Talkin’ About My Home

When you are a small-town kid, you do not learn how small your town really is until you leave it. Growing up in it, you’re an organism in its ecosystem, and since you have yet to experience the wider world, that ecosystem becomes your universe. In my hometown, the town square was the universe in microcosm. Most of the clothes and shoes I owned came from the same three or four stores. I bought records at the TV-repair shop, sports magazines at the newsstand, and trinkets at the variety store. My money was in the bank off the northeast corner and my doctor’s office was off the northwest corner. I took dates to dinner on the west side and to the movies on the east side. I went to school with the shoe-store owner’s kids and the TV repairman’s kids and the variety-store owner’s kids and the doctor’s kids and the theater owner’s kids and the banker’s kids. On any trip anywhere in town for any reason, I’d run into somebody I knew, or somebody I recognized. Everything felt connected.

And then I grew up and moved away. Not far, but far enough to sever myself from the ecosystem. On those occasions when I’d return, I was no longer as much a part of it as I used to be. That used to bother me. As I moved farther away and weekends home got scarcer, they sometimes came with the unpleasant sensation of pressing my nose against the glass but being unable to open the door. Nevertheless, it was sometimes hard to leave on Sunday evening. More than once I hit the highway with a lump in my throat. That was the point at which I started dreaming about moving back. I’d get me a job on the local radio station, yes I would, and the kid who everybody knew was going to be a radio guy would be a radio guy right where it all began. It would be great.

I must have entertained that fantasy for better than 10 years. I can’t say which one is the cause and which one is the effect, but about the same time I gave up the fantasy, my hometown started looking different to me. During my fantasizing years, the economy hadn’t been kind; the farmers struggled and the factories too. The downtown stores closed or sold out or their owners retired, and the retail base migrated to the big boxes blooming out by the highway. Many of the old neighborhoods looked the same, but there was nevertheless the feeling that the place was going to seed, that its best days were behind it, that its future would be spent hanging on to what it could in a world that was growing ever more unfriendly to small things everywhere.

Not everybody sees it this way. I was home again last weekend, and I dropped in on an old friend who owns a downtown business and has raised a family in our hometown. Based on how he describes his life, he’s still deeply connected to the ecosystem. To him, the changes I see aren’t breaks with the past, they’re evolution into the future. To him, life in our hometown goes vibrantly on. Surely others who live there feel the same way, or why would they stay?

Maybe I’ve lived in the big city too long, and I’ve gotten cynical about small-town life. Or maybe I’m not cynical enough. Maybe its foolishly romantic to deny my hometown the same right to grow and change that’s made me into a much better person than I was when I lived there. Maybe it’s a better place now than it used to be, and I just can’t see it.

The mp3 below hasn’t much to do with the content of this post (Joe South’s elegiac “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home” would be better) because this blog isn’t very good, really. In 1979, Steely Dan started work on the followup to Aja. Not everything from those sessions made it onto Gaucho in 1980, including five original songs that have never been released. They’ve been bootlegged among Dan fans for years, and here’s one of them.

“Talkin’ ‘Bout My Home”/Steely Dan (bootleg)

8 thoughts on “Talkin’ About My Home

  1. I would disagree with your suggestion that this post “isn’t very good, really.” It struck a chord with me, at any rate – enough so that I am commenting for the first time (I’ve been reading for a while now). Excellent writing. :)

  2. Hang in there JB..

    You have a very good blog..

    And,you can write a hell of alot better than I can..

    But,I can play guitar pretty good..

    We pick up what interests us..So keep on a writin.. :)

  3. Well thanks, everybody. I appreciate the support, but “this blog isn’t very good really” was just an offhanded crack on the spur of the moment. It’s not like I’m trolling for compliments, but I’m glad to get ’em nevertheless.

  4. Well, jb, you hooked another compliment. *well done* My problem is that I have two towns to think about. One is Gary, which has never come back from the disaster of the early 1970s–they just recently started demolishing the hundreds of houses that had stood empty since then. And then there’s my “college” town, where I lived for 18 years. It grew from a going-to-seed downtown in 1978 to a vibrant center of commerce as of 2008, and I am still well enough connected there to feel deep frustration at being unable to return.

  5. Yah Shure

    Ah, but those “not much of a blog” posts have a way of resonating sometimes in ways that you’d never expect when tossing them out there.

    It’s funny that you should mention the Joe South song as an aside. The first time I heard “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” was on KIOA/Des Moines, while visiting at my grandmother’s house, just outside of Paton, Iowa, about thirty miles south of Fort Dodge. And along came this brand-new song asking me if I wanted to go home, to which I wanted to shout, “Yes!! Yes!!!”

    Two years ago, I went on a photo-taking expedition to snap some pictures of the old Iowa homesteads to use for a family reunion. Paton has definitely seen better days. The “Paton Place” restaurant, which had opened to great local fanfare during the heyday of the Peyton Place TV show, no longer even had a roof over the long-closed dining space. Only a faint trace of the name remained above the once-bustling establishment. It seemed that the only positive thing that had happened to the town was that it had been chosen as the fictional hometown for Private Ryan in the motion picture ‘Saving Private Ryan.’

    The Paton school had been torn down, with only a commemorative arch made from the building’s facade as a reminder of what the town once had to offer. Grandma’s former house out on the farm looked a bit rough for wear, and the original family homestead next door, where my mom was born, had been torn down and replaced with a modern farmhouse. And yet, in spite of feeling somewhat like a stranger, this time I wasn’t in such a hurry to go home. I wanted to linger and let some of that same essence of family roots sink in that I was all too keen to blow off back in 1969.

  6. I always thought — during my thirties and into my forties — that my home town, St. Cloud, was a great place to be from. But when the chance came, I moved back – accompanied by the Texas Gal – in 2002, and I’ve never regretted it. It’s not the same town I left, in a lot of ways. But, changes and all, it’s still my town. And that sometimes surprises me.

    Great post. As you pointed out to me when I started my blog, it’s easy for us to err when we assess the value of our own posts. And this one was a good one.

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