I live in Montana. Most people, hearing that, especially if they weren’t from around here, would probably picture a log cabin surrounded by towering pine trees, alongside a racing stream, with snow-clad peaks over yonder.
Not quite. I live on the second floor of a century-old converted warehouse 100 feet from the railroad tracks in the heart of the biggest city in the state. Out my windows I can just see the tops of the forest of pipes and stacks rising from the Phillips 66 refinery.
On any given night when the weather is decent, three or four people might be camped out in the doorways of the vacant buildings across the street. The bench opposite our living room window is often occupied by wanderers delivering what I guess you’d call soliloquies, though you wouldn’t want to try to make sense of them.
Along about closing time, people who’ve had a bit too much to drink occasionally stagger through the neighborhood, sometimes shouting out curses at unseen enemies and sometimes singing very loudly, trying, apparently, to approximate the tune of a song stuck in their sodden noggins.
Did I mention the train tracks? The trains roll past a few dozen times a day, sounding a lot like a tornado. No, wait. People always say tornados sound like trains. So I guess the trains sounds like trains. Anyway, it’s loud, and sometimes when they hit the brakes, the metal-on-metal screech will make your teeth rattle.
We do have a “quiet zone” in downtown Billings, which means the people driving the trains are not supposed to sound the horn … except under any number of circumstances known only to them, or when they feel like it. It really doesn’t happen that often, but if it happens in the middle of the night, even a very heavy log-sawyer is going to be awakened abruptly.
I could tell you more about the disadvantages, but let me tell you the main thing: I love it down here and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I like the space, for one thing: 13-foot-high ceilings with open rafters, one big room with a partial wall separating the bedroom from the rest of the living space.
We’ve got almost exactly the same number of square feet we had in our modest house on Avenue C, which we left last summer, but instead of six rooms we’ve got basically one. People with a lot more money than me might have three or four rooms this big in their mansions, but I’m happy with one.
As for the street theater, out of sight is out of mind, and I’d rather not forget that this city and this country have a lot of work to do. I never feel any fear, but I often feel pity or solicitude, and I’d rather say hello to people on the lost highway than pretend they don’t exist.
Also, the singing inebriates can be quite entertaining, if they don’t carry on too long, and those soliloquies are oddly fascinating. The trains, when they don’t blow their horns, are hardly even noticeable after a little while, or even a bit soothing in their familiar rhythm. And again, it’s not so bad to be reminded how things work, how the things we can’t live without get made and transported from Point A to Point B. Ditto with the refinery.
More important still is that we are downtown, right in the beating heart of what I think is a pretty damned good city, a living, lively organism that happens to be stocked with a bunch of good restaurants, bars, coffeeshops, brew pubs, hotels and stores. We’ve got live theater and live music, museums, art galleries and a Farmers’ Market.
We spend most of our time in the downtown, in this island of plenty, and we get to walk most everywhere we go. If it’s more than a few blocks we might deploy the bicycles.
I don’t want to get all Chamber of Commerce on you, but sometimes I wonder why anybody would live anywhere else.
It’s still Montana. The mountains and plains are close and the river is closer still. People on the West End or up in the Heights might be 10 minutes closer to the wilderness than I am, but I can live with that.
I get to be a city slicker and a Montanan. That’s a pretty fine combination.