I believe that you can make any city a small town. I grew up in a town with no stop lights, not even one four-way stop. One highway sliced through town – school, feed store and hardware store on one side; funeral home, mega-convenient store and bar on the other. Dozens of country roads lead up to it. Those backroads were like everyone’s extended driveway. I drove my mo-ped illegally on the road leading from my house to the school, taking myself to driver’s training classes (where I successfully answered questions on tests about how the need for licenses for mo-peds.) I drove my mom’s ’88 Plymouth Champ on them a full year before getting my license.
The gas station at the end of that run was a pit stop for the whole town. VanWinkles, run by the Vanwinkle family, offered videos, pizza, roasted chicken, gas, penny candy, tires, plumbing services, flowers and knickknacks of the bow-wearing geese type. On the same compound, one son ran a garage, his wife a hair salon and his brother a pizza place. My first job was delivering pizzas on those same back roads. By the time I left Ramsey, Ind., I’d probably driven down the gravel driveways of 70 percent of the 5,000 residents. I knew which trailer left the light on because the dog was scared of the dark and would growl at me, which Camaros never made it off cinder blocks, which families could afford a satellite (MTV was on), and which kids would always called me Pizza Boy, despite my Aqua-netted bangs.
When I moved to Chicago after college, I quickly started making the city of big shoulders one of small-town connections. My landlord also owned the Southport City Saloon on the first floor of my three-story walk-up. I got a job hosting there on the weekends and soon had full access to the kitchen via a back staircase. The chef called my Sprout and the waitress used my bathroom to freshen up after. At my day job downtown, I stayed late enough to get a good rapport going with the cleaning folks and building people so they’d let me in when I inevitably left my entry card at home. My gym was across the street from work, and that crowd soon became a familiar one (and not just the Lincoln Park frat boys) I knew the crotechty ol racquetball players and the front desk gal’s wedding plans.
When I broke my leg in a biking accident, the cops who saw it happen wheeled my bike three blocks to my apartment, where my neighbor recognized it and let them in. The driver on the Clark bus slowed down for me, the photo guy at CVS, Bradley, helped me carry my basket. I even fell in love with the boy next door. He was the boy next door at work (cube mates) but that’s pretty cozy. When we left Chicago for D.C., employees at the CVS near my house and near my work both signed goodbye cards to me. Here in the D.C. suburbs, where neighborhoods are less walkable than Chicago, I still ride my bike to work to get a lay of the land. When I don’t ride, I walk a mile from work through Arlington, passing the same runners, strollers, peacenik dude on his lawn chair and bike store. The Albanian CVS cashier asks me about my dog; I ask him about his wife who works at the other CVS up the road. The funky shoe-shop owner and I exchange hair coloring tips. And the guys at the bike store, just like the guys at VanWinkles, always help me change my tire.
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