As my family’s sensible sedan sped along the first leg of the journey back to Vassar, my cynical sense of humor kicked in. I grabbed the audio input cable and searched through my music collection. Soon enough, my mother and I began singing along to the great Paul Simon: “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.” With each passing chorus, the car carried us farther from our little town of Allegan, Michigan, a locale known for pharmaceutical production, the old iron suspension bridge over the mighty Kalamazoo River and a disproportionately large population of high school seniors who can hardly wait to leave and get on with their “real” lives.
Unlike so many, I appreciate the blip on the map where I spent the first 18 years of my life. I enjoy witnessing the conflict of a town with longstanding historical roots attempting to appeal to a new generation of hipsters with doomed brewpubs and shockingly lucrative outdoor antique markets. I like walking into the local cafe, Mugshots, to find everyone I’ve ever met inside. In December, even Santa Claus stops by to distribute mini candy canes while he enjoys his latte. No department store beats the local thrift store for quality wardrobe updates. The central block of downtown even hosts the brick-and-mortar home of a popular Etsy shop, The Sassy Olive, where all the latest custom-made fabric headbands can be acquired in person. Throughout the main drag, defunct storefronts have been papered over and wintery window decorations put up to make them seem festive.
Alongside the new, the old charm of Allegan remains largely intact. One of my personal favorite historical landmarks of the area is the Old Regent Theatre, an Art Deco era one-screen movie theater. Its multicolored marquee lights up the street every evening and the smell of deliciously fresh popcorn wafts out across the whole block before every show. In the lobby, the original 35mm film projector is displayed in all its restored black-and-chrome glory, while a recently installed digital projector lights up the screen. The theater holds a particular charm for me. I spent many a summer day at the free matinee show in my younger years and many an evening in my teenage years eating too much sugar while watching the latest blockbusters. Although the seats don’t recline and the heater sometimes malfunctions, I would never trade a movie at the Regent for one at the Cineplex.
The public library also holds a special place in my heart. I have always loved the summer reading program, as it allowed me to win fabulous prizes just for doing what I enjoy. When my adolescent desire for spending money kicked in, I applied to the library and worked there for almost four years. I even took my senior photos among the stacks. The building itself has a storied past; it is one of the few remaining Carnegie libraries in the country. Recently, the town voted to pass a tax increase that would allow the library to expand, offering more services to the community while preserving the historical integrity of the building.
However, when expansion occurs, so does failure. On my last day home during break, my brother and I went for coffee and ran some last-minute errands. When we rounded the corner on the way to the pharmacy, we passed a worker cleaning the windows of the corner store as she put up signs advertising an impending liquidation sale. Just a few days earlier, I had gone there to purchase yarn. I found myself pausing on the sidewalk, contemplating the demise of a business older than me.
Having grown up in one place my whole life, I can hardly describe all the ways in which my hometown has influenced my perspective on the world. There is a single gingko tree outside Allegan’s Griswold Auditorium, where my mother worked for many years. I vividly recall marveling at the peculiarly shaped leaves each fall, so much so that I checked out a book on the science of trees from the library. When I finally found the picture of a leaf that matched what I’d observed, the book told me that it belonged to an extinct genus. For many years, I just assumed that meant the tree I could see from my mother’s office window was the last gingko tree in existence. In fact, I believed this until this fall, when the fan-shaped leaves accumulated in piles up and down the streets of Arlington. The trees that line the streets here will always transport me to the lone one in front of the Griswold Auditorium. Allegan may not be a hot tourist destination, yet it is ingrained in me and I will always be a part of its history, no matter how far away my studies or my career take me. While parts of it may die, I can hardly agree with Paul Simon: my little town is very much alive.