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Worst of Missoula 2004



Oh come now, you didn’t really think you were going to get all the way through another Missoula summer without having to choke down a valley full of fire-smoke or the Indy’s annual Worst of Missoula issue, did you?

Naw, we didn’t think so.

For those of our readers new to town, a bit of introduction might be in order: The Worst of Missoula issue is our yearly indulgence in bad attitude, our gripe-fest, our antidote to the (deserved) feel-goodism of that other special issue: February’s Best of Missoula. Why? Well, it’s a bit hard to say at the moment, with willowy young tan things filling their tubes for another lazy day on the river at the Holiday station next door even as we write. What could be wrong with that?

Well, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with willowy young tan things filling tubes on a sunny day per se—it’s the attitude that accompanies such carefree lounging, summarized, as it too often is, with the appallingly ubiquitous affirmation: It’s all good.

It’s all good…No three words are more quintessentially Missoulian, and none could provide a more succinct snapshot of the need for a Worst of Missoula issue. Because the fact is that it’s not all good, which makes the illusion dangerous. Doesn’t anyone read Voltaire anymore? Or the newspaper, for that matter?

This year, alongside our own usual pet peeves, we’ve solicited contributions from an odd assortment of luminaries, leading lights and persons on the street to give us their perspectives on what’s wrong with Missoula. And we’ve also included a handy guide—no thanks to Jeff Foxworthy—to help you determine whether you’ve succumbed to Missoula’s encompassing comfort culture. But hey, don’t feel too bad if you have. It’s bound to get better from here on in.

The safety dance
by Josh Vanek

It sounds a little crass, or at least unappreciative, to be caught bitching about a place without having gone on record about what’s best about it. So, in quick succession here’s what’s best to me: Ear Candy music (amazing selection, service and taste), KBGA (community radio doesn’t get much better. Someday the ’Beej will be as good as WFMU), KettleHouse, Big Sky and Bayern breweries (in that order), Volumen, Ass-End Offend, Sasshole, the International Playboys, Two Year Touqe, Bacon and Egg, Ex-Cocaine, Oblio Joes and Holy Smokes, bike paths, the Independent [ed. note: unsolicited; and thanks], Le Petit, Big Dipper, Area 5 and all the publicly owned land close to Missoula. What I’d like changed: the safe music of Missoula. I think a fair gauge on how well a town is doing culturally corresponds with the number of bands playing original music, touring and recording. Missoula has some great music (see above), but if I ever hear a sappy cover of “Brown Eyed Girl” again, ever, I think I’ll vomit. I don’t go looking for it, but it seems to creep up everyplace. Bluesy cover bands. Yecch. When I hear music, I really want to hear original ideas. In fact, I prefer an underdeveloped or rudimentary song that folks actually came up with themselves to a well-played cover. Missoula’s such a liberal, idea-embracing place in so many other ways, yet where music’s concerned we Missoulians rally behind some pretty conservative musical forms. Young people of The UM, Hellgate, Sentinel and Big Sky High Schools: Please start more bands and play exciting songs you write yourselves. Talk to me, we need new blood to play shows!

Josh Vanek runs an independent record label called Wäntage USA ( He’s helped book a Baltic (Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) tour for Volumen, got John Peel to play No-Fi Soul Rebellion, and released a two-CD compilation called Wäntage USA’s 21st Release Hits Omnibus. He also helps organize Total Fest, punk shows and the like.

A few irksome things
Gary Marbut

Missoula is the best, of course. That’s why we live here. And most Missoula people are excellent folks.

However, there are a few irksome things about Missoula and its people. These include: people who throw their fast-food wrappers and beer cans out of their car windows; recent escapees from elsewhere who seek to change our culture into that from which they fled; drivers for whom the use of turn signals is to inform other motorists that they are turning (duhh), rather than that they intend to turn; campaigning candidates who will promise anything to buy votes; people (including local, state and federal government) who think it’s OK to ignore weeds on their properties; elitist elected officials who believe they know best how the rest of us ought to conduct our lives, and seek governmental authority to compel our behavior so we will fit their utopian dream; the very few people who seek to rearrange our culture, such as those who oppose our longstanding heritage and culture of hunting and fishing.

Still, most Missoulians understand our ways and do Montana right. That’s why they are such great neighbors.

Gary Marbut is president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and a legislative candidate for House District 99.

