By Rosalie Tirella
You know, I’ve been a reporter/writer since 1986! And here I am living in the town where it all began! The New Leader newspaper, home to my first reporter gig, is a glorified circular now. But decades ago it was a real AWARD-WINNING newspaper with an office (now a nail salon on Main Street), a kick-ass editor (Sandi), a wonderfully gifted sports writer who is probably writing novels as I write this post – and three other “town reporters,” Tom, Loreena and me. Tom was a Holy Cross college grad, like our sports writer, and could quote H.L. Mencken and tried to write his Spencer columns in the style he imagined his literary idol would pen them. Loreena was a UMass Amherst grad, unbelievably conscientious and all around excellent: a true reporter, a terrific writer, a caring confidante. She was the conscience of our newsroom – kept us all together when we felt too constrained in Spencer or too ambitious for East Brookfield. Spencer was my town, too, full-time, after graduation, from UMass Amherst. It was around 1987. We were all in our 20s. We were all idealistic, passionate about writing and … clueless about government. Big city or small town. I had no idea how dysfunctional town government – government in general – can be! It’s hardly of by and for the people. Mostly it’s of the moneyed by the politically connected and not at all for the poor or people of color.
So here I am in the town that I remember from the late 1980s and several years back when I lived here, in the rough part of Spencer, and saw its really poor people and tried to help. I tried to get a Food Hub started in Spencer and went to Congressman Jim McGovern’s office to see if we could get a Food Hub built in town. No luck. I went to another pol to see if we could get a community garden planted where some hoped to pour a parking lot. The parking lot peeps won. I went to Spencer Town Hall to demand that more polling places be set up in town so the poor and people in wheelchairs wouldn’t have to walk or roll to Town Hall to vote in the sleet and snow, like I’d seen them do when I voted in our recent town election. I went to Congressman Jim McGovern’s office again and told his toady Seth: Spencer is a physically BIG town. Only the middle class with their cars can make it to Town Hall to vote every election. You should see what I saw! All these people in their wheelchairs or using canes going to town hall to vote in the sleet! Awful. How many stayed home in the storm?! Why not put a polling station in the public housing complex where a few hundred folks live? Why not in a seniors apartment complex, too? No go. Voter Suppression wasn’t mentioned back then. But now we have the words – Voter Suppression – and that is what it was. I could go on: the Spencer people nice, real … and stoic. The blue collar town had lost most of its blue collar jobs. The schools were inadequate, almost losing state accreditation…but it didn’t matter to Town Hall if the majority of Spencer kiddos weren’t “ready” for the Kindergarten or that hunger was a big issue here. The politically connected and old timers were doing ok in their homes in the country. Why rock the boat? Who cares if teenagers were walking the streets in fuzzy slippers in January? Poverty didn’t count because the poor didn’t vote.
So, here we are, decades later – in Spencer again!!! This morning Jett, Lilac and me – stuck in our building elevator. For an hour! Jett has already peed in the elevator. I have the bags of garbage earmarked for the dumpster outside but they’re here in the elevator with us and things are starting to get stinky. My heart is starting to pinch, too, and I am getting warm. The dogs are ok, but I am starting to panic.
The bags of garbage, Dumpster ready!
The Spencer police and fire department are here. Love the Spencer firemen. They rescued me when I fell and broke my wrist outside the building – they iced my wrist, put a splint on it, made a homemade sling, gave me a bottle of water and stayed right with me as WE WAITED 45 MINUTES FOR AN AMBULANCE TO COME (Spencer area has like two ambulances and the selectmen refuse to buy another ambulance for the town). When I was loaded into the ambulance, the two Spencer firemen looked in on me, worried, like two mother hens! … This morning a few Spencer firemen were outside my elevator, and the Spencer cop was serious. My landlord was on the cell phone with me trying to be compassionate. He called the elevator company and they were en route.
If you’ve never been stuck in an elevator: the first 10 minutes are spent trying to push, pry open the doors. I got the first set of doors open but not the second. The next 10 minutes are spent making calls …to everybody. Fire department, landlord…etc etc. Then the rest of the time you worry about oxygen and, wow, it’s getting warm in here. Finally, you pry open the inside doors for an inch of oxygen, fresh air. The building manager gal is here with her baby trying to comfort us. The baby has a preternaturally round head – like a little pumpkin! You thank God you can see him and humanity through the crack in the elevator doors. You pray Jett and Lilac – or you – don’t have to take a poop.
Everyone seems to care, outside the elevator. Everyone is trying. Except for the bureaucrats at Spencer Town Hall. You make that phone call and ask to speak to someone in the code or building department…any one with a bit of knowledge. You’re blown off. “That’s not our building,” the lady tells me, curtly. Almost rudely.
OF COURSE IT ISN’T, LADY, BUT IT’S IN YOUR TOWN AND YOU HAVE RULES AND ORDINANCES RELATING TO BUILDING SAFETY.
If it’s Spencer, maybe not. Just look across Main Street from where our building sits – the Mexicali restaurant building. There sits a huge grey behemoth of a building with busted windows galore, abandoned. Downtown’s haunted house. The landlord died and his ancient wife is doing nothing to keep it up. I hear the town’s homeless live there. I’ve seen the good Spencer firemen parked outside that old building in the early morning. Did someone OD?
So, of course, no one can or will help me at Town Hall. I press the secretary for solutions. She tells me there’s a State of Massachusetts number I can call. But she can’t find it. Neither can anyone else at the Spencer Town Hall.
Finally, 25 minutes later, I’m sprung from the elevator and my dogs are champing at the bit for their a.m. walk out in the yard. I persist. I ask the elevator guy: didn’t the town hall bureaucrats have any capability?
Yes, he says. The Spencer Highway Department has a key to activate, deactivate the elevator.
And, you know this morning, after my elevator ordeal, I remembered my New Leader days and what editor Sandi taught us cub reporters decades ago in our little New Leader building, on Main Street, in ol’ Spencer. Circa 1988. GET OUT OF THE OFFICE, GET OFF THE COMPUTER, SIP THAT LAST SIP OF BAD COFFEE AND GET INTO YOUR TOWN. Chat with people, meet them, hang out at the local diner, have experiences with them. That’s how you learn about your town and the townspeople. That’s where the stories will come from.