Skip to main content
PBS logo

The Eclectic Pen - The Mortification of a Small Town

By: Kris R. (kristress)   + 4 more  
Date Submitted: 1/20/2009
Last Updated: 1/20/2009
Genre: Literature & Fiction » Essays & Correspondence
Words: 855

  It's been awhile since I've been to this little restaurant in this little town in this little corner of Indiana. Hasn't changed at all--even some of the faces are the same. Most of the people North County call the denizens of Cedar Lake "Lake Rats"--a slur based on the lower income, blue collar tax bracket, limited education, and country sensibilities. There's something about a no-bullshit approach to life that seems to attract derision.

North County insists on forgetting that Cedar Lake is no longer inhabited strictly by Lake Rats. New and upscale housing developments and proximity to a picturesque (and newly dredged) lake have attracted Chicago commuters in love with the idea of living in "the country." I laugh at this idea. Compared to the concrete expanse of Chicago, I'm sure it's as close to "country" as these people have ever seen--but 10 miles down the road, toward the Kankakee, is where the real country starts.

The high school has been expanded to accommodate the influx of new residents. Established businesses have received face-lifts, reflecting a new age of prosperity. The wreck of a grand old lady of a country house just off the main drag that quietly dilapidated for years has been bulldozed and replaced with two modest ranch-style homes. Sadly, the golf course, named for the old monastery nearby, has been sold by the family that's owned it for three generations, to be parceled out into new, expensive single-family housing. They'll have to build a new elementary school soon. And the police force, once on par with Mayberry, will have to endure an infusion of new blood. New people bring new problems.

Here at this restaurant, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The strapping, flannel-shirted farmer at the table next to me is talking about a close call he had on a tractor the other day, pausing only to answer a chirp from his business partner concerning the purchase of another piece of farm equipment. A large, friendly woman in a fuzzy pink sweater has waded into the room, greeting and greeted loudly by half the diners. I've never seen her before. I won't forget her now.

There's a housewife in one booth, meeting her friend for coffee while the three-year-old next to her assertively plays with her breakfast. The two women behind me are just younger than me, gossiping while the kids are in school. A tall biker I recognize just seated himself next to his buddy at the counter--I used to flirt outrageously with him when I worked as a waitress at the Big Boy a few towns over. He doesn't recognize me, which is just as well. He represents a part of my life I'm glad is over.

I observe these people, and wonder where the "upper class" eats. Surely not here--the eggs are served without fresh tarragon, and the coffee is certainly not sustainably harvested. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe this crowd has been infiltrated by the secretly wealthy, costumed in cotton and denim, recognizable only by the eco-friendly tags on their clothing and messenger bags.

I miss this place. My own lower middle class upbringing has allowed me to identify strongly with values engendered by modest means. I admittedly harbor a mild, reversely snobbish tendency toward those-that-have, developed through a childhood in which I was considered, if not a Lake Rat, then some other closely related rodent. I lived here for a year or two during the end of my marriage; was comfortable in the kind of Twilight Zone places like this weave about themselves. I had intended to stay here, but life moved on, sweeping me along with it.

I lived in a tiny two-bedroom brick bunker with a 40-acre swamp for a backyard. We had bonfires when the water table was low, and chased toads out of the living room and wolf spiders out of every conceivable nook and cranny. One neighbor was the chief of police; the other was a genial, sometimes-employed roofer with a young daughter, a live-in girlfriend and a dove cote in the backyard. Coyotes howled at night and herons honked overhead in the day. My own young daughter rode her bike in the street, safe from traffic and strangers, but watched closely for contact with pygmy rattlers and those scruffy, hungry coyotes.

It was simple. It was peaceful. And, as with everything else, it was temporary. As more developers respond to the mass exodus from the City, this place will become more like the resort town it once was, bright and pretty and shallow, with a veneer of history preserved in the old lakefront houses left over from its original incarnation…except, perhaps, for a three-block square ghetto where the people are referred to as Lake Rats, and are taxed unto oblivion, until they, too, flee to the country.

Someday I hope to join them. There's another lake down the way, and the Kankakee is gorgeous. In the meantime I'll still stop by the Kitchen to check in, quietly recognize a few faces, and enjoy my bottomless cup of unsustainable coffee.

I hope no one recognizes the label on my hemp handbag. That could be...mortifying.

The Eclectic Pen » All Stories by Kris R. (kristress)

Member Comments

Leave a comment about this story...

Comments 1 to 1 of 1
Marta J. (booksnob) - 1/21/2009 4:32 PM ET
Another great story--and by the way--love the title!
Comments 1 to 1 of 1