I was driving through town on a beautiful Monday morning, listening to the Bruce Springsteen channel on satellite radio. Youngstown, Bruce’s devastatingly accurate and stark telling of the rise and fall of the titular city, was playing. The version was from his haunting 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, which was more of a folk/Americana record than a raucous and defiant rock barn burner. Youngstown is Steinbeck with guitars and fiddles, even more so than the title track.
As I listened, I made a mental leap to a very different telling of the same story – the version of Youngstown that appears on the Live From New York City DVD that was filmed for broadcast on HBO in 2000. Where the original has soft, insistent acoustic guitars and steady, almost shuffling accompaniment, the live version features the E Street Band at the apex of its incredible power. Where the original spools the story with melancholy and resignation, the live version spews it with a rage and denial.
In the first telling, I see a townsman sitting at the counter of the diner, both hands wrapped around the coffee cup gone cold as he tells the tale, flannel shirt over a worn t-shirt, old but still respectable jeans and work boots speaking a plain and honorable truth.
The second version reveals the same guy five years later, now seated at the dark end of the bar, hand squeezing the last drops of beer gone warm out of the brown bottle that will soon join a few too many in the bus box under the bar. Not so melancholy, not so quiet, telling anyone who wants to, or doesn’t want to hear how things were, and how things are. Rage, despair, puzzlement, and pleading done in a voice too loud, too challenging, and too painfully true. Where the original took us out with a sad and ominous violin melody, the live version exploded into the chaos and near mania of Nils Lofgren’s jaw-dropping guitar work. He grabs a beautiful melody and quickly hurls it away, replacing it with quick modal shifts and a machine-gun of notes. Each phrase sent speeding to the end of energy, and finally, exhausted, a repeating question mark of “what has happened to my world?”
Same words, same chords, same artist. Same story, different voices.
We often tell our stories based on what we want the outcome to be, and we use different voices to win the day. We do so with all the usual platitudes, like “it isn’t personal” knowing that for some it is very personal. Cambria, like many vibrant communities, is rich with stories. We are never at a loss for debates and decisions. A single simple issue rarely remains single or simple. Depending on who is telling and who is listening, and who is retelling their own version. Discuss sometimes turn to disgust. Some engage thoughtfully and positively. Others sit hawk-like on the overhead power lines, waiting for something to be turned into a meal.
Fire season no longer a predictable thing. Catastrophic fires and related events have been devastating large swaths of California and straining resources in every part of the state. Cambrians are being asked to fund three firefighter positions through a parcel tax. Voters will need to decide this issue and deserve to hear all sides of the equation. Here are a few duets from the greatest hits collection:
“Our goal is to continue to provide the best level of professional emergency services to the community we serve and meet the standards and objectives of fire service organizations across the country.”
“Their goal is to build an empire, take over all the emergency services, and keep the employees fat with overtime, outrageous pension benefits, and keep the union flush with dues.”
“Cal Fire has a station in Cambria, and they respond to every call.”
“Cal Fire responds to every call when they are in the area and available, which is not always the case.”
“We get mutual aid responses from all the surrounding fire departments.”
“Mutual aid agreements are critical to the safety of Cambria and the surrounding communities, though response times can vary and every minute is critical.”
“Our goal is to create enough revenue to sustain these positions for the foreseeable future, and the tax model was built to meet that objective. Here, look at the calculations. “
“The sales pitch is built on misleading data – it is going to cost way more than they are saying – here, look at this chart!!!”
“Their goal is to instill fear for the safety of our older citizens!!”
“Their goal is to instill economic fear and doubt among our older citizens!!”
“BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID!!!”
Go to a meeting. Read some of the information provided by all interested parties. Think about what you can afford – afford to spend, and afford to lose. What level of risk is acceptable to you? What is won or lost with a yes or no vote? Check your gut, check your heart, check your wallet and check your moral compass. There are a lot of very smart, informed and interested people who can give us the data we seek, the detail we want, and the simple facts absent spin or partisan positioning. Facts are great. Facts delivered with conclusions attached may be less clean, but if you trust the story-teller, well that counts for something. At the end of the day, it will be you and your #2 pencil (or more likely some sort of sharpie) hovering over the ballot. You and your vote matter.