Dan Barry peddles in the petits dramas and crossroads that ordinary people meet day to day. Some of his best “This Land” columns for the New York Times suggest items that Anton Chekov might have written – that is, if the Russian Chekov was a time traveler with an interpreter and a rental car. When Barry is cooking – and often he is – his stories open the interior of the nation and reveal as much about American life as the U.S. Census. Maybe more.
Take Barry’s October 2011 story about the crow problem in Terre Haute, Ind. Now, we’ve all read stories about murders of crows that descend on communities and cluster in a creepy, sort of vermin-like way. Crows cluster and creep for many reasons – not least of which is that people often pave over traditional crow haunts. So when the birds come back from wintering, they descend on a new wilderness of box store parking lots. Or they perch on nearby trees and caw crow epithets at civilization and its discontents.
Barry’s column hangs on the Terre Haute Crow Patrol, which enforces “a kind of avian nimbyism.” Check out the lede:
Her Cadillac glides slowly through the rain-glossed streets of this traumatized city, her gat within reach. The ominous evening sky has yet to turn black, but it will. Oh, it will.
Stylistically, Barry has written about Terre Haute’s Crow Patrol as pulp NON-fiction. It’s an unexpected approach used to great comedic effect. It’s also terrific journalism. Because, no matter what you think you know about crows, this story is a great read.
Barry follows Joy Sacopulos, a 72-year-old retired school teacher who carries a launch (fireworks) pistol and drives her own sedan. Sacopulos stops and shoots at birds on her watch. “Crow patrol” she quips to passersby, after firing. Does Sacopulos actually drop a crow? Unclear. But she aims to make them nervous enough to leave town. There’s lovely detail here – especially when Barry likens Terre Haute’s situation to the crow troubles of Auburn, N.Y., and Lancaster, Pa., reminding the reader, as fewer and fewer national writers do, that there are other cities in the U.S. besides metropolises. And yet, no matter where you live, can a sentence like the next one hit any closer to home?
Last year, a crew shoveled 4,000 pounds of crow droppings from the roof of a building used by the Clabber Girl baking powder company.
Try making cookies from scratch and NOT thinking about poor Miss Clabber Girl.
Barry embraces the hilarity of the situation with gusto. After all, an old lady is “packing pyrotechnic heat.” She’s shooting at birds that aren’t exactly attacking her. She’s doing what old folks tell youngsters never to do. And clearly, she’s enjoying the responsibility and authority that the Crow Patrol affords her.
Another beguiling detail of the story is that Sacopulos doesn’t presume to judge the crows. Like Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) in the movie Unforgiven, she confronts her adversaries while still managing to recognize their shared traits.
In the end, it’s Barry who crows last. The high comedy of his portrait of Terre Haute’s Crow Patrol leads us to understand that this story goes deeper than launch pistols and birds; it’s about something more than suburban sprawl or Hitchcockian allegory. We come face to face with an unequivocal truth about American life in the 21st century, a truth that census figures can only paw at: In a nation of rapidly aging Americans and in an era when older people find themselves more idle than they would ever wish to be, Joy Sacopulos is doing something of value. She’s engaged and aware. And there’s no greater satisfaction in society than feeling useful.
The crows don’t scare for long. The final image is of Sacopulos as a tough old bird who may have met her match. And yet, the larger message of the tale seems far more comforting. Way down in the autumn of life, it’s still possible to course with the thrill of purpose.
Gwen Thompkins is a freelance journalist and writer in New Orleans. She began her career at the Times-Picayune, then moved to National Public Radio, where she worked as senior editor of Weekend Edition Saturday and East Africa bureau chief. Thompkins, a 2011 Nieman Fellow, continues to write stories and commentaries for NPR. She is also the creator and host of a weekly radio program on WWNO (89.9 FM) called Music Inside Out with Gwen Thompkins.
For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each Tuesday for a new shot of inspiration and insight.