excerpt 1/4 from
The Death And Life
Of An American Small Town
by Nick Reding
Copyright (c) 2009 by Nick Reding. Published by Bloomsbury USA, New York.
As you look down after takeoff from O'Hare International Airport, headed west for San Francisco, California, it's only a few minutes before the intricate complexity of Chicago's suburban streets is overcome by the rolling swell of the prairie. The change is visceral as the plane's shadow floats past houses hidden within protective moats of red cedar and evergreen shelter belts. The land unfolds a geometric sweep of corn and switchgrass. Grain elevators shine like tiny pieces in a diorama; next to them, venous brown-water creeks extend their fingers warily onto the negative space of the prairie. And if you look closely as the plane climbs past Mississippi Lock and Dam Number 10, on the Iowa side of the river, you'll see a little town called Oelwein, population 6,772. You'll see, for a few ascendant moments, every street, every building, and every pickup truck in brittle, detailed relief. Briefly, you can look at this photographic image of a town, imagining the lives of the people there with voyeuristic pleasure. And then Oelwein (along with your curiosity, perhaps) is gone.
Such is the reality of thousands of small communities dotting the twenty-eight landlocked states of the American flyover zone. Lying beneath some of the most traveled air routes in the world, they are part of, and yet seemingly estranged from, the rest of the country. In many ways, it's easier to get from New York to Los Angeles, or from Dallas to Seattle, than it is to get from anywhere in America to Oelwein, Iowa. Yet much of what there is to know about the United States at the beginning of the new millennium is on display right there, gossiping at the Morning Perk cafe, waiting for calls at Re/Max Realty, or seeing patients in the low brick building occupied by the Hallberg Family Practice. In their anonymity, and perhaps now more than ever, towns like Oelwein go a long way toward telling us who we are and how we fit into the world. Who we are may well surprise you.
Look again, then, this time from the window of a commuter flight from Chicago as it descends into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on a clear May morning. Follow the gentle arc of I-380 north, over the Cedar River and past the red-and-white-checked logo of the Purina plant, which bathes everything for miles around in the sweet smell of breakfast cereal. What appears from the plane window to be only a few inches is really an hour's drive to the junction of Highway 150, a no-nonsense two-laner that eschews the complexity of cloverleaf exits and overpasses. Every twenty miles or so, the speed limit drops from fifty-five to twenty-five as Highway 150 bisects another cluster of three- and four-story buildings bookended by red-brick churches and bright metallic water towers. The names of the towns are as companionable and familiar as the country is harsh: Bryantsburg, Independence, and Hazleton accompany the road all the way to where the Amish homestead sit kitty-corner from the Sportsmen's Lounge. There, just across the Fayette County line, is Oelwein, pronounced OL-wine.
Like most small towns in Iowa, Oelwein's four square miles are arranged on a grid system divided into quadrants. At what would be the intersection of the x an y axes is the central feature of Oelwein's architecture and economy: the century-old Chicago Great Western roundhouse, where trains were once turned back north or south and where entire lines of railroad cars could be worked on without regard for the often-brutal weather outside. An enormous brick and steel structure the size of three football fields, the roundhouse, like the town it long supported, is the biggest thing for many miles. Amid the isolation, Oelwein's very presence defines the notion of somewhere.
On the surface, Oelwein would appear to be typical in every way. Driving into town from the south, you first notice the softening profile of the maples and oaks that fill out the middle distance of an otherwise flat landscape. Once you are inside the city limits, Oelwein's skyline is divided between the five-story white spire of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and, six blocks farther north, the four-story red bell tower of Grace Methodist. Between them is a jewelry store, a sporting goods shop, two banks, a florist, a movie house, and four restaurants, all housed in turn-of-the-twentieth-century brick and stone buildings. Across the street from Las Flores Mexican Restaurant, there's a clothing boutique, a photography studio, and a crafts store. There are almost as many bars in Oelwein (eleven) as there are churches (thirteen). The biggest congregations are Lutheran and Catholic, owing to the two separate movements of immigrants into the county: Scandinavians and Bavarians at the end of the nineteenth century; Irish and Italians at the beginning of the twentieth. Von Tuck's Bier Haus generally sees the high-end clientele, which is likely to stop in following a lasagna supper at Leo's Italian Restaurant, the newest incarnation of a business that Frank Leo began as a grocery store in 1922, shortly after arriving from Italy. The Do Drop Inn, on the other hand, is Oelwein's seediest and most eclectic watering hole. Run by Mildred Binstock, the Do Drop, as it's known, is decorated in what Mildred terms "High Amish Kitsch," a smorgasbord of lace doilies, mismatched wooden chairs, and all manner of antique farm equipment washed in the harsh reds and soft greens of year-round Christmas lights.
