In the early 1980s the chattering magpies of the editorial staff sat at desks set before windows looking down from an uneasy height at the sorry mess across the street below.
The sorry mess marked the shuttered remains of a C&W roadhouse, which, at high tide, had offered a bordello in the basement.
Our northern California valley burg was then in the process of moving from an oakball town with a college in it, to a college town with oakballs on the periphery. The transition wasn’t always a smooth one, and occasionally the gearshift got stuck, like with this pile of abandoned multi-story iron scaffolding, festooned with raggedy tarps, flapping tattered banners, discarded rusting tools, and cans partially drained of paint, nails, and various unidentifiable but pretty darn scarifying substances.
It’s what we looked at, every day at work.
One day the editor, exercising the power of the press to use the pages of the newspaper to declaim about whatever might peeve him personally—a power today enjoyed by bloggers worldwide—instructed the staff photographer to snap a photo of the decaying cross-street pile as viewed from his window seat, then slapped the shot into the paper, above a caption titled “This Is Ugly,” and a short screed expressing Outrage that whomsoever had once set to work “rehabbing” the bar/bordello, had clearly abandoned the project long ago, yet left behind aesthetically displeasing detritus that daily soiled our eyes and roiled our minds.
“This Is Ugly” proved something of a success. It developed, as it usually does, that we weren’t the only ones offended by this display of the decline and fall of Western civilization. Readers too had remarked on The Embarrassing Pile, but figured nothing could be done. However, one night, during the wee hours, Something was: somebody swooped by and removed the gunk. The erstwhile roadhouse was reduced to just another shuttered storefront, like the two dozen or so others scattered then throughout the downtown.
Today, 30 or so (egads) years later, all is or more or less shiny happy there: the top floor now contains a shop that passes off doughballs as bagels, and a shop that has something to do with juice. In the basement, however, where the sporting gals once labored, is a truly fine Thai restaurant, its unisex bathroom featuring one of the better pieces of art in the town: a woodblock print of eight Thai women contentedly arranged in a carnal daisy chain.
Meanwhile, back there in the early 1980s, “This Is Ugly” enjoyed a brief but fruitful life as a recurring featurette, after having been rechristened “This Is Wrong,” since that moniker seemed more inclusive of the sort of things we magpies encountered, as we set about Passing Judgement on what passed before our eyes. It was kind of fun, playing at Yahweh, or the Khmer Rouge—identifying and photographing Wrong, expounding upon its Evil. If memory serves, the last person, place, or thing to appear above the “This Is Wrong” head was Ronald Reagan, then busily dismantling the United States. This was shortly before the newspaper was seized by Normal People—masquerading as brethren “progressives”; my, how things do not change—and we were sent out into the wilderness of exile, there to make our way as best we might.
This all recurred to me when I ran across this story, for “This Is Wrong” was my prime directive upon discovering that a clot of yee-haws in a place called Brasstown, North Carolina, think that The Thing To Do is to usher in New Year’s Day by lowering from the roof of a gas station, in a plexiglass cage, a live possum, as they chant “five, four, three, two, one!”
Here’s how a city slicker from the New York Times describes the Outrage:
The lights are strung, the stage is set and Baby New Year is waiting in a cage, hissing.
Brasstown, once again, is ready for the Possum Drop.
Yes, the annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop, the one and only, inspired by the dropping of a certain illuminated ball 670 miles away.
On Thursday, at the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that hundreds of thousands of people holler in the New Year at Times Square, with millions more tipping back champagne flutes and watching it on TV, a few hundred people will huddle at a Citgo station in this little Appalachian town, wearing hunting jackets and hats with dangling ear flaps, to cheer the descent of one confused marsupial . . . .
It started 13 years ago, when someone said to Clay Logan, owner of Brasstown’s only gas station and vendor of kitschy possum products, ”If New York City can drop a ball, why can’t we drop a possum?”
Mr. Logan could think of no reason why not.
At midnight, as he lets a rope slip between his fingers, lowering a possum in a plexiglass cage from the roof of his gas station, Mr. Logan will call out, as he has every New Year’s Eve since 1990, ”5, 4, 3, 2, 1!”
