Over the years I grew tired of the not always faster Interstate highway route to see family on the west side of Saint Louis. On I-80 around Chicago, the Slinky-style traffic would have me in the driver’s seat shivering and levitating with frustration.Then there’s the lulling boredom of I-55, where one Illinois mile undulates as mildly and blandly as the next.
For part of the journey, I started taking the old-fashioned two-lane highways that my routing software tries to talk me out of. I even worked local roads into my routine. I’d stop for gas on some small town’s Main Street. To stay alert, I’d stretch my legs in a college town. Last week, fully vaccinated at last, I made that journey to Saint Louis for the first time in over a year. But I was rusty about those lesser towns and roads, and south of Lafayette I missed a turn at a lonely t-intersection marked by little more than a stop sign. No big deal, nothing a little backtracking couldn’t fix.
This last year most of us tried to prove to ourselves that we could get by in reduced circumstances. If we were lucky, there were, say, fewer chances to sip coffee with an old friend. But it might have been fewer hours clocked in at work, and maybe it was something worse. In any case, it was narrow. Taking my back roads last week, slowing to pass through little towns that are sometimes not much wider than Main Street, I remembered that they offer a finer grain picture of our Midwest. In certain towns, our fellow citizens have been living in reduced circumstances for longer than one pandemic year. Maybe the storefronts have stores in them, maybe they don’t. Maybe the bricks are crumbling at the cornice, maybe they aren’t. Maybe there’s a life the teenagers can hope to build there, maybe not.
Back here in the city, occasionally someone looking too skinny comes begging at our front door. I won’t sound admirable now, but this begging makes me impatient. When I’m at home, I confess, I don’t feel like acknowledging anything in the wider world. I’ve thought about that, not proudly, and I conclude that this is the deal our country wants many of us to make. The deal goes something like this: Work hard, keep your mouth shut, accumulate your possessions, and you won’t have neighbors in trouble knocking on your door. Except we do.
If we were lucky during the first pandemic year, we only got a taste of living in reduced circumstances. If we were lucky and have a good memory, we’ll treasure that taste for the clue it gives about life in these United States. If we’re not sold on living only and merely private lives, if we believe in community and even country, maybe we’ll get up, get together with others, and make some noise – and not just once. Many of the powerful probably hope not, though. They like our silence, when they can get it.
Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook