written June 2010
The average person on the street would rather endure a light carpet-bombing than visit the old hometown. Opinions on most birthplaces range from questionable queasiness to downright despondence,depending on if you are an escapee or one of the ones left behind to pick up the pieces and carry on. It may creep into a few of your dreams; it may lead you to keep your yearbooks under lock and key. This must be true because it’s so,frankly, fashionable to ridicule them. Lab tests show that real enjoyment can be derived from mocking that far-off place of birth, without it there to defend itself. So boring, so backwards, so full of family members who just don’t get it that it’s best to restrict contact to the appropriate holidays. Especially if they’re puny, little cornfield Mayberrys like mine. You know, those hick Podunktopias with a nary a spittoon-to-pass-around places lost somewhere between the Coolidge era and a bad Brooks & Dunn video.
I should know, I did it in public just last week. Summoning the best anti-PR against my own John Mellencampish cliché of Elmwood, Illinois, I proclaimed that, in the event of returning to my town of origin to teach history, the adjectiveFAILURE should be permanently affixed in red across my forehead. This statement was a variation of the group consensus, being a fashionable thing to say.
But secretly, I actually like my town. Proud even, but if you tell anyone I’ll deny it. It is the perfect prairie island that offers some solitude when life’s waves gets a little choppy . I climb into my car, take a northerly interstate for exactly three hours, until I yet again come upon this oddly unchanging, utterly reliable place I know so well.
I want to prepare you now, in the unlikely event you ever get needle-in-a-haystack lucky and stumble upon Elmwood. The entire town and its 2,000 inhabitants take up a mile and change square in total; the two main streets stretching into the west and north are clean, straight, and wide under the cover of shady foliage. Out-and-about residents will say good morning to you with a smile, ask your thoughts on if it might rain, and whether you have a great cobbler recipe handy (such unfettered friendliness, to the untrained, might evoke those creepy, conformist towns of old Twilight Zone episodes). The center of the village boasts a collection of carefully maintained 19th-century brick commercial buildings that frame a leafy park complete with 1) a band gazebo from which the elderly can be delighted with old standards on summer nights and 2) a stoic statue commemorating a romanticized vision of hardy pioneers. The Palace Theatre, old enough to have put onstage shows and vaudeville still charges $2.50 to view its single, weekly film. It’s like some kind of law to go for a jog or happily walk your dog once a day. And speaking of Mellencamp, Elmwood has one of the only two authentic“Jack and Diane” Tastee-Freeze ice cream shops I’ve ever seen (the other being in a God-forsaken stretch of the Sierra Madres in southern Mexico spotted during a school trip). Members to the Maple Lane Country Club have been playing the same beautiful nine holes for decades. Finally, mind what I said about it being an island- anything beyond milk or potatoes and it’ll be an hour excursion in any direction, so pack accordingly.
“I really don’t know why you complain about your town,” I’ve been told by the occasional outsiders who have taken me up on an invitation. “It’s so…” comes the trailing, failed attempt to define my bona fide Smallville- except Elmwood is more fanciful than Superman’s first digs; my parents don’t have to worry about villains, having not locked their doors since a 1992 vacation. Another useful tip: if you need the assistance of either of our cops, it would be quicker to call the local gas station, where they hang out, than the actual station.
I complain because this homogeneous fiction of a place never grew up, got real: ‘See, I’m a genuine, wishful man of the world who’s been to more countries than my father has states. I’m not thrilled by how high the corn has growth this month. And Elmwood can get back to me the day it installs its first streetlight.’ Things like that. Like a lot of people, I fondly balk because I trust it will always be there, no questions asked. I return home because a home is a refuge,whether it’s a town, family, or friends. Just after I have this cozy thought I check my work, getting a second opinion from the 1981 version of the New Scholastic Dictionary of American English. In fact, ‘home’ is sort of the first cousin of ‘safe,’ the actual example being “to be safe indoors in a storm.” More on this later.
An illustration: We both know that some fellow human beings are going to beaten or otherwise horribly abused tonight, really treated nasty. It’s sad. If I knew when and where it was going to happen I’d call the cops, alert
them to whatever dwelling or domicile quick (that’s the kindest names can bestow upon physical structures that witness cruelty). With all due respect to the New Scholastic Dictionary of American English, if it isn’t safeand dependable it isn’t a home.
James Baldwin was looking for a place of rest too. Unlike me, the first place he was in didn’t want to stop and ask him any folksy questions so he left his native America for European asylum. I’m not going to even pretend to understand his Harlem, or the places he describes in“Sonny’s Blues,” because that would be a lie. Look, I’ve seen Showtime at the Apollo a handful of times, I have an appreciation for the explosive Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” and I’m aware that the Globetrotters are really from Chicago, but that’s it– I‘m so unfamiliar with heroin that I just spell-checked it. Nice, secure Elmwood, you robbed me of the opportunities to understand James Baldwin and his characters, which have to find their chemicalpeace biologicalpeace jazzpeace wherever they can, who don’t have the luxury of taking their home for granted. At a loss of how to truthfully, justifiably connect to Baldwin, I flip on the early Sunday CBS morning news amid a run-down of the top headlines.
“Another day, another untold thousands of barrels of oil pouring into…,” the anchor earnestly informs me. Huh, I wonder if there’s any coffee left.
“…violence in Gaza continues to…” the TV drones on. Oh yeah, I really need to get to the gym today, too.
“…and finally, a massive tornado ripped through Elmwood, Illinois yesterday evening, leaving extensive damage in its wake” the voice casually hammers my brain. I fumble for my cell, dial ‘Home,’ but it only rings. And there I have it,inspiration has been kind enough to alight itself upon me. To begin to understand James Baldwin is to walk a path paved with destitution, loss, an aching desire for a place called home- that most basic human need of a secure place to reside without want or fear. I don’t remember who said, “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been,” but it seems appropriate to mention here, as ringing anendorsement of the important of roots to ward off vertigo as anything I know.
Only later Sunday night do I get a first glimpse, courtesy of NBC’s Lester Holt and John Yang, of a downtown Elmwood that more resembles Atlanta circa 1865. The school previously mentioned is being used as a shelter by the Illinois Red Cross, the Palace has collapsed. Tell me the odds of two twisters touching down within a mile-and-some-change square area, one hitting the heart of this speck of a town, two block from my parents and sister. Now tell me the odds of also so far no injuries at all reported.