Monday, November 27, 2006

Our Little Town

Now the railroad came generations ago
And the town grew up as the crops did grow
The crops grew well and the town did too
They say it's dyin now and there ain't a thing we can do
I don't have to read the news
Or hear it on the radio
I see it in the faces of everyone I know
The cost goes up
What we make comes down
What's gonna happen to our little town
-- Greg Brown, Our Little Town

Like a lot of folks, I went home for Thanksgiving. I’ve only lived my own life, of course, and so I can’t provide rigorous empirical support for this, but I don’t think I’m out of line in suggesting that going home for me is a different – and I’ll even dare suggest more meaningful – experience than it is for most. I come from what I’ve taken to calling “the unfortunately named” Kiester, Minnesota. (That’s pronounced with a long “e” rather than a long “i” – and yes, I’ve already heard whatever clever quip just popped into your head.) The signs on the way into town tell you that the population is 540, but it’s probably closer to 500 now. There’s no reason to believe that a resurgence is imminent.

I’ll stand with singer-songwriter Greg Brown in calling that “a god d*mned shame.”

Someday I’ll write a book about why. But here, as they say in the blogosphere, is a taste. Bear in mind that I left town at age 18, and apart from my first two summers in college haven’t spent any sustained periods of time there since. People knew me as a kid, and an often insufferable one at that. Even so, whenever I go back it feels like they’ve saved my spot.

This past summer, for example, I went home for my 20th high school reunion. There’s a certain amount of carousing associated with such an event, and so I stopped into the municipal liquor store to buy some beer. The woman who was working that afternoon is someone with whom I’d exchanged maybe 50 words in my entire life (and if anything I’m overstating the extent of our relationship). Yet when I put my twelve-pack of Grain Belt Premium on the counter she greeted me by name and we exchanged pleasantries as if it were the least remarkable thing in the world that we were having this conversation. And the thing is, when you come from a place like Kiester, Minnesota, that sort of interaction actually is unremarkable. My last few trips home have involved similar encounters with the guy who was the high school janitor, my seventh-grade social studies teacher, one of the school bus drivers, the older sister of one of my childhood friends, a co-owner of one of the local farm implement dealerships, and assorted farmers and other townsfolk. These conversations almost never open with “hey, you’ve been gone a long time” or “it’s good to see you again” or any such thing. Instead, it’s as if you’d seen each other last week at the pancake breakfast put on by the firefighters, and you’ll probably see each other next week at the steak fry down at the Legion.

I’m certainly not suggesting that my hometown is perfect. I’ve obviously chosen not to live there, and I'm not at all certain that I'd enjoy living there as an adult. Among other things, social claustrophobia is a real danger. (For me, one of the most liberating things about going off to college was being able to walk down the street in complete anonymity.) Indeed, I like the town I live in now as much as any place I’ve ever lived. But my daughters will never be able to go home the way I can, and whatever advantages I’m able to give them that I didn’t have will be at least partially offset by my inability to give them the same sort of deep roots that I enjoy.


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