This weekend, we’ll head to my hometown again for its every-other-year festival, Cheese Days. On September 23, 2008, after a similar trip back, I wrote about what being from that town meant to me. Today seems like a good day to repeat part of it.
When you are a small-town kid, you do not learn how small your town really is until you leave it. Growing up in it, you’re an organism in its ecosystem, and since you have yet to experience the wider world, that ecosystem becomes your universe. In my hometown, the square was the universe in microcosm. Most of the clothes and shoes I owned came from the same three or four stores. I bought records at the TV-repair shop, sports magazines at the newsstand, and trinkets at the variety store. My money was in the bank off the northeast corner and my doctor’s office was off the northwest corner. I took dates to dinner on the west side and to the movies on the east side. I went to school with the shoe-store owner’s kids and the TV repairman’s kids and the variety-store owner’s kids and the doctor’s kids and the theater owner’s kids and the banker’s kids. On any trip anywhere in town for any reason, I’d run into somebody I knew, or somebody I recognized. Everything felt connected.
And then I grew up and moved away. Not far, but far enough to sever myself from the ecosystem. On those occasions when I’d return, I was no longer as much a part of it as I used to be. That used to bother me. As I moved farther away and weekends home got scarcer, they sometimes came with the unpleasant sensation of pressing my nose against the glass but being unable to open the door. It was sometimes hard to leave on Sunday evening. More than once I hit the highway with a lump in my throat. That was the point at which I started dreaming about moving back. I’d get me a job on the local radio station, yes I would, and the kid who everybody knew was going to be a radio guy would be a radio guy right where it all began. It would be great.
I must have entertained that fantasy for better than 10 years. I can’t say which one is the cause and which one is the effect, but about the same time I gave up the fantasy, my hometown started looking different to me. During my fantasizing years, the economy hadn’t been kind; the farmers struggled and the factories too. The downtown stores closed or sold out or their owners retired, and the retail base migrated to the big boxes blooming out by the highway. Many of the old neighborhoods looked the same, but there was nevertheless the feeling that the place was going to seed, that its best days were behind it, that its future would be spent hanging on to what it could in a world that was growing ever more unfriendly to small things everywhere.
Not everybody sees it this way. I [once] dropped in on an old friend who owns a downtown business and has raised a family in our hometown. Based on how he describes his life, he’s still deeply connected to the ecosystem. To him, the changes I see aren’t breaks with the past, they’re evolution into the future. To him, life in our hometown goes vibrantly on. Surely others who live there feel the same way, or why would they stay?
Maybe I’ve lived in the big city too long, and I’ve gotten cynical about small-town life. Or maybe I’m not cynical enough. Maybe its foolishly romantic to deny my hometown the same right to grow and change that’s made me into a much better person than I was when I lived there. Maybe it’s a better place now than it used to be, and I just can’t see it. . . .
In 2012, I’d no longer say my town is “going to seed.” By today’s standards, it’s probably doing as well as any town of 10,000 can. I still think sometimes about the roads I didn’t take, and I wonder what it would be like to live there now. As the song says, however: “There’s no such thing as no regrets, but baby, it’s all right.”