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Bus Rape Soliloquy Part III:Just a Small Town Boy

January 5, 2010

 Tuesday is garbage day; most people set theirs out the night before, but I am not one of those. Mount Carroll takes garbage very seriously. The town has a recycling program, and every Tuesday morning when I leave the trash out at the end of the driveway, I leave a red plastic bin full of glass, plastic, and recyclable aluminum next to the bag. The garbage bag must have a bright orange sticker on it or the garbage truck won’t take it. One sticker per bag, one dollar per sticker. This program is only for those of us who live in town, though. People out in the county either haul their own garbage or (I suspect) burn it.

The population of Mount Carroll, Illinois is approximately 1308; that’s according to the last census. The sign coming into town claims a population of 1900, but the sign is older than the last time anybody counted, and nobody seems to mind. This place is the opposite of everything we left behind in Arizona. Some of my former students attended high schools with as many people as the population of this town; 1308 people could be living on a couple of streets in any neighborhood in a medium-sized city. The town of Mount Carroll has no stop lights, and the streets in the center of town are bricked, not paved. The nearest McDonald’s is seven miles up the road in Savanna. There’s a Subway, a Dairy Queen, two bars (one of which, I’ve been told, isn’t friendly) and Rita’s Mt. Carroll Café, which serves a bottomless cup of coffee for less than a dollar and has a reasonable menu. There are a couple of antique shops, the bank, and the Post Office, which still displays a mural by a CCC painter. (That’s Civil Conservation Corps for those of you who slept in American History). The unofficial boundary is the four-way stop where Illinois 78 and Illinois 52 intersect, next to Shaw’s Grocery, the Church of God, Napa Auto Parts and the Home & Garden Center. There’s also the Land of Oz – a convenience store of sorts where the Subway is – and Raven’s Grin, a year round haunted house ran by a guy who actually lives in the house. I’m missing things, but you get the point. This is one of those places where the pharmacist (It’s an actual pharmacy – not to be confused with one of those back corner pill peddlers found in Super Wal-Marts and other Mega-One-Stop-Grocery stores.) knows everybody in town, along with their husbands, wives, children, and (maybe) their church affiliation.

Mt. Carroll is extraordinarily proud of its Rotary Club, and of its small-townie-ness. The people here are generally conservative, though it would be unfair to assume that of everyone. Demographically speaking, the people here are white, and I hear a lot German sounding last names. They are a lot like the people in the town where I grew up; cautiously friendly, guarded, proud, and independent.

A person not familiar with how small town life works might call some of the folks here unenlightened; and while there is (always) that element of intolerance, fear of change, and occasional xenophobic tendencies, it’s unfair to say that people here are unenlightened. Mostly they don’t give a shit. They may over react if they have too much to drink, and yes, they do take politics very personally – but farmers have to since politics (and politicians) have so much impact on their daily lives. Prices rise and prices fall, and generally, it’s a politician’s job to make sure that the rise and the fall don’t adversely impact a farmer’s bottom line; in this, politicians aren’t always consistent, though the farmer is always consistent in his duties. Farmers understand that time is finite; politicians tend to see time as something more abstract and debatable. There’s no real industry here, and no hope for any in the near future. The biggest change on the horizon is possibility of former-Gitmo prisoners being housed in a prison up the road in Thomson – a town whose sign boasts a population of 600, which I also think is an exaggeration. And since the locals can’t take their frustrations out on the people who cause the problems, they find the nearest target: outsiders, Arabs, Mexicans, and Blacks. They would tolerate all of them so long as they come through, spend money, tip well, and leave; anything else constitutes potential trouble.

Again: it is unfair to assume that everyone is like that. Everyone I’ve met here has been nice – though a little guarded, which I expected. I haven’t been here long enough to establish any ties to the community or to forge an identity which makes sense to them. I don’t work, but my wife does. This is enough to raise some suspicions about my (lack of) character. But the people I talk to when I’m saddled up to the bar drinking a 12 ounce draft beer that costs a dollar, (For another 25 cents, I could have a frosted mug.) are nice, interesting, and honest. I pointed this out to another bar patron – a crusty older woman named Kathy – and she agreed with me. To a point. “It’s important to know who’s REALLY nice and who’s not,” she said. “You pay attention enough though, it ain’t difficult to figure out.” It’s true; people are rarely hard to fathom. But that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to watch them, or talk to them. I can forgive them for being Bears or Packer fans, and while some of the things I overhear set my teeth on edge, none of their off color comments about the President, the world, those folks “out in California”, or the “Pelosis and Hilary Clintons of the world” really shocks me. I’d hear the same thing if I visited my hometown. And because I did grow up in a small town, I do have one trait in common with most everyone I meet: I’m probably as reticent when I meet them as they are when they meet me. And it will probably take a while for us to size one another up and decide how we feel about things; but that doesn’t mean we can’t be polite in meantime.

Next: Part IV: Leaving The Desert

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