Small towns, Big City


‘Where I’m from is a lot like where I am’

Ah, hiking in the Catskills. A great way to get away from the City over Columbus Day Weekend. Also a great way to set the mind to wandering (along with the feet) and think about random stuff like why people like me and my friend Phyllis (both from teensy towns) tend to feel well, at home, here in Big Ole New York. If you feel one of my theories coming on, you would be right.

Get ready for my ‘New York is Really a Bunch of Small Towns Smooshed Together’ theory.

First, a bit about my home town. Which is Carlyle, Illinois. That is a recent (you can tell by the cars, if nothing else) picture of it at the top of this post. Carlyle is smack dab in the middle of Southern Illinois — nope, not anywhere near Chicago. ‘Our’ Big City (where you’d go for baseball games, the zoo, or to buy your wedding dress) was St. Louis. Which was about 50 miles due west of us.

Quick note: if you ask someone from Chicago where they are from, they will say ‘Chicago’; if you ask me the same question and I say ‘Illinois’, it means I am not from Chicago. Otherwise, trust me, I would say so.

Okay. Back to Carlyle. If you’d like to delve into the town and its demographics (including, interestingly enough, the number of sex offenders who live there), you can read more about Carlyle here. But, basically, it had around 2900 people when I was growing up there. Not many more now, I would imagine, even if you do count the sex offenders.

Oh — back to that picture at the top — Carlyle looked remarkably the same then. That street you see (view taken from the Courthouse, I’m guessing) had the Bank (red-brick building on the left), the Western Auto Store (with that marvelous hardware-store smell), the Will-Mary Shoppe (‘good’ clothes for special occasions like Lutheran Confirmation), the Ben-Franklin Store (the ‘dimestore’, run by a really mean guy who, I guess, thought we were all filching penny candy and was where we’d buy Christmas gifts — ‘Evening in Paris’ for my mom). Oh, the street also had a bunch of taverns as well as the newspaper office. And so on and so forth.

Now I don’t happen to have a photo of my current street here in New York. But, within a two or three block radius, I have my grocery store, my locksmith, my dry cleaner, my fruit stand, my Pizza Place, and my Shoe Guy. If you don’t happen to live in New York City like me, I’m here to tell you that these are all essential components of daily life. Trust me: everybody who lives in New York City has ‘their’ grocery store, locksmith, dry cleaner, fruit stand, Pizza Place, and Shoe Guy.

Which is where the Small Towns Smooshed Together Theory comes in. Every few blocks, the pattern of essential services repeats. There is another whole set of groceries and cleaners and Shoe Guys that serve the next neighborhood. Example: ‘My’ Food Emporium is one block away. There is another perfectly-good Food Emporium two blocks away. Guess how many times I’ve been there? If you said ‘never’, you would be right. It’s not in my neighborhood.

The other reason I don’t go to that other Food Emporium? They don’t know me there. Which is the other small-towny thing. The people in these shops all get to know you. If you are friendly (like me), they will engage in conversation. Maybe not long, involved conversation (it is New York, after all), but a chat is often on offer to those so inclined. Even Crabby Locals get ‘known’ in the nabe. Probably better known than the Nice People, even.

And it’s not just in the shops and such that people get to know you in your New York Small Town. Just try to pop out to mail a letter or refill your MetroCard without Meeting Someone You Know. You’d better dab on some lipstick, at least. Because it is simply not possible.

So, here you are. You’ve escaped Southern Illinois. Or, in Phyllis’ case, West Virginia. But you’re still nodding and smiling, passing the time of day with the dog-walker, the locksmith, and Fruit Man. I even have ‘my’ Panhandler. You feel warm, you feel fuzzy, you feel comfortable. Even in this City of, like, a zillion people. Because you live in your own ‘Small Town’.

There is one Big Difference, though, between living in Small-Town New York City and living in a Real Small Town. And here it is. No one (at least no one I’ve run into in 30 years of living here, thank god) in New York does this small-town thing called ‘dropping in’.

‘Dropping in’ is a neighborly custom in places like Carlyle, where people actually ‘drop in’ to visit  (‘stop by’ is also used occasionally) — without calling, without texting, without any warning at all (!) Here’s another view of the main drag, to set the tone, so to speak:

Main drag, Carlyle. Looking east toward houses where people drop in (about where those trees are)

And here’s an actual example of ‘dropping in’, from one of my last visits to Carlyle when my parents were still living at 631 Livingston Street.

Setting: My parents’ screened-in porch.

Mom and I are sipping coffee and chatting. A car pulls up. Two women get out and approach us.

Older One: ‘Good morning, Myrna!’ 

Younger One: ‘Why, hello, Alice!’

They sit, they accept a cup of coffee, they chat. After a while, they leave.

I turn to my mother and ask, ‘Who was that?’

She replies, ‘I’m not sure’.

So much for ‘dropping in’. Please, if you live in New York, promise you won’t adopt this custom. At least not with me.

So that’s the Small Towns Smooshed Together Theory. If you’d like more colorful tales of my town, there’s some good stuff in this post. If you’d like to learn more about my other theories, please do check out my Food Theory of Books. In future, I’m planning to expound about my Cost-per-Wearing (CPW) Theory of Smart Dressing as well as my Stay-Out-of-the-Way Theory of Smart Child Raising. Stay tuned. I’m sure your excitement knows no bounds.

New York City. October 2014

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22 thoughts on “Small towns, Big City

  1. Hi! 2900 population is a small town, I can imagine everybody knew everybody and their business!
    I grew up in a small town too, although 3 times as big as yours, but I spent nearly all my adult life in a large town with hundreds of thousands of folks. Essentially a city in all but name. But I still found my people there, my like-minded folk, my community. I think as long as you find that, then you have a home ? sweet post, I enjoyed reading!

  2. Ha yes “dropping in” is such a small town thing. I’m always amazed when I visit my parents back in my small hometown how people are always just turning up at their door *shudders* I couldn’t think of anything worse.

  3. drallisonbrown

    2,900? Good Lord! The first high school I worked in had 2900 students! Your story reminded me of living outside of Boston, where every little town had a pizza place…Braintree House of Pizza, Weymouth House of Pizza….you get the idea. That’s literally how I knew I had entered into the next town.

  4. Norma Gerrish

    Love the post. Since I’m still a “small town gal” having returned to southern Illinois (moving back to God’s country from Naperville a.k.a. Chicagoland after 20 years in the big town) I would love for you to “drop in” or “stop by” any day of the week! …in fact, drop by and stay awhile!

    • Why, thank you Norma! For the comment, and for the invitation. That goes both ways, BTW. It would be fab for you to drop in and see me in my small-town big-city nabe! xo

  5. Lyle Delp

    Something else I’m guessing you won’t see in NYC:

    First time Patti visited Carlyle with me, we borrowed Dad’s Lincoln and drove around town. As we met oncoming cars, most drivers would lift an index finger off the steering wheel.

    Patti asked what they were doing, and I filled her in.

    “They’re waving”, I said.

    She replied “but they don’t know you”.

    They were waving at the car.

  6. Enjoyed this a lot Alice. Coming from Carlyle (and having spent a lot of time in NYC) this is spot on. And the pics were great. I think the second one of Main is looking east toward the courthouse square…but not sure. Keep up the good work!

  7. Love this, Alice. The comment about Chicago/Illinois reminds me of kids going to Harvard. It’s the reverse strategy, right? Ask a college kid where she goes to school and if she says “in Boston” you can be sure she owns stuff with H on it.

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