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midnight girl in a sunset town

May 17, 2010

I talk a lot of shit about my hometown, and most of it is deserved. But I will say this for it, and for small towns in general: they’re good places to come from.

On Saturday I went to a Basque restaurant in Los Banos. We didn’t arrive in the valley until the evening, and so we missed the worst of the heat. By the time we got out of the car, as the sun was starting to set, the air had reached that perfect temperature that coastal folks sometimes forget about. As much as I hated the weather in Davis, I absolutely loved not needing to carry a sweater when I went out at night. There is nothing that says “summer” quite like a warm evening with a light breeze. Already slightly boozy and pleased by a day in the sun, I was ready to continue feeling boozy and pleasant—even nostalgic—before we even got inside.

We were ahead of the rest of our party, and so we retired to the bar. Sitting at that bar was like stepping back in time. Not to some fictional past of small-town America, but into my own past. This bar had not been redecorated in at least 30 years (tan vinyl bar stools, oh yeah!). The TV was new, but the color was off, and it was showing Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, the kind of timeless shows you watch with your grandparents. In fact, everything there brought up memories of summers with my grandparents, since this was the kind of unpretentious small town bar that my grandpa would have been comfortable in: animal heads on the wall, old people playing cards at the tables, families heading back to the dining room, old men in cowboy hats and fancy belts, community notices and family photos on the bar wall (“We serve Lions!”).* The dining room itself reminded me of nothing so much as a church hall. It was, in fact, very much like the Elks Lodge in Mt. Shasta, where my grandparents dined once every couple of weeks (and where I used to sit in the bar with my grandpa and order Shirley Temples).

Sucking down Coronas and watching the people come and go and talk to each other, I was struck by how comfortable the place felt. What would it be like, I thought, to be a part of this community? For a moment, that restaurant represented everything that is good about small towns, the simplicity and sense of community and lack of pretension.

This is what I mean about small towns being good places to be from. They can be narrow and limiting and confining, both in attitude and in more tangible ways. And when I was a teenager, I felt all of those limits. But at the same time, I felt like I had a place there. I was obviously different from many of the people around me, but I was still a part of the community. I knew people, and they knew me. I understood the rhythm and flow of the town. If you can break into a small town community (or be born into it), it’s much easier to master than an urban one.

I’m not trying to mythologize small towns. There are reasons I live in a city (public transit, economic opportunity, late night take out). And I know myself well enough to know that living in a small town on a permanent basis would probably drive me stir crazy. But I do enjoy visiting them now and again. Short visits allow me to fondly revisit the best parts of my childhood, while also allowing me to conveniently ignore the harsher realities of small town life.

Also, the food was great, and within walking distance to a couple of bars. If ever you’re in Los Banos, please stop by the Woolgrowers’ Rest.

*fun fact: some people are suckers for babies, but I’m a sucker for old men in cowboy hats.

related: where I’m from.

oh yeah, the title, in case you’re wondering:

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