Monday, October 5, 2009

Where we live

I grew up in small-town America.

My town was very rural--well, rural and growing to the point where it was about to become a real suburb. My town had traffic lights, and two small, locally-owned grocery stores, a homegrown hardware store, a locally-owned video store, and lots and lots of family-owned pizza parlors.

We were the town where the marching band was the pride and joy of our high school. We didn't even have a football team. We were the town where everyone knew each other, where people would leave their doors unlocked at night and have no fear of their kids going to the library by themselves or walking to school on their own.

This is where I grew up.

And the older I got, the more I wanted out.

In fact, that became my main post-college goal: I didn't care where I landed a job, I just wanted out of my parents' house and be outta my small town.

It didn't help that my parents did not grow up in small-town America, and that, even after 29 years of living in the same town, they still have moments of culture shock. Both Mama and Papa Cat grew up in the greater New York metro area, and were used to city life--or living nearby a vibrant, active city. Hartford, sadly, is not exactly the most vibrant of metropolitan areas.

They complain, for instance, about the lack of good pizza and bagels in their neck of the woods. They were overjoyed when I decided to attend college in Fairfield County, and Sister Kitten in upstate New York, if only for the bread goods. (Well, that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea of how much my rents love their bagels).

Getting the Sunday New York papers was a mini-dose of joy in our household growing up. After church, Papa Cat would stop by the local, mom-and-pop pharmacy, greet our pharmacist, who knew my family--and the other families in town--very well, and purchase the Daily News and the New York Post. Mama and Papa Cat would then sit in their respective Archie-and-Edith chairs and read their papers, sighing over the Mets' latest disaster and wishing that Steinbrenner would just sell the Yankees already.

We were also unusual because we were one of the few families in town that didn't have generations of members living in the same area for decades. We weren't related to anyone else in town. We were the only members of our extended family living in Connecticut.

So what did this mean for me growing up? I knew that there was a world beyond my small-town bubble, and I couldn't wait to pierce it and escape.

And, in July of 2001, I did.

I moved to a small city with a waterfront and a mall within a five-minute driving distance. I could purchase my groceries at Stop and Shop and grab a quick bite to eat at McDonald's. I had my prescriptions filled at Rite Aid, and bought my coffee at the local Dunkin Donuts every morning on my way to work. I banked at Bank of America, and got my car serviced at Jiffy Lube.

This, to me, was paradise. No longer did I have to drive half an hour to get to the mall. No longer did I have to go twenty miles out of town to shop at Target. No longer did I have to go out of my way to get to the nearest Borders.

And shortly after I moved, things started to change--both within my hometown, and myself.

Before I moved, the old Chevy dealership on the south end of town had been torn down and was being replaced by a Stop and Shop. Mama Cat would flip the bird in protest every time she drove by. I asked her why.

"It's putting the local businesses out of business!"

I didn't get it then.

A year later, a CVS opened in town. Once again, Mama Cat refused to go there, and chose to have her prescriptions filled at the same mom-and-pop establishment where she had been going for years. I asked her why she didn't make the switch, since CVS also had more inventory than her old place.

"It'll put Mike out of business!"

I still didn't get it.

But one day, I finally did.

Sadly, it took the current state of our economy to realize just how important mom-and-pop businesses are, not just to the welfare of our communities, but more importantly, to our psyche.

I can't tell you how many local businesses in my current city of residence have closed down because people are going to their larger, chain counterparts. And when you hear stories about how these local businesses have given so much to the community, it really makes you want to weep. I love to read about the local high school, community-sponsored graduation parties, and see which businesses have contributed. Nine times out of ten, the sponsors are the locally-owned, mom-and-pop businesses.

I now go back to my hometown and feel a sense of longing for what once was. The local pharmacy is still there, and is doing a decent business, but the CVS still looms large. We now have a Starbucks and an TJ Maxx, in addition to a Dunkin Donuts and a McDonald's.

My small town has now been commercialized.

Which leads me to wonder, does true small-town America still exist?

Yes...and no.

I'm currently housesitting for a friend of mine who lives in small-town America. The "center" of town is just a stone's throw away from her house. There aren't any chain stores, but two very nice, locally-owned gourmet food stores. There's a small, locally-owned used bookstore, as well as a bakery. The other day, I was in one of the food stores, and two little girls were in there with their mom, buying candy to eat later in the day. When they left, the mother went to run errands, and the little girls sat in front of the store, eating their gummy worms, watching the world go by.

This past weekend I went to a memorial service for the father of a friend of mine. There were people there who knew her father from when they were back in high school--fifty years ago. They still lived in the same small town where they grew up.

In spite of these little girls, and the men in mourning for their friend, there is an aspect of small-town America that will never come round again. We all lock our doors at night, have car alarms, and have ADT and Brinks Home Security on call in case anything should happen.

Lately I've found myself missing my small town--in more ways than one. I still like my mid-sized American city, though. You can't beat the convenience of having a movie theater, a hospital, and three major shopping centers all within a ten-minute radius.

And it's nice to know that there are two small towns bordering mine.

It's good to know that I can return to small-town America--if only for a couple of hours at a time.

Or even in my imagination.


Anonymous said...

It sounds exactly like the town where I grew up! They haven't gone too commercial though yet....they have a Subway now, that's it ;-)

Vickie said...

Mom and pop shops are great. Up North there used to be a pharmacy we loved. Kal-drugs. We would listen as they would talk to the customers like they knew them. We went back the following summer and it was sold. Even though it still wasn't a chain, it just wasn't the same. I love riding down the main street. There will be business and then houses.

There is even an old hotel from the early 1900's that is vacant. Our dream is to buy it and renovate to a bar downstairs and we would live upstairs. Just a dream. But that too is getting commercialized. Burger king at one corner and McDonalds on the other.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

It's sad, but you're right. I wonder if our great-grandfathers felt the same when industrialization changed the face of business?

Missy said...

I love your post. I feel the same is sad. You put your feelings about this subject into words beautifully!

Jenners said...

Sadly, most of the "small towns" with "mom and pop" businesses around us are the chi-chi rich towns where the residents can afford to pay the higher prices in those stores. Sad but true. It is hard to compete against the big chains.

Grand Pooba said...

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't last in a small town. The whole "everybody knows everyboy's business" thing just doesn't sit well with me! I mean people would find out who I really am...
....a man.

Hahaha! Just kidding ;o)

Celia said...

I live in a tiny town, Bristol Boro PA. We have a lovely waterfront, a theatre, lots of local businesses and my neighbors are wonderful. You should move here! We do lock our doors, but I don't think we need to. We are just used to it. All my neighbors went to school together or bought the homes they live in now from their parents.

It is charming.