Pet Peeve #1: Intrusive peace-iness
Missoulians who cheerfully flash the peace sign, with no confirmation that the flashee is, in fact, in favor of peace. Here’s how one Missoulian discovered this phenomenon, having temporarily taken a (beat-up, dented, paint-peeling, old, and reliable, and well-loved) truck to the shop and borrowed a friend’s (orange, old-style) bug. Now the day in question wasn’t, like, international peace day, or I’m-a-fan-of-Ghandi day, or even killing-people-in-Iraq-is-bad day. But never you mind. All of a sudden, the bug driver is accosted with old and young and yellow and brown Missoulians repeatedly spreading their two digits into the universal sign of mushiness. The temporary driver of the bug did not remember anyone ever flashing the peace sign when she was in the beat-up, dented, peeling and, truth be known, mostly peaceful truck. The bug’s owner confirmed the phenomenon. She says she gets flashed with peace all the time—but not when she drives her Volvo.

Heavens to Betsy, let’s blow something up. Hmmm. Like, a VW?

Pet Peeve #2: Filth
While Western Montana has a national reputation for pristine mountains, crystal-clear streams and never-ending Big Sky, Missoula actually sits at the epicenter of our state’s pollution legacy.

We often breathe bad air, either from a winter’s inversion or late-summer forest fire smoke, trapped directly above downtown by the airflow stoppers of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel. This wall of mountains effectively keeps much of the wood smoke, auto exhaust and industrial belch just one deep breath away.

And although a river runs through it, our location directly downstream from our country’s largest Superfund site means fish and the anglers who consume them can be laden with mercury and heavy metals.

The ordinarily stable pollution lining the upper Clark Fork River and Milltown Reservoir gets stirred up when ice floes or high water undercut the toxic banks, flushing the sediments downstream and right through town. Fortunately, the site’s about to be cleaned up, loaded onto trains and hauled off (upstream) to containment ponds where it will sit safely undisturbed, in theoretical perpetuity.

Out of control
by Geoff Badenoch

The worst of Missoula is something abstract I can’t name. I sense it is something related to being overwhelmed by problems that seem totally out of our control: traffic, growth, change, crime, domestic violence, substance abuse, poverty, un- and underemployment—any one of which could arguably be named among the worst things about Missoula. I sense it in eroding confidence in public officials and our ability to be governed wisely. I sense it in an observable attitude shift where “neighbor helping neighbor” becomes “protecting what’s mine.” Or when complex issues are reduced to sound bites punctuated by name-calling. I sense it in the fraying around the edges of those heroes among us who donate to worthy causes, and who support, advocate and lead on behalf of those who need help to survive. I sense it even in people’s sneering reaction to the notion that journalism is imbued with integrity and fairness.

This abstract feeling is the “worst of Missoula” because it robs us of our confidence that we can solve the problems we face. It undercuts our optimism and resolve with futility. It short-circuits our compassion and generosity. It disconnects us from the community by making “going it alone” the preferred strategy of self-preservation, as if the community we love could somehow survive without the collective efforts of its citizens.

There is no quick or easy fix to this situation. (I hope we don’t form a committee to study it.) The solution will probably come from enough of us having the courage and belief we can do better: Be a better leader. Be a better teammate. Be a better parent. Be a better boss. Be a better employee. Be a better student. Be a better neighbor. Be a better Missoulian.

But don’t wait for someone to become better first. Do it now.

Geoff Badenoch was the executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency for the past 18 years. He served on the boards of several non-profit organizations during that time as well. He is currently the Democratic candidate for the Montana Public Service Commission from District 4 which includes the seven Western Montana counties.

Wednesday night in the last, best place
by Jackie Corr

Some might say that Missoula is essentially a formless, rootless, shapeless and transient suburban spot on the map. So let me start with a compliment: Missoula is not the worst place in Montana.

Actually, legend has it that Missoula is the real “last best place.” Of course, “the last best place” was the inspired invention of a long-ago Missoula real estate agency.

And that’s not all. Many Missoula evangelists have long claimed the city as Montana’s cultural, literary, artistic, and intellectual center. Considering the state of culture, literature, art and deep thought in Montana, who would dare dispute that claim?

But dude, none of that is what makes Missoula tick. Dude, Missoula is cool.

And how do I know that, dude? Well I know that because I got the straight dope from those who are really in the know in Missoula: the Missoula Independent and the Missoula Cultural Council.

