Well, I’ve got to head to Target today because the cat is out of food and no one bothered to mention it except the cat and I’m ignoring him right now because of the ick he left on the basement carpeting. On my way out, I stop to pull a few weeds from my perennial bed, because if I don’t keep up with these weeds, they’ll get ahead of me and take over the entire neighborhood. I see that the violets have moved in with my hosta, and the black-eyed Susans are positively encroaching upon the lilies. Clearly, something must be done about the situation.
Squints tugs at my shirt. He’s not a big fan of weeding.
And, as you might suspect, I’m not a huge fan of these giant stores; stores where you can get a cup of coffee or a hotdog while having your pictures developed. Stores where you can get cat food and bananas and reading glasses and toilet paper all under one roof.
The lights here are too bright and impersonal. The building is too perfect; too sanitary. The frozen food displays light up as I pass each section, like an invisible butler two steps ahead of me turning on the lights before I enter a room, offering me orange juice…frozen fish sticks…corn and beans and French fries.
There are far too many people here, pushing and jostling for position at the checkout. I need a tour guide to find my way around. I caution Squints to stay close by so I don’t lose him.
I toss the cat food and the fifteen other things I didn’t know I needed into my cart. The cashier asks me if I’d like to save five percent today by opening a credit card. I look around at the pretty posters on the wall and all the pretty people in their pretty red shirts, so happy. Their white teeth gleam and their perfect hair is squeaky clean and not one of them has a pimple and I wonder: why are we here?
We’re here because it’s convenient. More importantly, we’re here because it’s cheap.
But we’re convenience-ing ourselves, we’re progressing ourselves out of existence. We’re cheapening our lives. I understand this. And yet, here I shop. Do I have any other choice?
* * *
Park your car on the street at the corner of Prospect and Main. Don’t bother to roll up the windows. Leave your keys in the ignition. Step on the sidewalk, slip a quarter into the meter and take the three concrete stairs up…up…up. Pull open the door and listen to the little jangle of the bell announcing your arrival. Step into the dark, comforting mustiness of the variety store. Let your eyes adjust a moment. Notice the two bubblegum machines guarding the front door. Target would put this store to shame.
Its proprietress was a stout old lady, about four feet tall. She had white hair, tightly curled in what my sisters and I called poodle hair. Her constant uniform was a calico dress she made herself; knee highs; sturdy, sensible shoes; and jewelry, of course: a chain around her neck from which dangled black reading glasses. Her voice had a slight shake to it, but she was never uncertain of her words. And she knew that store like the back of her hand. She didn’t need a walkie-talkie; had no need of scanners or price-checking machines. No fancy consultants advised her about product placement or how to increase her sales. But that place was magical: The variety store sold bolts of fabric, buttons, thread. A cutting counter stood in the center of the back room. Scissors hung from a piece of yarn, waiting to be pressed into service.
A kid could get lost in the variety store for hours, her mother always within earshot.
There were shoes and screwdrivers. Cards and candy. Oh, my, the candy: Orange peanuts in a cellophane bag. Boston Baked Beans. Button candy—neat rows of reds and blues and greens and yellows stuck to a long strip of white paper. Sometimes the candies would blend: the red would have a bit of blue. The green might have a drop of yellow. And this candy, being unique, was extra special.
The wooden floors were creaky and dusty and cracked. There was a glass display case at the front counter, upon which sat a giant gold cash register with circular buttons that, when pressed, would send up a number in the tiny display window.
An artist rented out space beneath the variety store. To the right was the hardware. Across the street, a grocery store. And if you were to cross Prospect, you’d arrive at the butcher’s shop. The butcher wore a white apron, smeared with blood, and a little white cap. He’d cut the meat to order, wrap it and tie it up with string, writing the price on each package with a red wax pencil.
The Main Street of old seemed to contain all we really needed in a community. And visiting these shops was an act of community-building. Going to the butcher, the hardware, the variety store, was an enjoyable experience, not one where you would dash in, frantically wheel the cart up and down the aisle and get out again as quickly as possible.
We were invested in that community. Teachers shopped at the hardware store; the owners of the grocery store had kids at the local high school. Our lives were inextricably linked: What happened to a neighbor happened to all of us. We shared sorrows and joys and excitements and fears and disappointments.
Is there a place where people still form a community, or does this place just exist in my memories?
* * *
Traffic slows then comes to a standstill. I look around for the flashing lights. But there is no accident: A Canadian Goose escorts her hatchlings from the Shell station across four lanes to the abandoned bank building.
Drivers point and oooh and aaah and smile at one another and I’m so happy because this simple act of stopping for a line of goslings crossing the road reveals the humanity each of us keeps locked up tight behind our shopping lists and our to-do lists and the errands we have yet to run. And the geese pass and the cars move and a driver beeps to speed up someone who’s driving too slowly and the moment is gone.
I turn at the light and understand the reason for the geese on the road. The bulldozers are biting into the earth where two years ago stood a house and a field of corn. After seven years of lawsuits, this marks the beginning of a planned community: a community of fifty-fivers on eighty acres of ruined land. There will be housing in this community. And recreation. And boutiques and other fancy shoppes, the extra p apparently giving the shoppe more panache than a mere shop would have.
Children will not be allowed in this planned community.
Nor will geese.
They’re trying to build the perfect community, the way I keep reconstructing the one in my memories. But this community doesn’t feel like the communities of old. It’s too perfect. You have to meet certain requirements before you’re allowed to move in. This isn’t, in fact, a community at all. It’s an exclusive club where geese don’t poop on the sidewalk and the children are non-existent and the cat doesn’t ick on the carpeting and where everyone stays exactly where they belong.
But community cannot be a planned thing. Community evolves and grows. And community dies. We have allowed our communities to die. We stand by, watching, not even offering life support. It’s inevitable, we say, shaking our heads sadly. And it is convenient, after all.
Will they come to this planned community, those fifty-fivers? Yes, they’ll come. They’ll come because the place is trendy and new. They’ll come because everything’s so convenient. But this community, while being incredibly expensive, will also be cheap: a cheap replica of what community is supposed to be. By excluding the very geese it has displaced, by excluding certain members of society, by expecting—or hoping for—perfection, this planned place, will fail. It will not be a community. When the shoppes and boutiques are closed for the night, the storekeepers will leave the community to return to their own. There will be no schools. No playground. No ball fields.
And in the end, when the builder is dead and gone and the piles of money are spent and lost forever, the destruction of that beautiful farmland will remain. And still, there will be no community.
The small town that I grew up in was far from perfect. It had its problems, as all small towns do. But we knew one another. We cared about one another. We were patient with one another.
Quite possibly, we loved one another.
I drive home and unload my plastic bags from the trunk and yank out a few more weeds from my perennial bed.
Perhaps I’ll leave the black-eyed Susans where they belong.
Labels: Community, Consumption, Culture, Growing up, Ohio