A toast to town halls, town dumps, and town spirit

Earlier this month, I faced a tough choice. Do I make a second trip to the town landfill and recycling center (what we used to refer to as simply the dump), or do I go to Lincoln’s Burnham Hall and participate in a town meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders? It was a tough call because I have serious loyalty to the dump — and, as a matter of fact, it was the first place that I ever met a Vermont legislator. That’s right, it was over two decades ago that I met an Addison County politician at the Lincoln dump (and then it was just a humble old dump) as he was stumping for votes and giving out maple cream doughnuts.

Yup, there is nothing like a Saturday morning doughnut at the dump. That’s good eating.

But I also have serious loyalty to Sen. Sanders. Besides, I had already been to the dump once that day. My friend, Rudy Cram, had driven to my house in his pickup and we had gone into the toxic Superfund cleanup site that doubles as my barn and carted away a mattress, a box spring, a screen door, a storm door, a barrel, a mailbox, and two pieces of broken mirror, each the size of a house window. If those bad boys broke in the back of Rudy’s truck, it would not have been pretty: We’re talking seven years of bad luck, with each year as long as Jupiter’s.

And so I decided one visit to the landfill was enough for the week and I should be a responsible citizen and go to the town meeting. I’m glad I did, because I learned something important: A button accordion and a fiddle are a terrific way to warm up a crowd. Rick Ceballos and Caleb Elder were jamming as if it were a good old-fashioned kitchen tunk while residents from across the northern half of Addison County filed into Burnham Hall and filled the great room to capacity.

I also learned something else: I could never be a politician. Sen. Sanders is not the first politician I have seen show superhuman patience in these sorts of settings. Gov. Jim Douglas and the Lincoln School and Select Boards have also impressed the heck out of me on the Serenity Meter when dealing with voters and constituents.

But that town meeting with Sen. Sanders really drove home the point that successful legislators balance a profound desire to make the world a better place with — at least in public — the relentless good nature of a preschool teacher. Good politicians are part Mother Theresa and part Barney the Dinosaur.

My neighbors asked Sen. Sanders terrific questions about health care and the economy and the war in Iraq. But they were also, I’d wager, the very same questions that the Senator would be asked later that day at a second town meeting in Brandon and the very same questions he has been asked every time he has been spotted in public over the last three months. And still he answered every one with patience and candor, invariably beginning his response, “That’s a good question.”

I could have stood up and asked, “Why hasn’t the bailout legislation focused on animal husbandry?” and he would have nodded and said, “That’s a good question.” Then he would have answered it.

One of the wonderful things that occurred this past autumn was the profound spirit of activism that marked the country during the presidential election campaign. As I watched my neighbors the other morning and listened to the work they’re doing already to make schools better and health care (good heavens, even dental care) more accessible, I realized that the energy we saw in 2008 will continue into 2009. Certainly, we saw some of the worst of the human condition in the past three months (Can you say Bernard Madoff?), but we also saw some of the best.

And a lot of that best was in Burnham Hall earlier this month, on stage and off. We might be surprised by 2009. Recession or not, it just might be a pretty good year.

Happy New Year.


(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 28, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.