- Viewpoint: Location, Occupation, Juxtaposition, Interpenetration:Notes on an Erotics of the Mining City
Most of us are animated by what might be called the cosmological impulse—a reflexive tendency to orient ourselves with respect to space and time. It's so deep-seated that we usually don't think about it. On a mundane level, the impulse manifests itself in a variety of ways, depending on circumstance. In cities such as New York, where I lived for ten years before moving back to Butte, people usually ask, "What do you do?" But when I returned to Butte, the first questions almost always concerned parish, neighborhood, and family connections. Kinship trumped all other ways in which one might "place" someone else. Oh, I went to school with your mother. Or: Your dad worked with my uncle. Or: My cousin is married to your cousin. There was nothing better than that: discovering that the stranger you just met is in fact a relative. Your name was your calling card. I don't know who you are until I know who you're related to and what part of town you come from.
This was a map that you developed unconsciously and which stayed with you. And you can still find it today. When I met John T. Shea, my neighbor, now a dear friend, he stood on North Main Street and, while pointing to empty lots in both directions, recited the names of people long dead who once lived and worked in buildings that were razed years ago—residences, bars, grocery stores, boarding houses. All within the shadow of the Mountain Con Mine, where his father worked, a mile below the surface across the street from the family home. John T. says that he and his buddies stole the bottles that miners placed outside the second-story windows of the Mullan, the biggest of the boarding houses in the neighborhood. That was the first sign of his knack for climbing, which served him well later when he became an ironworker building those very headframes. His labor is embodied—and memorialized—in several of the thirteen head-frames that have survived and that today stand as the most iconic structures in town. As I listened to John, the now-empty lots and silent streets came alive, ever so briefly. Much of what was here is gone, but not to those who lived here before.
"I was born to this," John T. Shea says. And by that he means both the place and the life it has offered. The Mining City. Mining. The mines. This is the voice of a native, of course. Native: one born or reared in a particular place. The Latin form of which, of course, is vernaculus, which literally means native to a certain place and time. Contrasted with what's uncharacteristic, foreign—originating elsewhere. Some people are born to a particular place and time; others are not. They are outsiders. Visitors. Butte has a reputation for friendliness toward outsiders. And it is well deserved. But part of Butte's maddening complexity, and contributing to both its persistence and its fatality, is that it is one of the hardest clubs in the world to join. You can go a long time without noticing this demarcation, but once you do recognize it, suddenly the town seems impenetrable—and inscrutable. It's a place you cannot enter under your own power. To convert from outsider to insider, you must be invited, sponsored—adopted. It helps to have an Irish surname.
So here we are at the Mother Lode Theater, a group of outsiders, united by an interest in other people's local realities, visitors to a place that's [End Page 1] especially resistant to such endeavors, that's stubbornly, even combatively tribal in its intent not to reveal its inner workings. I believe that's called a dilemma. And I include myself, by the way, among the outsiders, as well as in the problematic endeavor. At least in part. I'm a vernaculus, certainly, and so in every significant respect a product of the specific place that was Butte at a certain time—from 1950 to...