Back in December, according to the Independent, there was a discussion of selling Missoula with a “marketing strategy “ based on a yuppie best-seller, Robert Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida’s message is that shapeless and formless cities like Missoula can become “cool” by catering to the “creative class” and their interest in culture, art, theater and hip nightlife.

To further quote from the Independent, “economic development offices in the Garden City will attempt to ‘brand’ Missoula as a ‘cool’ community thriving with creativity, according to Mark Martin, interim director of the Missoula Cultural Council (MCC).”

And it gets better than that. The Independent further explains:

“The forum was moderated by the Montana Associated Technology Roundtable’s Russ Fletcher. Fletcher, a Missoulian, says the city’s creative pulse goes well beyond its art galleries and music venues.”

Mr. Fletcher goes on to answer the burning question: What does the cool class in Missoula really do?

“I had a friend visiting in the summer who said, ‘But what can you do here?’”

“I said, ‘Well, on Wednesday, we all go out to lunch [at Caras Park]. On Thursday, we go out to dinner. On Friday, we go out to the art galleries and on Saturday we’re going to go to the Farmer’s Market.’”

So there you have it, dude. Missoula is cool. But I still don’t know what they do on Wednesday nights.

Jackie Corr is a Butte writer, historian and long-time columnist with the Rountown Review. He has written many articles on what is wrong and what is right with Butte.

Pet Peeve #3: Qwvetching
It’s odd to complain about a bad guy trying to make good—but there’s just something so established about hating Qwest. Qwest-bashing gives us common ground; their service is a hardship we all share, their existence part of the irksome fabric of our Missoula lives. So when one of their reps offered a great long-distance deal the other day, he threw our whole love-hate continuum out of whack. For $2.99 a month, he offered the Qwest Choice Long Distance plan, an option that’s been around about four months and includes unlimited domestic long-distance calls guaranteed never to exceed $20 a month (the $2.99 is included in that $20). Unlimited domestic long distance, never more than $20 a month? Sounds like one 800-pound gorilla is getting nervous about all those little cell phones. If only we were big enough to credit Qwest with trying to change. But, call us crazy, we’re not. Old habits die hard, and we’re Qwest-worn enough to wait for the first bill before deciding there’s nothing to hate in the fine print.

Pet Peeve #4: Gimme a brake
Missoula drivers can be too nice, and sometimes nice is dangerous. Specifically, coming to a stop on Sixth or Higgins and urging a pedestrian to cross where there is no light, no crosswalk—just another three busy lanes of drivers who are not in cahoots with you and your random act of kindness—is not nice. It is not generous. It is not proof of your unhurried spirit or your awareness of others. It is an invitation for a pedestrian to play Frogger, and for the guy behind you to ram your tail. It’s true that pedestrians don’t always use crosswalks or heed lights, but they do tend to have enough common sense to cross a street when four lanes of traffic aren’t bearing down on them. So unless they’re stumbling drunk or otherwise clearly lacking good judgment, go ahead and give those peds some credit. They’ll cross when it’s safe to cross. And you should drive when you’re supposed to drive.

Pay to play
by Nicole Panter

1. “YOU PAY TO LIVE HERE.” Unless you are a trust-fund brat, doctor, or lawyer, chances are you are eking out a living in Missoula, working a job or two or three for wages well below what they would be elsewhere in order to make ends meet (forget saving for retirement or a rainy day). A friend, an extremely talented craftsman whose specialty is the architectural restoration of old houses (of which there are plenty here), had to leave Missoula for nearly four years in order to make enough money to come back and live; the same work that got him a nice new car and a fat savings account in that other city paid only $6 an hour here. Another friend who has a graduate degree to her credit and is at the top of her profession in Missoula grosses $7,000 a year. No kidding. She supplements that by doing additional odd jobs and volunteering at a community garden in exchange for filling her own pantry with vegetables. Yet another friend works full-time for a non-profit and his yearly gross income is $12,000. In order to own a house, he has to rent part of it out. Only the last guy has health insurance, and his policy has a huge deductible.

In any other locale, these jobs would pay three and four times what they pay here. A friend recently interviewed for a job (based in Helena) that paid a princely sum for Western Montana—$35,000 a year plus health benefits. The job would have required big-city hours—60–70 per week. In New York, the same job with the same hours and responsibilities would have paid $125,000; in Los Angeles, about $95,000. Not including bonuses.

