In thinking about the many Main Streets I have been to here and there across this land, I have set down a few reflections to consider how similar these Main Streets are. In doing so, I am actually surprised at the number of businesses that I can consider as being typically found in the small town of the US of A and that this list may yet grow as I look out my window, walk down my street, or voyage to another street and encounter ……
The Clip Joint
There are usually 1-8 of these places in any given shitty Main Street USA. Hair Stylists name their establishments Krazy Korners Kuts, Snip and Talk, Hair Today Down the Street Tomorrow, Linda’s Unisex Awkward Moments in What Looks Like Her House While Her Kids Play Unsupervised Outside, Tonya’s One Place She Doesn’t Have To Put Up With Your Shit, etc. Barber shops are more the name of some old guy. D’Fanzino’s, Tyrone’s, Armondo’s. Most are barber who 40 years ago was busting through the day and today he is sifting through the local news-rag and writing letters to the editor in long form and never sending them. Occasionally there is another old guy who comes in, or some family guy who is taking his kid to the barber he went to as a kid, even though between Walmart and his wife/husband/left hand he no longer goes there. Black barbers have it better than their white counterparts. The crappier the Main Street, the better the barber will be doing, or at least the fuller the show and the more awkward hours. I am convinced that a “shape up” is code for “man, I got a lot of shit going on, fucking shit, my old lady is not listening, my kids are brats, my friends don’t want to know me…. I need to talk now, and talk to a brother.” These barber shops are always busy, but how much money the proprietor makes is perhaps not as much as the activity is a lifestyle, the sort of lifestyle that farmers have of working all day long and just barely paying the bills.
The Better Call Saul
Whenever the tide rolls out there is always any number of things left behind, rotting and sullied with mud. Things are no different with the ebbing of a small town’s financial tide, and the human equivalent of this tidal detritus is little different in one small town to the next. These individuals, the drunks, the minor drug dealers, the petty layabouts and the registered sex offenders maintain a small town’s economy. They provide cover and incentive for all manner of polite industry from the village police and towne locke up to the many services and agencies provided for the well-being of this indigent and often criminal population. There is a lot of talk about creating villages that are “walkable” and for those with excessive DUI convictions, this feature lost on most Americans is still of intense interest to what is more often than not a middle-aged man on a bicycle who will never be allowed to operate a car again. Depending on whether the court is housed in a particular town means the difference between sleepy rundown abandoned, and sleepy abandoned rundown with Lawyers and Bail Bonds and a vibrant life about the steps, or more likely the ADA complaint entrance that replaced the steps of the courts. The later brings all manner of interesting people, real folk tales to the village to wander what is left of the sidewalks and if it were not for domestic abuse, divorce, and crack, so many students from the bottom ranks from so many tier three law schools would have to work as in-house accountants and back-up writers to NoLo.com articles than hang their shingle and set about sorting out the legal ramifications of this or that family issue or property dispute. In the larger villages, there may even be a bail bonds agent. These institutions are generally found clustered close to larger police departments or in some proximity of the local prison. Bail bonds always class up a street with their colourful neon signs, and zesty naming schemes like “Lock Blocker,” “Free Em’n’Reap” or “Willy Horton’s” and signs with more eagles and American flags than your typical pawn broker and perhaps as many instances of clip art. There has been more than once person who I have known who has noted at the money that can be made off of society’s more dysfunctional ends and certainly it is to the American Main Street that benefits from the parade of sadness and shame that promenades about wearing their best court-appearance clothes and carrying all manner of writs about as they pursue their slip-and-fall case or bail out Johnny who once again was caught taking copper pipes from shuttered houses out on route 32.
