Despite my artier tendencies, I’ve always recoiled at the idea of purposefully living among other arty people. The Silver Lakes of the world take on an irksome, manufactured air; an individual can be arty, but in swarm, there are no individuals, only hipsters, and the interesting stores or parks become merely “hipster”-interesting, dives becomes Dives™ and thrift stores get picked cleaner than a Thanksgiving turkey. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is postmodern colonial Williamsburg: instead of a replica of colonial times with tri-cornered hats and blacksmiths, it’s a Chris Ware cartoon come to life with tight pants and kombucha-smiths. It is my nightmare.
On the flip side of the semiotic awareness coin, I love Northern New England because it is deliciously uncool; even when there are other people around, they’ve usually got bigger concerns. Will the cold burst their pipes? How will early spring will affect their fruit trees? Hairstyles in Northern New England are not self-aware. I do feel for the local indoor kids, the ones who are painted with the weirdo brush. I’m sure it’s nowhere near as isolating as the pre-internet days, but in an area where most towns lack a movie theater, let alone a rock club, I understand how the Burg has become a Utopia. The Tumblr window onto Bedford Ave is the civilization they have been looking for their entire heteronormative rural Wal-Mart lives.
I’ve been looking for a happy medium, a place that can’t be defined by the percentage of Bard graduates within a square mile radius. I’ve been considering White River Junction, Vermont. Just over the New Hampshire border (marked by the Connecticut River, which with the White River junction-ifies), White River’s strangeness seems equal parts arty and genuine. Since 2004, the town has been home to The Center for Cartoon Studies, a school that focuses on “visual narrative” (i.e., comics, cartoons, and general nerdy artiness/arty nerdiness/etc.). It’s a small school, but with about 100 students, it’s flooded the town with kids who are far cooler than the those at nearby Dartmouth.
Williamsburg of the North it is not. White River is weird not because people who seek degrees in drawing and studying comics have a healthy amount of dork in them, but because White River was odd even before the kids got there. There’s always been the hotel right on the main drag that advertises its supply of both hot and cold water, the salvage place where you can get an entire classroom’s worth of 1950s chairs with desks, and the Polka Dot, the beloved diner where you can only get hired if you’ve A, been smoking since birth, and B, cannot cook for shit.
And of course, since 1992, White River Junction has been home to the Main Street Museum. Like the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, the MSM is more of an abstract concept that a place built to specifically honor any particular period, study, or artwork. When I first visited in 2005, they had a case displaying a few of the red stilettos salvaged from the charred remains of the WRAP, the local strip club that had just burned to the ground. They also had a jar of dryer lint, three dried kittens found under a local residents home, and the skeleton of the Rio Blanco Monster (at the museum, the river is referred to as The Rio Blanco).
It was love at first sight. I’d lived semi-nearby in NH for a bit, and I sometimes felt not just culture-starved, but stuck in solitary confinement. The Main Street Museum was an oasis of humor and strangeness with its ramshackle displays, verbose placards, and library decorated with so many animal heads it makes Graceland look PETA-approved. Even when they ran a thrift store in the basement for a while, the place never had a stifling hipster feel, if only because everyone who works there (or really volunteers) is genuinely enthusiastic, funny, and friendly. When I went recently, I took in the tiny shoe display while being sniffed by an employee’s Rat Terrier named Risotto and enjoying the breeze from the Rio Blanco as it came through the open windows. Attention, Metropolitan Museum of Art: you’re doing it wrong.
As the Center for Cartoon Studies has grown the Museum has become more of an overall cultural center, with art exhibits, readings and concerts. It makes moving back to Northern New England seem a lot more inviting. I still resist dwelling among my people--to butcher the old Groucho Marx quote, I’d never want to join a crowd that would have me based on my footwear choices--but the Main Street Museum is so honestly inviting to all that even the staff from The Polka Dot would drop by. The Museum actually sells a t-shirt with a woodcut illustration of The Polka Dot and the museum’s motto, “White River Junction-- It’s Not So Bad!” Even as WRJ hipper and hipper, I’m inclined to think the town and the Main Street Museum are actually pretty awesome.