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Born in a small town (well, not exactly) - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Born in a small town (well, not exactly)
Well, my alter-ego, miss_w, got into the Howard Dean speech, bringing up some regional issues between north and south, and that led naturally enough into thinking about the other regional issue, the small town/rural area and the cities.

I was born in a city and I live in a city, but from the time I was six until I was eighteen, I grew up in a small town. Checking the 2000 census, it's actually shrunk in the years since I left, going from around 4,200 to, according to the census, 3,945. 40.3% of women and 43.5% of men have only a high school education. Only 15% of women and 11.2% of men have a bachelor's degree or higher, and no one reported having a doctorate. You may notice that those don't add up to 100%--there are a lot of people in town who don't even have a high school diploma. 5.2% of men and 3.2% of women report less than a fifth grade education. And this is in the "25 years and over" category.

More numbers, the town is 97.4% (3,875 people) white (or combination including white), 0.9% (34 people) African American (or combination), 0.7% (26 people) Native American (or combination), 0.5% Asian (or combination), 0.1% Hawaiian (2 people). Other races (25 people) make up 0.6%.

12.6% of families with children are under the poverty line. 23.7% receive SSI or public assistance. 26.2% of female headed households are under the poverty level, with 46.7% of these receiving aid. (There are 202 such families, total. That would be female-headed, single parent; there were no statistics on male-headed single parent households.)

I could keep going. It's all fairly depressing. If anyone is interested, check out Census stats on Perry (Village), NY. (BTW, librarian speaking: census.gov is an incredibly awesome resource for finding out about U.S. populations. Easy to use and very informative, if you're interested in that sort of thing.)

There's something I want to say. I hated Perry. I still do, though from a distance it's with a lot more pity mixed in.

But no matter what I do, no matter how I try to avoid it, it's where I'm from, and it's a lot of what made me. I still find myself dreaming that I'm there, and when I wrote a story set in a fictionalized version, I got so horribly homesick that I thought my chest was burning up. And lately, I've been dreaming of it again--it's run down and broken in my mind, and I no longer know the people who show up in my dreams, but there I am, wandering around. And for some godawful reason, I went on a location search in LJ to find out if there was anyone from Perry writing. When I do find something Perry related, or meet someone who's even from the general area, I get very excited.

This makes no sense to me. I was horribly unhappy there, and so were all of my friends, and they all moved out as quickly as they could, same as I did. I wonder sometimes if it's still there for them, too--I know when I read It, by Stephen King, where seven successful adults are pulled back to their small city, and all of them have been marked by it, I really got the concept.

I don't know what I really want to say here, or if there's any point to posting anything at all (I doubt this will be one of those response-generating entries!), but I find that I just want to talk about the miserable little place. I hope no one whose stuck with it this far minds a few specific things, some good, some bad.

The good.
  • There was an orchard in the next town owned by the family of my first grade teacher, and we all took a field trip there to see it.
  • People knew who their neighbors were, and often sat around on one another's front steps with cups of coffee. (Of course, one of my neighbors had a pair of binoculars to spy with, but that's such a small town icon that it's hardly worth noting.)
  • Despite a lot of prejudices, when people needed help, the majority of people opened up. The Cambodian families that came to town after the war had a little while of difficulty, but ultimately, people were more neighborly than prejudiced. This gives me some hope for humanity in general, though it would be better if the initial reaction hadn't been there first.
  • It's lush green in the summer, and smells like clean water and moss most of the time. The rest of the time it smells like fertilizer, but we won't go there.
  • When you crest a hill and see Silver Lake glittering in the middle of the cornfields, it's very lovely.
  • The library, given the size of the town, is in-freakin'-credible. I practically lived there as a child, and I still love the place.

The bad.
  • I remember that when I was eleven, a thirteen year old girl in town got pregnant and married. After that, I don't think there were two years running when someone in the school wasn't pregnant.
  • There is a lot of resistance to intellectualism.
  • The prejudices, though overcome reasonably easily by contact, are right out there at the surface, and they aren't pretty.
  • The school can sometimes be bullied into giving an education, but it won't do so on its own.

The indescribably ugly.
  • A girl named Rachel pretended her name was Toby and followed an older girl around pretending to be a slave. I was horrified, but no one else seemed to care. Rachel's nickname is listed as "Toby" in the senior yearbook, and for all I know, she still uses it.
  • I was the child of an unwed mother. When I was in first grade, I said "I don't have a father." My teacher said I was lying and pushed the issue out in front of everyone. I've realized in later years that the woman had to know what my situation was--it was Perry, after all, and everyone knew everyone.
  • This was after I left, but it was reported by a friend who was still there--the most popular boy in school walked down Main Street with his drawers dropped, erm, marking the street. He remained the most popular boy in school.

I don't know why I felt compelled to post about Perry, and I hope it doesn't bother anyone. That's where I came from, for good or ill, though. And Lord help me, but a part of me will always be a Perry girl.

I do want to add, a lot of these pathologies come out of abject fear. A lot of what made small towns tick has been disappearing out from under people's feet, and the entire family history of a lot of people is disappearing along with it. There's a desperation there, and it makes me sad a lot more than it disgusts me.

I feel a bit...: contemplative contemplative

4 comments or Leave a comment
ivylore From: ivylore Date: February 1st, 2004 03:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know why I felt compelled to post about Perry, and I hope it doesn't bother anyone.

I love descriptions of hometowns. I think most everyone always harbours a degree of nostalgia for where they grew up - if not so much for how it was, then for how in our mind's eye we remember it should have been. I always do - right up until my first twenty-four hours there have passed.

Actually, I like this idea (the hometown musings). I just visited mine for probably the last time this summer and may borrow this as a type of meme - if you don't mind?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 1st, 2004 05:53 pm (UTC) (Link)


Sure, go for it if you want to.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: February 2nd, 2004 02:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
4000? We call that a village. The village I lived closest to has 5000. And no one has binoculars. This is in rural Northern Ireland, so it has a small scale version of the national problem, ie people like removing each other's kneecaps.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 2nd, 2004 02:49 pm (UTC) (Link)


Yeah, it's always a small-scale version of one pathology or another. What drives me batty with things set in small towns is a total ignorance of such towns by writers. Small town pathologies don't really tend to be cute.

On the binoculars, have you read 'salem's Lot by Stephen King? Mabel Werts and her binocs are an American small town icon. I laughed when she showed up on stage. :) (Actually, that whole book felt quite familiar, though Jerusalem's Lot was even smaller than Perry; Maine does tend to have the really small places, with just a few hundred.)
4 comments or Leave a comment