So Outta Here
It's a steaming summer night, and we're driving home from the swim club, haze heavy in the air, heat lightning in the distance. We sit on towel-covered car seats, wrinkled from cool water, groggy from too much sun. A red light stops us beside Rita's, and I glance over at the water-ice oasis aglow in the dusk. The benches are lined with moms spoonfeeding babies, abashed teen twosomes attempting conversation, kids in cleats chattering about long fly balls and rotten calls. A woman lets her poodle lick soft-serve from her fingers. I smile, made supremely happy by the idyllic scene. In the front seat beside me, my 14-year-old daughter scowls.
“I would sooner die,” she says with quiet vehemence, “than live here when I grow up.”
It doesn't matter so much where “here” is, except that it is a small town, a real town, sad-sack with past industriousness and current troubles of the usual sort: dormant Main Street, eroding tax base. There are also the pluses: an observant community eye, pristine Victorian architecture, schools where the principals know every kid. It's a lot like where I grew up. And it causes Marcy deep chagrin.
“There's nothing to do here,” she announces at regular intervals from her corner of the sofa, where she is spending the summer watching bad Lifetime movies. “I hate this town. It's ghetto. It sucks.”
Marcy knows why we moved here — for her sake, so she'd have a green lawn and green playing fields and a bright green future. And that, perhaps, is more galling to her than anything else. For at the edges of her consciousness lurk memories of another water-ice stand, the one we used to go to when we lived in South Philly. She was only four when we left the city, but over the years, she has mythologized that literal hole-in-the-wall into a Bellagio on Snyder Avenue, impossibly glamorous, a montage of statues of the Madonna and gaudy Christmas lights and wedding serenades. The water ice tasted better, too. “We never should have left the city,” Marcy is given to saying mournfully, the way William Bennett might say, “We never should have let women have the vote. That's when it all began to go to hell.”
Her little brother Jake doesn't share this sense of grief, of opportunity lost. He hadn't even turned two when we moved to our small town, so this is the only home he remembers or can imagine. He doesn't long for anything else — not yet.
Marcy, however, does. “Would you look at our freaking school mascot?” she shrills, set off by contemplating her team shirt for field-hockey camp. “The Trojans? Hel-lo! Didn't anybody ever stop and think about the fact that the Trojans lost the war?”
Pity my changeling daughter, snatched at a tender age from the cosmopolitan stomping grounds of Mummers and the Mafia and the Melrose Diner, and plunked down in the land of the Labor Day bike parade. (She recalls vaguely but with great tenderness her South Philly preschool, at which the teachers did the little girls' hair and complimented each others' nails.) Marcy never tires of berating us for depriving her of the opportunity to grow up in the city instead of this backwater.
I can't blame her. I used to feel the same way about that small town where I grew up. The most emblematic memory of my years there is of going to high-school football games with my friends and walking around and around the cinder track that circled the field, hoping with each new circuit that something would have changed.
Now that I've become my parents, though, it's precisely this lack of change, this glorious stasis, that makes me love the small town we've adopted. Oh, sure, there are some concessions to modernity. The kids on the cinder track around the football field now come in Benetton colors. But their crushing disdain for the nowhere where fate has stuck them is utterly familiar. They circle that track the same way we used to, uneasy tigers just waiting for a chance to escape.
In a small town, the years are loops like the track, their passage marked off by a steady stream of culinary rituals. A winter without the pierogi sale at the Greek Orthodox church would be truncated, bereft. Even as our older neighbors kvetch about the stories on the front page of the local paper — “Never used to be any of that stuff going on around here,” they say dourly — the annual round-robin of pancake breakfast at the Lutheran church, fried chicken from the Methodists and ham supper with the Presbyterians remains the same.
Last summer, our small town celebrated the 250th anniversary of its founding with a spaghetti dinner served al fresco at dozens of long tables laid right down the middle of Main Street. Of course, I bought tickets — who could pass up such a highly unnatural event? Jake's Boy Scout troop was helping serve the food, so he was antsy with excitement. Marcy was horrified by the entire project. “Oh, come on. You'll remember it for the rest of your life,” I cajoled her.
“Eating in front of the whole town?” she wailed. “I'm sure I will.”
On the big day, she trailed reluctantly behind me as I headed for Main Street, which looked highly festive — white-clothed tables festooned with flowers, Scouts and dads darting around with trays and platters, hundreds of our fellow citizens grinning and making small talk over tossed salads and iced tea. Beneath the little pavilion outside Borough Hall, a three-piece band — organ, accordion and bass — was playing a rollicking version of “That's Amore.” “Oh. My. God,” Marcy muttered beneath her breath. She rejected my first choice of seats as too close to her sixth-grade math teacher, and my second because one of the seventh-grade girls sitting nearby was — my daughter's words — a total ho. We finally settled in across from one another at a table with an elderly foursome on our one side, and nothing but empty chairs — a huge plus in Marcy's eyes — on the other.
Just as we sat down, Jake caught sight of us and ran up, Scout shirt half untucked, neckerchief askew, water sloshing down the sides of the aluminum pitcher he clutched. He had a folded napkin over his arm, though, and he bowed as he approached. “Would you care for some ice water?” he asked Marcy, grinning.
“Couldn't you at least tuck in your shirt?” she hissed at him. And then again: “Oh. My. God. Ohmigod!”
“What?” I asked in alarm.
She had her hands up over her face; her voice was a bare mumble. “It's Vincent.” She jerked her head at another, older Scout waiter, who was bringing us salads.
“Only Christian's cousin, that's all!” Christian was her current heartthrob. “This is a nightmare. I can't believe he's seeing me here.”
“He's here, too,” Jake pointed out, with irrefutable logic.
