THE ONE AND ONLY: BUTTE, AMERICA
“They’re more anchors than land makers,” says one of the men; he is a drifter, or so it seems by the way he carries himself.
This here is Butte, America, as they so aptly dub the old mining town in south-west Montana. Butte was, after all, one of the hottest spots in all of America, rich with minerals and oozing with opportunities to aid the folks in pioneering our historic western expansion.
It was around the late 1800’s when Butte really began to boom. First, the word of gold and silver brought an influx of cultures from every cardinal direction; it was the copper, though, that made them stay, turning this town into one of the most prosperous cities west of the Mississippi River – between Chicago and San Fransisco, it quickly became the largest. Butte, as it so happens, also became one of the first cities to receive running electricity, just a couple years after New York City. Given copper’s high conductivity properties, this small town was a big point of pride for the entire United States. For nearly a century, folks flocked here, filled with promise and hope for a better future.
But lest one forgets the present time – a sunny, but brisk day amidst the dog-days of summer, year 2021 – the flavor of this town is not lost, nor is its history.
In fact, this man – whom later introduces himself as Frank, to a pair of strangers as they wait in life for their coffee – and the way he speaks of others just like him, merely reflects the dichotomy of the town. There is only one Butte, America, and it is unique in many ways; in some, it is visibly striving for progress; but, in others, Butte appears passive to the thought of being stuck in a realm of antiquity. All of which is edified by the many abandoned buildings which boast an aesthetic of careful craftsmanship from a time in our history when such a thing was emphasized; there is an overwhelming amount of detail to be found in the many archways and windowsills of the now-empty banks and bread shops. These were, at one point, some of the tallest buildings in the entire country, designed for the rich folks and working class to cohabit as they created one of the wealthiest communities in the west.
Butte, was, in fact, widely regarded as ‘The Richest Hill On Earth’. As such, while walking the streets, one does not have to think long and hard about what sorts of characters and activities occupied such places, especially with the reputation that its transient community and vibrant nightlife maintained, for more than a few decades.
But for as much has changed around here, some of the most concrete truths remain the same.
Since we are creatures of habit, it is of little surprise what brought me in their company, on this fine Saturday morning; it is the only place of its kind that is open at this hour – a small coffee house that doubles as an art studio and gallery.
This is just another habit, as well, for Frank, who speaks of others on first name basis, with the timid barista, a young girl whom is still abashed over having to kick out a grown fellow – someone they both happen to know – but moments prior.
“Oh, are you talking about Sam?” Frank asks her.
“Sure, I think that’s his name,” she replies. “He was yelling, a lot. For no reason, too. I told him twice to calm down – before I finally had to tell him to leave.”
“Yeah, that’s Sam,” smiles Frank. “He yells a lot when he wakes up.”
As I remain seated, in a far corner of the cafe, turning page after page of a Calvino classic, I feel a slight deal of remorse; remorse for this barista, yes. But also for myself, for not having the heart to tell her that this same fellow – Sam – is sound asleep on one of the sofas in back, hidden but perpendicular to both the studio and a series of lounge chairs set up as a quiet place to read.
But at last, another poor soul in passing speaks up, some moments later, and gives up Sam; the barista scurries out, only to return a few minutes later, visibly distraught.
While she is away, a line forms at the counter, where two older men converse in casual rhetoric; it is as if they have known one another for years. One of the men has a son in high school, standing six-feet-five, and weighing in at 350 pounds. He plays on the offensive line for the local football team. Tonight, they’re going head to head with one of their bitter rivals.
“Where’s he going?” asks the other man.
“Not sure,” says the father. “He wants badly to be offered by the U. But, he might have to settle on Western.”
“Hm,” grunts the other man. “Should be a game. Heard them boys have some real prospects. A couple are even next level.”
“They sure do. That quarterback can sling it all over the yard. Those scouts have his number alright,” says the father. “Now, what about you? Have you been to any games yet?”