The Girl With The Golden Nose Ring
With so many newcomers to our shores, there has in resent times appeared shopes serving communities from so many cultures and parts of the globe here-to-unknown to small town America. As Main Street once served the immigrants from the British Isles and Eastern and Central Europe, today you find small snips of Mexico in the Midwest and outcroppings of Brazil outside of Brewster or Thailand in close to Topeka. Along with the typical football (soccer) sports stores where team names and players you have not heard of are given god-like admiration, Latin American groceries where tropical fruits are cheap and the soda made with real sugar, the Asian specialty foods and spice stores that also sell newspapers in strange fonts and pornographic comic books, you may find on the Main Street a strange shop not so much filled with exotic goods as it is piled with what appears to have been a terrible airplane crash. The theme of the store unknown, the flag unrecognizable to those but the most avid Jeopardy player and signs in an undecipherable language known to but a few devoted anthropologists. Apart with whatever local population the store serves, the only other foot traffic is New York Times reporters intent on finding a good “identity” story about a culture with a long tradition of storytelling, music, and food as if there has ever been a culture that told no stories, listened to no music, and ate only small stones and the poo of certain mule deer… The store has bags of strange dry nuts in various piles. Like the deli, several items of cloth or canned food have dust on them or are arranged in such a way as to be out of reach or in a Jenna-like stack in the back. The store also does not fully claim whatever space it is in. Perhaps the proprietors of Gloombovia or Insula, Jinix or Cheetahland do not intend to remain for long on Main Street or Anytown, USA, or USA since so many items, signs, decor, and fixtures from the previous store or shop remain. The shopkeepers here use fitted sheets to cover the windows. Bonus points if these sheets depict Sponge Bob or Power Rangers. More often than not the only person minding the shop is a child, usually a female child with a cell phone tucked up her headscarf against her face (I really hope these cellphone waves aren’t cooking us) into which she chatters in a series of tones and voices that you cannot know if she is amazed, happy, sad, or held hostage and calling for help far across the world or having been selected to participate in a game show live in some country far away or another time not yet marked on our current time-space continuum and in her language she is exclaiming “By God Dr., it worked!” The shop is overwhelming in its clutter. The most plastic additions to the Albert Hall mixed in with exotic finds of an alternate universe that asks, if Marco Polo was Archie McFee and everything along the silk road is a novelty toy this would be the inventory of that 16th century journey. Strange useless things, phone cards with flags from leftover colours no one wanted and improbable cartoon characters, batteries of suspicious origin that expired in 1982, watch bands from some overstock, again the plastic unbreakable combs as see in the Deli but these are broken. If there indeed are burlap bags of nuts or other unrefined produce hauled in from a farm carved out of rainforest or the tears of baby seals, there is often an elderly woman on top of this pile. She barely moves almost looking like a carved wood object. Only she, it seems, knows how to get the fruit out of these dry and baleful legume pods or husks and to each one she splits open she eats, tossing the husk or whatever is uneatable onto the floor. If she is not doing this, the ancient woman on the bags of Sanka or fried toast is paring her nails, but the sound and activity produce the same impact on the hapless visitor. It is then a truth, that every culture and people produce their own version of the gas-station cum hunting supply store cum clothes store cum soft serve ice cream shop and this store it but a variation of that ethos. As incomprehensible as the language spoken to the American native or the products advertised appear uneatable and the labels clearly hailing from some distant colonial period, the music unlistenable and the spot the proprietors come from unknown on the map even to the most experienced cartographer, the weird ethnic store represents another meager attempt at economic activity and while they won’t take down the Christmas decorations placed there seven years ago when it was Tina’s Hidden Treasures and have barely covered the sign from when the space was a barber shop (this was under Tina’s sign and she took that when the bank foreclosed on her business), it adds some activity and allows you to take visitors to your town on an exotic cultural adventure without leaving that storied Main Street and continues to feed your village with a few residents still somewhat as excited to be there as your distant pioneer ancestors may have been when they were tossed off the boat and landed in Fort Mudge.
