The Takeout Society 

A community board on Facebook provides a sense of what’s happening in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. Journalism is spotty here, so turning to alternative sources for information is often necessary. Occasionally, a post will appear that illuminates, as did one post about a restaurant during Christmas Eve. The worst posts are those that amplify the idea that this area is some sort of exceptional Mecca that a person has to visit or live in and then be ushered into its goodness and unending attributes. The latter is a kind of Berkshires exceptionalism in the tradition of American exceptionalism. To some here, God not only watches over the nation, but specifically watches over the  Berkshires.

There is natural beauty in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains here, but that beauty is challenged by the increasing number of people who come here.

Where the bloated sense of importance comes from is hard to fathom since the area is not one in which typical working-class and middle-class people can hope to earn a living? There is a small professional class and tradespeople, but the kinds of jobs that fueled a successful economy for some in the post-World War II world no longer exist. Tourism, the economic buttress of the area, only pays a few at the top the means to live here. Other people hang on to survive. A major defense contractor, General Electric, left the largest city in the area, Pittsfield, taking with it many good-paying jobs and leaving PCBs behind that are still the object of controversy and environmental problems.

Since Smithsonian Magazine named the town (Great Barrington, where the restaurant is located that became the topic of posts and comments on Christmas Eve) as the best small town of 2012 (“The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012,”), crowds have gathered and moved there and to many of the surrounding hilltowns. Casual observers need only look at median income distribution in this area to know which towns now host the haves and which towns have fewer with economic means. Economic standing contains one footnote or exception in that many people own expensive second homes in the area and their income doesn’t appear in local census data.

Here is the restaurant post from Facebook:

To everybody that was at (I have removed the name of the restaurant) tonight: I understand your frustrations. I was there too. I had to wait forever to get my food just to find out my order had been screwed up. Some of you never even received your food. There was unsafe crowding inside. That was a sh*t show of a situation but I am absolutely appalled by how childish many of you acted. Taking out your frustrations on a man that was clearly overwhelmed and in over his head, in the manner by which you did was truly embarrassing.  If you’ve got starving kids and you can’t wait… drive on over to (I have removed the name of the convenience store) and get them some pizza. Children love pizza and I’m sure you’ll enjoy no longer being stressed. This day is meant to be MERRY! not mean.

This restaurant has an excellent reputation. Its ambience is pleasing and its food is good.

Readers may ask what the hell people are doing going out to eat and dining inside of a restaurant during a significant surge in the Covid-19 pandemic? I’ve asked similar questions since the early spring about the rise in the number of cars and trucks on roads in the Berkshires and saw the increase (by New York Times’ estimates of early pandemic destinations from the greater New York metropolitan area) of people in the area. Real estate sales bear out my subjective observations on the increasing number of people here. Real estate prices and rents have gone up, continuing to make this area one in which many cannot afford to live. On December 23rd, I traveled into Great Barrington to purchase a necessary food item and noticed area parking lots bursting with cars, trucks, and people.

Keep in mind that the Berkshires are home to about 131,219 (Berkshire County: 2010 US Census) people and that number swells appreciably during the summer when its well-known cultural venues open.

Back to the restaurant on Christmas Eve, at least through the lens of Facebook comments. Many people complained of crowding, long waits to be served, and getting the wrong takeout orders. Some sympathized with the workers at the restaurant, praising them for their dedication and perseverance working during the pandemic. Some commentators noted that people needed to stay home and cook for themselves, or only order takeout food as an alternative.

Those who are keen observers of this society realize that for decades the cult of the self and instantaneous gratification of one’s needs, or imagined and manufactured needs, must be immediately sated or there will be hell to pay. It began with Reagan and spread with everything desired fulfilled at once, at least for the haves in this society. It seems as if the endless wars the US now fights are the only exception to immediate gratification. So-called defense stocks’ profits tell an alternate story of fulfilling a different kind of immediate gratification.

Robert Reich argues in the Guardian (“Americans’ acceptance of Trump’s behavior will be his vilest legacy,” December 27, 2020) that Trump’s violations of all manner of societal norms have left a window(s) open to the further decay of democracy in the US, but the article misses a major point. So-called democratic norms have long been jettisoned by the bipartisan celebration of greed, wealth, and endless wars and the loss of societal norms such as fair play predate Trump by decades. The latest manifestation of broken norms of behavior and policy by Trump and his enablers are only the result of decades of movement away from basic concepts of democracy, decency, and equality. Trump didn’t give us hatred of the other, environmental ruin, endless wars, and massive income inequality, he just knew how to use them against people effectively and he got over 74,000,000 takers in the 2020 presidential election.

One norm jettisoned by some is the lack of care for the other manifested in taking unnecessary risks during this pandemic.

Biden, the consummate neoliberal, may or may not lead to the rise of a more organized representative of the far right who will bring down the curtain on decency and fair play in the US and perhaps on the rest of humanity.

The singer-songwriter Tom Paxton said it best: “Our leaders are the finest men, And we elect them again and again.”

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).