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You Can't Go Wrong

New Stories from Nero, New York

You Can't Go Wrong Podcast | Guide to Nero | Map of Nero

Table of Contents

A Good Boss (12-29-02)
The Rich Man Factor an Election Concern Even in Nero (11-14-02)
Perks for Some, Problems for Others (10/13/02)
Disgust in the Golden Years (9/15/02)
The Summer of Discontent (7/28/02)
Study Vindicates Upstate Depression (5-19-02)
No Winter, No Spring (4/14/02)
Nero's Happy Station Where Things Happen (02-03-02)
Civility Endures In Nero's Outskirts (11/4/01)
Attack's Aftermath Lingers in Nero (10/4/01)
Nothing Comes Easy Around Nero (9/4/01)
Flowers Add a Festive in Nero (8/1/01)

A Good Boss

When Disease Cotter was a boss at the sock mills in Nero, New York, he was too nice. Nero is a fictional mill town where the factories moved south years ago and nothing good has happened since.

The workplace was not for the fainthearted in the old days. Employee banter was frequently coarse and never politically correct. A secretary crossing the shop floor in a short skirt expected stares, whistles and crude remarks. Managers could act like petty tyrants but, to be fair, workers could come up with ingenious ways to cut corners and slack off. There were shouting and shoving matches as management and labor worked out their differences.

"I hated people in management generally but Disease was hard to hate," retired sock mill union leader Marty the Bull told me as we had coffee at the Golden Arches. "He got a shot at being a foreman because his mother was English like the big shots who owned the mill. Disease always wanted everybody to get along. I don't think I ever saw him get mad when he was a boss. It didn't work out, of course, and most people, including me, walked all over him. I hate to say it but bosses have to be mean sometimes.

"After a couple years as a foreman, Disease gave up and went back on the floor. He was a good worker and one of my best members in the local. When we had a grievance, and we had plenty, I could count on Disease to come with me when we fought it out with the bosses. He never joined me in my tirades but the fact that a diligent and fair-minded worker was with me helped the union. And we always took care of him, though nobody ever made a fortune making socks. We made sure that Disease kept some kind of job -- sweeping or running an elevator -- as long as possible, even when the company was shutting down.

"Disease wasn't cut out to tell people what to do. He didn't have the stomach for it. I don't blame him for going back to production work, even though that decision didn't play well on the home front, if you know what I mean. Disease's wife, may she rest in peace, was a piece of work. I think one of the reasons he was everybody's friend on the job was that he had a lot of practice at home keeping his wife happy. I know he enjoyed getting out of the house. Of course, from her point of view, if Disease had stuck it out in management they probably could have moved off the hill sooner and even made it into the Country Club. But Disease was one of those guys who just wanted to get along."

It seemed odd to talk about Disease in the past tense but the truth is that our old friend has declined mentally so much in recent months that he's now in a nursing home. Although Disease sometimes showed me a more feisty side in our travels around Nero, I had to agree that he was a gentleman at heart. He loved playing with his grandchildren, bowling, card games and hanging out at the tavern.

The illness has brought out another side of Disease's personality. Sometimes he's his old self, joking and telling funny stories. Then he gets agitated and starts swearing and carrying on in a way that would make Ozzy Osbourne blush, not to mention the old Disease Cotter.

Disease seems to believe that Jorge, the aide who takes care of him at the nursing home, is one of his old buddies from the sock mill. Some days Disease will joke with Jorge about playing numbers and sneaking out of the mill for a beer. Or he'll try to get Jorge involved in a conversation about the various techniques used in making socks. But other times Disease will curse Jorge for being a "bloody fool," although the language gets much worse than that.

"It makes my job interesting, taking care of people like Disease," Jorge told me. "I know he's not in his right mind. Maybe some of these feelings were always there. Maybe it's good they're finally coming out. I hope he gets better. He's a lot of fun when he's not swearing."

The Rich Man Factor an Election Concern Even in Nero

People in Nero, a fictional Upstate New York mill town, didn't get too worked up about the 2002 election for governor. Conservative talk show host Mike Van Wilson was a solid supporter of Governor George Pataki, even though some of the callers to Mike's program on WNRO, The Never Ending Argument, had drifted into independently wealthy Tom Golisano's camp. A few callers even accused Mike of being on Pataki's payroll or trying to get there.

"At this stage of my life and career, I wish that was true," Mike said. "I'd love to be one of those hacks and flacks with their snappy suits, shiny shoes and two hour lunches who populate the offices of the government at Albany. But I'm too honest for that. I tell it like it is."

Nero being a skeptical city, Mike's protestations were widely interpreted as an admission of guilt.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike get one of those state jobs," retired union leader Marty the Bull told Wanda Tamburino as the two political cronies had drinks at the Four Clover tavern the Friday before the election.