“A few, yeah. I actually planned to go tonight. In fact, I used to play there myself. So, I show up from time to time to catch a game,” replies the other man. “Part of that is pride. The other part is ego.”
Once the crowd thins, it is just the barista and I left in the shop. I later step out to use the bathroom. Before me, spread out on a small table that has been set up adjacent the art studio, are two men. One of them is Frank, the other is the fellow he came into the cafe with earlier. They wear similar attire – baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirts, each with a few sets of holes in them – and carry themselves in an accordingly indolent fashion. At first glance, I even catch sight of the smudges of dirt that underscore the one, unnamed fellow’s eyes. Those eyes, moreover, are fervent; for he and Frank are exchanging thoughts over the sketchbook that is spread out on the table. Frank is explaining his process; the other fellow nods occasionally, listening intently.
Deciding that I am not ready to retire from the spot – for, it is one of the few of its kind in town, and I have grown quite comfortable frequenting it on my occasional jaunts through Butte – I return to the cafe, collect my belongings, and then bury myself in a plush, suede arm-chair that sits before two large bookcases, stocked with subjects that span from art theory to introspection. Fitzgerald, and one of his short-story collections is quick to catch my eye; I settle in, content.
But a pair of patrons soon discover me, as they peruse the space, seemingly for the first time, linked in arms. One of them immediately sparks up conversation. Her name is Tracy. Her companion, a tall, stocky fellow, meanwhile disbands himself and begins to stroll away, towards the gallery.
I find out that Tracy is from here, a Butte native. She, along with the man, have seen a lot change, explains Tracy. It sure isn’t how she remembers it, growing up. Even so, Tracy says she didn’t even know such a space existed – this secluded cove stocked with literature and periodicals. Rather, she frequents the used-bookstore down the street, and goes on to gush over the expansiveness of their free-section.
“They put them out in a cart, on the street,” says Tracy. “Cuz, I can’t afford to shop at that other one, up the way.”
“I know what you mean,” I reply. “I like to support local businesses, but those new books can really add up. A buddy and I went in there last time, and spent almost $100 between the two of us.”
Tracy whistles, flashing a grin. “Yeah, I’ll stick to my bookstore. Now, say, do you think they’ll mind if I swap one of these out with one of mine?”
I shrug. “Don’t see why not. I thought of doing the same-“
Suddenly there’s a crash. It sounds like a chair has just hit the ground; next, we hear the sound of shuffling feet and muffled voices. The clamor startles Tracy, causing her to turn a foot and walk quickly to the corner of the cove. She peaks her head around, while I sit and watch her, watching the action unfold. What can be made out as tense, curse words are exchanged between Frank and his friend. They grow more excitable and enraged by the second. The fellow challenges Frank to a fight, right there on the spot.
“Bring it,” Frank beckons. “I’ll take you right here, right now, punk.”
“You don’t have the guts. Take your shot!”
“You don’t know me! I’ll take you down!”
“Sit down, fool!”
They go back and forth like this, for some time. Tracy turns to me, awestricken but unabashedly amused. Peculiar, I think to myself, for these two men were, less than an hour ago, prattling on to the poor barista about how they were so noble – at any point, even ready to step in when such senseless confrontations arose. Sam, in particular, was the subject of this discussion.
“If that sort of thing ever happens again, I’ll gladly step in,” I remember Frank saying to the barista. The propensity to do the right thing, however, had at some point inexplicably escaped this man, as evinced by his readiness to put an end to the fellow whom he, just moments prior, had professed a desire to partner with for his next art project.
Since I see these two men, Frank and the squalid fellow, squatting together, some two hours later, on a soiled city curb, watching the day go by, I can safely assume that they made up, without acting upon their vile outbursts for one another; they even share the same 40oz beer, smiling at each passerby. Seeing them again, another couple hours after that, albeit on a different corner but with a fresh forty, epitomizes that timeless vortex which tethers itself to the name, Butte, America, and accordingly evokes one simple question: where the fuck am I?