Saturday, November 21, 2009


Whatever was there before is wiped so clean away it is not even a memory; it is a level place such as can never exist but in the imaginings of men with heavy equipment. What was there is expunged. What is to come is a drugstore. CVSWalAid, I think.

A mile away, the same scene exactly. In between these, there are already two others, completed.

This, in a town that is hanging on by its own tatters. It is the model city of the future: nothing but pharmacies, to dispense the medications that keep the population from
noticing its despair that there is nothing but pharmacies.

On a chilly dark early evening, I wait in the forbiddingly long line at the back of one of these stores. Everyone is uncomplaining of the wait: this is business as usual, I surmise, and when what you are waiting for is necessary to survival--bread, gas, Lexapro--it does not occur to question or complain. You just wait.

No one much is in the rest of the store; an implacable wall of refashioned corn syrup, bagged for the Halloween holiday just past and marked down seventy percent, stands ignored. In the line we desultorily watch four white-coated employees beyond the counter scurrying to fill the prescriptions, click-clicking little tablets by the hundreds into bottles and then white paper sacks. In a mirror image beyond them, another white-coated employee tends to the cars that have pulled up outside in the dark to a window with a microphone in it.

The only money changing hands this night is doing so over drugs.

So it is in this small city; so it must be in thousands of other towns this very moment. It is America, and America is medicated. Unemployed, disenfranchised, friendless, alone, but medicated. That is maybe why we don't care, or don't notice, that soon all we will have is drugstores. Well, perhaps a few fast-food joints to help fuel the need for the drugstores, and then the rest, drugstores.

We had gone to get a prescription for my son. His Bad Enough mother (who has come to face the fact that she has finally graduated with high marks from the Good Enough Mother soothed of her guilt by Winnicott in the famous paper of that name) had tried to fix the problem with home remedies and over-the-counter ointments and even denial, none of which worked. I generally try to stay away from the entire medical establishment, but this time I could not.

Since I no longer read The New York Times, I don't know if they still run full-page ads bought by an obviously well-heeled German doctor who rants about Big Pharma and its destabilizing effect on world peace and economics and health. He looked of a piece with the raging cranks who likewise bought ads to tout their secret methods for restoring harmony to the universe. Only thing is, I suspect he's one hundred percent correct. Pharmaceutical companies are indeed behind it all. Nothing more insidious, or more pervasive; how many drugstores are there in your town?

When I changed doctors a couple of years ago, a nurse administered the intake questionnaire. Pro forma stuff. Answers scribbled without an upward glance. Until "Medications?" None, I replied. The pen stopped and eyes met mine. "None?" Finally she overcame her incredulity to explain, "I've never had anyone your age who isn't on something."

I'm not sure what the alternative is, or what the disruptor to this endless spiral into a life where we so need our pills, and our pills need us. But it's possible it might be found on Ticetenyck Mountain (as well as on pretty much any motorcycle ride).

The gravel and leaves slipped underfoot as I clambered up the steep old trail, Nelly a few yards ahead but periodically stopping to look back inquiringly--Is this the way? I mean, you intended for us to go this high, right?--her pink tongue hanging long from the effort.

Yes, I intended it, even if it cost me a hard thump on the coccyx on the way back, when I lost my footing and gravity won. I intended it because at one point I would turn, a red-tailed hawk screaming from someplace invisible in the wide blue cloudless above. There, before me, would spread the world. The world as a view of the reservoir from end to end, a 280-degree view twenty miles long, and deep as hope.

I suspect, in all its mystery, that is one alternative.

Just beautiful, isn't it? Municipal
architecture at its most thoughtful.


Steve said...

The little town where I grew up was only large enough to have a general store (everything from hardware to bulk brown sugar) and a service station (a garage with a gas pump in front). To get to a pharmacy we would have to go to the next town east or west. Both were small businesses, occupying a fraction of a building which would fit many times over in a modern "drug store". In my memory one had a ‘50s style soda counter, the other a more current (then) 60’s snack bar; they never seemed particularly busy.