"Mike's not tough enough for this racket," said Wanda, the constituent problem fixer for the region's popular Congressman. "He takes himself too seriously. It's a job hazard for people in the media. You start believing people who tell you how great you are when you do one of those radio shows."

Wanda and Marty backed Carl McCall for governor, of course, but Wanda did feel a little sympathy for the Pataki crew, who are known for their "take no prisoners" approach to campaigns and media coverage. Wanda's boss was not about to join Albany's Democratic mayor in endorsing Pataki, but Wanda had to admit that Pataki and his people have created the kind of political organization Wanda could grudgingly admire.

This year, Wanda's boss only faced token opposition, unlike two years ago when a Tom Golisano-like independent posed a threat to the political order in the district. A man known as Happy the Sailor, who had hosted a children's television program, ran against the Congressman in 2000 and bought lots of television and radio ads attacking the incumbent for being part of the "go along, get along crowd."

Because of his celebrity status, Happy had married a rich woman whose family owned hotels up and down the East Coast. The family spent big bucks on the campaign as kind of a hobby. It was their equivalent of owning race horses at Saratoga.

Wanda doled out favors and twisted arms right through election day and the Congressman won the contest handily in 2000, despite Happy's money, name recognition and catchy campaign song -- "Vote Happy Today" -- sung to the tune of "Anchors Aweigh."

"Look, these rich guys could be great," Wanda said as she ordered another sombrero from Stan the bartender. "Tom Golisano may be the next Tom Dewey, just like Mike Bloomberg down in New York City may be the next Fiorello LaGuardia. But when these rich guys run, it changes the rules.

"Pataki I understand. He's elected with conservatives behind him. They helped him. He believes the things they believe--whatever. So he changes some things, cuts state government or says he will. But Pataki's in it for the long haul just like my boss. This is the third time that Pataki's up for election. Now he looks to help the ethnic groups. Makes a deal with whatever unions he can, with all respect to the principles of your union brethren. He doles out money to build up the state colleges. It all comes back to what the old Albany mayor, Erastus Corning, used to say about doing business with your friends.

"When you're in office, everybody's your friend, even your enemy, with the exception of those mudslingers in the media. You have to be very careful with reporters and Pataki knows that, too.

"And incumbents -- whether it's Pataki or my boss the Congressman -- usually have a lock on getting the money you need to campaign and giving out the favors you need to get reelected. That is of course unless the world is changing or you've messed up some way. However, guys like Golisano and Bloomberg have their own money. Those Golisano ads about Pataki the past few months were pretty funny to watch for an old liberal war-horse like me.

"But this rich man factor is downright unsettling for those of us who have to work for a living in politics. Stan, maybe just one more sombrero."

Perks for Some, Problems for Others

Who cares about Jack Welch's retirement benefits? Jack Welch is a capitalist hero who made shareholders rich.

What difference does it make to a multi-billion dollar corporation that the retired chief executive had travel and entertainment expenses picked up by the company, or more precisely the shareholders? General Electric and its shareholders made billions on Welch's watch. Even if he takes a few million for himself, so what?

Besides, when the ex-wife pulled the curtain on their private financial affairs, Welch gave back some of the perks, such as money he got for food, wine, corporate jets and an apartment. Did the First Prevaricator return the loot that disappeared when the Clintons left the White House?

The preceding paragraphs formed the basis of the case that Mike Van Wilson made the other day on The Never Ending Argument, Mike's radio talk show in Nero, a fictional Upstate mill town that has seen better days.

Two old liberal establishment cronies-political operative Wanda Tamburino and retired union leader Marty the Bull-had to chuckle listening to the show as caller after caller told Mike he was off base, out of touch and even that Mike "just didn't get it."

One of conservative Mike's favorite attack lines over the years has been to accuse his opponents of being so wedded to the "politically correct establishment" that the liberals "just didn't get it."

"What goes around comes around," Wanda said as she ate a chicken Caesar salad with balsamic dressing on the side and Marty enjoyed a double cheeseburger with fries at Nero's Creek Diner. "Back in the eighties, the Congressman and I used to take the heat when Ronald Reagan railed against welfare queens sucking the government dry. I could argue all I wanted about the homeless and the poor but that welfare queen business hit a nerve with the middle class. It was hard being a liberal do-gooder in those days."

Wanda is constituent problem fixer for the region's popular Congressman. In the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush the first, Wanda had to work especially hard "taking care of people" to keep her boss in Congress and food on her own table.

"Now, people have turned on the corporate greedmeisters," Wanda said, as she offered Marty some of the bread that came with her salad. "These tycoons make welfare queens look like pikers. They even make the Clintons look good. Don't tell anybody in the party I said that, will you Marty?"

"I know how to mind my business," Marty replied. "I'm really between a rock and a hard place, Wanda. I always said that GE with Welch was not a friend of the working person. But, between you and me, I did really well with their stock during the days when our man Bill was in the White House. Now the stock is in the tank and my retirement looks like it may be short lived.

