and was hard on its heels as it emitted the most pitiful, panicked bleating sound I've ever heard. Harper has chased adult deer before, thankfully without success, and we know from experience that we kind of just have to let those chases run their course. She eventually tires of it and comes back empty-pawed and contrite. But this one, we saw, and it was just a baby. Harper was about a foot behind its heels, and the forest was filled with the desperate cries of an animal fighting for its life. All of this conspired to chase away what little bit of prudence I normally have and send me crashing off through the snake-laden underbrush in an all-out attempt to get there before the worst happened. Harper barked excitedly, the deer bleated, Dwayne Grubb ran in bumbling circles trying to track. Beth yelled at me to stop running in deference to my trick back. Suddenly, it seemed all kinds of animals and people were thrashing around in the undergrowth. Then, it stopped.

There we stood: muddy, scratched up, gasping for breath, filled with the worst possible feeling of sick dread. I managed to get a leash on Dwayne Grubb (he's not much of a tracker, and circled too close to me one time). We called Harper repeatedly, started first one way, then the other, and then resigned ourselves to impotently pulling ticks off until she finally trotted back up, some ten minutes later. There were no signs of blood on her, so we could only assume the deer made it to the river and got away. I could have cried with relief. I understand instincts, I get that dogs were domesticated by man and that their wild ancestry tells them to hunt and kill and eat. I am not a vegetarian. I fish. I don't hunt, but I don't begrudge people who do and eat what they take their hobby or way of life. But a cerebral understanding of all that is a far cry from the immediacy of yesterday afternoon in the Appomattox River woods. I'm not sure I could have welcomed Harper back, walked with her, pulled ticks off her on the way home, if she'd come back with that little deer's blood on her muzzle. Thankfully, I didn't have to find out.