Friday, April 13, 2007

Why it's good to come from nowhere

I GREW UP IN TOLEDO, if up is the word. Northwest Ohio is flat. There isn't much up. The land is so flat that a child from Toledo is under the impression that the direction hills go is down. Sledding is done from street level into creek beds and road cuts. In Toledo people grow out — out to the suburbs, out to the parts of America where the economy is more vigorous, and, all too often, out to a 48-inch waistband. But no Toledoan would ever say that he or she had “out-grown” Toledo. We are too level-headed for that.

Level being the operative term. The world of Toledo is as horizontal as the Great Plains but without the heroic vistas and infinite distances. There is no horizon in Toledo. There are too many trees. Nor do those trees form the sylvan cathedrals of the North Woods. Dutch elm disease took care of that. Toledo's scenery is brushy and unsublime.

This lack of interesting geography should be offset by an exciting mix of cultures and peoples, but it isn't. Toledo is full of Irish, Poles, Hungarians, southern blacks and Appalachian whites. There is a large Jewish community and a large Arab community. There are so many Germans that a boy I knew, Don Eggenschwiler, went all the way through grade school and junior high without being teased about his name. But no matter what races, religions or ethnic groups came to Toledo, within months they had above-ground pools, riding lawnmowers and golf clubs. Toledoans are true Americans, and it is almost impossible to compel true Americans to be diverse.

Like tens of thousands of other Toledoans in the years since the rust belt corroded, I left Toledo. I've lived on the East Coast for 37 years. Yet I've never lost the sense of coming from the middle of nowhere. It's a good sense to have. Fifteen of those 37 years were spent writing about politics in Washington, D.C. Politicians, I've found, do not always know the difference between coming from nowhere and heading there.

People I've met in the East visit Toledo once in a while or, more often, pass through it. They remark on the featurelessness. They say, “It's so flat.” A Toledoan would tell them, “So we can see you coming.” I don't mind Easterners. But they think they're the best and brightest. In my opinion, Easterners have their best and brightest and we Toledoans have ours. Their best and brightest come up with things like FEMA, the budget deficit and Iraq. Our best and brightest start a successful chain of muffler shops. From the East Coast's brightest, we get taxes and chaos. From the brightest of Toledo we get quiet cars.

I may be making Toledo sound dull, and it is. That's a godsend. When a teenager tells you, “There's nothing to do around here. Nothing ever happens,” you know you're in the right historical time and place.

Toledo is better than fun, it's happy. Nothing is more conducive to sadness than taking yourself seriously. And taking yourself seriously is difficult when your baseball team is the Mud Hens. There's not much envy among Toledoans. No matter how successful someone becomes, he's still from Toledo. And no land development pressures or geological barriers have kept Toledo from spreading out in that great leveling of lifestyles that snooty urbanites call suburban sprawl and that Toledoans call space for the rider mower in the garage.

But mostly Toledoans are happy because they are busy. People who live in places where there's nothing to do usually are busy. The Toledo area has 38 public golf courses, and there are all those Dutch elm-diseased leaves to get out of the above-ground pool. It's in places that are overloaded with exotic diversions, like London, Paris and New York, that people sit around doing nothing in restaurants and cafes.

Continue here (Toledo Free Press, dated 13 April 2007)