Hektor at the Supermarket
The author ponders the problem of home
July 23, 1987
I recently reread this piece two or three times and I still can't decide whether I think it is any good. Trying to think deeply on a deadline poses its risks, as David Brooks knows well. It might make more sense when I explain that in the summer of 1987 I was considering leaving Springfield at the age of 39, having never lived anywhere else, and was of several minds about it.
I once met a man who liked Springfield. I think he was from Chicago, but I don’t recall; I was much too startled to hear his name clearly. I could not have been more surprised if, when he opened his mouth, a pigeon had flown out, banked a couple of turns around the room, and made a belly landing in the dip.
I have lived in Springfield my whole life, and know others who must say the same, and while each of us had his reasons, liking it is hardly ever among them. I have amassed a catalog of complaints about life in the capital city, and some of the juiciest came from natives. (I have considered publishing that catalog, by the way, for the edification of state agency directors, minor league baseball managers, and others washed by Fate upon these barren shores. What the Gideon Bible is to the faithful traveler, this book would be to the sophisticated one.)
I have whiled away many an hour explaining to people why the buses stop running at 5:45, why you can’t buy fresh bagels, why there is no repertory movie house, why the local TV news reminds them of Romper Room. The nicest thing anybody says about Springfield is that it’s a nice place to bring up kids, which unfortunately makes it a lousy place for those of us who are old enough to cross the street alone. The polite compliments of acquaintances eager not to offend my local patriotism are the most damning of all. “It’s so convenient to Chicago,” they say, or, “You must enjoy the quiet”—the fat girl with personality.
My extended residence puzzles some people. (The fact that we spend so much time talking about what a backward place Springfield is is instead of just leaving it is perhaps the best proof of what a backward place Springfield is.) At times I feel like Quasimodo after he’s been asked, “Doesn’t that hump complicate your golf swing?” My reasons for staying are not the usual ones. I was not made the gift of a sinecure in the family business. I do not wish to be near the bedside of an ailing rich relative. I am not recovering from a love affair, or lamming from the IRS. I am not tired of life and I am not afraid of subways. I do not have a career in state government, and my kid is not going to be in the class play this spring.
I am here, in Springfield, simply because I am not somewhere else. This is a reversal of the usual progression. Springfield is a fine place to be from. Had Bernard Shaw been born in Springfield instead of Dublin, he would have said, “As long as the Midwest produces men with sense enough to leave her, she does not exist in vain.” Alas, my lack of sense is comprehensive.
Consider these lines from the efficacious Calvin Trillin which appeared in the April 6 New Yorker: “A Midwesterner in New York may know of ghosts of adolescence that lurk, unchanged, in his home town; he may be unsettled by the thought of himself finding himself in the supermarket line with both of the people who remember precisely how he behaved on graduation night.”
Adolescence in America being especially traumatic, it is no surprise that most people wish to flee the scene. Staying in the city of one’s youth thus presents certain perils. Trillin has summed them up in the Midwestern Adjustment to the Psychoanalytic Theory, which is, “Everybody’s who he was in high school.” Staring at the same city for thirty years isn’t half as daunting as staring at oneself for thirty years. For me to go out to shop for a six-pack of beer without being reminded of some humiliation would require demolition on a scale that would make even Memorial Medical Center envious. To most of my fellow sticks-in-the-mud, this reality poses no painful truths, because what they were in high school is all they ever wanted to be. (Thus we have a clue to understanding Springfield: It is owned and run by people who liked high school.)
Over the years I have argued the virtues of staying in one place nevertheless, not for the sake of the place, but for the sake of the staying. Any birdwatcher knows that if one moves about in the woods, one will never be able to see the birds; one has to stand in one place so the birds’ movements are revealed against the still trees. If one stays in the same city, staring at the same trees as it were, human motion is revealed as well. To watch the progress of the class wimp who grows up to be a caring physician, or the prom queen who turns into a harridan, is to be instructed in the possibilities of the race, however much it shakes one’s faith in democracy and Darwin.
Not only do I remember how I behaved on graduation night, 1 remember where. The progress of the city itself thus offers similar lessons. After thirty years, I experience several Springfields at once, the present one plus remembered ones. The newcomer sees only what a city is, and comes to certain conclusions; the native sees what it was and has become, and comes to different ones. Guy Davenport in an essay professes puzzlement that the writer Ford Madox Ford could have spent so many of his final days happily in Ohio, after living in Sussex and Paris. The answer is simply that the Ohio which Ford lived in not only wasn’t the Ohio that his coal merchant or mailman lived in, but probably was a better one. What we don’t know about a place we imagine, like we do with people, and we usually flatter it in the process.
A good thing too, given what’s happened to small U.S. cities since World War II. Downtown offers a hundred examples. The newcomer looks at a crowded parking lot and sees the open parking spaces which aren’t there; I look at it and see the movie house or the coffee shop that once were. The glade that is now the shopping center parking lot, the turn-of-the-century house drifting into decay, the infrastructure of the neighborhoods eroded by the chain stores, the perversion of urban scale and character by the automobile— this is what I see when I venture forth. When I was younger I rejected the notion that all change was progress, because it was naive; I am finding it harder to reject the idea that no change is progress. Davenport summed it up when he observed, “The terror of Hektor’s death was that, moments before his heart tasted Achilles’ blade, he had to run past places where he had played as a boy.”
Such sadness verges dangerously close to nostalgia. There is a crucial distinction, however, between lamenting the loss of a city because it is where one lived a full life and lamenting the loss of a city where full life can be lived. I am unhappy because Springfield is no longer Springfield; much of the rest of the city seems unhappy because it isn’t St. Louis. Local improvers, from the mayor’s economic development staff to the symphony guild, face the same dilemma faced by a pimp saddled with a homely whore. It is true that newsstands that sell Details magazine and cable TV have made it possible to live in Springfield without living in Springfield; they have also made it necessary. Question most newcomers closely, and you will find that what they like about Springfield is what has been imported, and thus is least representative of it. What is lost is not charm, or innocence, or any other Keilloresque quality, but coherence.
Elizabeth Hardwick once observed that places “have almost a genetic fatality.” I take her to mean that one can live too long in one place. The problem is that like most genetically fatal ailments, home towns take years to kill you. By the time the disease is manifest, it’s too late for a cure. ●