I am fortunate to now live where I don’t regularly see the urban sprawl that is so common today, but on the occasion when I venture to that area the pattern is fairly predictable. The distance between drug store X locations is a few miles with a store Y and store Z along the way; repeat. Don’t forget the clothing stores filling the space between the drug stores. If you can’t make it to one of the big drug store locations there is a pharmacy in most of the grocery stores; it does seem odd.

Thank goodness for a good motorcycle road or hiking trail shared with an energetic buddy. As much as I can I try to do without any additives, although I’ll confess that some ibuprofen does help the old bones make it through a whole day’s ride (I can’t admit that I’m too old for a sport bike :-) ). The medicinal benefits of a good workout in fresh air is my prescription!

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Hello? One is too old for a sportbike when one can't move muscles because one is in a box deep in the ground.

I will vouch for ibuprofen, as I will for hot baths immediately upon returning from rides . . . as I did yesterday. A splendid ride, even if it did mean lots of absurd getting lost (can you say "crossing the Hudson three times to get to one destination"?). And a fair amount of slab. But then there were the roads we found, and the sun a big orange ball, and us trying to outrace its disappearance behind the hills, and the threat of sudden cold. Yeah, I was grateful for the Widder vest again yesterday.

Oh, and thank you for reminding me about the pharmacies in every grocery store, too--how could I forget? It's even worse than I thought, then!

You & me both--grateful to live away from the soul-eating sprawl. Even if I do drive to it occasionally to fill some bags. Then I hightail it back to the mountains in relief.

Steve said...

Thanks for the encouragement! I am still refuting my birth certificate; it just can't be correct! :-)

Congrats on one more good ride this year!

Catherine said...

Oh the dreaded Rite Aid (that looks like the one in Liberty, KY). However, I've come to accept that with a Rite Aid card we can save volumes on our Aunt Cynthia's monthly meds and a few of our own when we need them.

I was upset when one of them (Rite Aid or another) was built where the old Lou&Hy's deli was in Akron. Also, I have such memories of going to a small little pharmacy just up the way from Dr. Ulrich's office (and across from Yaccomini's). We seemed to always be there for something: penicillin probably.

These big box stores are becoming necessary evils, sadly, especially in rural America where there is often no other alternative.

Thanks for an illuminating post, as always ~


Kevin G. said...

The storefront shown looks strangely familiar. The same cookie cutter design for the same type of big box store;offering you everything and anything, except originality. The corner store which takes up half the block. A quick read of their evolutions and the closings left in their wakes' suggest that the landscape wasn't the only thing that was getting bulldozed.
Evidently the world's largest retail store that boasts, "save money, live better" now has your back covered even after the living stops! I understand that they now have added caskets and funeral urns to their inventory! Now that's a Superstore

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Indeed. (Bravura performance, Kevin.) I wonder if there's a particular dance of glee they do at corporate headquarters when they find an especially beautiful historic structure they can take down in order to replace it with this. But hey: they are *responsible* to their shareholders! They only had to pay one architect once!

Catherine, did you ever go to the drugstore in Hudson? We used to skip out of prison--I mean, prep school, to go have cherry Cokes at the lunch counter there. I always expected (wished) to see Cary Grant exit the wooden phone booth in the back.

Can we ever stop lamenting the lost?

Charles said...

Nau's Pharmacy in Austin Texas still has a soda fountain and they make the best cheeseburger around. you know, for lunch. And you can buy all the necessary salves, ointments, ungents, etc. but I do not think they will sell you bulk chemicals anymore. (Viva the Patriot Act, keeping us safe from ourselves.

Out here in Sillycon valley? pharmacy, drugstore, wallymart, grocery, you can get your fix anywhere you need. It all comes in a nice little bottle, you see them advertised on the tee vee. they will fix your restless leg syndrome, or whatever else you need.

Me? I need a motorcycle ride, some fresh air, and a good BJ. But? I settle for the motorcycle ride. :)

My fix? might be on route 66

Kevin G. said...

Melissa,you invite comments to a thought provoking piece and here I go and make a speech. Sorry for the mini-rant!

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Kevin (and Charles)--are you kidding? I live for your comments, which almost make up for my rants. No, really. Thank you.

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