“Why don't you just shut up?” she spat at him.
As Vincent set a salad down in front of my daughter, the cheery blue-haired woman beside her turned and boomed in a voice worthy of Julia Child, “And what grade are you in, young lady?”
“Hey, Marcy,” Vincent said casually. “What up?”
The musicians under the pavilion had segued into a somewhat unsteady version of Kool & the Gang's “Celebration.” Jake poured water into Marcy's plastic cup, doing a little shimmy. She let out a moan.
“What grade did she say she's in?” Blue-Hair's equally cheery husband demanded of his wife, hand cupped behind his ear.
My husband Doug, wheeling a trash bag perched atop a dolly, caught my eye, took in Marcy's expression, and laughed. “Jake, take this up to the dumpster behind the bank, would you?” he asked.
“Isn't this great. The whole family's here together,” Marcy said bitterly.
I kicked her under the table. “Tell them what grade you're in.”
Vincent came back with Chinet plates of spaghetti and meatballs. He looked quite dashing in his Scout uniform. “You want grated cheese?” he asked Marcy, who moaned again. “That a no?”
The distant cry made her raise her head at last; she peered up the street through her fingers and saw Jake flopped belly-down on the dolly, legs bent up at the knee, arms akimbo, rolling headfirst back down the hill from the bank, slowly gathering speed as he approached, gleefully shouting: “Mar-ceeeee!”
“That your brother?” Vincent asked Marcy as Jake shot past us, headed for the shrubberies surrounding the pavilion. “Hope he takes out the accordion player.”
Blue-Hair's husband leaned back in his seat, Chinet plate scraped clean, hands folded over his considerable gut. “Two-hundred and 50 years,” he said, shaking his head with amazement. He shot a glance at Marcy and chuckled. “I reckon you'll still be here to celebrate 300, won't you, little missy?”
“Please, God, just let me die now,” Marcy prayed audibly.
I am a contemporary of the Carolines — Princess and Kennedy — and as I was growing up, they were my nemeses. Whenever I would see them staring out at me from the pages of newspapers or magazines, they'd remind me of just how unrelievedly small-town I was. They dressed exquisitely. They hung out in the South of France. They went to discos. Even their losses were monumental, historic, scaled far beyond mine.
But sometime between Philippe Junot and Stefano Casiraghi, I stopped paying attention. I'd left my small town for the big city, and my life was, abruptly, exciting. No wonder everybody from Dusty Springfield to Simon and Garfunkel to Bruce Springsteen sings about small towns — they make anyplace else you go seem so big. You don't hear a lot of odes to growing up in Toronto or Los Angeles or Chicago. Nobody wants the winner of American Idol to be a native New Yorker. No way is that the dream. The dream is that you're born someplace where all the odds are against you becoming anyone or anything — but you do anyway.
“I wish we'd move,” says Marcy.
“You're crazy,” I tell her. “You'd hate it if you had to start all over again.”
“What I want is to start all over,” she says.
That, of course, is at the core of our disdain for the small towns we grow up in — our conviction that if we were someplace else, we would be someone else, someone who isn't too shy to order at McDonald's and doesn't wear braces and has a date for the eighth-grade formal. From Marcy's perspective, changing venue is much simpler than changing everything else.
And any change, no matter how drastic, will do.
We're driving home from a visit to my in-laws in Hershey, rolling along the Turnpike on a summer evening through Amish country where the sky seems to stretch out forever. The sun is casting long shadows, pricking out the landscape's details: a field of motionless cows, a long white fence, a dusty dirt road leading away from a farmhouse. A young couple is strolling down the road from the house. She is perhaps 17, in a white cap and a long dress and an apron. He is a little taller, in a dark suit and dark hat. “Look,” I say, pointing. Marcy follows my finger, not my voice, from the backseat; she has her Walkman on. Clouds kick up from the driveway as the boy and girl walk together — gold dust. He reaches for her hand.
Marcy stares, her eyes wider than the sun that is setting. Behind the couple, a kid comes wheeling, riding a bike — one or the other's younger sibling. A chaperone. The couple laughs as he careens past them in clouds of that gilded dust.
Marcy turns in her seat, looking back at the scene for as long as she can, her headphones blaring Nelly. We drive another five miles or so before she asks, in a pensive voice, “How do you become Amish, anyway?”
Only in a small town does such wholesale, full-scale reinvention of one's self seem not only possible, but likely. When you look around, you see where Main Street ends, but you also glimpse the wide-open horizon just beyond. A small town gives you roots — not so deep as they would have been a hundred years ago, maybe, but deeper than most people's nowadays. Just as importantly, it gives you the certainty that there must be something more, and the impetus to seek it out. What we don't tell Marcy is that we never brought her here so she'd stay put. We brought her here so she'd want to move on, and be able to do so with grace and humor — the grace and humor born of having lived in a place where everybody knows everybody else's business, or at least feels entitled to ask. A small town may stink as a place to be, but you can't beat it as a place to be from.
Someday she'll go away, and we'll remain here, still taking our seats for Trojans football games and the Methodists' fried chicken and the spring musical at the high school. The familiar cycle will reassure us that she's okay wherever she's gone off to; nothing has changed in our town, so she must be the same, too. And after she's had her fill of bright lights and late nights and glitter, I'm betting she'll find herself a small town — not this one, because if it's anything like the town I grew up in, by then it will be all yuppified and quaint. But she'll find one a lot like it, a real town, not a subdivision or a “townhome community,” to raise her kids in. They'll ride their bikes in the Labor Day parade, and get dragged to spaghetti dinners in the middle of Main Street.
And they'll sit on the sofa in the heavy heat of August and gripe: “This place is so ghetto, Mom. It really sucks. I hate it here.”