This past week, I was driving through a relatively rural town. It’s big enough to be on the map yet small enough that you can zip right through it if the light stays green on the highway. As I was approaching the major intersection, the light turned red.
With a few moments to look around, I started reflecting on what I’d seen on the way into town and what I saw around the stoplight. Almost without exception, it was all low-cost national chains — for food, for tires, for clothing — in prefab concrete and large tinted windows. Anytown, USA.
I’ll admit right up front that I don’t know anything about this town. Never stopped in. Never eaten there. Don’t know the locals, their livelihoods, or their watering holes. But a few thoughts came through in quick succession:
- Viewed from the highway (not a flattering angle), this isn’t the sort of place you’d want to live. It’s not truly small-town nor an Insta-worthy Millennial idea of a small town nor thriving small city.
- Obviously, people live there nonetheless. And whether they moved there or just didn’t move away, they’re not stupid: they have to see more or less the same thing from the highway as anyone else.
- Hence the challenge: if you do live there, what stories are you living by? How would you leave? How could you stay?
- The laptop-and-coffeeshop life is simply another way to live, not necessarily a better one. And the conclusions people jump to (from coffeeshops and passing cars) about places like this and the people who live there are often not helping us move forward.
- Everyone needs to find a way to justify their way of living. Yet it continues to boggle my mind that Taco Bell can be positioned — socially, culturally, and politically — as the crowning achievement of modern American culture.
- Still more does it boggle my mind that we now have a large and strong political movement cynically holding this up as all one should want out of life and culture.
It’s one thing to speak up for forgotten, marginalized, or passed-over people. It’s another to work for thriving communities of all sizes and locales. But it’s another to drape low prices and lack of opportunity in the unassailable red, white, and blue — and still another to do so when you’re so transparently out to help the people who own the national brands and their franchises.
Neither spending $5 on a cup of coffee nor $0.99 on a taco makes you a smarter or better person. But people and places across the nation shouldn’t have to be living on that spectrum in the first place.