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Shame of the Nation
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I have few iron-clad rules for life but one of the big ones is you should never run down the city you live in. Whenever I hear someone blasting their current home, it usually tells me nothing about the particular city and everything I need to know about that person — miserable, self-hating, no control over his own life, petulant. And it provokes a mean-spirited response from me, especially if the person keeps going on about how backward and pathetic my hometown is. I usually cut them off pretty quick: You should leave, I tell them. You should go. Now. Leave. Get out. No one's keeping you. No one cares. It's your life, you hate it here, so why don't you leave? And here's a bus schedule, they run every day, you could be gone. Now.
It's a harsh response, but a necessary one, for nobody needs to hear a native speaking impotently about the inevitability of their terrible life in your city. Cities don't cause people to become losers; losers become losers because they're losers. Cities are innocent; they are merely the landscape, the background, the canvas for your life. It is too convenient a dodge to blame the locale for any misfortune or personal dissatisfaction with your existence.
There's only been one time in my life when I had to defend Fort Wayne to a person who wasn't from here, and the incident became so impassioned and ridiculous that I'm a little embarrassed to remember it. 10 years ago, at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, I was smoking a cigar in the sparsely populated grandstand when a guy approached me. He thought the cigar smelled great, and wanted to know if I had an extra. There's sort of an unwritten rule with cigar smokers, you always give up a cigar if somebody asks, so I gladly shared my stash with the guy. Anyway, after he lit up we talked about the horses and the weather and then he asked me where I was from. "Fort Wayne," I said, and the guy smiled. Then he laughed. Then he shook his head. Then he laughed again. Finally he said, with a curl of his lip, "Why would anyone want to live in a dumpy town like Fort Wayne?"
Now, normally, I wouldn't allow myself to take the bait — who cares what a stranger thinks? — but this guy pissed me off. It wasn't him running down my hometown so much as that he violated some civilized code here — race track, just met, small talk, here's a cigar, and now he's talking shit to me? Not on my watch. I realized that he was one of those insufferable, ball-busting types, the pugilistic creeps who think that insults and continuous hectoring are the epitome of humorous discourse. East coast types. I've known these guys all my life, and I've never once understood the joke. Anyway. After I responded to the jerk that I actually liked Fort Wayne, IN. I asked him where he was from. "Cleveland," he said, proudly. "Cleveland, Ohio."
Jesus God. Cleveland. The guy was running Fort Wayne down and he's from Cleveland. There may be a few cities in the U.S. that get used as a punchline more than Cleveland — Peoria, maybe Buffalo, or Detroit — but Cleveland's definitely in the top five. And this guy's giving me the high hat because I'm from Fort Wayne. I began my counter attack.
I mentioned Cleveland's unofficial nickname, "The Mistake by the Lake," and then I started reciting the long and fruitless history of the city's legendarily crappy sports teams. I then spent some time talking about Cleveland's most notorious moment — that infamous day in 1969 when Cleveland's Cuyahoga River was so oily and polluted that it actually caught fire. The guy instantly got defensive about this. "That was totally blown out of proportion," he said. "And it only happened one time." I told him that when it comes to rivers catching on fire, one time was more than enough, that the appropriate number for "times your river caught fire" in any city should be "zero." And as for "proportion" of news coverage, I told them that the Cuyahoga fire sounded scary enough in Biblical terms to qualify as news, and I asked him if it had ever rained toads and frogs in Cleveland as well. I closed my rant by mentioning that we have three, count 'em, three rivers in Fort Wayne, and that so far we've managed not to ignite a single one of them.
The conversation didn't last lone enough for me to understand the guy's enmity for Fort Wayne, but I started to wonder about our city's reputation on a national scale. Is Fort Wayne one of those knee-jerk, punchline cities, a sure thing for a cheap laugh? It didn't seem likely at that time, in 2001. Fort Wayne rarely made the national news in any way, unless it was a one-off thing like the Flood of '82 (which brought Ronald Reagan) or the Vernon Jordan shooting in 1980. In fact, Fort Wayne's fictional characters (Frank Burns from M*A*S*H, Fawn Lebowitz from "Animal House") seemed more notorious than anybody from the city.
In the 10 years since that conversation with the stooge from Cleveland took place, though, it seems that Fort Wayne has become a lightning rod for bad publicity. In addition to the infamous 2005 Men's Health article that called Fort Wayne "the dumbest city in America," we've had a number of horrific killings that received national attention, a mayoral candidate who ended up in handcuffs before the election, a Playboy centerfold with gravity-defying plastic surgery work, a porn-star actress who got hooked up with the craziest celebrity on the planet, and finally the "Harry Baals" debacle, where the naming of a public building for an ex-mayor became the one joke that national comics and headline writers across the world couldn't get enough of (The New York Daily News: "Fort Wayne Scratches Harry Baals Out For Name of Government Building"; The Register (U.K.): "Fort Wayne Officials Refuse to Slap Harry Baals on Public Building").
A lot of this is just bad luck — who knew that a humorously-named politician who died in the 50's would become a pop-culture joke in 2011? — but I'm starting to think that the Summit City has earned a place next to Peoria, Sheboygan, Muncie, and Walla Walla, Washington as a national punching bag. Unfair? You bet. But unless we get a Nobel Prize winner pronto, Fort Wayne might continue to only get noticed for the tackier things. For once that reputation gets established, it becomes almost impossible to scratch or slap away.