It was 1983 and my brother and I watched a lot of MTV. Music videos were a revelation for artists and the industry. When it launched in 1981 MTV was a storytelling platform, giving musicians the chance to render their songs in a visual language. The phrase “take the ball and run with it” comes to mind as creative license kicked in and coughed up videos featuring circus animals, fog machines, boats and cars driving out of the mist, grainy footage of candles left out in the rain, a girl riding the bus and gazing sadly out of the window (a circus animal driving said bus). It was a hot stew of INNOVATION and probably a lot of coke.
Because the only content on the channel at that time were videos, you were pretty much guaranteed to see any one particular video no fewer than 86 times a day. One such video was John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses.” Hailing from Indiana, Mellencamp was a high-80s rocker with a reliable string of hits like “Jack and Diane,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Lonely Old Night—“ jams about universal themes of ordinary people “doing the best they can.” “Pink Houses” was a valentine to Anytown USA with lyrics like “Ain’t that America, home of the free/with little pink houses, for you and me.” The video captured the laconic, disappearing landscape and culture of America’s small towns in a montage of images that could have been plucked from someone’s home movie: weathered elderly men rocking on their front porches, a train pulling through the town depot, great, sweeping fields stretching to the horizon, and Mellencamp grooving in the parking lot of a tiny gas station with his band, the store front decked out in Fourth of July bunting while a lone cheerleader wearing red, white, and blue dances and sings. Subtlety was for suckers.
I loved that video, though I can’t say for sure why, and I had not thought of it in years until recently when I attended the annual apple pie festival in Newport New Hampshire.
Newport is one in a sleepy chain of towns that idyll through the pretty lake and mountain regions of northern New Hampshire. Newport was incorporated in 1761 and like most of its sister towns plotted in the same century has weathered the impacts of wars and conflict fought on American soil, endured expansion, shouldered the growing and leaving of industry and jobs, and persevered despite the steady thump of progress beating its fist against those sturdy, American made doors.
Looking up and down the stretch of Main St. that encircles the town common where the apple pie festival is held each year with its great, brick bell tower and the line of shops, cafes, and (now) banks sporting large glass windows and pretty white pillars, all offering similar freshly scrubbed facades underneath cheerful awnings, I think that change and progress are things dolled out in Newport the way people mete out full-sized candy bars at Halloween, judiciously, cautiously.
It’s 9 AM on a Saturday in late August. The sky is a faded, watercolor blue the kind of sky summer reserves for the end of the line, before fall muscles in with its shocking oranges and violet sunsets. The common is already bursting with people who meander up and down the stalls of craft and artisan vendors. A gazebo anchors one end of the green space where my friend Tom—a highly accomplished artist, musician, and writer who lives in a neighboring town—plays guitar. He vamps in between Dylan lyrics to call out to people he knows or tease some of the little kids chasing each other, their freshly-painted faces already starting to streak with sweat in the quickening heat.
There is nothing to single me out as an outsider, but I still feel like one. It’s that first day at a new school feeling that pools in the bottom of my shoes. Everyone seems to know each other. Moms pushing strollers greet other moms with the shorthand of familiarity:
Gary’s parents were here and…yeah…
Sophie loved camp, but it goes so fast! School shopping next week.
Teenagers stroll self-consciously, shouldering self-possession and an expected amount of disaffection. Other teens wander clutching the hands of boyfriends as if they were also holding on to this storied time in their lives. White-haired women with decades of the life cycle carried in the sway of their thirsty hips wear bright red aprons embroidered with the apple festival logo. They refill coffee carafes, check in with the vendors, and ferry neat, white cardboard boxes of pie to the table where thatches of people crowd around to buy them as soon as they are set down. It’s an easy leap of logic to assume that many of these women first came to the festival as young girls or new moms, the event feeling like a downbeat in the town’s steady, predictable rhythm of ordinary people “doing the best they can.”
I am not an easy joiner by nature. I guard my heart a little too closely when it comes to the pull of authentic connection. It’s a lot like standing on the edge of high rock with your friend looking down into the swimming hole saying, “You go first.” But that doesn’t stop me from imagining, a little bit enviously, the lives of these people, how richly interwoven with one another’s they must be, and what it must feel like to be embedded in such deep community. It has its moments no doubt. There’s a reason why fairy tales are meant to be read, not realized. Even so, there’s a nearly perceptible pulse created from the people coming together to celebrate their town, to take pride in what it means to make a life together on this land, as much as to indulge in baked goods that is as enticing as a promise.
By noon all the apple pies are sold out and a couple of pumpkin pies sit forlornly on the table as if even they know it’s too soon for such a “high fall” seasonal dessert. Luckily for us interlopers, who aren’t privy to knowing that you get pie first and then do the festival, there’s a stand selling slices from pies entered into the pie-judging contest. Every pie has its personality and wants to stand out as much as it needs to blend in. Star-shaped cut outs in the crust mark one, another is doused heavily with sugar and what looks like cinnamon powder, there’s one that’s already been cut into to reveal filling stacked in thick, juicy slabs like coal fracked from a mountain vein. I take one cut from that pie. The mound of vanilla ice cream scooped on top starts to run immediately.
I find an empty bench at the edge of the common to eat while the space seems to close in on itself as more people fill the green. There’s something seductive about belonging, I decide. There’s a sweet relief in believing that change can be managed, that progress can be proscribed. There’s a case to be made for holding back a little bit of nostalgia for places in America like this one, built on a dream of pink houses and apple pies.