Skip to Main Content


Spring 2008: A Man's Life: Real Small Towns

by Jim Heynen
Printer-friendly version | Email this article

Those of us who grew up in a world of real small towns know they are a mixed bag.

First, let’s get some definitions straight. Real small towns are not bedroom communities with folks jumping in cars every morning to commute 40 miles, they are not alternative communities filled with import and pottery stores, and they are not retirement communities with swimming pools and golf courses as far as the weak eye can see. You know for sure that you’re not in a real small town if you can order a triple-shot mint mochachino whipped-cream one-pump chocolate syrup.

Here are other reliable indicators:

1. The billboard at the edge of a real small town has a sign like "Home of 400 friendly people and
one old grump," or, equally telling, a sign like "Home of the 1954 Class C Girls Basketball District Three Regional Championship Runner-up." Sometimes real small towns declare themselves the birthplace of someone famous: "Birthplace of Novelist Mary Lavender Danglebury." The billboard at the edge of a real small town does not try to convince you of the many economic opportunities that are waiting for you inside its little borders. It does not try to get you to move in. In a real small town they don’t capitalize the "R" in "realtor."

2. Look for a restaurant that is not a McDonald’s, Hardees, Dairy Queen, Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell, etc. If you can find a restaurant that is not part of a national chain, still be careful. What is it called? If it’s called "Flo’s" or "Big Jim’s," these are good signs. Even better if Big Jims’ has the apostrophe after the "s." Watch for a restaurant called "EAT." Just because you may see more than one restaurant named "EAT" on a 5,000-mile blue highway trip across America, don’t assume that it’s part of a chain. "EAT" is a mark of authenticity.

Be on guard for restaurants with claims like "Real Home Cooking." The restaurant might be located in a real small town, but when you see that home cooking declaration, look out! If you order hot chocolate in a real small town restaurant, you should be able to see some of the packaged powder on the edge of the cup when it’s served.

3. Look for a motel that is not a Holiday Inn, Best Western, Super 8, Motel 6, Country Inn, or Travelodge. Real small town motels have names like Sleepy Time, Come-on Inn, or Bart-n-Susie’s. You’ll know with absolute certainty that you’re spotting a real small town motel if it declares such amenities as "Showers," "Cozy," "Clean Sheets," or "Safety locks in every room."

Beware of that wolf in sheep’s clothing: friendliness. When residents of a real small town smile at a stranger, they’re just trying to get that stranger to say something to prove their suspicion: "You’re not from around here, are you?"

Real small towns have not been homogenized. They have unique personalities—though not necessarily personalities you’d want to live with your whole life.

Among the small towns where I grew up, Perkins Corner was a mongrel. Nothing like it anywhere. It was half junkyard, and the other half was on its way to the junkyard. It had no paved roads, and some houses had only tar paper siding. If you drove down its dusty streets, you’d be met by some gap-toothed grins that said, "I ain’t got nothin’ and I don’t need nothin’—and that nothin’ includes you."

Rock Valley was our wicked little town. You could swear in public there without some biddy telling you to watch your tongue. Lots of pool halls and a cheap barber.

Sioux Center was the town where my family attended church. More steeples than beer parlors. Too clean for comfort. If Perkins Corner was a mongrel, Sioux Center was a well-groomed Doberman pinscher. It had an arrogant sheen to it that translated into an attitude of moral superiority.

Orange City tried to compete with Sioux Center. Sioux Center had a county fair and Orange City had a tulip festival. For a few days the streets of Orange City would fill with orange faces and orange tulips. Then, psst, it would fade back to its former self, with maybe one eye over its shoulder to make sure Sioux Center hadn’t built a higher church steeple while it had its back turned.

The little town of Hull had its own personality, too. Its center was worn out with businesses that couldn’t make it, while its edges were frayed with a loose string of little houses and streets that didn’t have sidewalks. Hull was like a softball that had gone mushy in the middle while its stitching was letting loose on the outside. It had a desperate sign on the edge of town: "HELP HULL HUM."

I shouldn’t forget Sheldon. Sheldon had a chronic identity crisis, not sure whether it wanted to be known as the place where you could get a good buy on men’s Sunday suits or as the place that had a 15-cent hamburger joint with a relish to die for. Then the town was given a real identity by a female Robin Hood, Mrs. Geiger, who embezzled millions of dollars from the local bank, gave lots of money to charities (as I recall, she bought her church a dandy pipe organ), and sent a bunch of local boys to college. If Sheldon were honest with itself, it would be labeled "Home of Lady Bountiful."

Oh, I loved the fact that people in my small-town world still knew who they were talking to if they dialed a wrong number. I miss the way people would take turns for at least a month in bringing meals to a family that was grieving. I miss the way 10 people would run up to push someone’s stuck car out of a snowbank. I miss the sight of dogs sleeping on the warm asphalt of Main Street. I even miss the noon whistle that told workers it was time for lunch (though we called it "dinner") and woke those sleeping dogs to howl in
harmony with the noon whistle.

I miss the Cat Lady. I miss the three sisters who lived together for 40 years and made a living by wallpapering people’s houses. I miss the old men smoking cigars and telling stories on the bench in front of Doc’s Cafe. I miss the lawn studded with 50 pink flamingos. I miss the annual craft show featuring the most innovative advances in macrame. I miss the fact that if someone saw the town drunk stumbling down the street, nobody called the police; instead, they gave the drunk a ride home and called his sister to tell her what her brother had been up to again.

Today when I’m trapped in stuttering bumper-to-bumper city traffic, I can wax as nostalgic as anyone for those real small towns of sweet eccentricities and distinct personalities, but I haven’t forgotten why I left and don’t plan to return. I know how easy it is to romanticize what I once despised. I might miss the peace, but I don’t miss the pettiness. When I’m honest with my memory, I can recall all too vividly how one vicious gossip could destroy the domestic tranquility of an entire family. I don’t miss the comfy racism of people who never had to face the subjects of their jokes. I don’t miss the scorn that was shown toward any teenager who colored outside the norms of community standards (and, no, I wasn’t one of those scorned teenagers—I sang solos at funerals and weddings and played the church organ!).

I can joke about the bad food, but, believe me, I don’t miss the salads whose main ingredient was whipped cream. I might miss the fact that teenagers all knew each other by name, but I don’t miss the boredom of a Saturday night when the only legal entertainment was the bowling alley. There’s a reason why—even today—if you ask high school students in a real small town where they would like to be 10 years from now, most will answer with some version of, "Anyplace but here!"

Alas, like so many people, I’d like to have it all. A peaceful place that isn’t petty. Friendliness without smothering conformity. In truth, most people, like me, want something more than what real small towns offer—and demand. I want a place that welcomes the misfit and embraces the unfamiliar with open arms. And, yes, I would like a latte and a creme brulee after my cassoulet with that excellent glass of an Oregon pinot.

Oh, dear: Am I sitting in an alternative- or retirement-community restaurant? Or, worse, a big-city restaurant with sirens blaring outside, where it is illegal for the dogs to howl in harmony.

Jim Heynen has published widely as a writer of poems, novels, nonfiction, and short fiction. His stories about
"the boys" have been featured on National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered," and the most recent collection of these stories was named Editors’ Choice for Best Books of 2001 by
The Bloomsbury Review, Newsday, and Booklist. He wrote the text for Sunday Afternoons on the Porch: Reflections of a Small Town in Iowa, published in April by the University of Iowa Press.