There’s something about the quiet desolation of Southern Illinois that I find uniquely evocative.
I worked in the legal department of a metals manufacturer for awhile last fall. I always enjoyed the drive: up 367 North, over the bridge overlooking the marshes, through the somewhat downtrodden Alton neighborhood and finally to work. My current law firm has an office in Granite City, which involves driving over two bridges and down a long, narrow strip of highway dotted by tiny houses and paralleled by a railroad track. This gives way to Nameoki Road, a crowded strip of grade-B strip malls, social service agencies, fast food establishments and decent thrift stores. If it’s a late-afternoon or weekend appointment (like today), I’ll sometimes take Nameoki south, past the huge iron works and the racetrack and finally back to St. Louis.
It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to a faded working-class area. (And, to be fair, there are thriving cities in the area, like Edwardsville and Collinsville.) But I truly enjoy these drives over the Mississippi River. I even (sort of) enjoy my infrequent trips to East St. Louis to shepherd clients through the 341 meeting process. And I think I figured out an explanation: Southern IL reminds me uncannily of the Middlesex County, New Jersey of my youth.
I grew up in Monroe Township: a fairly rural berg in the 1970s and 1980s, now mostly developed with warehouses and office parks. But just north of me was Spotswood and South River, two towns that pretty much define working-class suburban New Jersey for me. On Main Street in Spotswood, factories stand next to ancient, tiny houses. Small local businesses – accountants, insurance agencies, diners, resale shops, car dealerships, nothing too quaint – line Main Street as you drive toward Route 18. There used to be a huge yeast plant in Spotswood that made the whole town smell like beer; I’m feeling a strange synesthesia thinking about it now, both seeing and smelling the memory.
Here, let me demonstrate for you:
Which is not to say it’s always such reverie driving through these streets. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in Granite City or Madison, and I recoil in horror. That’s probably residue from my youth, too.
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Current musical enjoyments: Feelies reissues; about half of Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs; a surprising chunk of Vivian Girls’ Everything Goes Wrong; Liechtenstein in general. Tonight’s soundtrack: Sibylle Baier‘s Colour Green, which strikes me as a perfect halfway point between Vashti Bunyan and Julie Doiron. I always go for this kind of sound in the fall.