ESSAY / THE WAY WE WERE

 

I grew up in a small town in rural Illinois, called Highland.  Population 7,500.   When I was ten, I had permission to ride my sherbert orange ten-speed bicycle to town, as long as I was home by dinner time.  My Saturday mornings went like this:  Wake up, eat a bowl of brown rice with honey and soy milk.  Sit in front of the TV while those color bars sat heavy across the screen until programming would begin at 8 am.   I would watch the Snorks, Smurfs, Bugs Bunny, He-Man, etc.  Once I had had my fill of TV, I would do my chores.  My responsibilities involved cleaning my room, vacuuming the living room rug, and cleaning the downstairs bathroom.  I would put on big yellow rubber gloves and pretend I was the woman in the Comet cleanser commercial.  At 10:00am,  I would jam all of my allowance in my pockets and steal at least 8 quarters from my dad’s vacation jar. I would lace up my Nikes, fix my bangs, and slip on my fanny pack.

First, I would pick up my friend Billie Jo.  She lived one mile from me, on the way into town.  One time I married her little brother, Travis, in her basement, while our cabbage patch kids sat in the audience.  I guess he was my first kiss, but it did not count because he was seven years old.

Billie and I would head West down St. Rose Road.  We would roll down the big hill, and turn right into my friend Meredith’s apartment complex.  Meredith lived with her grandma Rose.  All summer, Rose would lay in the lawn next to the apartment in a reclining chair wearing a silver bikini.  She was lathered in oil, and would hold a reflective tin bounce under her face to attract more sun.  She was the most tan person I ever saw.  

Our collective goal was to look stylish, and to search for cute boys.  My personal goal was to buy as much candy as I could afford.  Weekdays involved a great deal of “health food” at my house, and my weekends were dedicated to breaking the fast with as much sugar and dye as I could possibly ingest.  

We started our town loop at the Wedge, about a quarter mile past Meredith’s place.  The wedge was a tiny gas station situated in a concrete triangle just at the intersection of Poplar and Broadway. They had a shitty selection of candy, but they were always good for a pack of Hubba Bubba for me and Mere, and a bag of Funyuns for Billie. We would then continue West to the town square where Tschannan’s dime store was located.  They had the mother load.  There was an entire aisle dedicated to sweets.  We would wander through the aisles looking at cards, and toys, socks, and hardware.  I would spend at least ten minutes on my knees carefully selecting the Wonka products I wished to add to my bag for the day.  Bottle Caps, Nerds, Runts, and Fun Dip were my jam. My grandmother worked upstairs as the bookkeeper.  Someone at the counter would always let her know we were in, and she would come down and give hugs and kisses, and if I was lucky, contribute to my petty cash fund.  

The town square, known simply as The Square, had a beautiful fountain in the center.  The fountain would change colors at night, and was surrounded by grass and little walking paths.  Around the square were lots of shops.  There was Ziegler’s jewelry store, where my aunt Janna bought me my add-a-bead necklace in the late eighties, and my thick herringbone chain in the early nineties.   There was the book store, 2 gift shops, Hug’s clothing store, where I got my first pair of overalls.  There was Wayne’s Doughnuts, a tuxedo shop, and a sewing store, where my mother bought me my first overlock machine that I used in my earliest JK samples. There was a  record shop, and Kelly’s Rec Room, where we would play Pac Man and Pole Position.  The bad boys in town hung out at Kelly's. They were called the Reapers. They all had hand painted jean jackets with the grim reaper on the back panel.  They wore earrings and ripped jeans.  Only later in life did I realize they were the only kids in our community who were making a creative statement in their fashion choices.  

My favorite thing in the square was the legend of Epod.  Epod was a friend of my parent’s back in high school.  Epod lived in the men’s bathroom under the pavilion at the square, and would wear a thick wool coat in the middle of summer.   He had allegedly done too much acid one night, and his mind forever remained in a hallucinogenic loop. Sometimes he seemed to gain some clarity.  Once he saw me on the street and said, “Hey, you are Jesse Kamm!  Do you know I held you when you were a little baby?” Billie and Mere looked at me with wild eyes. I smiled kindly and said “neat.”  Then we peddled away as fast as we could.  Epod was the word dope spelled backwards.       

There were lots of restaurants we would visit on our town lap. Jeff’s hamburger stand, The Icee, Al and Yin Pings, and The House of Plenty. Jeff’s was a block from the square, and stood across the street from the Weinheimer, which is where all the boys our age were playing basketball on a Saturday.  We would get burgers and shakes and sit at the counter, talking about who we were going to ask to skate with us during the Moonlight skate on Tuesday night.  

After we split from the square, our route led us up to Northtown. There was a long strip of shops.  There was a hardware store, Pamida, Glicks Clothing, Kroger, Spotlight Video, and Hook’s drugstore. My Aunt Julie worked in the office at Pamida.  I remember she would always take me in the back and show me the large hairy tarantula that lived in a glass cage on her co-worker's desk. They had a great toy selection, and the candy wasn’t bad.

I remember when the Walmart came to Northtown.  It was built across from the big row of shops.  They had everything.  My neighbor, Daryll, would always curse when she spoke of it.  She would say, “that place is going to be the death of this town.”  You could get clothing, art supplies, records, health and beauty supplies, appliances, you name it they had it.  Meredith’s grandma Rose got a job there.  On her days off, she would continue her quest for her dark bronze hue.

As the years passed, I rode my bike less and less.  When I was sixteen, we would borrow my mom’s Ford Tempo GL and drive to Northtown and sit in the parking lot and listen to Boys 2 Men, and drink cokes from the Dairy Queen.

When I was 17, I left for college, and eventually relocated to California.  With every visit home, town would change a little.  One by one, each of the previously mentioned shops and restaurants went out of business.  Their spaces still sit empty with For Lease signs hanging on the window.    

My home town is still quaint, but the charm is far less tender.  It was the Walmart that did it in, and the fast-food chains.  By buying into the slightly lower cost of the goods at these corporate chains, we forgot about the greater cost to our community.  The cost to the pride of the people who owned those shops, and the people who worked there.  It was convenient to go to the Walmart and the Hardee's, but we forgot about the great inconvenience it would later create once our community had lost the very soul that made it so special.  

I think about this sad fact when I remember my home.  These tales are the same all across America.  I think about this a lot these days, when I hear the refrain “Make America great again” looming at every turn.  If we want to make her great again, we have to take her back from the giant corporations, whose greed has destroyed everything that this country once stood for; Independence.  If we rely so heavily on one place or thing, we become dependent.  For my home town to return to the old way will be almost impossible.  But I am reminded of the power that we as consumers do hold.  

If corporate America owns the keys to the government, let us not forget that we are the ones who hold the key to those corporations.  The key is the dollars that we keep in our pockets. I believe that WE THE PEOPLE need to demand that these corporations take a pledge of responsibility.  Responsibility for equal pay, equal treatment, employee rights, community responsibility, and environmental responsibility.  These companies can be forced to behave, if we require them to do so.  If we start asking questions, and demanding answers.  If we value ourselves, we should require those companies to value us as well.  Our minds have not been permanently erased, though we have been hypnotized by apathy. Why else would we allow ourselves and our communities to be desecrated in this way? I believe it is time for the revolution. Demand that fast-food chains start serving clean, responsible food. Start writing letters to corporations where you shop requiring them to treat employees fairly. Organize your community, make phone calls, picket, write letters to the editor, and organize boycotts.  Make a decision to support the small businesses in your community at every opportunity.  Unlike Epod, we can get back to where we came from. We just have to decide we want to go there.

 
Jesse Kamm