Nobody walks anywhere in a small town, except maybe next door or across the street. When I told my mother I was going to walk downtown to buy a belt, she boggled. It took me a good ten minutes to persuade her that I wasn’t kidding, and another five to talk her out of driving downtown to pick me up after I’d made my purchase.
It’s been years since I last took a long walk in Smalltown, U.S.A. Much has changed since then, though mostly only on the surface. I walked across a couple of dusty, weedy vacant lots that once held stores at which I shopped when young, and I saw quite a few buildings that had changed virtually beyond recognition in the thirty-two years since I went off to college. One of them used to be a fire station, the same one I visited on a first-grade field trip. Now it’s a schoolhouse, an Adult Basic Education Center. I wonder if the fire pole is still there.
Yet most of the sights I saw were as familiar-looking as my own name. I strolled by a white water tower with SMALLTOWN painted on the tank in big black letters. I passed half a dozen boxy brick churches whose outdoor signs bore inviting messages (“Where Friends Become Family”). I peered into the show window of Collins Piano, the store where my parents bought me the spinet on which I learned to play, and where I later purchased my very first album of modern classical music, an LP containing Isaac Stern’s performances of the Berg Violin Concerto and the Bartók Rhapsodies. How on earth did it get there? I’ve always wondered.
Not only did most things look the same, but they sounded and smelled the same. I heard the purr of air conditioners and the whine of lawnmowers. I smelled fried onions on the morning air and knew I was a block away from Kirby’s Sandwich Shop. I heard a loud roar far above me, looked up, and saw a twin-engine plane descending from the cloud-filled sky, headed for the Smalltown airport.
At length I arrived at Falkoff’s Men’s Shop, where I’ve been buying clothes for nearly forty years. David Friedman, the proprietor, greeted me with a smile, and smiled even more broadly when I told him that my old belt was two sizes too big for me now. He last saw me six months and forty pounds ago, and he was happy to see how well I looked.
It was two degrees hotter by the time I left for home, but a breeze was blowing, and most of the streets down which I walked were lined with tall, shady trees that made my return trip pleasant. Just as I was crossing Malone Street, I heard a familiar roar, looked up, and saw the same twin-engine plane that had landed a half-hour before climbing back into the sky, this time headed in the opposite direction.
An hour later my mother and I were eating potato soup at Vanessa’s Coffee Shop, the newest restaurant in Smalltown. “I can’t believe you walked all that way,” she told me.
“I needed the exercise,” I told her. “Besides, it was fun.”
“Did you see anyone you knew?”
“Not a soul. Except for two kids dribbling a basketball, I didn’t see anyone else on foot.”
My mother shook her head. “Nobody walks anywhere in Smalltown,” she said.