Northern Exposures:

Clinton Does the Democratic Primaries

"If you get any wind it's going to blow right into the microphone and you don't hear a thing," I tell the gorgeous assistant press officer, who doesn't believe me.

"We've tested it," he says. "You've got the good audibility everywhere except in that corner over there."

I am about to say that Senator Kerrey is already low enough in the polls without making the press corps stand around in 17 degree weather when the press comes pouring into the solarium, and there's actual excitement in the air, strange considering the candidate, a definite buzz, something's up, something's happened, SOMETHING HAS FINALLY HAPPENED, what can it be?

"The write-in Cuomo campaign has opened an office in Concord," Voice photographer Brian Palmer explains.

On the tail of this news, Kerrey's arrival is indeed an anticlimax, his little speech on the observation deck a nonevent of numbing proportions, one of his aides tells me Kerrey's numbers have climbed from 6 to 12. Wavering numbers, but the money's coming in, he's planning to hang in until Super Tuesday. Personally I would ditch the undertaker's overcoat, change the tie, do a nice even rinse on the hair and try to get him to stop doing that thing with his mouth where he looks like he's sucking a Fisherman's Friend. I now see the wisdom of keeping the podium outside, since most of us would fall asleep if it were anywhere else. At least he doesn't mention The Leg.

"He's gotten more mileage out of that leg," my aunt Beatrice complained when Kerrey's commercial came on a few nights earlier. "And he can walk better than I can."


RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE

En route to Berlin, I detour onto Route 140, a hardscrabble two-lane of disintegrating asphalt for a look at Gilmanton Iron works. As a child, my role models were Grace Metalious, Emma Peel, and Oscar Levant. Poor tragic Grace ripped the lid of Gilmanton Iron Works in her immortal Peyton Place, made a fortune on that and subsequent The Tight White Collar and Return to Peyton Place, then drank herself into an early grave. It's a New Hampshire kind of fate.

What I've forgotten is that Gilmanton Iron Works doesn't have much lid to rip off, consisting as it does of a Corner Store and a Post Office. And no one in the Corner Store or the Post Office knows who Grace Metalious was. No one in the Corner Store or the Post Office has decided who to vote for in the primary, either.

"Are there still Iron Works, anyway?" I ask the woman at the Corner Store deli counter.

"There never were any Iron Works," she says, "Not buildings. They used to take iron ore out of Crystal Lake and ship it off."


THE SMELL

Every afternoon like the last one, every afternoon like a rerun...yeah we may look the same, both sweating...but I got something to hid here called desire...and I will get out of here...and I will never return, no never return to burn out in this piss factory - Patti Smith


Berlin, late afternoon. Big, bruisy skies with long, gray clouds rolling through them. Shops on Main Street all offering clearance sales, 20 per cent off, 50 per cent off, going, going, gone. The only places to get a cup of coffee are the Woolworth's lunch counter and the local pizza joint. It's 11 degrees.

This is an incredibly bleak town, not really a city anymore. Snow piled everywhere, ice crunching underfoot, the streets almost empty. The Berlin Reporter, which has just gone from weekly to daily, reports an increase in headlice at local schools. "AIDS victim speaks to Berlin high students," reads one headline. "Study finds shortness of breath among older mill workers."

In LaVerdiere's Super Drug Store, amid a pile of Waylon Jennings and Lawrence Welk tapes, I find an Ink Spots compendium I can play on the long drive home.

We always knew of the paper mills in what Pat Buchanan calls the North Country and we always called "up there": grim clusters of silos and smokestacks, the Cascade Plant at Cascade Flats, the Burgess Plant a quarter mile up the Androscoggin River. The chemicals spreading out through the water, poisoning the Adroscoggin River, Tinker Brook, Pea Brook, Dead River, Peabody River, the dead trout, the cancer-riddled horned pout, the stillborn perch and smelts, the perpetual sulfur-and-boiled-cabbage stench wafted on the mountain winds, covering Gorham, blowing down to Randolph, on a clear day you could smell it all the way to Shelburne, a smell that stank like nothing else on earth, a smell like something crawled up inside you an died, filling everything, like water rising in a sinking ship.

In Harkin headquarters on Pleasant Street, a buxom volunteer in a harlequin sweater set tells a middle-aged man sitting against the wall: "You know he's gotten over 50 awards from different disabled groups? Including Veterans with Disabilities? Because he wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act, you know. Which we're all gonna need some day. With arthritis and so on."

The man regards her coolly. He's my age, he resents this. "Well, I hope not."

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