Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Packed Up, Stacked Up and Labeled 

With the cacophony of presidential primary campaigning and its attendant media circus mercifully over, the village of Brigadoon, New Hampshire can get back to normal — nonexistent.

BRIGADOON, New Hampshire (Ant Farmer's Almanac Newswire) — As the morning after the New Hampshire primary dawned, workers were already rolling up this little town's sidewalks, literally, disassembling the storefronts along Main Street — the diner, the barbershop, Starbucks — and carefully packing the pieces into storage crates, leaving this 220-acre parcel of land empty and cordoned off until 2008.

Well, 2007, to be exact. "We'll start rebuilding the town again Labor Day weekend before the next primary," says Willis Ryan, construction manager of Brigadoon, and familiar to observant television news viewers as town constable Albert Bingham. "We like to have the place up and running before the ground freezes and make sure everything is in good working order and camera ready before any advance people show up."

If this all sounds a little strange, that's because it is. Sort of. You see, despite the "Welcome to Brigadoon" sign's claim that the village was "est. 1768" this "town" has only been as much of a reality as it is since the late 1960s. "The idea first came up in '64 but we didn't get it together until the '68 primary," says Ryan. "We just backdated the town's founding by exactly 200 years from then. It seemed like a nice touch."

"It started as something of a joke on the national news media and the candidates," Ryan admits. "You know, they barge in and disrupt our lives for one week every four years pretending to give a rat's ass about us, so we decided, 'Hey, right back at ya,' and created a town that exists for only as often as they show up and only for as long as they're in it."

Asked if the candidates or the press are troubled by this elaborate deception, Ryan responds sharply, "Given the megatonnage of crap they unload on us while they're here, putting up a temporary, theme park version of a typical New Hampshire town full of folks willing to stop and listen to whatever BS they're selling this time is more like self-defense than deception."

The scheme seemed risky at first, concedes Ryan, "When a couple of reporters first figured it out in '76 we thought there'd be trouble, but since 1980, with Reagan and all, nobody's even raised an eyebrow. And the candidates love it. They can come and settle in for a few days, which is a big relief for them after schlepping all over Iowa. The media is thrilled because the whole place is so photogenic: Main Street was based on Norman Rockwell paintings but we update it periodically to stay current. There's not a bad camera angle in town. Plus, we've got electrical outlets every ten feet, breakaway walls for tracking shots, excellent acoustics, internet access and the catering is always outstanding — Paul Prudhomme did 1988, Wolfgang Puck '92, Martha Stewart was here in '96, Emeril Lagasse did 2000 and this year we had Nigella Lawson."

And how do the citizens of the Granite State feel about this quadrennial Disneyfication? "Oh, they think it's great," insists Ryan. "It's a useful diversion, like San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, New York's South Street Seaport Museum or Santa Fe, New Mexico," Ryan continues, "It provides a passable facsimile of the real thing intended just for visitors who can't tell the difference — presidential candidates and the media, in our case — while leaving locals free to go about their daily business without the annoying crowds and traffic. We picked this spot because it was so out-of-the-way. Everybody wins, really."

Brigadoon's inhabitants — "Dooners," as they're called — are all volunteers, picked by a lottery system. They must be New Hampshire residents and registered voters to qualify. Most are workers at nearby factory outlet stores for whom the last weeks of January get slow enough that they can afford to take two or three weeks off to shake hands with candidates and cough up folksy, down-to-earth comments for reporters.

"It's like getting called for jury duty," shrugs Roy Bascomb, Brigadoon's municipal snow-plow driver for the past three election cycles, "Except that you don't mind, really; you get to be on TV, and get your picture taken with maybe the next president. It's kind of fun, actually." Dooners also receive a small stipend for their time and can deduct any expenses they incur from their state taxes.

Its "primary purpose" complete, by the time the candidates and media horde have descended upon their next destination, the only trace of Brigadoon will be the very tip-top of the water tower emblazoned with its name, peeking above the tree line and just barely visible from the interstate, three miles away.

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