2. The same folks who tell you that you pay to live here in the next breath will tell you that “THE COST OF LIVING IS CHEAPER HERE.” Don’t kid yourself. A couple of phone calls to Portland and Los Angeles confirm that rent, mortgage, food, medical care, insurance, goods and services in those cities are all on par with the cost of living here in Missoula. Nicole Panter is a writer (Mr. Right On & Other Stories; Unnatural Disasters: Recent Writings from the Golden State), teacher and occasional contributor to the Independent. She travels the West with her vicious attack dog Pumpkin.

Sprawling in the rear-view
by Derek Cavens

Everyone gets in a taxicab at some point. This can be a good thing or this can be terrifying. Most folks seem fine in a passing, superficial manner, but some of you must make your own mothers uncomfortable.

A cab is an intimate space. People tend to get really, alarmingly comfortable. There’s the close, breathless, masculine voice asking, “Do you have a girlfriend?” The taut, equally insistent, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?” Belligerent hoodlums who think it’s really funny to try to get their drivers high. I could go on and on.

Now the beauty of the driver/rider relationship is that it lasts only for the duration of the fare. Delaying tactics are usually more than adequate: feigned misunderstandings, seeming absorption with traffic, total insincerity. Just get them to their destination and they’ll have to leave. It is only at this point that we realize our dependence on adequate city planning.

Recall the worst stranger you’ve ever met. Now imagine you’re stuck with that person across town and over the Reserve Street bridge. In the afternoon. On a Friday.

The August sun hovers pitilessly. One hundred soul-crushing degrees. No air conditioning. Countless idling engines foul the air; the line of cars extends out of sight.

The passenger’s pleading now: pull over for some midday loving, Jesus loves me, hit the pipe, cut the fare in half. I’m 10 hours into my shift. I’m entirely ignoring the fact that for these 45 minutes I’ll make $4.

I am trying not to freak out.

I’m trying to understand how so many cars are simultaneously trying to cross so few bridges. The lurker leans in. His breath steams the back of my neck. Outside the sun hasn’t moved. Nothing has moved. I consider the distant mountains and see myself drifting through cool waters, some tranquil place this sprawl and these people will never find.

Derek Cavens recently retired from driving taxis. He reminds you to always tip your driver.

Pet Peeve #5: Lewis and everlovin’ Clark
Here is a little piece of advice, Missoula: Enough with the Lewis & Clark crap, already! Is it possible for one to live in this town and not hear or read the words “Lewis & Clark” every single day? The answer is no. Take, for example, all the hoo-hah being sold promoting the bicentennial: Lewis & Clark medallions, candles, belt buckles and auto accessories to name a few. And how can one possibly live without Lewis & Clark Heritage Seeds, or a Lewis & Clark Money Clip? Unthinkable. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to take the kids camping at the very spot where Lewis and Clark took a dump. The memories could last another 200 years.

You know you’re a Missoulian if…
• Your baby stroller is bigger than your car.
• You’ve been kibitzing at the Farmer’s Market since 9 a.m. And it’s 5 p.m.
• You’ve got more hemp products than China and India combined.
• You actually remember how to do macramé.
• You pick the “pre-dog-haired” interior option when buying a Subaru Outback.
• You practice fire drills to get your Grateful Dead bootlegs safely out of the house.
• Your home is full of kid’s art. And you don’t have kids.
• It ruins your whole day—and your potluck—when the health food store is out of a single organic ingredient.
• You know the difference between “spelt” and “smelt.” You know that there’s a difference between “spelt” and “smelt.”
• You have year-round sandal tan-lines on your feet.
• You pronounce all foreign loanwords—burrito, enchilada, Weltanchauung—as true to the native accent as possible. You pretentious twit.
• You refer to the Reagan and Bush presidencies as one entity: “fascist ascendancy.”
• You measure your progressiveness based on how faithfully you can emulate the ways of primitive hunter-gatherers.
• $45,000 a year sounds “rich” to you.
• You feel it’s politically incorrect to make fun of any ethnic or socioeconomic group. Except poor white people.
• You walk across crosswalks as slowly as possible to lord your moral superiority over people driving cars.
• You think that traffic rules don’t apply to bikes. You go the wrong way on one-way streets, ride all over sidewalks, don’t stop for stop signs, and then whip yourself into a self-righteous lather when someone almost runs you down. Unless they’re driving a hybrid, in which case you flash them a peace sign.
• You’re intolerant of intolerance.
• You pay lip service to culture and diversity—but you have to stay home and wash your hair.

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