Le Dive Bar
No Main Street is complete without at least one dive bar. Now, this dive bar is not of the variety considered by those who live in Gothem, nor any sort found advertised in the larger city’s free newspapers. There are no mixologists, no cute hard-nippled tattooed chicks having brunch and knocking back Bloody Marys, no classic wooden bars augmented by contemporary lighting accents. This is a real fuck your asshole dive bar populated with those sorts of people mummy and dada and in the company of least your progress follows that of the rake and your soul finds its way off the path of righteousness and onto eternal damnation one 99 Bananas shot at a time. Main Street’s dive bar may have been started with the best intentions, far in the distance past may have been a place of some refinement or otherwise a meeting place for many different types. Often these dives had had had had had had had had had had had served food and now outside or rusty crisps and doodles of cheeze, there is no sustenance and all caloric intake must be subsumed via sugar in the Balies or take place when the body turns alcohol into sugars. The selection of liqueurs are the usual range from bottom well to top shelf and differ little from region to region outside of that in certain areas of the flyover the top shelf is limited to vodka, gin, and something really, really, sweet. Wine is unheard of in establishments such as these, ordering wine risks uncovering the cask of Amontillado and finding grapes that have fermented alongside his body within that cask or wine of the best and finest ever tasted as long as that taste was made with your friends at 14 that one sleepover that ohmygod was so crazy….
At the bar is Mr. Liver, Mr. Spleen, and the local drug dealer who calls himself Shadow or Spike, or Spike Shadow or Gordon or Gordy or Spud. Mr. Liver holds on to the bar as if he grew out of it. This is the guy they employ to look up when you enter. In the old days he used to have to say “there’s a stranger in town,” but no longer is he called to do so. Mr. Spleen is holding court at a touch screen game device and arranging ducks or pressing on coins or solving a puzzle of a naked girl. The drug dealer is by the pool table or back and forth in and out of the bar, or otherwise engaged in some routine activity as he fills informal prescriptions of the self-medicated set and depending on what regional market he is serving has uppers, downers, meth, roofies, crank, boom, fudge, horse, goat, pony, crack, crevasse, blow, sniffle. In the bathroom on top of the toilet, if you wipe your finger across the lid you may come up with a good half a line of the local marching powder if you are lucky…. depending on your definition of luck. As with others any respectable dive bar has a jukebox, and this one is no different. Please, drop in a coin and select something from the last twenty years of country music, top 40, or B sides, since that was the last time it was updated. And, mind you, if you don’t pick a play, the soundtrack of this part of your life will be the radio, and not XM or NPR but a station with a rotation of five commercials for every pop song and you will know the number to the local mattress provider forwards and backwards before you are done with your first beer. Speaking of beer, it is here that the local brewers come to supply their local economy with the finest home brews made from farm-fresh ingredients and carefully crafted for taste…. you would think. No matter how deep in the asscrack of farm country this Main Street may be, Master Brewers, craft beer, any talk of hops and aging is left behind in Brooklyn, Portland, or your friend’s garage since the mark of the Main Street dive bar is to offer Miller, PBR, or Cream Ale on tap for 2 bucks a pint with no irony intended at all. A good dive bar is situated in a historic structure of some type, has interesting things of the wall accumulated over decades from stuffed deer heads to photos of how town looked during the turnip harvest in 1958 before everyone vanished into the cornfield or retired to Florida, the bad ones are just bars, places where the door is solid and decorated only with a “MUST BE 21” sign, the windows are painted black or converted from plate glass to small narrow glass blocks one of which is smashed (this is so common I wonder it an artistic conceit), and all decorations are supplied by beer companies, football franchises or footballbeer cross promotional campaigns. Those more basic dive bars usually have more dartboards and TeeVees switched to sports and would be altogether seen as a “sports bar” were to make an actual effort to be something intentional.