"We can't complain too much, though, or a lot of us look silly doing so. I saw people moaning on CBS Sunday Morning about having trouble paying to send kids to college because of the stock market's fall, even though the husband and wife both have jobs, and I don't think they're minimum wage jobs either. That couple's financial problems and mine, too, are relative, you know? It's not like we go to bed hungry."

By now Marty was having rice pudding with raisins for dessert.

"Probably we got sucked in by the idea of tying big shot compensation to stock options," he said. "Stock prices kept going up. The chief executives really seemed to work for the shareholders. But when the head honchos get their money mainly in stock, they're going to move heaven and earth to keep stock prices up as long as they can. But it can't last forever. And the big guys will figure when it's time to bail, leaving the rest of us holding the bag.

"You wouldn't be able to get me some part-time work someplace, would you Wanda, maybe with one of those government programs that help industry? You could write a letter."

"For you, Marty, anything's possible," Wanda said as she signaled the waitress that she was picking up the check.

Disgust in the Golden Years

Disgust is a feeling that increasingly occupies the mind as time goes by.

In Nero, New York, a fictional Upstate mill town that has seen better days, people get disgusted with their city, their families and themselves. It is a constant struggle to be cheerful, especially in Nero where having low expectations is one way of dealing with life's problems.

The people who are disgusted in Nero today are seldom using the word in its original sense of being put off by a foul taste, offensive odor or loathsome sight. With us, disgust is usually a metaphor but not a happy one.

Finding your car's windows smashed in the morning can be disgusting. When the grandchildren don't write, when the checkbook won't balance, when you wait hours to see the doctor when you're old and sick, when you can't do what you used to do you get disgusted. In fact, infirm older people are frequently disgusted at the best efforts of health professionals and family who try to maintain a positive attitude and propose solutions to problems that may be insoluble.

Before he died, retired Nero businessman Lou Larrawell, who had been the soul of optimism most his life, often said that he was disgusted. Yes, Lou Larrawell who used to greet people so happily in his hardware store and who was the star of the service club follies every year with his rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" changed his tune toward the end.

That's not to say that he longed for death or that life had lost all meaning. Indeed, the Saturday before his passing Lou told his wife how he wished he had more time. He wished he could enjoy a turkey dinner at that restaurant out of town, maybe see episodes of M*A*S*H on television or eat a hot dog. But he wasn't able to eat much of anything any more and he couldn't see or hear the television very well in the nursing home. His wife brought him a hot dog the next day but he turned up his nose at it.

"I'm disgusted," Lou said and his oxygen tube bobbed up and down as he said it. "I'm disgusted with you and disgusted with me. I never should have sold the hardware store. I've really got myself into a jam."

Lou's wife had heard this before and knew that he did and didn't mean any or all of it. It helped Lou in those last weeks to account for his illness and progression toward eternity by blaming himself, his wife and life in general for his predicament.

"I don't have any money for one thing," Lou continued. "Where's my wallet? Where are my keys? I know I had twenty dollars here and somebody took it. The bills are due. We have to pay the suppliers. You're no help. My son, where is he? What about Frank?"

Frank was his partner. He hadn't been in the business for years and anyway Lou had sold the store and there were no bills anymore. Lou's son had been in the night before. Although Lou's wife knew it was pointless to argue about these things, she went to the dresser and got the wallet and keys to show them to Lou.

"What about the twenty dollars, though," Lou said. "It's gone. There's something going on in this place. It's a racket, if you ask me."

Lou's wife was sure nothing was going on but had heard enough stories about theft from the old and the sick to start to doubt her own convictions.

Lou went back to sleep. The only sound came from his roommate who breathed heavily but never really woke up. It was a little after nine. Lou's wife stayed until the clock reached the half-hour. She played that game sometimes. She waited for the clock to run out some arbitrary period of time and if nothing else happened, then she left.

Lou was resting comfortably. If he was still disgusted, at least he didn't show it. And she wasn't disgusted either, at least not yet.

The Summer of Discontent

People used to sit on porches or in front of houses on hot summer nights years ago in Upstate New York's mill towns. The men were in undershirts and the women wore as little as possible. People sat on kitchen chairs. If lawn chairs had been invented, they had not made their way to this part of the world.

During the recent heat wave, Marty the Bull, retired union leader at the sock mills in the fictional City of Nero, sighed with relief as he walked into the air conditioning of the Four Clover Tavern. Unable to utilize creative accounting practices because of his sole proprietorship, Stan the bartender/owner stays open in the summer, even though business is slow.

"I hate to say it but at least the creek doesn't smell anymore now that the mills have moved out," Marty announced as he settled at the bar next to the only other patron, radio talk show host Mike Van Wilson.

