Thursday, June 09, 2005


Allentown, PA. If ever a town deserved to have a wretched Billy Joel song as its anthem/dirge, this might be the one. Driving into town from Route 22, there's a breathtaking concentration of filth in the first quarter-mile of the wide boulevard off the 7th Street exit ramp: adult bookstore, tattoo parlor, Salvation Army, squalid 7-11, dirty Aldi grocery store, crumbling pawn shop... everything but a methadone clinic. The takeout delis begin a few blocks further on, as 7th Street narrows into a standard-issue Derelict's Row leading into yet another of the dessicated small cities that fester upon the corpse of Industrial Age Pennsylvania. Norristown... Harrisburg... Scranton... Lebanon... Coatesville... Pottsville... Lancaster... I've seen them all recently, and this one might be the worst of the lot, even worse than Reading.

The federal courthouse is ten years old. I park two blocks away for 25 cents per half hour and lug my briefcase up the hill in 90/90 heat and humidity. "Photo ID?" says the unsmiling armed federal marshal in front of the metal detector. "In the car?" I offer meekly. "Got to go get it. Read the sign. Everyone's got to have photo ID." Damned Patriot Act. "Got to take that briefcase with you, too." Well, fair enough -- I guess it wouldn't look too good if they let me leave an unattended package in the lobby of a federal building.

Back down the hill, open the car, retrieve driver's license, back up the hill, briefcase in tow. This time, I cut through the art deco WPA post office across the street, partly out of architectural curiosity but mostly to stay out of the sun. Very nice. They haven't retrofitted this with some godawful modernist annex. High ceilings, tile, brown wood, sedate lighting. Reminds me of the original part of the state capitol, but subject to less wear and tear. Wish I knew more about this stuff.

Flash ID, walk through the metal detector, which of course goes off. "Pull up your pant legs." The terrorists have already won. "OK, you're clean, go ahead." Elevator to 4...which, according to the buttons, is the top floor. Hmmm. Something that takes up this much space on the ground -- a whole corner of downtown A-town -- should rise a bit higher, I think.

Out of the elevator. Nice view of the valley. Maybe this town's not so bad. There's a blimp overhead today. Goodyear. I can see it through the big plate glass windows lining the wide hallway outside the courtrooms. There's uncomfortable-looking benches in front of the windows. Must be more for show than function, or maybe they don't want people sitting around too long, so they make them out of blocks of shiny cold granite. There's writing on them, too. Christ, I hope it's not the Ten Commandments. Wait a sec -- IT'S BETTER TO BE A GOOD PERSON THAN A FAMOUS PERSON. CONFUSING YOURSELF IS A WAY TO STAY HONEST. Hmmm, very Jenny Holzer. Well, waddayaknow? Here's a little plaque on the wall explaining that the 14 benches in the courthouse are part of an installation by Jenny Holzer based on her "Truisms" series. In Allentown! Five minutes ago I was...trudging back out to the parking lot to get my photo ID. But five minutes before that, I was driving past crack dens and shooting galleries. And here's Art. Art, meet Irony... oh, you're already acquainted? Great.

Now, excuse me while I go tell that federal marshal that GOVERNMENT IS A BURDEN ON THE PEOPLE, or something.

Postscript: Apparently, not everyone appreciates Ms. Holzer's little truisms: here's a brief bit of background on the Allentown courthouse installation.

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