The False Mystique of Living in Small Town USA

The False Mystique of Living in Small Town USA

I’m 27 years old. And for approximately 85% of my twenties, I’ve lived in a small town. (The other 15% I was in Rochester, MN, and Minneapolis, MN, in Loring Park.) Point is, when someone has said I’ll meet you at the bowling alley, I’ve known which one.

Occupying the lone coffee shop in town, eyeing the lone cute barista, trying to spot which way her Claddagh ring is turned and ending nights at the single-screen movie house alone has been a huge waste of my twenties. But do not feel sorry for me. I am a dumbass.

As a writer, and fan of oddball recluses – James Dean, Harper Lee, and Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life hold way too much pull on my psyche – I’ve always romanticized rural hideaways. But these places don’t exist. Not like in my dreams, at least. Here’s a list of the biggest wrongheaded assumptions I (and others) have made about Rural America.

  • It’s cheaper living. Everyone says this upon moving to a small town. “Well the Totinos party pizzas are cheaper!” Sure, right, of course. And you may get more space for your futon. But live in the city. It’s more expensive, but cities are roller coasters for the adventuring 20-something. Small towns are lazy rivers. You can do all that when your skin is all wrinkly and a cocktail is perpetually fastened to your right hand. Plus, you end up spending all your money on gas and lodging on the weekends to go into the city to actually do something.
  • Life is slower in small towns. Actually, wrong. Life is faster. People age more quickly in small towns. Most of my classmates who stayed home have been looking and talking like 35-year-old, mothers-of-four for the last decade. It’s early-onset nursing home phenomenon.
  • Jobs are easier to find. Unless you’re raising cattle, nursing a sick parent, or selling fireworks off a remote stretch of interstate, your job can be found in the city.
  • There’s less crime. Bullshit. Do you know how far an ax-murderer has to travel to get to properly clandestine digging territory in the middle of an urban area? Far enough for the corpse to rot and ruin his car’s upholstery. In Coyotevilles, pop. 510, they can kill, transport, and bury you in time for their next turn at the VFW’s beer pong tourney.
  • You’re somehow giving a metaphorical “middle finger” to the inauthentic rat-race in the city. As a blue-ribbon member of various small towns, I can honestly say the whole “real people with real hearts live out in the country” is the biggest lie perpetrated by the country music industry. My small town had a large slice of institutional perverts, deadbeats, pickups-for-brains, liars, cheats, and bimbo former prom queens. Did you think William Faulkner was fucking lying? Of course, my town also had teachers, gays, cops, accountants, illegals, and latte-sipping liberals. Because, my town was (shocker!) existing in America in the 21st Century. Sure, locals drove slower, drank Pepsi One after all the suburbs tossed it out, maybe “went to church” more, and considered particle-board-cutouts of bent-over housewives “modern art,” but they didn’t possess any more “realness” than city-folk. The fuck does that mean anyway?

No, so here’s my take. Being young and living in a small town—with occasional exceptions—usually means you can’t stand what a city reflects back on you. Like the glassy, mirror-like towers jutting out of their downtowns, cities provide harsh reality checks. You think you’re the only one to combine Gershwin and the Jay-Z/Kanye album on your playlist?! Guess what, the guy next to you at Whole Foods already did that on Spotify months ago. Think your creative nonfiction novel about growing up the son of an eccentric band director is a true breakthrough? Sorry, the writing class at the local library has three girls working on a screenplay of the same idea.

What I’ve found is that people—myself included—who unabashedly say they want to “get away from it all” are usually only interested in getting away from others. And that’s usually, sadly, because they can’t stand themselves. Go ahead, populate that small-pond with your big-fish self. Just don’t pretend it’s the city’s fault.

~Dunstan McGill

Photo courtesy jlongstocking