An offensive and distinctive smell used to come from the Keepthemunda Creek that runs through Nero. When the sock mills were running full blast, industrial waste poured into the creek. They used to call it the Keepthenoseclosed Creek. Now that the mills have been closed for several decades, the Keepthemunda doesn't smell, even in the summer.

Back in the good old summertime, the sock mills were awfully hot places to work. The valley air was stagnant and few people had air conditioning. Those who could afford it rented camps in the Adirondacks for a week, usually during the annual mill shutdown, right after the Fourth of July. It was an effort in the hot weather to lug everything to camp for such a short time, but that was what the working person could afford.

"You know I hated those sons of guns who ran the sock mills," Marty said. "Living in their big mansions and making fun of me to their rich friends when I tried to get eleven cents more an hour for the poor slobs sweating in the mills.

"But at least those rich guys didn't cook the books like the current crowd of capitalists that are bankrupting this country. Those old mill owners might have stunk up the creek but they knew enough not to add two and two and come out with sixteen."

"There you go again, Marty," said Mike Van Wilson. "You blame everything on the business people and the Republicans. Need I remind you that we had eight years of the Prevaricator in Chief and his shifty wife, who now makes you think she's going to do all these wonderful things for Upstate New York. The Clintons set the example, Marty. If a few businessmen robbed their stockholders, that's wrong. But the fish rots from the head. And Clinton was the one who made lying into an art form when the stock market was taking off like a rocket. And true to form for Teflon Bill, he got out of town before the you-know-what hit the fan."

"Will you put a sock in it," Marty replied. "Maybe Bill lied about his girlfriends and took some of the silverware from the White House. But you mean to tell me that Tyco and Enron and Worldcom are all run by Democrats? Let's face it, Mike. They all lie.

"If you work for the government, nobody wants to admit giving some big contract to a political crony. You might lose the next election. And with these corporations, nobody wants to admit that the company is losing money because all the big shots are so heavy in the market they have this fear of messing up stock prices.

"Everything was always getting better and better. Profits were going up and up. Or so they said. Now my 401K is going to the mat like Tyson did in the Lewis fight. The whole thing stinks. Just like the creek used to smell. Keep the change, Stan."

The eighty cents wasn't much but Stan was happy for any infusion of cash these days.

Duke University Study Vindicates Upstate Depression

Recent news reports are making people in Nero feel as good about themselves as people in Nero ever feel. A fictional, declining milltown in Upstate New York, Nero is so negative that whatever the question, the answer is no.

First off, folks in Nero were glad to hear that the dot com companies had tanked. No one in Nero ever would have invested in new and promising technology.

Then, the job market for college graduates hit the skids. Some older people in Nero are secretly pleased that today's young whippersnappers have to scrounge around for employment, as their parents and grandparents did.

Cheerfulness is not a common emotion in Nero. Residents there take a perverse pride in being the worst place in Upstate New York.

Now comes news of a study by Duke University showing that mildly depressed older women tend to live longer than older women who are not depressed.

"My girlfriend is ecstatic about this Duke study," retired mill worker Disease Cotter told me as we sipped liquid depressants at the Four Clover Tavern. "Actually, I've really exaggerated here. She is never ecstatic about anything but at least she sees this new study as a vindication of our way of life. She is probably the most negative person I know. And living around here I know a lot of people who expect the worst and are seldom disappointed."

Older women with mild depression were, on average, 60 percent less likely than other women to die during any three-year period, according to the Duke research. Unfortunately for Disease and me, the study found depression had no influence on the mortality of older men.

"I know why that is," Disease said. "One of these days I'm going to have a heart attack doing some chore she wants me to do because she's down in the dumps."

Depression in young people is clearly associated with mortality, according to Duke professor Dan G. Blazer. However, Blazer told Associated Press the results of the new study of older women may support the idea that mild depression is a survival mechanism.

"You bet negativity is a survival mechanism," Disease continued. "Have you ever seen anything pan out in Nero? Remember the big stores they built outside of the city over the swamp? Nobody could figure how to keep the water off the sales floor and the stores closed. The papers had a field day: Nero Stores All Wet. With our luck, we knew those stores would fold. And we were right. No one in Nero believes anything good ever will happen again."

Professor Blazer from Duke said the new study might support a theory advanced by University of Michigan psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse that mild depression allows people to cope more easily with their problems and remove themselves from harmful situations. Nesse has said humans need "low mood" to deal with failure and disappointment. People who are mildly depressed don't waste their lives trying to do things they don't ever do.

"Positive thinking is so much claptrap, if you ask me," Disease said. "I'm never going to be a pro bowler, no matter how I try. I'm never going to win the lottery. The only people who win live in Queens or someplace downstate. I still buy tickets, though. I'd probably waste the money anyway if I didn't spend it on the lottery."