The “What if Billy the Bass Talked and No One Was Around to Hear It” Hunting Store
The Fishing/Hunting store or Army Navy is a rare find these days since most Main Streets have just outside of town a Walmart hovering there like some deranged spaceship and beaming up the disposable wealth of the area and teleporting it to Alabama where it is relayed to The People’s Republic of China minus the shareholder’s take and whatever minor percentage was secretly provided to the City Fathers, Village Council or local official in order to grant the Mart of Wal tax exemption for so-a-so many years. In my own town of Fort Mudge the Army Navy store and one of the hunting stores went out of business the first month Walmart opened. The remaining fishing shop is open, but with reduced hours since it has become more the pet project of the retired owner than an actual store in the traditional sense. Again, like the antique store on Main Street, this store comes in either obsessively arranged or as a retail lost weekend. Both have ample cameras, smile you are on camera, and other threats to Billy not to come in and take yet another pen knife. Some of the more interesting hunting shops have Indian arrow heads and old coins, and all have cases filled with knives – the hunting stores often having a special section of Nazi buttons or something. So strange, I have never, ever, ever, seen Nazi buttons or flags for sale in a fishing store, but have found that as standard issue in an Army Navy and less than optional in a hunting store, perhaps the Nazis were not avid enough fishers as they were hunters or something about starting two unwinable wars at the same time and in different directions captures the imagination of the hunter.
The Office of Circumspect Activity
Is it a land surveyor’s office? Do they handle property management? A spy shop? Why are the dirty blinds always down. Wait… there is a piece of paper taped to the window, maybe this is a sign of some sort, hours or operation or some other clue to what goes on in there. No. Sorry, the sun has bleached the paper and while there are traces of dot-matrix or fuzzy edges from ink-jet printing, all negotiable terms have been effaced. The withered half-dead plant in the window points a frond at you. “K… Ki… kill me,” the plant says. Some of these offices are insurance companies, little professional and smart offices that are hold-overs to a richer time in village life, others are work spaces for a professional class that does not quite fit the “Office Space” stereotype as they go to their professional office in the same attire as one may don to go to a Denny’s or costume of any greeter at any Walmart, minus the smock with flare that says “Walmart.” Since parking is in the back, few may use the front door any more and this adds to the sense that the office is there only to barely water the plants in the window and maintain the dirty blinds from being too filthy. On the whole the Office of Unknown Activity unlike the other strange shops that are sprinkled about along with the empty buildings and open lots does not seem to add anything to the landscape or overall experience of the casual visitor. As needed as the accountant office, book keeper, sand bag counting service, mediation service, or other office is to the local economy, it is generally true that these places add a certain je ne se creepy to a casual stroll through the commercial strip.
The Driving School From Welcome Back Cotter
Unlike the Office of Unknown Activity, the Driving School exclaims itself in bold letters, American flags, eagles unfit for the bail bonds services, and any manner of toy cars, since… wait for it… it’s a driving school where you learn to drive a real car. So… Toys.
I still remember my driving school course. The American Driving School ™. The sold proprietor was a man of unknown age, one of those fellows who may be a few years older, perhaps a few decades, or somehow is hundreds of years old and unlike all the films, vampires actually take shitty jobs and lead pointless lives. What was striking about this particular instructor was his enthusiasm. That, and that I am sure he dyed his hair with shoe polish. That and his 1960s huge glasses. That and his 1970s style suit, huge smile across a tan face, gold chain and very large gold rings. At The American Driving School, we were given the same film you had. You know, that film. With the car crashes and situations where that dude with the crazy hair doesn’t check his blind spots before merging into the left lane… Although I saw it on video, you may have seen it on actual film and the Kidsthesedays see it on a digital IMAX with surround sound in a fully restored directors cut, which must suck
since that means that dude’s left merge scene is about 20 minutes longer and involves a lot of jump cuts to this woman making a cake that really, make…. no… sense, even by 1960s standards. Like the creepy office of unknown activity, there is little observable activity unless you staked out the place with a stop motion camera and even then you would observe only the Saturday flash of kiddos being dropped off and picked up from their 5 hour course, and whatever weekday course fills the court mandated hours needed to reeducate the local drunks caught zipping down the median high on paint fumes and 4 Lokos.
