NASHUA, N.H.—Saturday morning found the America that politicians endlessly seek and love to mention but barely know strolling along the first floor of Alec’s Shoes on Main Street here in a city where at least 20 people running for President of the United States were at a hotel less than three miles away, talking. The candidates up the road ranged from a Bush, a Christie, one Paul, a Perry, a Trump, a Rubio, a Cruz, and more than a dozen others, all in town seemingly a decade before the primary next year.
But that traveling clown show didn’t matter much to Roland LeBlanc, who held a Nike sneaker in one hand and a Reebok in the other as he watched his 11-year-old son inspect a wall covered with hundreds of sneakers for sale at reasonable prices. He checked the price on both because the boy, like most kids, was only interested in style.
The Nikes were marked down to $70. The Reeboks were $64.
“How about this one, Dad?” the boy asked, holding a Nike that cost $90.
“I kinda like this one better,” the father replied, showing him the $70 sneaker.
A nuclear deal with Iran, a trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations, all of that and more was a long way from the immediate issue of the moment: the price of sneakers for a boy who would probably grow out of them by the end of summer.
“We get a good cross-section of people here,” John Koutsos, the owner of Alec’s Shoes, was saying. “We get fairly-high-income people here, low- and moderate-income families. We get them all.”
The store itself is a definition of a country too many people think is a distant, fond memory. It was opened in 1938 by John Koutsos’s father, Alec.
Alec Koutsos was born in Pentalofus, Greece, in 1917. He came to America and Nashua in 1934, in the middle of a Great Depression that knocked America to its knees. He did not know the language but he knew what it meant to work hard and to dream of better days and bigger things. He passed away last year at the age of 96, a proud, prosperous citizen.
Today the store is a local magnet to many looking for affordable footwear and clothing in a region hammered by our latest and very deep recession. It is the beating commercial heart of a Main Street where ‘For Lease’ signs are papered to windows of a dozen empty storefronts.
At the Church of Good Shepherd across Main Street a daily meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous had ended and several people stood on the sidewalk talking and smoking cigarettes, some looking as if their immediate future was simply the long day ahead, an agonizing wait before the next meeting when they would again fight temptation together. One of them, Eddie, a 26-year old-unemployed machinist, walked across Main Street to Joanne’s Kitchen & Coffee Shop, where he sat, sipping his coffee, reading the sports page.
“Heroin,” Eddie said. “That’s one of the biggest problems here. It’s all over the place and it’s cheap too. I used to do it but not anymore.”
Heroin overdose has stalked the region around parts of New Hampshire and Vermont. All the politicians gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel for the First-in-the-Nation Republican Leadership Summit came prepared to discuss how lethal, how dangerous, ISIS was but there was no mention of the life-destroying availability of a drug that has flooded parts of the nation they seek to lead.
“I don’t know much about any of them,” John Koutsos said. “But it seems to me that the country needs a pep talk. There’s something wrong. People seem to be just sitting back, almost like they’re giving up a little. It’s hard to explain. Hard to put your finger on. It’s like everyone wonders, ‘Where we going?’”
At one end of Main Street in Nashua, there are the local offices of the state’s two United States senators. Republican Kelly Ayotte’s office is at the corner of Main and Temple. It is in a storefront next to the Vietnam Noodle House and across the street from a large Gentle Dental building. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democrat, is a hundred yards farther along on the second floor of a fairly new brick office building.
In between there is the empty, for lease, building that once housed Aubuchon Hardware, a staple of northern New England life. Then there are fairly new buildings where Citizen Bank, Santander Bank, and CVS are found; chains that swallowed up small savings banks and corner drug stores, not just here, but everywhere.
Saturday found local residents out enjoying a sun-splashed New Hampshire morning, the weather offering immediate relief from a long, punishing winter. The parking lot at Nashua’s Pheasant Lane Mall, a few miles from Main Street, was packed with cars and shoppers, each parking space another bullet in the heart of downtown commerce.
At the Crowne Plaza there were the candidates, gathered, shaking hands, smiling, surrounded by the curious and the committed, talking about their views, their opinions on all the big issues that their handlers and their pollsters indicate will help propel them to the front of a truly predictable political pack. And, standing at the cashier’s counter of Alec’s Shoes, Roland LeBlanc paid cash for a $70 pair of Nike sneakers for an 11-year-old boy he hopes will grow up in a country filled with more optimism than too many think exists today.