Disease's cell phone rang and I could tell by his subdued manner that it was his girlfriend. There were many "yes dears" on Disease's end of the conversation. "She wants me to buy her a generator and hook it up," Disease said after he hung up. "She's afraid if it gets windy like it's been a few times this spring the power will go out and she'll lose the frozen food she bought on sale at the new Glenville Wal-Mart.

"She's going to live to be a hundred."

No Winter, No Spring

The Christmas holidays weren't bad in Nero, a fictional declining mill town in Upstate New York. The few remaining local businesses did all right selling knick-knacks, despite competition from the mall outlets that specialize in objects that fill no useful function, such as a horse with a clock in its stomach.

In the prosperous suburb of Keepthemundaville, the holidays were downright lavish. There were lights everywhere. Big-ticket items went out the doors of the big box stores on the main highway and expensive rings and necklaces flew off the shelves at the jewelry store in the upscale Olde Village Shoppes.

Economics aside, people were so into friends and family after September's great national calamity that the Christmas holidays became something special.

However, now that Easter has come and gone, folks in Nero are a bit out of sorts.

"We haven't had the winter we deserve," Marty the Bull told me over a couple of scotches at the Four Clover Tavern, Nero's popular watering hole. Marty had been a big man in the union at the local sock mills and made enough money to retire to a house in the suburbs.

"We get a few inches of snow and we go nuts these days, flying off the road, acting like people who live in Atlanta for crying out loud," Marty said as he munched on popcorn at the bar. Stan the bartender knows that salty popcorn is one key to increasing drink consumption. The popcorn machine at the Four Clover is always working, even if the neon sign outside has a few letters missing.

"It's usually so depressing here in the winter that we long for spring," Marty continued. "This year I haven't had to wear a coat more days than I can count. Every year I want to run away from our winter weather. This year, I don't even feel like going to Vegas, Florida or even Hawaii. What's the point? I can gamble at Turning Stone or Foxwoods. When we've been cold here, it's been cold in Florida. I missed not wanting to go to south this winter, if that makes any sense.

"And the creek is low. You can walk across it. Pretty soon Stan won't even offer water with the liquor. And that's the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Water is important, very important, nothing to joke about. The dry winter and the mild winter have messed things up, if you ask me.

"And I keep waiting for another big storm. It could happen you know, just like another terrorist attack. We've had snow late in April and snow in May. Wouldn't a May snow storm be depressing?

"This winter's been like that line they make fun of in the old movies—it's been quiet, too quiet. I think it's put us on edge.

"Take the guys in the legislature in Albany. They can't even agree on whether to have a holiday to honor the New York City tragedy. Right after 9-11 we were all together. Now, it's bickering as usual—Republicans against Democrats, Upstate against Downstate."

Wanda Tamburino, constituent problem-fixer for the region's popular Congressman, had come in and taken a seat during Marty's analysis of the mood of the region.

"Put in a cork in it, will you Marty?" Wanda said. "I've enjoyed the mild winter. I liked walking in here in high heels and I think you liked that too, or at least you like the fact the younger women weren't all bundled up this winter."

"What about your friends in Albany," Marty said. "Are they going to make a 9-11 holiday or not."

Wanda said, "Of course as a government worker I'd like a day off and as a union guy you always pushed for more time off for your people. But we don't have a holiday for Pearl Harbor. A day off for September 11 may not be the best way to remember what happened then. We'll remember 9-11 whether it's a holiday or not, right?"

"Right," Marty said.

Wanda leaned over, patted her old friend Marty on the hand, scooped up some popcorn and asked Stan the bartender for a sombrero.

Nero's Happy Station Where Things Happen

Now that almost five months have elapsed since the great national calamity, Upstate New Yorkers have begun bickering again about inconsequential matters. Getting "back to normal" in Nero, a fictional declining mill town, has meant the collapse of a well-intentioned promotional campaign by the local radio station.

WNRO radio had adopted as its 2002 slogan -- WNRO, Nero's Happy Station Where Things Happen. After spending money on a jingle, coffee mugs, direct mail and a billboard, WNRO has abruptly cancelled the campaign because of a bitter controversy.

"I blame those people in Rexford," the normally combative but now somewhat subdued talk show host Mike Van Wilson told me over poached eggs with bacon and white toast at Nero's Creek Diner.

Some 250 residents of the hamlet of Rexford signed a petition urging removal of a "Welcome to Clifton Park" sign on Route 146 where a new Stewart's Shop has been built. On that road, motorists are indeed entering the governmental jurisdiction of the Town of Clifton Park. But the southwest part of the town is proudly known as the historic hamlet of Rexford. The offending sign was removed following the outcry and a new, smaller sign welcomes people to Rexford, with an aside about Clifton Park.

