Tuesday November 20, 2012

At the end of the summer I scored a ride on Eric Annis' honey of a steamboat. You've likely heard the steamboat whistle banter with the 5:15 Amtrak's own toot--even if you've not seen the boat itself. The steamboat winters in my neighborhood, and my family has often wished for a chance to hop on board. When we got our opportunity to take a short cruise on the Connecticut, I was thrilled to see such a handsome vessel up close. I didn't anticipate that my brief voyage would also reveal a complicated view of my hometown.

On the drive down to the docks, we stopped at the Flat Street traffic light. I gazed up Main Street and noticed a sign announcing the arrival of a new platinum smith. By the time I reached the Commons, I'd done a quick tally of the high-end jewelry stores in Brattleboro. My own artist brother is a gold and silversmith; I know what it costs to produce -- let alone purchase -- exquisite jewelry. Simply put, he often can't afford his own art. I assume these businesses have done their homework. Clearly, there must be a market. I marveled at the ability of our tiny town to support multiple high-end jewelry stores.

Eric popped wood into the steamboat's belly as we chugged away from the view of the Retreat Meadows and headed towards the river; we were soon under Putney Road's Vermont Veterans Memorial Bridge. Our captain pointed under the bridge to the debris left by an encampment of the homeless. He noted that this was one of many places in which homeless residents carved out shelter for themselves in our town. Indeed, all afternoon he named points on the shore and showed us other places of refuge. These nooks and alcoves stood in stark contrast to the expansive wraparound balcony of the Whetstone Station holding its merry outdoor diners. Like in so many Vermont towns, poverty and wealth co-mingle here -- they are kin. They live in such close proximity and yet exist in nearly palpable separate spheres.

To get from our neighborhood to the heart of the town, you careen past the Drop-In Center. Whether on foot, atop a bike or in a car, there is a constant flow of residents up the hill to the little blue headquarters tucked into the residential block. It is always busy, this lifeline for so many area residents. Like Brigid's Kitchen and the First Baptist Church at the other end of town, it meets a critical need. This is a town in which over half our children take part in the free and reduced lunch program, and where I notice several men fishing -- year round -- not for mere pleasure but for sustenance. Gaunt cheeks and hollow eyes reveal the marks of poverty. It is a place in which the cultural capital of the middle class does not always translate into economic advantage. Some friends must nickel and dime their expenses each month -- not knowing how they'll pay for childcare or make housing payments.

In my travels all over the northeast, people know about our little treasure. "Oh, I love Brattleboro -- what a neat town. So much art, so much great music -- so much going on!" This is true. Brattleboro's thriving arts scene is remarkable. But there is also a lot of desperation here. There is grinding poverty on just about every block of the downtown neighborhoods. It isn't relegated to certain neighborhoods -- it's house by house. A friend of mine from the Burlington area appreciates this about Brattleboro. He once told me, "Brattleboro is a real town. It isn't a cleaned up, tidy version of a New England town. You see the struggles of your neighbors. It's hard to live in a bubble here." Although I can't say I enjoy the town's "grittiness" when people swipe my tulips, I do know what he's getting at.

But it is possible to arrange your life so you don't notice it -- depending on where you shop, eat, or spend your time. You can also actively choose to ignore it, focusing on only the dynamic and vibrant aspects of our eccentric town.

As we returned to the Marina's dock, I marveled at the tenacity of its owners, staff, and builders who resurrected the popular eatery so quickly after the all-consuming fire. Upon its reopening, the staff likened the restaurant to a phoenix rising from the ashes, but it was their own deep affection for each other and the community that brought it back to life. According to an article in Vermont Today in July of 2011, 59 of 60 employees of the pre-fire staff returned to work when the Marina reopened. One long-time employee talked of her relief, "It felt like the whole town grieved with us when the fire happened last year . Being back here is like coming home again." This was on my mind as we hauled our gear up from the docks, past jovial diners and bustling wait staff: Hope and promise.

This Thanksgiving week, I challenge myself to remember that hope and promise as I acknowledge the poverty and despair that also lives here. Whenever I walk past the steamboat, now up on a trailer for the winter, it reminds me of the view from the river. It prompts me to nurture my gratitude like the fire in the belly of that steamboat. And from that thankfulness will come action.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.