People generally come in one of two varieties – those who stay in their hometown (whether a depressing little steel-mill burg or a palm tree-punctuated paradise), and those who leave it. I’m a leaver. So are most of my friends. Some places seem harder to extract oneself from than others – I guess when you’ve got nothing to look forward to but a career in checkout at Wal-Mart or the sterility of a vast suburb filled with faux-Spanish Revival McMansions, it’s a no-brainer. In other cases, it’s not so simple.
I’ve been in love with two small-town men now and let me tell you, if I was suspicious of small towns before, I’m now positively paranoid. Both (the towns, not the men) had striking similarities – a verdant greenness bordering on the obscene, a plethora of pastoral fields, and a veneer of bucolic serenity thinly veiling a rabid insularity and a drinking culture that would make Amy Winehouse and Brendan Behan look like teetotaling Mouseketeers.
In my ex-husband’s small Irish border village there were two tiny convenience marts, a post office, a library, one daily bus into and out of town, and five bars. And not one ATM. Getting a job in a local factory was considered an enviable gig and the proportion of out-of-wedlock infants born to teen parents was inversely proportional to the number of college degrees earned by the town’s kids (to my knowledge: zero). There was an uncomfortable element of schadenfreude to the failures of one’s peers (for example, my ex having gone off to America and come back with little to show for it) and the hangover of the historical Irish suspicion of success and concepts of ‘gettin’ notions’ served to keep any inappropriate ambition in check. Expectations, in short, were low, and time passed with that syrupy rural slowness in which the long summer days bleed into one another in a way others might find peaceful but I find numbing.
In my most recent boyfriend’s (‘Tree Guy’) West Marin town, a glittering jewel on the the tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula, there is one bar, and it is all that matters. Other than the town’s notorious insularity and locals only ethos (‘our beach, our waves, our girls, go home!’), it is its singular calling card and the hub around which all spokes rotate, and has been so since 1851 (it’s also got the only ATM for miles – heh – tell me that isn’t strategic marketing). The topsy-turvy little hamlet is the kind of place that makes it difficult for some to know which way is up, its gestalt a heady brew of spectacular natural beauty, 60s counterculture radicalism, redneck isolationism, straight-up self-indulgent hedonism, and a moral slipperiness that seems to breed adults in an arrested state of adolescence.
The first time Tree Guy took me to hang out there, I was keenly reminded of my misspent youth in San Diego, afternoons and nights on the beach, at house parties and nightclubs, in parks and parking lots; drinking, dressing up, being seen. Back then there was just as much mischief and mayhem and dysfunction going on as anywhere else, and a lot of that same ‘locals only’ vibe, but the difference, and I recognize this only now, was this sense that we were all going somewhere. Maybe we didn’t know where, exactly, but the forward trajectory was palpable. It wasn’t so much a ‘goal-oriented’ mindset as it was some sort of expectation out of life, the sense of putting one foot in front of another, being open to possibilities, and keeping it moving.
This same sense of motion feels largely absent in Tree Guy’s hometown, with the requisite exceptions. The town’s progeny tend, true to form, to be disproportionately divided amongst two groups: those who venture over the mountain and keep roaming, and those who either never leave or boomerang back and are suspended, like amber, inside the prism of their history. It seems this place produces either exceptional high achievers or stunning underachievers, boasting more than it’s fair share of legal troubles and substance abuse woes.
On the one hand it seems a lawyer-heavy town, producing soy-eating kids who grow up to score their JDs before 30, which for such a lawless place is pretty interesting, don’t ya think? Tree Guy once commented that very few of the girls get out, but the ones who manage it tend to do extremely well for themselves, which I find true across most subcultures – the females who do rise above do it with a vengeance. There also seems to be a healthy crop of musicians, artists, and DJs whose work is, and I mean this sincerely, really good.
On the other hand, there is the dark side of those who don’t make it out, whether literally or metaphorically, who cling to their town tribalism as fiercely as they do the bottle, only growing older and more fossilized in the nautilus shell of their pathology, days and months and years disappearing beneath the fog and eucalyptus groves. There’s a heavy incidence of alcoholism (as is probably true of many small towns), yet an attempt at sobriety is met with, on rare occasions, awe and admiration or, more ordinarily, derision – as though it were an indication of a lack of (rather than evidence of) character or, worst of all, a compromised masculinity – which is nothing short of criminal, in my very unsolicited opinion. The bitter aftertaste of that Irish ‘gettin’ notions’ and ‘not knowin’ yerself’ rises in my throat when I witness this betrayal and the pressure to remain complacent, stagnant, to just drink a beer and pretend everything’s OK while the years flow by like the tide and lives fall apart in spectacular fashion.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty about both places that I deeply appreciate, and I met some priceless people that I have a sincere fondness for, but for me there is a genuine terror of the way consciousness and evolution are held hostage by complacency and how time passes like molasses, the narcotic torpor of summer days on the boozy beach giving way to winter mornings beneath the dripping canopy in an endless, hypnotic, poisonous cycle, all ticking by and melting into the same narcoleptic river of time, day in and day out, everyone asleep in the poppy fields, dreaming without waking.