The to-do in Rexford/Clifton Park was duly noted in Nero and Nero's affluent suburb of Keepthemundaville by the sharp-eyed critics of everything anybody else is doing. What WNRO forgot in orchestrating its promotional campaign is that one sure way to offend residents of the cul-de-sacs of Keepthemundaville is to remind them how close their fine homes are to the asphalt-sided structures of Nero.

WNRO's studios and transmitter are in fact located in Keepthemundaville, on the other side of the Keepthemunda Creek from Nero. Back when Nero was the place to be, the local newspaper consistently demeaned its radio competitor by referring to WNRO in frequently uncomplimentary newspaper stories as the "Keepthemundaville radio station."

"We were doing all right with our radio jingle about "Nero's Happy Station," although I personally thought it was a little sappy." Mike said. "This isn't the most optimistic area in the world, as you probably know."

WNRO's downfall was to erect a billboard using the new slogan on its own property, just over the bridge from Nero.

As residents of Rexford were chagrined to be reminded of their association with Clifton Park, inhabitants of Keepthemundaville were outraged when the lighted billboard proclaimed -- WNRO, Nero's Happy Station Where Things Happen -- as they approached their suburban homes and the upscale Olde Village Plaza.

"Things happened all right," Mike told me. "The next village board meeting there was fuss and bother about whether WNRO had broken zoning rules with the billboard. Then the village board demanded that we change the sign to say Keepthemundaville's happy station. Our problem with that was that the word Keepthemundaville is so long it wouldn't fit on the billboard. We suggested K-ville's happy station, but the village people wouldn't buy that. So, we plastered over the sign with an advertisement for the local service club follies and gave up the whole sorry business."

"What happened next was that the Nero Common Council resolved that we were wimps, ashamed of our city of license, as opposed to our physical location. The Nero paper is having a field day. They run about one letter every other day, not to mention news stories, an editorial and a column or two all knocking the radio station. We've lost advertising all over. It's a mess.

"And I can't talk about it on the talk show, orders from management. We've been bleeping out more calls the past two weeks than my whole career. I'm supposed to be a controversial host and I can't talk about the biggest controversy to hit this area in months. Such a business."

Civility Endures In Nero's Outskirts

People in the old farming hamlets around Nero maintain traditions of hospitality and civility, even though farms are fewer and many of the residents are relative newcomers who have chosen to live in the beautiful but inconvenient outskirts.

At the grange hall in Keepthemunda Corners, a few miles from the rambunctious City of Nero, the weekly senior citizen meeting runs like clockwork. The numbered-table system for calling people to the bountiful covered dish buffet is strictly monitored by the president. People do not push, shove or cut in line. The featured speaker talks right after the meal and before the business of the group is discussed, meaning that a guest speaker is never held hostage to a long and contentious meeting.

When Wanda Tamburino, constituent-problem fixer for the region's popular Congressman, filled in for her boss as guest speaker, the president of the seniors reminded the audience that when the invited speaker talks, other conversations cease.

Unlike some gatherings of talkative elders, the Keepthemunda Corners seniors listened intently as Wanda spoke about the need to protect Social Security, the still smoldering salt barn project controversy and the current world situation.

For the first time in Wanda's political career, local people are interested in international affairs. True, homeowners still fear for future property values in the face of economic development projects such as the salt barn and retirees are wary about the safety of their monthly government checks. But all constituents are concerned, even nervous about the war with terrorists.

As the question period began, one gentleman asked politely, "Don't you think this constant news media coverage of anthrax cases and hoaxes scares our citizens and helps the enemy?"

Wanda tended to agree, but managed to stick up for the First Amendment and the public's right to know, fearing an anti-media response would, of course, not play well in the media.

Many times in her career she wished that the news media would just shut up about something - Monica Lewinsky, for example, or some of the local scandals she and her boss had endured.

Despite journalism's pretensions to professionalism, news coverage is often an extension of neighborhood gossip. The 24-hour cable channels, the local TV, the radio, the newspapers, the magazines and the websites hunger for material. Media people know they can attract an audience by magnifying what people are talking about - their hopes, wants and fears.

The number of anthrax fatalities has been low, certainly when compared to the deaths of September 11. But Wanda felt in her bones that she and her neighbors found the idea of disease spreading through the U.S. Mail very troubling, in a way more troubling than planes crashing into high rise buildings.

Wanda would have liked to ignore these stories about spores here, anthrax there and hoaxes someplace else, but she found herself paying more attention to these stories than she liked to admit.

And she had to deal with the mail in the Nero office, casting a wary eye on bulges and stains in letters sent to the Congressman.

Wanda took more questions and gave more answers, including a defense of the House shutdown some weeks ago, even though the Senate hadn't followed suit. Her gaze kept falling, though, on white powder that she noticed had been spilled on the lectern, right where she had placed her notes. Finally, she had to say something about it.

