Monday, August 9, 2010

And you think Amherst is weird?

And you think Amherst is weird?

As I recently noted, the debate on Amherst’s weirdness or wing-nuttiness (not necessarily the same thing, though the two sets can intersect) continues. Some attack the Select Board for its response to the Arizona election law. Others see the Select Board as the eye of calm and sanity amidst the turbulence of our other elected bodies. But either way, the sentiment persists that we are stranger than other towns.

Really? I found cause to doubt this when I read that a man wearing a Darth Vader mask and cape robbed a bank on Long Island last month. (What kind of a mask—Nixon, maybe?—would one wear while committing a crime in Amherst? I wondered—not that we would do any such thing, of course.)

Actually, I was already thinking about this when attending the June 12 Massachusetts Municipal Association Selectman's meeting with two Amherst colleagues. One of them reported that, in a session she went to, a politician said, “It’s true: I was fired. But I took the high road: everyone else was indicted.” We had a little laugh over this on the drive home from Sturbridge, and that got me to thinking. Another colleague later helpfully began to supply examples of bad behavior by politicians elsewhere in the Commonwealth.  Here's a sample from the Cape Cod Times for only a two-day period about a year ago: Select Board member arrested for drunkenness; Town Manager accused of sexual harassment; school administrator makes accounting error leading to teacher job losses, fakes accident to avoid questioning.  And then, closer to home, there is of course our select board counterpart down the road in Hadley who got nailed for trying to use a complimentary police commissioner badge to get out of a traffic citation. Whoops. This story in turn led to the revelation that there were—well, nobody knows exactly how—many such badges floating around out there.  Double whoops.

Of course, this is all just run-of-the-mill New England scandal, and even then on a small scale. We're not talking Big Dig here (anniversary today!).  Now there was a scandal. I don't think an underworld figure called the "Cheese Man" could flourish in Amherst, unless, perhaps, he dealt in illicit raw-milk Stilton.

This past winter, the biggest scandal here involved a little kerfuffle about the Jones Library (no, not that one: it hadn't broken yet), where hordes of rowdy middle schoolers regularly caused a commotion on Fridays by:
running, blocking access to stacks, yelling, eating and throwing pizza, closing off bathrooms and engaging in inappropriate sexual activity
Thus the Bulletin. The Trustee minutes are a lot funnier. Library staff sought to present the problem as a larger one of social opportunities in the downtown as a whole, requiring town action.  The Trustees took a different tack.  Gruff old Louis Greenbaum proposed "that the Library employ a part time person who will toss the ruffians out, if necessary." (gotta love that: when was the last time you heard someone say, "ruffian," since "Frasier" went off the air?).  Other trustees were busy trying to sew a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  Carol Gray cheerfully declared, "We don’t have to see this as a problem. It can be seen as a Library opportunity since many libraries are struggling to figure out how to draw teens in to the Library and we already have teens coming to the Library.” To prove her point, "Googling resourcefully on her laptop," she came up with lists of other "libraries that had received teens and tweens grants."

In the end, pretty tame stuff--for, meanwhile, down the road in Hadley, police busted a huge prostitution ring. 

Yes, prostitution. Yes, in Hadley, where just this week the big scandal was "Dispute spurs Buffalo Wild Wings closure at mall." It wasn't the the wings that were hot not so long before that.
A Saugus man with chronic back pain was in town in late May of 2009 and wanted a massage. He saw Hadley Massage Therapy at 215 Russell St., and stopped in for treatment.
What the massage therapist attempted to give him, however, was sex, according to court documents.
James Goggin, 41, was outraged when he was touched inappropriately by the masseuse,...
What he prompted police to uncover was part of a "sprawlng criminal enterprise" in which Asian women were often forced to work "against their will, in a sort of modern-day indentured servitude." "Nearly identical operations were underway at six other sites in the Pioneer Valley: in East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Chicopee, Springfield and West Springfield."

But I’m not concerned only with crime and corruption, I’m really talking about the weird and the surreal. This was the topic I raised in the car on the way home.  Not only are we in Amherst not corrupt, but there has been a lot of weirdness in the neighboring towns of late: I mean, stuff werider than the badge scandal or the prostitution, truly worthy of the famed Amherst police blotter.

In one case, a man wielding a crossbow robbed a Springfield convenience store at 4:30 a.m.  Original, I thought.  But then it turns out this may actually have been a copycat crime: there was a similar case in my native Wisconsin a good 3 years earlier.  (Nothing new under the sun, said Ecclesiastes)

In another, one man threatened another with a Samurai sword at a Route 9 gas station in Hadley. It wasn't even a robbery attempt this time: more like, demanding a favor at swordpoint:
Police have said that Norzelin showed a man a two-foot sword in his car and gave him money to buy him cigarettes. Police said Norzelin threatened to kill the man if he didn’t buy him cigarettes.

The store clerk called 911. Norzelin never got the cigarettes.
The time was 4:25 a.m. I was sensing a pattern.  "WTF?!" I asked myself, and then Alisa. “What is this: medieval crime week? sounds like some parody of a program from the History channel."

A few days later, the good folks down at Channel 22 in Springfield came to the same conclusion.

Amherst is perhaps politically weird. But this other stuff: well, it’s just existentially weird. Maybe it’s just that all normal towns are alike, and all weird towns are weird in their own way.

Come visit us and find out (cultural tourism is good for the clean economic development we are trying to promote). Just watch out for the cannibals.
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