The Franchise of The Walking Dead
As with any Main Street America, camped outside of town is the New American Landscape. That place Mr. James Howard Kunster refers to at the Geography of Nowhere. The mall, or strip mall that took so much away from the Main Street is also dying, giving in to the pressures of TarWalKmartget and the market forces where size matters. Here and there an encroachment onto Main Street from one of the better known brands makes its way in to what had been the center of the village. Sometimes this means that a section of village has been leveled and returned to its natural state of suburban bliss and a drive through window and those goddamn shrubs that are everywhere now have replaced Beaux Art edifices and the halls of the corn exchange. Often the franchise crawls into a building and replaces the first floor with a reproduction of its strip mall cousins and while the upper floors may be festering and rotting heaps, the loud colours and familiar signage coat the exterior welcoming you to sate your desires for about 1-5 dollars the same way a can of sprayfoam would also be filling. The franchise is typically a Subway. That or a Dunken Doughnuts. That or a SubDouNutKenTacoHut amalgamation of every chicken and doughnut fantasy ever deep fried in the imagination of the most perverse connoisseur or heretical relapsed fatty fresh off the Weight Watchers wagon and served up with way too many bits of packaging considering most often the materials served – I cannot call it “food” – are consumed right away, often three to five feet from the doorway where the greatest amount of litter occurs, the remainder stuffed artfully into the flower pots put out by the store owners or the local gardening club as it desperately attempts to beautify the village. The franchise adds a familiar point on the landscape and in the case of offering a constant supply of coffee, the Dunken Doughnuts is the sole place to get mildly drinkable coffee since the coffee roaster refuses to be open on weekends due to the lack of foot traffic and that some weekender flushed a baby diaper down his toilet and put it out of commission for several weeks while he saved up money for a plumber. True story bro.
The “I Drove All Night” Parts Store
While we transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based corn-syrup-fed plastic and twerking economy there are still pockets of the old industrial economy, at least when it comes to repairing cars. In my own village there is a tyre service housed in the old railway station and a repair shop right on Main Street in a garage next to what had been the pool hall both retaining their vintage signage. The car parts delivery truck still goes about delivering the needed parts, picking them up because they were the wrong parts, delivering new parts, and picking up those parts because they were defective and then returning, several days or weeks later depending on the tides and the variances of a supply chain that reaches over to Mexico, via The People’s Republic of China, with the correct and working parts to be installed in your falling apart car or truck. The car parts store is often on the historical edges of town and today is right between where the old town meets the new Geography of Nowhere, or as I call it, the Anytown USA considering that I have been to many Anytown USAs across the country, or perhaps I have only been to one, since they have the exact same offerings, configurations, and familiar signs as to create a new sort of space, that background of older cartoons that repeated again and again as the cat chased the mouse, since this was before we taught the Koreans to animate South Park and give us cheep and plentiful toonage. As those older backgrounds, I chase after a cinnabon and find it wherever I go, no matter what direction I go in.
The Pizza Place That Has Been There A Million Years
Every Main Street has one. The one in my village just had a fire. Gutted the space, which needed renovation anyway… seems a coffee pot exploded…. considering the place was well-worn, perhaps this will turn out to be a blessing… I mean, the place needed an expensive upgrade and I am sure insurance will cover it…. Not that I’m saying nuthin’ ’bout no one…. Anyway, since the place had been there a million years, it seems they are soon to return and are rebuilding as I write, and the regulars such as myself await their return, great crust, fast perpetration, and fantastic Italian soups. Like all anteincendium pizza shops, they had a screen door that slammed too hard, red and green tiles that had come up in places, a newer beverage fridge in front of the older non-working one, a smattering of neon most of which does not work but if it did it too would be red and green, and a general well-worn quality. The place is always busy. People sitting in the seats having pasta. People waiting for pick up. People leaving with stacks of pies, perhaps a delivery or two going out as some teen clearly baked out of his mind picks up a few boxes and rushes out the door to his half-assed car with the foggy windows. If another pizza shop opens up, those fellows won’t have any impact on the Pizza Place That Has Been There a Million Years. If anything, their establishment will stand empty, a testament to how ingrained the pizza of the established shope has become within the community and how hard it is to program a modern cell phone with a new number. That and the other pizza shop closed down since the guy running it went into rehab. It was a place his father opened up for his son, thinking it would straighten him out…. then it reopened, but abruptly closed after the kid was arrested on drug charges. Seems to have reopened “under new management” but who knows what’s going on there. Right now, until the old place gets back on line… it’s all we got.