Postcard From the End of America

When out-of-town friends visit, I like to take them to Camden. With its high crime, horrible government and general wretchedness, it’s the worst of America’s present and, if all goes according to plans, our stereotypical future. Soon as you cross into Collingswood or Gloucester, however, the graffiti, trash, abandoned houses, sagging pants and neck tattoos disappear. In fact, South Jersey is dotted with quaint boroughs featuring relatively active Main Streets.

Just three miles from Camden, Palmyra has two old timey barber shops, a homey Sicilian restaurant, a spacious, porch-fronted bar surrounded by grass, and a most creative donut shop that dreams up treats resembling a Thanksgiving turkey, a mound of dirt with a glow worm or a shark fin sticking out of blue water, etc. With one tenth the population of Camden, Palmyra has a much better stocked supermarket. Outside a hardware store, a horse statue stands in front of a buggy. As is common to any blue-collar town, the Stars Spangled Banner is found all over, including at the Mexican-owned garage and Indian-owned convenience store. A small artillery piece sits on Broadway.

Unlike in Camden, no Palmyra store owner needs to stare at customers from behind bullet-proof plexiglass. Last year, there was no murder or rape. Filthy junkies with rotting teeth don’t prostitute themselves even in the afternoon.

Predominantly white, Palmyra has the distinction of appointing in 1959 the first black police chief in the entire country, and its high school library is named after Clarence B. Jones, an alumnus who became Martin Luther King’s principal lawyer and the co-writer of his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” Making up 14% of Palmyra’s population, blacks coexist without tension with…

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