I grew up in a close society of immigrants, clannish, insular, distrustful of their new country and the people in it, all the while reciting its praises. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Every adult was allowed to, and did, monitor and even punish every child, though generally they only reported misbehavior to parents. As a teen, my time was strictly regulated, with one curious exception: while any time spent with my American friends was subjected to the minutest scrutiny, when I was with Latvian friends, the gates were flung open and no questions asked. Naturally, I exploited this loophole at every opportunity, drinking at laxly run taverns well before coming of age, and getting into trouble in general, always forgiven, as long as no Americans were involved.
Still, it was stifling. The social strictures, and, above all, the religious impositions, might as well have been physical chains. I longed for something outside these limits. I devoured Kerouac and Baldwin, read Ferlinghetti and Corso as if they were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I spent hours staring out the front door window, imagining a completely different life.
But I lived in the city, and the city was my escape, my safety valve. For 27 cents, I could hop on a bus a half block from my house, and within minutes be in another world, one of libraries, book stores, and coffee shops, and above all, anonymity.
Years later I would find myself living in a sleepy little town, a county seat with a high opinion of itself, and all the insularity of my immigrant community. Right next to it was a company coal town, and the miners and their families provided the underclass that seems so necessary to maintain that peculiar superiority of big fish in small ponds.
The heartland, they called it, but someone had built a university where the favorite hunting grounds used to be. Some of the locals cashed in big as they sold off farmland, and others were bitter in the self-righteous way of those who had missed the big payoff. Either way, it was the beginning of the end for the inbred insularity the town was known for. With the university came a preference for urbanism, and connections to the nearby city, long resisted by the locals, began forming and strengthening.
Nowadays, we’re a suburb, and the older residents pine for bygone days. But there are restaurants, several grocery stores to choose from, coffee shops to sit in, and the feeling that everyone knows your business and disapproves of it has all but disappeared.
People talk about the failure of small-town America, but I see another story, that of the transition from ruralism to urbanism. Lots of small towns have emptied out, to be sure, but many others either joined larger nearby metroplexes or grew into cities in their own right. Along with that inevitably came the cosmopolitanism beloved of the city-bred like me, and despised by the unrecostructed rural. And both, as so often happens, for the same reason: the decline of big-fish smugness.