I’m victim to a nostalgia of my own making, fueled most likely by untrustworthy childhood memories and nurtured by stories written by people with their own untrustworthy memories. It’s the town of porch swings and pies cooling on windowsills; of twilights filled with fireflies and hearing in the distance a woman call a child into the house followed a few seconds later by the squeak and slam of a screen door. It’s a town that each Fourth of July or Memorial Day adorns the street lamps with American flags; that has a Town Hall built of rough-hewn sandstone that sits solidly and silently guarding the grassy square and the white gazebo decked with giant baskets dripping with flowers. There’s an ice cream shop, a diner offering real “home-cooking,” a notions store and a post office that’s been there as long as anyone can remember.
I’ve driven through and past hundreds of these towns. As a family we spent a lot of time on the road and dad was prone to taking blue highways and back country roads that zigged erratically in every direction. The single main street (often called Main) that from vast fields of corn suddenly sprouted a neat row of houses and a wide sidewalk pushed tectonically here and there by the roots of the old maples and oaks that lined them. Old iron fences, painted black, decorative but unreliable guardians of neat lawns. The houses gave way to brick buildings, each with a block of sandstone at the top boasting the year they were built. In another block one is back to houses and after a half mile, deep into cornfields again.
I grew up in a small town, and although it has a town square with a gazebo, it isn’t an inviting place. Two of the four corners of its two main streets have gas stations on them. Fast food restaurants line the roads; there is no sidewalk anywhere. This is not to say there is nothing good about living in a small town – I prefer it to living in a large city – but does my impossible ideal exist?
After many years living in major metropolitan areas, I again live at the outskirts of a small town. To say it lacks charm is like saying the Hunchback of Notre Dame had a minor back problem. The main street has more boarded up buildings than functioning stores. The
barber at the barbershop where I used to get my hair cut (he’s since gone out
of business) would tell me stories of police corruption and drug
trafficking. As he told it, our town is
as corrupt as the Chicago mayor’s office (pick your century). There is nothing for teenagers – or anyone else – to do; no movie theater, no video store, no bowling alley nor mall. The park is under-utilized. Work is scarce and if you’re looking for amenities or good restaurants, keep heading west until you hit Oklahoma City. One or two of the town’s buildings wear the charm of the distant past, but they’re marred by neglect, flaking murals or fire damage. Meth is a serious problem. Cold medicine was tempting enough to inspire a recent break-in at the local Walmart.
And yet my dream persists. I can’t imagine I will stop seeking in one way or another the idyllic small town. I’ll probably drive through many more that look like it during my lifetime. The perfect small town is the place just out of grasp, always somewhere else; in the next state or just down the road.