Small Town Dying

By:  Karl Stern (@dragonkingkarl, @wiwcool, karl@whenitwascool.com)

I was eight years old running with a dime in my hand, into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man.  I'd sit on his lap, in that big ole' Buick and steer as we go through the town.  He'd tousle my hair and say son take a good look around.This is your hometown. - Bruce Springsteen

I was blessed to come from small town America.  To grow up in the 1970's in a rural area where everybody knew everyone.  There was no Walmart.  No McDonald's.  No mall.  We went to mom and pop stores like Elmore's and ate at places like the Dairy Freeze.

I'd ride with my Grandpa to get groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly or Big Star.  Then he might take me by the downtown diner to get a milk shake or a burger.  The burger I ate didn't have a big or whopping name.  It wasn't super-sized or mega-sized.  It was a hamburger and it was good.

 This is the actual truck i used to ride to town with my grand-pa in.  i still own it.  it still runs.

This is the actual truck i used to ride to town with my grand-pa in.  i still own it.  it still runs.

My mom bought my first tie and dress shirt at Elmore's.  My dad bought me a Batman and Robin Mego at the TG&Y.  My dad often bought me breakfast at the T&J Diner after he would stock their cooler with milk off his milk truck.

Everybody called everyone else by their first name or a nickname.  My dad would often answer our non-caller ID rotary phone and proclaim, "Ivan!"  The person on the other end wasn't named Ivan.  That was his nickname.  I've known many "Slims", "Juniors", and "Pops" in my life.  I am 100% serious when I say that I have a set of Great uncles that I never knew their names other than "Dude", "Snook", and "Guy". 

There was a charm and an innocence about that time.  I know the world was just as ridiculous then as it is now no matter what people may say otherwise.  It was only a few years earlier that anybody not white had to eat somewhere else.  Vietnam was only just ending and most of the adults I knew had been there.  I am not oblivious to the obvious and inexcusable social injustices of that time.

 TG&Y was the greatest store in the history of stores.

TG&Y was the greatest store in the history of stores.

In the downtown streets you could go door to door and get everything you needed.  From where I am sitting right now I can see Main Street and I remember a pool hall, an insurance company, the power company, the library, the theater, the department store, the clothing store, another department store, an Army surplus store, a boot and shoe store, and a hardware store.  Now it's mostly vacant buildings, shuttered up and the memories of that time are only ghosts now.

Elmore's is a pile of rubble, torn down after sitting vacant for decades.  Walmart came to town.

Many of the buildings are gone or long since written off as a place to do business.  The diner burned down many years ago.  A tornado took out the pool hall almost two decades ago.

Once upon a time the Governor rode in a parade down that same street.  I once watched Santa Claus himself parachute out of an airplane into the downtown plaza.  I remember on that very day my mom and dad gave me a sweet set of Hot Wheels muscle cars.  That was a good day.

 The textile Mill had been vacant for decades when it finally burned down too.  These jobs are goin' boys and they ain't coming back...

The textile Mill had been vacant for decades when it finally burned down too.  These jobs are goin' boys and they ain't coming back...

I bought my first G.I. Joe action figure in the Sparko department store.  That too burned down.  The grocery store that my Grandpa always shopped in has been vacant for more years than I can remember.  Walmart came to that town too.

Here it is, Christmas season again, and as I stand in a clinical and sterile big chain retailer in a mall fifty miles away from home, I look around at the giant posters of fake people smiling fake smiles trying to sell me brands of clothing imported from parts unknown, I can hardly help myself.  I can hardly help myself from thinking about the day my Grandpa bought me a comic book off the spinner rack at the Hometown Pharmacy.  I think he called the Pharmacist "Rex"... I don't think his name was Rex.  That was a good day.

I drive back home now through town after town of boarded up shops and vacant buildings wondering where has everything gone?  What has happened to us?  Yes, Dollar General's abound in every tiny town across the forested hills of north Alabama and if you simply need some cheap cough syrup I suppose you can get it there.  I can now go through the drive-thru at my local McDonald's but the burgers aren't anything like the ones my Grandpa used to get me.  It seems like I go to town two or three times a day now.  When I was a kid we went once a week.

People in the big towns can say what they will about the small ones but there is a loss of something as the small towns wither away.  Heart perhaps.  But as the big highways pass us by and the high school graduates leave town, seldom to return, I can't help but feel that something important is dying with it.

Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores.  Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more.  They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks.  Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back... to your hometown. - Bruce Springsteen

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