Dear Berkshire Beat Nick,
Since, returning to Great Barrington after many years, I’ve noticed there aren’t any of those interesting characters in town that we used to call Townies. And I always felt a little bad saying townie, is that a negative term?
-Andre Kennedy, Richmond
First of all, the townies didn’t disappear they just grew up, and you’re asking the wrong question, the more accurate question is: where did the town go?
Townies are simply people like you, and especially, like me. When I grew up a townie was just a person who hung out in town, which were most people when cellphones or Internet didn’t exist. Town used to be the place where we’d go to hear about last night’s drunken feats, misdeeds and any unthinkable promiscuity. It’s an extension of high school without formal teachers. A place that nurtures promise and health, but allows for temporary excursions into delinquency. This is no longer the case for Great Barrington, or much of Berkshire County, where locals are being pushed out due to rising costs. Thanks a lot, Smithsonian.
G.B. ten years ago, and ten years before that…was like the courtyards of Ancient Greece, where every type of person exchanged words, ideas and stories. Except in our town Socrates was this crazy guy named Ferret who appeared out of nowhere and disappeared in a similar fashion. And Plato, a poet named Michael Houlihan.
Now, kids roll over and go on their cellphones to look for peer approval on Instagram and Facebook. We didn’t have cellphones. And when we did, they didn’t have cameras, and when they did have cameras, the cameras sucked! We used our cellphones like phones. To connect. Not the opposite. Nowadays, people cry about losing a cellphone as if their first dog just died, “What will I do now!”
Get another, perhaps?
The Railroad Street Youth Project used to be ON Railroad Street. Now, the RSYP is on Bridge Street right next to the skate park. The skate park used to be a safe haven for minor delinquency. A sacred place where jocks and skaters came together to share what money they had on a bag of weed. The RSYP was where we went to escape or confess our skate park misdeeds.
Both worlds are equally important to the youth. It’s like don’t put a strip club next to the local shrink. I want to go to both. Just at two very different times in my day, or in my life.
Music brings people together. Now, computers have ruined the quality of music, which is scientifically not as good, just ask Bob Weir. In Ancient G.B., White Knight was a place where CD’s, and tapes, and records that sounded way better than anything off a computer, were sold. And Tune Street is gone, no! These were great spots to escape in the healthiest of ways; actually, more like get in touch. Replaced by frickin’ Louisa Ellis? The most prime real estate on the corner of Railroad and Main Street is now a store I’ll never walk into.
Martin’s is gone. MARTIN’S IS GONE! Where do hungover kids go hide to eat their breakfast? The Diner is the diner no matter what they call it. And the Bagel Shop is a trek without a car. Especially, when you’re whole life is in your backpack. Literally, in my legal case, but we’ll get to that.
And Robin’s Candy Store? Really, $3.00 for a candy bar? W!T!F!??? What kind of kid has that kind of money when they spend it all on weed or gas? If town gets so expensive that kids can’t even hang out, or apply for jobs, without changing who they are. What will they do? Or what will they resort to?
I don’t know what others do, but I know what I did. I sold weed. And apparently, wasn’t as good at it as I thought. You never are. I was better at getting drunk, which is the root of the actual problem. Unfortunately, it’s people like me who give the word Townie that negative connotation. People looked down on me, and that reflected poorly on those around, or associated with me, with no true logical reasoning. Correlative rather than causation.
I’m a Townie. I’m a Recovering Drug Addict and Formerly Convicted Felon. Sounds badass a little? It’s not. I did every single day of a mandatory two-year-and-one-day sentence in jail for marijuana, because of a school zone. I was seventeen years old. And yes, they charged me as an adult. It was 1:00 a.m. on a Sunday. I wasn’t in school nor was a school even open or within eyesight. I was on Main Street in G.B. outside the Co-op Bank. My backpack had weed and school books in it like a lot of high school kids across the country.
Take a minute. Okay, breathe.
The only guns I’ve possessed, owned, and still fire, are the ones filled with paint. Just ask Adams-Cheshire Superintendent about Nick Dayal’s skills with a Spyder Extra paintball gun. God, or whatever, bless that man for bringing music into my life, and for finally, allowing my third-person references to sound way cooler than they actually are. Remember, I’m from South County. The most dangerous thing at my elementary school in Stockbridge was a teacher. Or rather, a rapist.
And don’t blame the judge. We allow the laws. Blame yourself. I do.
And kids, don’t smoke weed in school. It makes math class way longer and is totally a waste of money.
