City Mouse, Country Mouse

New York has rats in the streets. We have deer.

Posted Oct 22, 2019

The other night I turned on Amazon Prime and was attracted to a series called Modern Love. The episode took place in a marble building with a stern doorman named Guzmin. 

One of my first thoughts was how in the world the heroine of the story could afford to live in a hotel.

Jeez, Frances. You’ve been away too long.

The former governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, called Montana the salmon state: all the young leave to find decent jobs then come home to the headwaters to die.

I’m a salmon.  I grew up in a drowsy Missoula and moved to New York State when I was 24, then to New York City when I was 29.  I stayed there – well, only a year in Manhattan, then Brooklyn Heights – until I was 57.  I think 36 years entitles me to call myself an ex-New Yorker, but all those years I called myself a Montanan.  Not an ex-Montanan, but a Montanan.  Now I live in Missoula and find myself an ex-New Yorker.

Five years ago I found a much less drowsy Missoula.  It now has Indian and Vietnamese food, a professional children’s theatre, a first-rate independent bookstore and way, way too much coffee and local beer. 

Frances Kuffel
Source: Frances Kuffel

I've written a lot about how isolated and lonely I am.  My friends have settled into the five good jobs Montana has for humanities graduates and I have no place on their busy schedules.  It’s the salmon I feel most comfortable with.  We’re all, years after moving back, scratching our heads and wondering what happened to us.  We came back to tend elderly parents, which was a reason; some of us still are and some of us have gone through the anxiety, guilt, and grief, finding ourselves asking what now? 

Most of my salmon friends have found their next and I’m still lonely.  When I felt lonely in Brooklyn, or het up about the latest Republican outrage, all I had to do was step onto the street and start talking.

In Montana, we talk about weather.  In Brooklyn, we talked about politics and policy.

Brooklyn Heights is a highly desirable neighborhood but we called my studio apartment the Bat Cave because of the lack of sunlight.  I didn’t have much electric light either, because there were so few sockets and they tended to sizzle a bit.

On the other hand, the Heights is beautiful.  Federalist mixed with Victorian and pre-war, the trees a canopy over the streets, tiny gardens, and the Promenade, which is over the BQE and studies Wall Street while elderly Chinese air their birds and practice tai chi in the morning.  An anonymous janitor had saved all his life and bequeathed his odd fortune to planting daffodils, which are profuse behind the iron fences on the Promenade, along with every other spring flower.

Missoula is too cold for much daffodil action; even tulips are rare.  If you managed to get one up and blooming, some inbred deer with three antlers would come along and eat it.

New York has rats in the streets.  We have deer.  When it comes to gardens and driving, I’d rather have rats.

And I do so miss snowdrops.  Missoula winters are mild compared to Butte or Big Fork, but they drag on and on with only the calendar to give hope.  Snowdrops were a promise written in stark white against the moldering snow.

But Missoula grows lilacs and iris like weeds.  They’re among my 500 favorite flowers.

I miss fireflies.  I don’t miss cockroaches.

Of course Montana is beautiful, with its jagged mountains and clear blue lakes.  But that’s a half-hour or more away from my apartment, which is in box store country.  My neighborhood doesn’t incite me to walk.  Had I gotten one of those five good jobs or had my parents chosen the university district over the Country Club, I could have lived somewhere worth walking.  But apartments near the university or up the Rattlesnake are for students: grotty, noisy, faded Tibetan prayer flags spilling out of windows like Saturday night vomit.

But when the sharks from California or wherever they needed a change of diet discovered this groovy little city, house prices skyrocketed and the salmon who aren’t living in family homes are stuck with decent apartments on the periphery.

Although Costco, six blocks away, is always an adventure.

I don’t miss New York’s catastrophic weather events – hurricanes, nor’easters, ice storms, the occasional tornado, the summer humidity, and how the summer heat rises from the streets and radiates from the buildings at night, giving no reprieve.  If it’s 100° at mid-afternoon in Missoula, it will be 60° when you wake up in the morning.  The worst that happens – and it’s pretty bad – is the smoke of forest fires that settles in and produces health alerts.  Sometimes parts of Missoula are actually under threat of being burned down.

The fires are pretty spectacular to drive out and watch, however.

I miss the ballet.  I miss Sondheim.  I’ve got no on the other hand to these. 

And I miss putting on a dress.  Dressing up in Missoula means not wearing sneakers with your jeans.

Montanans are nice.  There’s no attitude when you go to the dry cleaner (although there are only two in town and the prices are prohibitive) or the E.R., where you are seen within 15 minutes and never end up on a gurney in the hall for the night.  We have walk-in clinics where people are similarly nice and will see you quickly – but there’s one podiatrist’s practice in town and appointments are far out.  The staff at my father's assisted living complex loved him and were uniformly sweet to all the residents.  It’s nice to live in a nice place where even the teenagers at Five Guys are almost human.

New Yorkers are friendly – at least when they’re not psychotic or swimming around in their own private fishbowl of neuroses.  My best friends (and I’ve come to the conclusion they still are my best friends) are people I met through my dog, Daisy.  Ann Marie, Gerry, David, Susan, Ann, Jonathan, Steve, the-other-Susan, Andrea: oh how I miss you!  Our complicated, funny, lovely dogs led to exchanges of phone numbers, late night walks, laughter, weekends in the country, confidences, stories, chi dong massages, $45 an hour, in Chinatown, and the sacred ritual of the first night of the Danish Seamen's Christmas Fair.  It was Ann Marie who walked me through my father’s memorial service.  None of my Missoula friends attended.

I have never collected a phone number or been asked when I bring Lismore to the dog run so the pups can see each other again.  We’re all very nice to one another at the dog run; no one bitches about being jumped on or having a toy stolen.  And then we all go our separate ways, whatever those ways are.

There are two words that I risk my life saying among all the nice folks of Missoula.  “Trump” and “wolves.”

When Obama was elected in 2008, whites and blacks, perfect strangers, were waving at each other, shouting congratulations.  My friend Tigger started crying when I congratulated him.  He turned to his grandfather and said, “I only wish Grandma was alive to see this.”  The comment underscored the moment in a way it would be hard to find in Missoula.  Tigger, by the way, became a friend through Daisy, who leeerrrrved him.

Should I have stayed?

No.  It's not a good place to grow old if you don't have a lot of money.

Should I have stayed in Missoula after my father died?

Yes.  My brother, conservative and evangelical, has become a best friend.  Maybe my very best friend.

No.  I’m lonely.

The center pole my carousel rotates around.