I am caught in a time warp. This strange, little town from which I hail seems to have grasped onto the 80s and never let go. Hair styles, clothing, and the background music in all the area businesses point to this fact. It’s a place where everything is different but nothing has changed.
It’s been a peculiar experience to spend an extended period of time here and to view the behaviors and attitudes I’d left behind some 20 years ago.
First, there is the food.
I have been astounded by the growth of the population here, and I’m not talking about numbers, but size. While I’ve read articles about the obesity epidemic in America, and New Mexico is certainly not without her share, it seems that the majority of the population here is unhealthily, sadly overweight. It’s no wonder when one realizes what the normal diet is. The dining choices in this town of about 6,000 souls consist of no less than five pizza joints (who do not serve up thin-crusted Italian pizza but heavily-cheesed, greasy behemoths with crusts as thick as a shoebox, the resulting taste somewhat like the contents of a shoebox but greasier and less nourishing). The other options are primarily deep-fried, barbecue, and fast food junk. Fresh perch, pulled from nearby Lake Erie would be a healthful choice, but in these parts it can be served only by breading and deep-frying it (I think there must be a State law governing that presentation); your choice is, “do you want it on a bun or on a plate?” Globs of tartar sauce are to be anticipated with either choice.
The grocery stores are not much better. Most of the produce is pre-wrapped and seems a couple minutes away from rotting. The emphasis is heavily weighted toward packaged and canned and frozen…er, stuff (I hesitate to call it food). Nary a whole grain is to be found in the tri-county area. Organics are frowned upon. And don’t even think about finding ethnic ingredients, the mere mention of which will bring about a diatribe about illegal immigration.
And so, to go grocery shopping we must make the trip to Cleveland, an hour distant. There we revel in the West Side Market experience and find a better selection of meats and some organic produce. We found a small locally-owned health food market on the west side of the city, as well as a Trader Joe’s. There we indulge in restaurants serving Japanese or Lebanese or Thai fare. But it’s the idea…an hour to find edible food? Something that can be truly called food, to give nutrition and taste? In the heart of America’s farm country?! What gives?
And then there is the matter of exercise. One is extremely careful to not move one’s limbs in a manner that might exert oneself in any form. Walking elicits bold-faced stares, as we’ve discovered when we have (gasp!) walked from my parent’s loft on Main Street three whole blocks to the (so-called) grocery store. Oh the folly! The local inhabitants will sit in their cars at the drive-thru window of the ice cream joint rather than park and walk about 15 feet to the building, though service is faster at the walk-up window. When Bryan was out running yesterday morning, some good ol' boys driving by leaned out the window and mocked him, yelling, "Run Forrest, run!"
Then there is the ambiance. Many of the storefronts on Main Street are empty, given up in favor of the mall, strip centers, and big box stores in Sandusky, a half-hour away. Main Street has been largely given over to the semi-trucks that rumble down it on the US route bisecting the town. People don’t seem to take any interest in civic life, in maintaining a sense of community, or fostering local businesses. My parents, God love them, are endeavoring to drum up some type of downtown renaissance, and I wish them well though I fear they face an arduous, uphill battle and will be none too appreciated for their efforts. Apathy runs rampant here, but at least someone is trying. It's sad; many of the old brick and stone buildings are historical and pretty, and downtown could be quaint. Instead, it's practically deserted of life and devoid of charm.
Another problem about hanging around here is anonymity, or lack thereof. It’s a small place and everyone immediately knew of our presence about 10 minutes after our arrival. The two main gossip hubs – the coffee shop and the barber shop – are located downstairs from my parents’ loft. The occupants of these establishments quickly disseminated the news about out-of-staters taking up residence upstairs. And not only does everyone know we’re here, but everyone knows my mom. Everyone. This was a major crimp on my life when I was a teenager. I could get away with virtually nothing. Any activity or attempted misdeeds on my part would reach my mother’s ears before I’d even arrived home for the night. Nothing has changed. Everyone still knows my mom, and everyone still sees and hears about everything that goes on here.
We lived in a village in New Mexico with roughly the same population as this town, and the contrast is striking. It is also depressing. The delay in our dream has us temporarily stranded in this strange little place where everyday feels like a Twilight Zone episode. I can hear Rod Sterling: “A couple arrives in a dingy, small Midwestern town where time stands still. Can they escape?”
The wheels of bureaucracy are turning slowly, inching us closer to Italy. I know we’ll get there. We are motivated; we really, really want to live in Italy. And we really, really don’t want to stay here much longer.
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider