Once again, Matt Voz offers his dark, dry, and insightful humor as it pertains to (growing up in and then returning to) life in a small town. And I though I had a very different childhood experience, perhaps because of that, this piece resonated with me particularly — seeing things through a very different lens, but in the end arriving at the same conclusion: in a small town, “stripped of distractions, …we face ourselves in the mirror of those who know us all too well.”

I grew up in the city, surrounded by intellectual vigor, ample entertainment, and cultural diversity. I understand the allure, and truth be told, have plenty of moments when I miss those things terribly. Most of all, I miss the comfort that can come with anonymity. Small town life begets visibility. Living in a town of 4000 people, there are more than I am comfortable with who know me for just who I am. People who know my children and my habits and who witness the full spectrum of my emotions. In small towns, we see and are seen —an adventure that can be extremely unsettling. It is the next ring out from marriage and family. Being seen is hard because, many times, there is a complex story behind what appears on the surface. It is hard because our lives can be messy. It is hard because sometimes we just want to have our privacy. But ultimately, this kind of bearing witness is what knits our communities together. We are known as whole and complex human beings, discombobulated and disheveled as well as polished and vital. We are part of a web, an ecological system of giving and receiving. It is vulnerable and tender and, in the context of a healthy community, also a catalyst for growth and beauty. —SS

 

train depot

The Last Stand by Matt Voz

Growing up in a small town you realize (maybe around 10th grade) that people you might actually recognize really do graduate from high school and become adults (like, with mustaches and car insurance). Upon this realization one begins to think of themselves with a mustache, and where they might live and who they might be when they grow it. It’s around this same time that one begins to see that there are only a handful of archetypal life arcs that can originate in a small town. Some of them are fascinating American myths either gothic or glamourous, while others are simply petit bourgeois never-filmed documentaries of anonymity. Most of us, alas, (including myself) fall into the latter group of those living our lives well off-Broadway, full of white noise and mildness signifying less than nothing.

If we were to make a taxonomic study of these life-journeys and create a handy identification key, the first divergence (as between conifers and deciduous) would be between those who leave and those who don’t. Of those who never leave the familiar haunts of the little hamlet of their birth there are those who are aware of their own tragedy, and those blissfully and blindly dragged ploddingly forward by their proletarian destiny. Some who never leave had big plans at one time, but like some Bruce Springstein b-side, were derailed by a teenage pregnancy or a death in the family or a very decent job offer at just the wrong time. Others were never leaving at all: farmboys, inheritors of family businesses, emotional cripples – all for reasons either sad or contented – are here to stay as the quintessential townies[1]. It’s these folks (the hardware store manager, the barmaid, the part-time mayor-for-life) who make up the cultural spine of the American small town. But as many of us know, many small towns in America are like torsos without limbs, hamstrung by a post-agricultural economy and the ubiquity of television, that sower of dissatisfaction and dreams. Left without its animating appendages, all too often this torso stagnates and rots into a carcass of unemployment and fear with a broken grain elevator and a Casey’s General Store that sells ‘groceries’ like cartons of Pall Mall and 3.2 beer.

When people speak of the death of the American small town they almost always bemoan the brain drain that occurs when the wunderkinds of Main St. flee their conservative prison, encircled by razor wire rows of corn and soybeans, for the shiny, coffee-shop freedom of cultural meccas like Minneapolis, Madison, and Des Moines.

Those who dream impossible dreams dream of California. After having lived the first 18 landlocked years of my life in the middle of the thousand-mile wide wind tunnel called the Great Plains I remember spending much of my first weeks after moving to San Diego reminding myself that I now lived in CALIFORNIA and thinking to myself that the place smelled exactly how it looked on television. To be in Los Angeles or New York or even Houston or Detroit is to experience, for the first time in a towny’s life, the limitless freedom and loneliness of urban life, where one becomes and can become an infinite series of literary affectations, surrounded by other likewise transmutable nobodies in a vast sea of infinite potential. For a towny, to walk the littered and piss-soaked streets of skid row or the sky-scrapered, full Windsor-knotted sidewalks of a busy down town, is to be completely assured that you are better than you are; hipper, more cultured and cosmopolitan than the bumpkins you sat next to in wood shop. You live in a city! The coffee here is made in a press-pot, not a percolator and drunk hurriedly in traffic-jammed cars not in church basements. Here, living in an apartment is normal, if not sophisticated instead of something that a leather-tanned seasonal road construction worker or a single mother living off child support would do. In a city you are nobody, and by some twisted towny logic, therefore somebody. At some time or another, every small town kid wants out. Of those that actually escape there are two varieties.

The first variety is pretty straightforward. These are the kids that were marked from the beginning. They couldn’t bear the burden of the vigil held over everyone’s lives by everyone else; they never understood the pre-occupation with high school wrestling; the quiet, Sunday streets made them sad. Artists, criminals, homosexuals, adventurers: they left and they never looked back, their lives blown to the four corners. They might not end up dying alone, but they were never afraid to die alone, some might never have considered dying at all.

The second variety is the most peculiar of them all: Those that leave – and then come back. A small subset of these returning exiles are gone only as a part of a rather proscriptive master plan and are more appropriately classified with those who never leave.[2]

I still remember the feeling of exhilaration, of nearly religious ecstasy, that I felt when I left my Podunk hometown for the city with a wad of cash and a $2 pack of cigarettes. My hopes, ambitions, dreams, and fears that night broke open my life and spilled it all over the highways and alleys and dirt roads of the next ten years of my life.

But 20 years later I am reminiscing about my escape from my provincial roots from the center of another bucolic little town with 3 stop lights. For us townies who have crossed the threshold from the known to the unknown, it is not easy to articulate why we have returned to the ordinary world. Why have we abandoned the liberty and endless titillation that we dreamed of as adolescents to return to the familiarity and claustrophobia of these slow-moving villages? Could it be that the real trial of the quest is not to be found in some exotic hipster paradise like Portland or Tulsa but somewhere deep in the Freudian recesses of our rural childhoods. Chained to our formative years, perhaps we realize in the end that we must go back to go forward, for the final discovery of the pioneer can only be achieved after the frontier has closed. For the towny that returns, this is where we must face the human condition. We have stolen the apples of Hesperides and slain the Nemean Lion of the youthful city streets, but now we must face a darker and more formidable monster. Stripped of distractions, forced to live among the enemies we all inevitably make, we face ourselves in the mirror of those who know us all too well. This is the last stand of the towny and what we will become hangs in the balance.

[1] A towny is one who was born and raised in a small town, especially one who comes from several generations sired in the same town and who, in turn, sires other towny descendants.

[2] Going to a state college an hour away from home to get a physical education degree and coming home every weekend to party with your high school girlfriend, only to end up working at the concrete plant does, not make you worldly.