I met an old friend for lunch Monday in Toluca, about halfway between Ottawa and Peoria. The Italian restaurants we hoped to eat at, either Mona’s or Capponi’s, were closed. We might have known but neither of us checked. As a result, we ended up at a tavern. Funny how that happens. I joke with people that even though I’m retired I stay busy which “keeps me out of the taverns.” Yet there I was.
We both had the ultimate burger which in addition to a big ground beef patty included ham, cheese, bacon and a fried egg. It may have been their ultimate burger, but it was not “the” ultimate burger, if you know what I mean. But it was good, as was the beer. Better yet was the conversation.
We talked about child welfare, which created our friendship, but soon we were discussing our own lives, neither of which are now wrapped up in work. It reminded me that we have more in common than we know, all of us, but we fail to realize our commonality because we guard our private thoughts, our persistent concerns, our fears, our shortcomings, as well as our gladness. When we are able to shine even a little light on them, giving those close to us just a peek at what we hold so closely, we find we share like thoughts. My friend and I found some of that commonality there, in the uncommonly bright light illuminating an old small town tavern over the noon hour. There was a time, because of our relationship as working peers, that we would never have risked anything so personal. Retirement changes that. Count it as one of the benefits; a new opportunity to be your real self rather than who others expect you to be. Retirement is not just tapping a pension or social security. It’s finding a new kind of freedom.
On the way home I took the slow route of two laners, blacktops and hard roads, rather than the faster interstate. The sky was bright and blue. In the flatness of the fields combines were working, harvesting the stubby stalks of seed corn plants. Those fields go first. The soybeans and regular corn won’t be far behind. If the coming of fall hasn’t hit you yet drive out into the country. The color of the corn, only an occasional splash of green now, yellows and browns dominating, will make fall real for you. Soon those fields will be empty, and winter will set in. It goes so fast. I went through Wenona on Route 17 before skirting Streator and heading North on the Kangley blacktop, through the town which bears its name, cutting over to Route 23 on an East/West road somewhere out there, and entering Ottawa from its South Side. It was good to be back on the blacktops.
I came from a little town, on a farm outside it actually, like those I passed through, so I like to see how they’re doing. Off the highway, with no reason to go there unless its home or the home of someone you love, those little towns are for me a sort of a barometer of life as I used to know it. I’m glad to report they’re doing OK. There’s still a hardware store in Toluca. You can get a fairly good deal on a push power mower there, parked outside the door on the empty sidewalk. Wenona has four new street lights on its single business block and has filled its empty store fronts with that common retail place holder, the antique store. In Kangley they put down fresh gravel in the parking lot of the tavern that serves the great prime rib on Saturdays. In each town the buildings are virtually all painted or sided. The lawns are mowed, there are few if any ramshackle properties, and small town life seems alive and well. Could the recession have been kind to small towns?
Because small town life is not for everyone, it may not be for you. You can buy a house for a lot less money than in the city, and pay less property taxes, but don’t move out there without a dependable vehicle. Part of what you save on shelter you will spend on transportation. When the price of gas goes up it hurts small towners a lot. Many drive twenty miles or more to a supermarket. And then you have to drive back. Food deserts were first born in small town America when the independent grocers closed up shop. That was forty years ago in my little town of Danvers.
Yes, it is hard to get a latte out there. Casey’s General Store is the rural version of Starbucks/Seven Eleven/the bodega on the corner rolled up into one, with gas pumps. Often it’s the only thing open. You won’t be finding a gluten free croissant and a tall skinny pumpkin spice cappuccino at Casey’s. More like machine brewed regular or decaf and a glazed donut. If you’re lucky you might come upon something exotic like French Roast with hazelnut flavored creamer that doesn’t need to be refrigerated (do you find that creepy?), and a crème filled long john with chocolate icing. And you can get a slice of pizza, the pepperoni and cheese glistening with grease under the warming light, anytime of the night or day. When you live in a small town you get used to being at home and staying there. You’ll get to know your neighbors and you’ll find some that will do anything for you. However, everybody will know your business. In some of those small towns on flat ground, if you stand in the right place, or get into a tall building (if there is one) you can see all the way through town to the cornfields on the other side. In the winter you are never far from the big quiet empty which makes up most of rural Illinois and is always waiting for you. If you don’t’ like it don’t go there. I find it calm and peaceful.
I drank in all that comforting small town and big empty feeling as I took my time driving home. I’m trying to slow down. Being late, which assumes the need to be somewhere more or less at an appointed time, I drove fast for most of my past thirty five years, all the years I seriously worked, and took the quickest possible routes. Before cell phones, although I appreciated the privacy of driving, time in the car seemed wasted. I minimized it by going as fast as possible. I stayed in the office getting things done until the last moment and rushed to my car to speed to wherever I needed to be next. It saved time. Plus walking into a meeting on time or late allows you to avoid the obligatory small talk and chit chat that happens before the agenda takes hold. Not that there’s anything wrong with small talk and chit chat…. All right, yeah, I hate small talk and chit chat.
The other day as I approached a four way stop the car to my right sped up, almost stopped well before the intersection, and having applied the brakes before I did, plunged through the intersection before me although I had gotten to the stop sign first. I used to do that every chance I got. What did it gain me, five seconds? I also camped out in the left lane of the interstate ten miles over the speed limit and railed at slow drivers, flashing my headlights at them and passing them on the right if they refused to change lanes. It’s hard to look around when you do that. Makes it difficult if not impossible to appreciate the trip. Before I got serious about accomplishing something by working at a job; when I was travelling, hitchhiking and riding busses, I realized the value of going slow and taking in the view. But I forgot. I got busy. Now I’m trying to remember how it feels not to be.
And that ladies and gentlemen, that little road trip to Toluca and back, was the highlight of my week.