Tuesday, June 29, 2004

in which the author gets alternately snooty and sassy about small towns

(lame-disposable-camera-photo taken in my hometown [Manson, Iowa], where you hardly need a sign to ensure that things are slow.)

At an earlier time in my life, I would be annoyed with those who would hear someone refer to Indianapolis--or Milwaukee, or Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or Minneapolis--as a "city" and sniff "that's not a city," insisting instead that the term be reserved for only those places as large or larger as wherever it is they came from. If such behavior was snobbery, which is how I regarded it, then I realize now that I am every bit as much of a snob, just in the opposite direction. Whenever I hear someone say they are from a small town, I immediately want information so I can assess their true (Main) street credibility.

Tell you what: if you come from a place with 30,000 people, that may be pass muster with most people as being from a small-town, but you need to chop a zero off of your Census estimate if you want to be in my club. Another thing: if your "small town" was within an hour of any place with a quarter million or more people, that's a satellite small town, the classic small town poseur, not the real thing. If your town had a bookstore, or a record store, or a movie theater, or decent health care, or hope, or more than three teachers from seventh grade on who would not be judged as unacceptably subpar if they taught in their accustomed style at even those public schools in Madison regarded by the professorial set as least suitable for properly educating children, then I'm probably not impressed.

Awhile back, I was talking to a guy who got a job in a town in Nebraska where, because he didn't own a washer and dryer, he ended up having to drive more than 50 miles just to do his laundry. That guy got the secret JF wink-and-nod of now-that's-a-real-small-town props.

In any event, this weekend's trip back to my own small town allowed me to check once again its general prognosis: yep, still dying. I don't want to get overly morose about this, but there is literally no reason for this town to exist other than that there are already people here, many of whom, like my parents, cannot afford to leave. I spent forty minutes on Sunday driving down every single street, and my estimate would be that somewhere between one-in-ten and one-in-fifteen houses has a For Sale sign out front.

A grad student here complained recently that her massive student loan debt was going to make it impossible for her to ever own anything. Not to make light of anybody's financial burdens, but let me tell you, you know those commercials that say regardless of your credit/debt situation, so long as you've got $100 and a job, they'll help you finance and buy a good used car? My guess is that if you are interested in moving to my hometown, and you've got $100 and a job*, someone will be willing to work with you on a mortgage. Especially since the asking prices of many houses have probably fallen below the value of a good used car. He may have been exaggerating, to be sure, but a guy I know said he bought this house a few years ago--small and needing fixing-up, but by no means decrepit--for $1500 and an agreement to help the seller put a new roof on this other house.**

On the drive in from Madison, I also made a stop through the even smaller small town of Knierim, Iowa (the K is not silent, like "knish"). Knierim has always been part of the Manson school district. Thirty or forty years ago, as my dad tells it, a whole stubnose bus would need to be sent just to Knierim and would come back to school full. Over the last ten years, there has not always been even one child in Knierim for the bus to pick up. Knierim has this park at the edge of town, and on trips home I've been watching it fall into increasing disrepair. This time, suddenly, the park had made a rebound, and there were some newly painted houses in town, and there was even a new granite sign telling people they were entering Knierim.

I asked a guy at my class reunion about this. He said the word was that some multimillionaire from California had moved to Knierim. If true, there are only three possible explanations: (1) he's sufficiently crazy as to be beyond acting with intelligible motive; (2) he's working on something for which he has resolved that he can have absolutely no distractions of any sort--to be sure, so long as one is not possessed of a torrid passion for livestock--Knierim offers no temptations to dissipate one's productive focus; or, and most plausibly, (3) he's running from someone and desperate and has taken this most drastic step of hiding out. Really, Knierim provides the perfect hiding place--not only could it's town slogan be "The Last Place You'd Look," but even if some bounty hunter did decide to start investigating Knierim sized-towns, he'd likely die of boredom before getting very far in the search.

* Of course, one may be wondering: what exactly would a sociology Ph.D. do for employment in the middle-of-nowhere in Iowa? This is where we need to be working on getting a toehold in the whole online "distance learning" thing, before it all ends up being run through Bangalore.

** Also, given the sex ratio of singles in small towns, a move to a small town would seem to do at least as much for mating prospects as many heaping tablespoons of boring.

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