Waking up Screaming from the American Dream: NPR's Roving Correspondent Reports from the Bumpy Road to Successby Bob Garfield
It's a strange country out there, and a hilarious one, when you know where to look. Bob Garfield sure does. For more than a decade, this journalist, humorist, and All Things Considered commentator has crisscrossed this country in a never-ending search for "bizarre Americana." His quest has taken him to forty-six states and hundreds of cities, towns, and rural… See more details below
It's a strange country out there, and a hilarious one, when you know where to look. Bob Garfield sure does. For more than a decade, this journalist, humorist, and All Things Considered commentator has crisscrossed this country in a never-ending search for "bizarre Americana." His quest has taken him to forty-six states and hundreds of cities, towns, and rural backwaters, where he has encountered such oddities as earthworm ranchers, the Accountant Hall of Fame, the world's largest collection of potato chips shaped like famous faces, and the optimistic folks of Hamilton!, Ohio, who hoped that an exclamation point would help perk up their town's economy as well as its name. In these bitingly funny stories of not-so-ordinary people and places, Bob Garfield strikes at the core of the nation's psyche, revealing something poignant, endearing - and perhaps ultimately hopeful - about the American character.
Garfield divides his book into four parts, including the quest for "world-changing" ideas; get-rich-quick schemes; his trials and tribulations in pursuit of the American Dream; and a selection of his radio commentaries. Although he may be best known for his droll sense of humor, the tales in this book are not, as Garfield himself points out, always meant to evoke laughter. There is, for instance, the story of cosmetics entrepreneur Jan Stuart, who, after initial success in the industry, launched a hunger strike to protest the way in which big business squeezed him out. Similarly, the piece entitled "A Whorehouse Christmas"about legal prostitution in Nevadaends with the lament of a 21-year-old hooker wondering aloud why God put her on earth. At times, Garfield can be glib to the point of offensiveness, as in his story about Charles Wixom, of the Institute of Food Technologies, a frozen-food development company, who has the misfortune of having to compete with the genocide in Yugoslavia for attendees to his news conferences. Ultimately, the problems with the book are those that afflict many such collections: a lack of continuity, combined with a poorly defined overall concept.
Garfield is best when writing about himself, and the book is partly redeemed by the section on his own pursuits, which contains essays on tourism, house and car shopping, and hunting, all in a Dave Barryish vein.
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Read an Excerpt
It's Worth a Try!
HAMILTON! OHIO -- National attention is nothing new to this town. We're talking about the erstwhile home of ChemDyne, a toxic-waste dump that made Love Canal look like Lourdes.
In the 1970s, anybody who was anybody in the environmental-catastrophe game knew where Hamilton was: the place just north of Cincinnati with the railroad tracks crossing the main street, so that folks in a hurry -- say, to keep poisonous chemicals from seeping into the water table -- frequently got stuck in massive traffic jams waiting for 112-car trains to chug by.
ChemDyne is mainly just a bad memory now. The dead fish have long since floated down the Great Miami River, and High Street now boasts its very own underpass, but until a year ago Hamilton's identity was still pretty much grounded in the bad old days. In the last Rand McNally rating of American cities, Hamilton ranked 202 out of 329.
Which is why the city fathers decided to act. One year ago, by official resolution, Hamilton, Ohio, was redesignated Hamilton! Ohio.
As City Manager Jack Becker had advised council the previous summer, "There is no law that says a city must have a comma after its name. An exclamation point is used to convey excitement or strong emotion, and that is the way we feel about Hamilton."
What he meant, of course, was "that is the way we feel about Hamilton!" But no matter. In every other respect he had made his point.
Clearly this was no mere stunt. This wasn't like the hare-brained idea Becker's predecessor had during the worst of the ChemDyne mess -- that idea to build a fountain in the middle of the river (maybe to distract attention from what was daily oozing into it). The name change would reap genuine dividends. It would generate publicity, pique the interest of potential new industries, and spontaneously boost the sagging morale of the populace. That, anyway, was the plan. One year later, the rewards have yet to cascade in.
Maybe the first bad sign came when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names refused to recognize the change, meaning the exclamation point won't ever appear on maps or road signs. "Members of the board agreed that punctuation marks are not part of geographic names," wrote board Executive Secretary Donald J. Orth. "They saw no reason to consider formally adding such a mark to the name, any more than approving a comma for use after the name, as in Hamilton, Ohio."
This was quite a blow. Subsequently, it also became clear that despite a flurry of national publicity (the mayor even got on "CBS Morning News") millions of businesses across the country continued to not locate in Hamilton!
"We had some leads," Becker says. "We had a mom-and-pop type hotel that was interested. I think that is still pending."
Meantime, General Motors Corp. decided to close its Hamilton-Fairfield plant, which will cost Hamilton 800 jobs. That development was not exactly a boon to city spirit, the revival of which also has not been quite as thorough as predicted. Of 65 respondents to a Hamilton Journal News poll, 45 expressed reservations about the repunctuating of Hamilton!
"What does Hamilton have besides an underpass -- which every city has -- high taxes, and a lot of chemical waste?" asked Robert J. Wilson. "We don't even have a nice park."
And a man named Ed Brown waxed stunningly metaphoric: "I had a friend who put a Cadillac hood ornament on his tired old Volkswagon. When he was finished, he had an old tired Volkswagon with a new, shiny hood ornament. It still stalled at every light."
Perhaps the most eloquent statement about Hamilton's progress can be found along its byways. A drive through town reveals all manner of signage incorporating the city's name. There is Hamilton Denture Studio, Hamilton Plaza, Hamilton Vacuum Center, Hamilton Insurance Agency, Hamilton Inn, Hamilton Church of God.
Every one is sans exclamation.
"I hadn't really given it much thought," says Robert Quick of Hamilton Insurance. "I doubt that I'd change it. I don't know that I understand why they did."
Excerpted from Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream, published by Scriber. Copyright� 1997 by Bob Garfield
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