“We’re No. 1. We’re No. 1.”
Wait a minute. We’re No. 6.
Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine blessed Billings, listing the Tragic City sixth in its top 10 great places to live. This made the mayor happy. It made County Commission Chairman Jim Reno happy. The grand boosters at the Chamber of Commerce were tickled half to death.
The rest of us scratched our heads, wondering what the shouting was about.
At least once a year, a national magazine or newspaper will draw up a list of the 10 best places to retire; go to college; get falling down, crawling around drunk; cheat on your spouse; or start a new business.
This process produces enough copy to allow half the staff to take their summer vacations. The judges are usually those staffers who did not go on vacation that week.
What’s a nomination to such a list worth? Two of these citations and $5 will buy you a cup of jo at Starbucks. Will Great Falls or Missoula envy our sixth place showing? Probably not.
The listing will please the mechanics who assemble the Billings Gazette. The Kiplinger announcement filled two pages, consuming 40 acres of dead trees and seven barrels of ink. At about the same time the University of Montana, renowned for recruiting drug dealers and rapists for its football teams, was struggling with a report that boosters helped athletes with legal fees and bail money.
Billings learned that sulfur dioxide emissions were rising near the Conoco Refinery. A spill of tens of thousands of gallons of fuel from an Exxon pipeline was still fresh in local memory.
Meanwhile, the police chief has vowed his men will catch a serial rapist who has been breaking into houses and sexually assaulting women living alone.
What an Eden this city is.
Little Rock, Ark., No. 1 on Kiplinger’s list, is home to the Bill Clinton Library and is best known for its fight to block integration of the city’s schools. National Guard troops were called in to escort nine black children to Little Rock Central High.
Gov. Orval Faubus is remembered for ordering the Arkansas National Guard to block the children from entering high school. Segregation is a chapter of Little Rock’s past, but racism is alive and well in the Arkansas capital.
Faubus was considered as a vice presidential candidate for George Wallace, who was shot and crippled in an assassination attempt. Gov. Wallace spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and died in 1998.
Anchorage, Alaska, made Kiplinger’s top ten. Residents in Anchorage might see a moose on an evening stroll. (Or they might see Russia from their back porch.)
Bryan and College Station, Texas, won a two-fer. Kiplinger says the two represent a cultural, economic and educational powerhouse in bucolic central Texas, brimming with Texas hospitality. A Kiplinger letter-to-the-editor writer says the place is overrun with Aggies and resembles an insane asylum.
Decades ago, Money Magazine published a similar list of the best towns its staff found to live in, work in and go to school in. Billings topped the list. I remember someone hanging a “We’re number one” sign in the men’s shower room at the YMCA.
At that time I thought, “If a truck overturned while pulling out of the sugar factory with a steaming load of beet pulp, the smell would have spilled down the hill, filling the downtown and dropping us to No. 506.”
Billings placed in the mid 200s the year before. The next year it dropped to 435th.
Great Falls and Missoula fell onto their backs, kicked their feet in the air, clutched their sides and laughed until their livers ached.