So, I dropped out of Monument Mountain senior year. And on October 16th, 2007, I transferred from Berkshire Community College to the Berkshire County House of Corrections, where I clearly picked up a habit of hating guns and pedophiles. My sole exceptions being paintball guns and Woody Allen.
I got out of jail seven-hundred-and-thirty-one-days later. Trust me. I counted every one. I was twenty years old when I got out. I’ve heard that eighteen to twenty years of age are some of the more fun, happier years in life. This is only something I’ve heard from other people. I wouldn’t know.
I hope no seventeen-year old, or any person, with their whole life ahead of them has to lose what I lost, or go through what I went through. And hopefully that’s why people like me did. There are a lot of us.
Anyway, in 2013, I was on Boylston Street in Boston during my senior year of college, and if you’re wondering, yeah, I went to college after jail. I even graduated top of my class at UMass Boston. I have extra tassels, different colored ribbons and fancy pieces of paper with Greek words to prove it. The one A-minus I received at U.M.B., in Microeconomic Theory, pissed me off so much I switched majors. Thanks, Bunker Hill and UMass Boston. For everything.
Still think townies are lazy bums? Test me. I’m serious. Just because I did something stupid doesn’t mean I am. That goes for you, too.
And although Greek words on paper don’t mean crap to me. I am proud of these feats, which Ms. Clark taught me is okay to be: Just be you and be proud to be you. See, people want you. Not the you that you try to be, or pretend to be. Not the you that you try not to be, or pretend not to be. They like you, just you as you are. What a relief, huh?
Except, Robin’s Candy Store on Newbury Street in Boston. Or Main Street in G.B., not to be confused with Robin and Will across the street who own Fuel. The sign on the door reads, “This restaurant welcomes all immigrants and refugees,” like America used to.
So, On April 15 2013, my friends and I were drinking and enjoying Marathon Monday as we had past years. A day now labeled the Boston Marathon Bombing.
Marathon Monday is a very special day in Boston. The whole city opens its arms to the world. We all intermingled. Prior to the bombing it wasn’t unusual to see police officers and college kids finishing Solo cups of beer together.
I remember the first bomb exploding. Everyone stopped and stared. The silence was louder than the bomb. Within seconds the next explosion solidified the fear that you hoped you were wrong about that first wrong feeling. Just like that second plane in New York. That’s when everyone knew. This is no accident. I felt emotionally indifferent because the city was hectic, many of us pouring into bars and restaurants, drinking in unison disbelief. The news only got worse, as news only does.
Krystal Summers, my fellow sociology major at UMass Boston, an amazing person, beautiful girl, and great spirit with every opportunity ahead of her, exploded and died while I was just down the street watching. I buried these feelings that I haven’t discovered words for other than a perpetual gloom.
Can you read this? Good, that means your eyes work. So, look at my damn face. Just add some brown and it’s a very accurate portrayal. Who do I look like? Oh, like, just about every FBI Most Wanted photo since 2001?
Unfortunately, racism is a very real and deep-seated problem in society, like the Bush we had back then, and Trump we have now. Enough so, that I left the country for Puerto Rico two days after graduation, and even cancelled my flight back to America. I waited in St. Thomas for my lease to end in Boston, so I could leave that damned place. A place I do love very, very much.
I travelled for a couple years. Then for a couple more years I travelled to drugs and alcohol. Which, I’ve since moved on from. It’s like, maybe a fun place to visit, but you don’t want to stay for days let alone years.
Addiction is it’s own kind of jail cell. Trust me. I’ve spent years in both. If you’re an insane drug addict like me and your drugs aren’t working than the good people at the Brien Center have that good ****. You’d try anything, right? Well, try accepting help. That’s the ****. Thanks, E & J.
Are you physically, mentally, or emotionally drained? Like I was, and am, usually. I got The Guy for you. He’ll redefine your definition of a back-cracker, and save your life too, like he did mine. Thanks, Dr. Eric Van Zon.
At our graduation in the spring of 2013, Krystal’s family received an honorary degree on her behalf. Her mom and dad were so emotionally beside themselves that her brother accepted the award with a few short words. More than this writer probably could have said, because I was full of tears and whiskey.
My backpack was never intended to hurt anyone, but it did. My family, my friends and my cats, the latter of which, I openly love the most, because I had to leave them for my two-year scholarship to the county jail. The only one that probably suffered more than me was my momma. And my dad. Dads just don’t want you to see it.
Yes, townies have moms just like you. And so do convicts. Of which, America has the most.