Heading south on Main Street, back toward Hazleton, you'll find a Dollar General, a Kmart, and a Kum and Go gas station. For the most part, though, things in Oelwein are still owned by the same families that have owned them forever. There is no Starbucks, and there are no plans for one. This is not a town that thrives for fanfare. Luxury is not a word that comes to mind inside either of Oelwein's clothing stores. VG's and Sam's, where wool dominates the fabrics of the men's suits and the ladies' dresses alike. Practical, on the other hand, is a word that applies at nearly every turn. Even the photography studio, despite its large picture window full of high school vanity shots, has a decidedly utilitarian feel, owing in part to the long shadow cast by the wide aluminum awning - a necessary accoutrement in an area of the Midwest that sees three feet of rain and five feet of snow in a normal year. The closest thing to opulence in Oelwein comes in the predictably reserved form of a coffee shop, the Morning Perk. There, members of Oelwein's professional class gather each morning around an antique oak dresser featuring brushed aluminum carafes of both regular and flavored coffee. Next to the carafes, a wicker basket is filled with containers of liquid creamers in hazelnut, amaretto, and cinnamon flavors - this in a state (and a region) where packages of granulated nondairy creamer are de rigueur. Their husbands off to work, the wives of Oelwein's best-known men (the mayor, the high school principal, the police chief, and the Methodist minister) linger on big couches and in stiff-backed chairs to gossip and make collages. Later, it's off to the Kokomo to have their hair and nails done.
How and where you drink your coffee speaks volumes about who you are and what you do in Oelwein. Three doors away from the Morning Perk is the Hub City Bakery, a leaner, more hard-edged sibling of its sophisticate sister. Painted a dirty, aging white, and with a long, family-style folding table covered in a paper tablecloth, Hub City looks less like a cafe and more like the kitchen of a clapboard farmhouse. There is no focaccia, or three-bean soup. In fact, there's not even a menu. Instead, there's a plastic case of doughnuts and a two burner gas stove where the cook and owner fries eggs destined for cold white toast on a paper plate. Not that the old men mind as they linger at the table, layered in various forms of Carhartt: their discussions of corn prices and the relative merits and deficiencies of various herbicides are ongoing, if not interminable. A refined palate is not a prerequisite for entry at what is referred to by regulars as simply "the Bakery," though it helps to be short on appointments and long on opinions. Questioning the cook, like taking your coffee with cream, amounts to something like a breach of etiquette.
Together, the separate constituencies of Oelwein's two cafes give a sense of the pillars on which society in that town is built. Life in a small midwestern town lingers in the bars and passes weekly through the church sanctuaries. But it's rooted in the stores that line Main Street, and on the green and yellow latticework sprawl of the farms that begin just feet from where the pavement ends. The fit is symbiotic, thought not always seamless. Without the revenues generated by the likes of the 480-acre Lein operation - a sheep and corn farm twelve miles north of town - Repeats Consignment Store and Van Denover Jewelry Plus would be hard-pressed to stay in business. As life in the fields and along the sidewalks goes, so goes the life of the town, and along with it, the life of the hospital, the high school, and the local Christmas pageant, for which Oelwein is known throughout at least two counties.
And yet, things are not entirely what they seem. On a sultry May evening, with the Cedar Rapids flight long gone back to Chicago, and temperatures approaching ninety degrees at dusk, pass by the Perk and Hub City on the way into Oelwein's tiny Ninth Ward. Look down at the collapsing sidewalk, or across the vacant lot at a burned-out home. At the Conoco station, just a few blocks south of Sacred Heart, a young man in a trench coat picks through the Dumpster, shaking despite the heat. Here, amid the double-wides of Ninth Ward, among the packs of teenage boys riding, gang-like, on their Huffy bicycles, the economy and culture of Oelwein are more securely tied to a drug than to either of the two industries that have forever sustained the town: farming and small business. This is the part of Oelwein, and of the small-town United States, not visible from the plane window as the flat stretch of the country rolls by. After sundown in the Ninth Ward, the warm, nostalgic light that had bathed the nation beneath a late-afternoon transcontinental flight is gone.
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