Open Arms, Open Minds
For the sake of those involved, I will say only this: my moral, ethical, and, if not spiritual, let's say existential coming-of-age took place in a more or less rectangular-shaped state in the Midwest--closer to the West Coast than the east by maybe one hundred miles, closer to Canada than Mexico by maybe one hundred--in a town populated by approximately ninety thousand government employees, farmers, academics, insurance salesmen, assembly-line workers, antique dealers, real estate agents, rape crisis counselors, certified massage therapists, girls volleyball coaches, and a whole lot of other people who, as they would tell it, just wanted to live in a peaceful place where movies cost six dollars and the children's zoo was free, and where library fines, even if you kept the book for a year, even if you dropped the book in the bathtub and returned it looking like it had been rescued by search divers, were rarely known to exceed five dollars. The state, dogged neither by oppressive Pentecostal leanings nor a preponderance of Teva-shod rafting guide types, was neither in the Bible Belt nor the Rocky Mountains. It had few lakes, only a handful of rivers, and none of the kind of topography that might attract Japanese tourists or inspire bumper stickers of the this car climbed variety.
There was very little to climb on this terrain. It was flat and treeless and cliffless. Even so, Prairie City had made the most of itself. It housed a state college, a public television station, and an independent movie theater that had screened The Last Temptation of Christ when the commercial cinemas had dropped the film because of picketers, most of whom were a small but vocal group of Seventh-day Adventists and a few of whom were Lutherans looking for a diversion. Generally speaking, though, all points of view were welcome. For years, Prairie City's welcome sign had read a great place to live until, under an initiative to promote diversity, the city council voted to change the motto to open arms, open minds. It was a fitting kickoff to the other placards in town. For every billboard reminding passing drivers that during an abortion, something dies inside there was another encouraging HIV testing, pet spay and neutering, or two-dollar mai tais at the Thirteenth Street TGI Friday's, which, though not all citizens realized it, was a major hangout for the community's sizable gay and lesbian population. For seven years running, the town had ranked in the top twenty in U.S. News & World Report's Most Livable Cities. In addition to its low rate of violent crime, good public school system, and four meticulously maintained municipal pools, Prairie City had the good fortune to have been hit by only six tornadoes during the entire period of the Clinton administration, just three of which killed anybody, all in trailer parks.
In Prairie City, trailer parks rubbed right up against elementary schools, public playgrounds, and houses of worship. Train tracks crisscrossed the city like lattice work, leaving little room for right sides or wrong sides. At Effie's Tavern on Highway 36, assembly-line workers from the Firestone tire plant gathered after their shifts and downed Leinenkugels alongside insurance agents in short-sleeved dress shirts and choir directors in Birkenstocks and attorneys and social service case workers and even local politicians, most of whom got off work at 3:30 on Friday afternoons and began drinking around 3:54. Prairie City was a good-hearted place, not so much in the sense that moral aberrations never occurred but more in that when something did go wrong-a paleontology professor got caught downloading child pornography from the Web, an elected official was discovered freebasing coke in the public restroom behind the band shell--community head shaking took the form of bemusement rather than scorn. Everyone understood that everyone screwed up once in a while. What mattered was that you showed some class about it. What mattered was that you still helped your neighbor build his back deck. You still sat on the symphony board or at least volunteered to pick trash off the median of Highway 36 once a year. You accepted both your co-worker's gender reassignment surgery and the possibility that, during any given summer, golf-ball-sized hail could give your dog a concussion.
From The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum. Copyright Meghan Daum 2003. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher Viking Press.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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