What ensued was a testament to the social cohesion of the Keepthemunda Corners seniors. The president called for order and asked if anyone could explain the white powder. After a short pause, one of the ladies confessed she had bumped the sugar bowl for the head table on the lectern and must have spilled some sugar. Bravely, the president tasted the powder, pronounced it sweet and the group went on its way without a call to 911.

Driving back to Nero, Wanda realized she would probably stop at the Four Clover to tell her friend Stan the bartender about this latest escapade and, incidentally, have a relatively rare, early afternoon sombrero.

Attack's Aftermath Lingers in Nero

The way we avoid hearing unpleasant news in Upstate New York is to employ the run-on phrase, "how you doing, good," with only the slightest hint of a question.

We don't want to hear bad news and people usually take the hint and reply "pretty good," "can't complain" or "it could be worse." If you don't say "how you doing, good," however, the person you have met can launch into tales of illness, death, financial reversal, the obstinacy of children and marital woes.

People in Nero, New York, haven't had the heart to cut off too many tales of woe by saying "how you doing, good" for a month. Everyone has been affected by the events of September 11, although the World Trade Center is over 150 miles from the vacant factories and burned out buildings of Nero.

Life has taken on new purpose in some ways. More people are attending the big downtown church and organizations ranging from the high-end service clubs to the Sons of St. Adalbartio are collecting for New York City relief.

People who generally resent cops and firemen gave generously when local firemen collected for their brothers by approaching cars waiting in traffic on the highway in front of the big box retail stores outside of town.

American flags have added color to Nero's vacant store windows. At the Four Clover Tavern, Stan the bartender has a big flag covering most of the mirror over the bar. He wears a flag-decorated T-shirt that says United We Stand. A vendor tried to sell the Four Clover drink straws with little American flags on top, but Stan didn't buy them.

Red, white and blue bunting adorns the chain link fence at the Nero Aerodrome, where its few private plane flights were grounded during the emergency.

WNRO talk show host Mike Van Wilson is in his glory, screaming at the start of each show - DEAD OR ALIVE, a reference to what should be done about the capture of terrorist Osama Bin Laden.

Nero's new immigrants are glad they speak Spanish and the languages of the Balkans, not Arabic. People hate to say it but they are a little wary of the Middle Eastern gentleman who operates the convenience store. He is a little wary of his customers as well.

Marty the Bull, the retired union leader, thinks the Mafia, the Bloods, the Crips and other ethnic gangs should get together for the good of the country.

"We did it in World War Two," Marty says. "Terrorism is bad for everybody."

Disease Cotter, the retired sock mill worker, is apprehensive about his pending annual airplane trip to the Las Vegas casinos. But he has decided to go because he's already paid for the flight, one small victory for greed over fear.

At the Klever Kuts salon, beautician Carla Gonzalez sometimes cries as she colors hair and does permanents. A friend of her son died September 11 in lower Manhattan and now Carla's boy is enlisting in the Army. He wants to be in the special forces.

Wanda Tamburino, the constituent problem-fixer for Nero's popular congressman, was proud of her boss for joining fellow members in a rendition of "God Bless America" the day of the attack.

Some of the tipsy patrons at the Four Clover grab the microphone from the weekend lounge singer on Friday or Saturday night for off-key versions of "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful."

Stan the bartender gets annoyed at his patrons slurring their words as they belt out the patriotic tunes. He does admit, if only to himself, that he is selling more booze than he used to.

"Dare I say it, Stan, we aren't as bad off as we could be." Wanda told Stan after finishing perhaps one too many sombreros. "We are doing well up here, compared to those souls who died in New York and Washington. Life may not be great but at least it's still going on."

Carla Gonzalez walked in the bar and Wanda called to her, "Hey Carla, how you doing, good?"

Nothing Comes Easy Around Nero

Nothing comes easy in Nero and its environs. Simple projects and complicated endeavors alike face opposition, difficulty and delay. Nero is a declining, fictional mill town in Upstate New York.

This month, Stan the bartender started booking music at Nero's Four Clover Tavern. He's looking for something, anything to atttract a few people on a weekend night, even with the strict drunk driving laws.

Stan hired a lounge singer, a keyboard player who uses a small electronic piano. Marty the Bull, the retired union leader, sang along. Even today, few argue with Marty but his singing left something to be desired.

Never at a loss for words, Wanda Tamburino, constituent problem-fixer for the region's popular Congressman, said, "Hey Marty, could you sing long ago and far away?"

Marty left in a huff, muttering about all the money his union used to funnel to Wanda's boss.

"I thought you two were friends," Stan told Wanda, breaking his bartender code and intruding into the personal lives of his customers.

"I'm sorry, Stan, I don't know what got into me," Wanda said. "I'll make it up to Marty. Maybe I'm depressed over the road salt project."

As in Glenville with its proposed power plant and the Town of Florida with its planned discount store distribution center, folks in the Nero area finally have something to oppose.