And then, as the crowd starts going bananas, ”The possum has landed!”
Then come fireworks, and bear stew, the firing of muskets, a cross-dressing Miss Possum contest, and the singing of such bluegrass tines as “down in the darkness/much to my delight/there’s five pounds of possum/in my headlights tonight.” The descended possum is meanwhile freed to run back into the woods.
Now, I understand the impulse to distinguish oneself and one’s neighbors from the denizens of New York City, and to have some goofy fun while doing so. But surely there is another way than pressganging a possum into the festivities.
The folks in Atlanta, for instance, host a Peach Drop for New Year’s, while there is a Red Shoe Drop down in Key West, wherein a six-foot-tall high-heel shoe bearing a drag queen is slowly lowered from a balcony.
I’ve communed some with possums, and I can tell you that they’re spooked creatures. Just about anything can and will kill and eat them, and they know this. So, they live a life of Fear. Back at the Old Place, I was sitting out on the deck one night, having a smoke, when a tiny little possum came skittering onto the deck, hugging close to the wall. I softly said “hello,” as I usually would to whatever rat, bat, skunk, deer, coon, snake, or fox ambled onto the deck, and this possum leapt high into the air; when it came down, it stood stock-still, frozen, shivering. I thought it would have a heart attack. That possum there in Brasstown, I’m sure all that it is thinking, as the chortling celebrants cage it away in preparation for the drop, and then during the drop itself, is “Someone Is Killing Me.”
Clay Logan, in musing to the Times reporter about possibilities for next year’s Brasstown Possum Drop, unwittingly hit upon a much better substitute. Said Logan: “Next year, I’d love to get me an albino. They’re rare. And hard to catch. But imagine that. An albino possum drop.”
Well, Clay, I say you’re halfway there. For you should indeed get yourself an albino. But not an albino possum. What you need, hoss, is an albino human being.
Because lowering from your gas-station roof there in Brasstown an albino banjo-player would transmit the same message—”we are different from New York City”—and would be regionally quite appropriate, as Brasstown abuts the Chattahoochee National Forest, where the boys of Deliverance did play. And the famous pigment-less banjo-plucker in that film did indeed wail away from atop a platform at a gas station.
Brasstown briefly attained 15 minutes of fame when the folks thereabouts were suspected of sheltering the crazed Christianist terrorist Eric Rudolph, who bombed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, various and sundry abortion clinics, and a lesbian bar. Rudolph grew up around Brasstown, and comes from interesting stock: while Rudolph was on the run, his brother, David, videotaped himself cutting off his own hand with a radial saw, to “send a message to the FBI and the media.”
Once the Rudolphs were put away, Brasstown withdrew again into obscurity: the Possum Drop was contrived, says Logan, because the town “desperately needed something.”
Now, I understand all about “desperately needing something.” For surely there comes a time when we all “desperately need something.” I myself have been there. Many times. But never did I feel that what I “needed” involved stuffing a small marsupial into a cage and lowering it from the roof of a gas station while chanting a descending series of numbers.
Might I suggest that what Brasstown may really “need” is some black people?
The town is located in the smallest county in North Carolina, Clay County, named for Henry Clay, a howling racist, and a man credited with bringing the mint julep to Washington DC, thereby introducing to the already legendarily bibulous residents of that city a new way to get wacky. Besides Brasstown, other metropoli in Clay County include Pinelog, Shooting Creek, and Elf. Some 98.01% of the county’s population is white, as compared to an infinitesimal 0.8% for black folk. Since there are only 8,775 people in the whole county, with 240 in Brasstown, that means that the entire black population of the latter would fit into my bathroom.
Amazingly, 98.01% to 0.8% is an even worse racial disparity than that on Daily Kos, which I guess at least proves that such a thing is possible.
Probably also a spelling teacher or two, they could use, there in Brasstown, for inscribed on a webpage publicizing the possum hoedown, as caption for the photo there to the upper right, we find: “Isn’t she Lovely! …The 2007 Reining Queen and her Trophy.”
Sing it, James.