America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, over Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Land of the free? Hard to say. But if you think that the roughly 2.3 million Americans in jail and 4.8 million Americans on parole or probation are all bad people than your what’s wrong with our system.
I met some of my best friends in jail. Good people. People who taught me valuable lessons and continue to do so. People who helped me be able to help myself. People I love. Like brothers. Like B. And Rodney Jones from Taconic, Rest in Peace, Brother. People make mistakes. And people love to label, but some labels misrepresent the true ingredients of a person. That we’re all made out of the same stuff.
What’d I learn in jail? Some people belong there.
Some of the correctional officers were worse than any prisoners. Some of the correctional officers were as good and genuine to me as a few of my best friends. This redefined my concept of authority. Some of the staff and officers at the jail are some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing life with. I never thought I’d say this but, thank you, jail. In particular, for letting me out. (Keyword: Some.)
I used to say, “**** the police” because that’s what Ice Cube said. But he went from Boyz in the Hood to the cops saving his ass in Barbershop. And the writer of the song “Cop Killer,” rapper, Ice-T, who’s real name is Tracy, now plays Detective Odafin Tutuola on Law and Order. When Mr. Ice-T spoke at UMass Boston one afternoon, another student beat me to my question. “How can you make the song ‘Cop Killer,’ and than play one on T.V.?”
Ice-T said, as cool as only Ice-T could say, “Because the bad guy only get one pay check. I get one every week.” Smart man, that Ice-T. This is a guy who was a Marine and returned home to apply what he learned from the military to rob banks with his friends. He spoke about this openly with a Massachusetts State Trooper on either side of him.
And all you people love him. I know you do. Most of you watch him all the time and say, “I love that guy!” Well, that guy used to drive around California with guns and rob banks. I sold weed to my friends in high school. Sorry.
But, I’m not sorry. Not anymore. A mistake is only a mistake if you make it twice. That’s the magic in life, the chance to change, which is the moment you take action. I used to be in the newspapers. Now, I write them.
I’ve learned to respect police because who’s going to protect my Gram from the proverbial penises of the world, especially if I’m the one locked up? Good police. Like my football coach, my childhood best friend and my Grandfather. Thank you, wouldn’t be here without you.
Krystal Summers taught me how good and beautiful the world can be. Those proverbial penises with backpacks taught me how terrible and ugly the world can be. And I know I want to be a part of the former.
Thank you, Krystal. Infinitely.
Truth is, it’s people like me that messed up the townie name, gave it a little bit of stank. But I’m not most townies. Just ask the G.B. Police or the good people at Monument Mountain about Nick Dayal. They have the paper work. Difference between those two is police change and so do criminals. But Monument Mountain Spartans… those persistent son-of-a-guns.
In my case, a guidance counselor and a teacher. Two unmovable forces: the two most attractive guys at Monument when I was there. Or kind of there. And over ten years later, still by far, the hottest guys there to this day. They didn’t forget about me or give up on me. “Tough times don’t last, tough people do,” one likes to say. Their letters pushed me through some of the toughest times in jail, and still do. It was the same crap they told me in high school. Only difference is I didn’t just nod my head like an idiot. I listened. Something we all need to do more often. Then their letters carried me to college. And I thought I was crazy. Thanks, Monument. And especially thanks, M & M.
A lot of my friends from town or townies I knew, are very successful and diligent individuals, starting their own striving companies in New York or their own endeavors here, and all over, amazing musicians, artists, people. I can’t do them all justice that’s how incredible this town is. Actually, just wait ’til the May issue.
Now, let me ask you something, did you grow up in or near a town, and if not, did you grow up in or near a city? Either way, within those places, did you not know some of the people? Some of the people you knew but didn’t like? A lot of people you liked, even discovering a few people that were a lot like you? And always a couple, you couldn’t stand the sight of?
If so, you and I have something very much in common.
Still think townies are bad? Well, if you do… then I’m the baddest mother-Trumper you ever met, and all I can say is we’re redefining the hell out of that word because I’m a gem. I just needed to be polished a couples times, and a few more times after that. And so are a lot of the townies I know and knew.
And yeah, some suck. Sound similar to your group of friends?
Probably. Except, we’re maybe even tighter, because we connected before cell phones, and stay connected even without them. I have over a hundred letters to prove it.
That’s called love, Townie Love.
Colm Higgins, Rodney Jones and Krystal Summers,
P.S. Aldous Huxley was right. We need to be Braver. And I’ll never apologize for being from a Heaven and Hell, where Jeter is Jesus, God is Notorious, and Satan has his name on a tower.