An out-of-state company wants to build a big salt storage shed next to the Nero Aerodrome just outside the city in the Town of Keepthemunda. There are homes nearby.

People in Nero are bitter that, once again, development has bypassed their city. Economic development gets close, but always avoids Nero itself.

Wanda's boss, who represents the whole region, takes a more global view and sees construction jobs, plus ongoing employment for upkeep of the salt storage barn.

But now the project appears dead in the water because the previously gung-ho development attitude in the Town of Keepthemunda has been replaced by the ethic of slow-growth.

Suddenly, the perils of road salt contamination and increased truck traffic have eclipsed West Nile virus, crime in the streets, the woes of Wall Street, shark attacks and the aimlessness of the younger generation as the true dangers of life in these times.

In the road salt storage proposal, the out-of-power politicians in the Town of Keepthemunda saw an issue they could use to outfox the incumbents, who have been in power in town since the Civil War. The out-of-power crowd denounce road salt and truck traffic at every opportunity. As political handouts, they distribute salt shakers branded with the circle with a diagonal line, the universal symbol for "not in my backyard."

Fearing the wrath of voters who live near the proposed salt barn and their many friends and relatives, the incumbent party finally converted to anti-saltism. If anything, the incumbents have become more zealous than their political opponents in denunciation of the harmful qualities of sodium and chloride and the inexcusability of idling diesel engines.

Wanda and her boss remain committed to the salt barn, which may be a temporary position, partly because of embarassment caused by a recently disclosed political contribution from the national road salt lobby.

"Do you mind if I sing along with you?" Wanda asked Marty the Bull the next night at the Four Clover Tavern when the lounge singer started crooning "My Way."

"I don't care," Marty said, which made Stan the bartender happy.

Coming from a resident of the Nero area, "I don't care" is a ringing endorsement indeed.

Flowers Add a Festive Touch to Reunion Time in Nero

Red, purple, yellow and white flowers gave Nero an unusually festive look this summer.

The flowers were purchased with a federal downtown revitalization grant. Baskets overflowing with blossoms hang from lampposts all over the center of the city. Large urns dot street corners.

A man stands in the back of a city truck to water the flowers every morning. The truck speeds alarmingly from lamppost to lamppost. The flower-watering detail is a coveted assignment at the city garage. Complaining neighbors, self-important bosses and nosy politicians aren't around in the early morning to complicate the task. Also, the work is finished in plenty of time to make the opening race at Saratoga.

The flowers have impressed summer visitors, including those who have returned home for family and class reunions. Nero has not become Saratoga Springs but at least an effort is being made.

Since Nero is Nero, there are complaints about the pretty flowers, including the views of the angry, but clean-speaking talk show host Mike Van Wilson at WNRO radio.

"Federal funds for flowers," Mike sneered one day on the radio. "What stupidity. This must have been an idea left over from when Bill "Love Those Interns" Clinton was president. The next thing is they'll start serving lemonade and cookies, no probably white wine and brie, when welfare cheats line up for their benefits."

"Well if isn't the begonia basher," Wanda Tamburino said as Mike Van Wilson walked into the banquet room at the lakeside resort near Nero for their 25th high school reunion. Wanda is constituent problem-fixe

r for the region's popular Congressman and, therefore, the logical candidate to organize reunions for the class of '76, the year she and Mike graduated from Nero High School.

"Get over it Wanda," Mike shot back. "Is your boss running on the pansy and daisy ticket? Does he expect flower power will get him re-elected?"

"Why is it you are so offended when a politican does what politicians do," Wanda replied. "Isn't it good to have flowers obscure the view of vacant lots and abandoned and burned-out buildings for a little while? It's a short-term fix but, Mike, life is short-term. The flowers are cheaper than your beloved war on drugs."

Some at the reunion were excited to hear Wanda and Mike go at it. Others, non-Nero spouses for example, shifted their weight from one foot to another, nibbled cheese, sipped wine and thought, "These people from this forsaken place argue about everything. Why did I come here?"

By the end of the evening, Mike and Wanda were laughing and drinking together, which caused even more talk. High school reunions are emotionally and sexually charged. Most men and women try to look their best at these gatherings of people they knew long ago, when life seemed simpler and hormones were raging. Some attendees do not make this effort to create a good physical impression. Perhaps they are wiser or have reached a stage in life where they don't care.

Well-turned out women and men eyed each other during the night with a mixture of friendliness, flirtatiousness and suspicion. To break the ice, high school escapades were retold and laughter filled the room. There were hard-to-follow accounts of children, spouses, ex-spouses, careers and illnesses.

The short, thin kid who was a geek in high school and who now runs a New York City computer business got the courage to talk to the huge, former football player who used to bully him. Remarkably, they talked about the downtown flowers. The former football player is now Nero's public works commissioner.

Some wished the reunion could go on forever. For others, the night could not end soon enough.