Just a few weeks ago, I went back to the town where I grew up. I don't have a good reason to be there anymore. My parents divorced years ago and sold the house that I would consider my childhood home. I never really had very many close friends in high school so it's not a "go hang out with the ol' crew" kind of trip. While I was briefly in town, I decided to stop by the Credit Union to close my account there.
I've had a savings account at this credit union for 20 years. I put $25 in when I was twelve years old. I closed it with a whopping value of $28. Don't say interest didn't treat me well. Here's how the conversation went:
(Erik enters from stage left, approaches teller)
Teller: Hey! How have you been?
Erik: Just fine! And you?
Teller: Doing well. What can we do for you today?
Erik: I'm in to close my account. I don't really use it.
Teller: Yep. Makes sense. (she taps at a keyboard) Was this a joint account?
Erik: Yeah. I think my mother was on it when I was a kid.
Teller: What's her last name now?
Teller: (taps at the keyboard again) Okay, you're all set! Do you want to cash the check? It's only $28.
Teller: Okay. Twenty, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. And you're all set. Is there anything else?
Teller: Okay, have a good one, tell your dad I said hi!
Erik: Will do! (exits)
It's the only place in the world where I could have gone and closed a bank account without ever showing identification or, indeed, even saying my name. I should note, too, that I moved out approximately 16 years ago. It's not like I see these people every day -- or even every year.
I miss it. Personality is what we're missing in this generic enfranchised world. I don't want to go to another Applebee's. I don't care how predictable the food is at Fridays's. I'd rather go to the stainless steel diner on Main Street and chat with Linda behind the counter who knows exactly how I like my coffee and that, no, I don't want ice cream with my pie, thanks, and how's your granddaughter, is she in high school now?
Big box stores turn record profits and have driven out mom and pop businesses from small towns everywhere. And at what price? Personality. Somewhere along the line, we've been tricked into believing that if it's the same everywhere, it's great. It's the kind of thing high school movies have been fighting against for years. Every time I walk into Home Depot I want to scream, "The captain of the ski team is a DOUCHE! GO WITH THE DORK! He has PERSONALITY!" The fact is, Home Depot might have the widest assortment of pipe-fittings in a 30-mile radius, but it doesn't hold a candle to the little hardware store we had downtown with all its quirks, its squeaky wooden floors and its giant bins full of nails.
I know. I sound like Garrison Keillor on a bad tequila bender - like I want to get back to Lake Wobegone and tear shit up. But the truth is that I could never go back. I like my fancy coffee joints and beer bars. I like ethnic food and live music. I like that there are more people around me at any given time than I could possibly meet. None of that is available back home.
I just want to import that sense of personality into my urban lifestyle - surely it's the next step, isn't it? It's the one thing that isn't available in any of the big box stores and teeming community centers that I've been in. It should be anytime now that somebody offers it as the next commodity that we've always wanted.
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8.15.08 @ 1:46a
Man... you are a sentimental douchebag, and despite the fact that you are right, you still gotta think about it. Small towns will always be what they are, but there's no importing their spirit into cities or other urban environments. Small-town thinkig is based on the seemingly absurd concept known as 'trust', and 'trust' no longer exists in in large urban environemnts.
8.15.08 @ 9:28a
Oh, I totally agree. But that doesn't stop me from being a sentimental douchebag.
8.15.08 @ 11:50a
I find myself wondering if, with gas prices being what they are, people might not start trying to get back to the close-to-home concept.
8.15.08 @ 11:57a
Over in my neck of the woods, I have a couple little hangouts where the servers always greet me by my name, know that I occasionally need super-strong coffee, and will predictably pick either over-easy eggs with corned beef hash or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Having that is just one of those things that makes a day feel a little bit better.
8.15.08 @ 12:09p
This article resonated for me. After I left Iowa City in 1981 (after 14 years there), I would occasionally visit to see friends. I had a job that would take me to Detroit once in a while, and I was able to add a dog leg to that trip.
I would walk down the street after I'd been gone 5 or more years and people would greet me as if they'd seen me just yesterday. The same people were doing the same jobs--they just looked a bit older and bit more tired.
I understand Iowa City and Coralville have grown and changed substantially now (and not just from the recent floods), but I imagine that 27 years later, I could still walk down the street and meet people I know. In fact, I'm sure of it.
I must admit I miss the small-town atmosphere--especially since I've moved now from Ventura County back into the Los Angeles area (Burbank).
8.15.08 @ 1:50p
I had lunch today at a little place I call "the crepe place" (I can't pronounce its French name, and pronounce it "crape" like a good Pittsburgher). As I was placing my order at the register the cute girl with the awesome smile was back at the coffee machine fixing me a cup of the smoky tea I like in a to-go cup, just the way I like it. Before I had ordered it. She brought it around to me and *then* asked if it was what I wanted. Perfect.
They know what tea I want at my second-favorite lunch place too, and sometimes they remember my name. In fact, one of the new cashiers apologizes for not remembering it.
8.15.08 @ 4:27p
As Alex and Ken note, even in big cities like NY, LA, and Pittsburgh it is possible to frequent businesses where everybody knows your name. I have a favorite Indian restaurant where, until they changed hands, the owner and serving staff all knew my favorite dishes and that I was allergic to raw onions.
8.15.08 @ 6:38p
I actually think planting some little roots helps with big city living. Kind of nice not to always feel anonymous or rudderless in a big city- whether it's a bar/cafe, restaurant, or a bookshop.
8.16.08 @ 4:20a
Everything you describe here is what I love and hate about my home town. I was related to a lot of people in my town, all my parents and grandparents generations, but I could never get away with anything because everyone knew me. In some ways I miss that. The town is changing. New people, old shops closing up, old people dying out. I doubt I'll find it again in another place, the feeling of really belonging.
8.18.08 @ 12:38p
I haven't gone back to El Salvador in 7 years, but I'm sure the people who used to work with my father or the people at the hospital that got to know him so well are still there and still remember me.
8.19.08 @ 6:43a
There are a couple of shops in DSM where I am treated well and the proprietors know me by name, including a bookstore, a jewelry/art store, a restaurant or two, and, of course, the tea house.
I have to admit, it really makes me feel good to know they pride themselves on their customer service enough to have a relationship with people on a more personal level. It builds an incredible sense of community. If more people thought in that way, it would be easier to incorporate a small town familiarity into more urban areas.
I've lived both in itty bitty towns and large cities. I like the mid-range the best.
9.1.08 @ 10:56a
How wonderful that so many people were inspired to remember and share similar experiences of community in their lives - past and present. You touched them! Well done.