This past weekend I got an interesting demonstration of what is going on in Albany, although I wasn’t looking for a demonstration. (I was looking to relax!) It all happened at a state park campground. Doesn’t matter which one really; it could have been any New York state park, particularly any one fairly close to a population center, where hard-working people go for weekend fun.
Anyone who’s camped at a NY state park on a weekend knows full well that rules about quiet hours aren’t really “rules” so much as… “guidelines” (rather like the Pirates’ Code). The same goes for rules about number of people allowed on site, number of tents crammed onto a site, and so on. Even though every camp rule sheet has the same text about the quiet hour rules being STRICTLY enforced (all caps), that’s obviously something the Parks Department needs to tell itself — that all caps are an effective deterrent to excessive noise. I’m not sure this strategy is all that unique to Albany, but it’s got Albany all over it.
Anyway…you know that eventually, usually around midnight or even 1 a.m. or so (quiet hours officially start at 10), the noise in a campground usually dies down to a dull roar that makes sleeping possible. That’s what 10 p.m. is for — it really means 1 a.m. (If they wanted it to get quiet by 10 p.m., quiet hours would start at 8 p.m.) Now imagine if you will, an out-of-control campground where 3 out of 4 groups are still partying like crazy to 2 a.m. and showing no sign of stopping. And not just partying, but loud people conducting important “business deals” on the cell phone, kids screaming at each other, car alarms going off, and — making things even more amusing — particularly loud groups yelling at other particularly loud groups to “Shut the f%#@$^k up!” before returning to their own noisemaking. (Which really does remind me of Spitzer vs. Bruno right about now.)
Yes, I admit, I’m the one who phoned the park ranger at 2 a.m. and gave him a piece of my mind. I can’t remember everything I said but it included a reference to the $16 camping fee and ended with a big exhortation for him to get his rear out of bed and find out who was making the noise, followed by the hugely satisfying SPIP! of my cell phone snapping shut. Not really fair of me since the racket was coming from every conceivable direction. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t really believe anything would be done, since it was obvious that these underaged, probably unsupported park staff had probably long since thrown up their hands and given the park over to the nightly rioting on the weekends. I just felt I had to make an effort to go through “proper channels.”
Nothing was done, of course, until the voice of God spoke and the heavens opened up — and it even took a half hour of downpour for the noise to stop.
The next morning, everyone (well, everyone who wasn’t sleeping it off) discovered this by the dawn’s grey light:
Yep, that’s where your taxpayer dollars are going — to repair innocent little campground signs used for firewood by drunken citizens. (This one used to say “Campers Only.”)
It was interesting to watch the changes in the demeanor of my neighbors and camp staff after this. Obviously my phone call had not made a real difference, but the property damage was a wee bit of a wake-up. Kinda hard to hide that one from the boss! I spent most of the next day hiking on the trails, but when I came back to camp I kept overhearing low voices of concern (sample: “Someone tried to blame it on us“) and seeing the little electric park vehicles whizzing around extra fast through the camping loops. We overheard our neighbors, some of the noisiest people, puzzling over the start time (and probably the very concept) of quiet hours. Someone had obviously been spoken to. I was camping with my father, who was also just as “impressed” as I was about the noise and the rules enforcement the night before (and he’s camped all over the country), so we thought it would be very entertaining to see what transpired as night fell.
The sun set, the moon rose, and a thick blanket of fake quiet lay smotheringly over the campground. The rangers did a quick patrol at 10:30 or so (obviously unaccustomed to having to do it and trying to get it over as quickly as possible – much like Eliot Spitzer trying to apologize for an ethics violation) and it was really funny because you just knew that it wasn’t going to last. All those noisy children just trying so hard to be good. It was almost cruel, the way fear hung in the air. Then the noise started again, but tentatively. It was hilarious: they just… couldn’t… help it. Just like kids can’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar. And it was a different quality of noise tonight — the people who really just couldn’t help it soon ran afoul of the loudmouths who had been properly chastised. Some of them started fighting amongst themselves (that is, within their own groups) and accusing each other of loudness.
That’s when it suddenly hit me that the vacuum of authority in the campground was so huge that it could have easily been taken advantage of with little effort. There was vague fear among the campers, but no self-discipline, and no obvious authority figure. I started wondering what it would take to instill law and order in the campground or… (heh heh) my version of it. Someone in the campground on this second night had started throwing some kind of bursting-flammable stuff into their campfire (it kept popping and poofing very loudly – I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t just pitchy firewood). I found myself wondering how hard it would be to take advantage of the dark of the night and yell “Attention, whoever is throwing explosives into the campfire… the State Police have been called.” And if you had a portable flashing-light thingy (you know, like the kind you can stick on top of any car) and just had a silent collaborator stand elsewhere in the dark in the campground, setting it off… wow, that would be power, man! I mean, it wasn’t like the actual park staff was going to do anything about it — they were absent. People would have been dumping their illicit substances and diving into their tents left and right, no one daring to show their face and confirm it was the police. The mood was that jittery.
So there I was, contemplating the theoretical takeover of a whole New York State Park campground. I hope it was just because I was really tired from the night before and not because I’m a budding despot. But sadly I think the state of the state campground mirrors the state of our state government at this moment. Out of control. No one really in authority. Civic leaders partying and then fighting among themselves, screaming loudly about their own moral rectitude while condemning the guys across the aisle as being too boorishly loud. Guardians of ethics overwhelmed and giving up. The left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, but just scared enough to be easily led, even led by a dirty trick. This is not a good state of affairs, needless to say. But then you wonder… what would it take for the common people to gain control of a state that’s out of control?
Perhaps chaos is our friend. But it’s probably also the friend of those who don’t particularly care about the common people.