Part 1 is here.
A few days after my new roller-derby league’s first practice at the rink, I moved into my new apartment, a decrepit studio roosted atop the tiny row of shops on Main Street. My mother had been right: it was exactly the sort of outdated decor I’d find endearing, complete with hideous linoleum. (Floral and geometric? How exotic!) The place had no shower and a kitchen sink that sprayed water in three different directions (none of them “downward,” sadly). But my parents had kindly applied a stunning new paint job to it, and I noted its crystal doorknobs, arched doorways, deep cast-iron tub, and built-in cabinetry with approval.
I scored this wee residence for a pittance of $500 a month, including heat and water.
At the time, I was trying to take a picture of my bike, not my apartment. That’s probably obvious.
This felt like home, for sure. It was the realm outside those walls I was less certain about.
In the movies, smaller-town life is often portrayed as charming and quaint, and it certainly can be. Take the airport, for instance. You can just … park right there, in the lot in front of it, like it’s Target. Finding your gate shouldn’t be too hard, either—there are only seven of them, lined up in a row. The most awkward part will happen once you’ve been led outside to your plane, as it can be difficult to clamber up that funny metal staircase-on-wheels while clutching your carry-on. (It helps to pretend that you are the president of the United States, or perhaps a very successful 1960s musician.)
So yes, it’s quirky. It’s endearing. But sometimes, it’s also heartbreaking.
When I was young, someone I loved, someone I associated with sweet tea and summer and perfectly buttered mashed potatoes, turned away from her stove, looked me up and down, and asked me to promise her that I would not grow up gay. I sat there, perched on one of her kitchen chairs, and I promised.
She did not ask me to promise that I wouldn’t grow up black, but I’m guessing that’s only because I was a safer bet on that one.
I think it’s probably easier to pass judgment on the Midwestern universe if you don’t associate it with lightning bugs and pie, but trust me, I’m painfully aware of its shortcomings. The only two black kids at my high school dated one another in the most foregone conclusion in prom history. A few Latino kids roamed the halls as well, always together; we referred to them collectively as the Spanish Armada. I was in my twenties before I realized that Buddhists were not in the habit of worshipping a fat golden idol, as I had been taught.
And then there was the “hell house,” the Christian version of a haunted house offering its patrons a montage of all the misdeeds that can send one to eternal damnation, including the infamous abortion scene. Let’s not forget “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames,” a popular play I attended completely unironically as a teenager, which depicts Satan yanking people into hell, including small children who had died in a car accident after choosing to go fishing with their father instead of attending church with their mother that Sunday.
If none of that impresses you, I can tell you that when a bride I know chose an ivory dress for her wedding, she was asked, with great concern, how anyone would know she was a virgin. I guess she was kind of asking for it, though, strutting around in a color the manufacturer had labeled “Candlelight” like some kind of two-penny whore.
By the time I returned last year, things had gotten better, and yet.
I froze when I heard the phrase “openly homosexual” used to imply audacity, and I excused myself entirely when someone my age dropped the n-word at a party (though I wasn’t surprised; on a previous visit home, a young man at a similar gathering had explained to me it wasn’t that he was racist—it was that Mexicans were lazy). I just quietly hoped for the best when one of my skaters would acknowledge that her boyfriend or husband, the same one who would call her ten times an hour anytime she left the house without him, felt threatened by her desire to pursue their own interests. I tried to control my temper when people asked me whether any of my skaters were gay.
“Some people ask if we’re a bunch of lesbians,” one skater told me worriedly.
“The next time someone asks you that, ask them why it would matter if you were,” I responded, once I had managed to quell my inner rage well enough to avoid alarming her with the vehemence of my reply.
The question so common, they even made a T-shirt about it. (The “Yes, Mom, roller derby made me gay” shirt is even better, but alas, it no longer appears to be sold anywhere.)
The promise to not grow up gay, the one I made before I had any idea how horrified my adulthood friends would be to hear of it, highlights the paradox of Midwestern childhood. You want that woman at the stove to be evil, to be hateful, but she isn’t. She is profoundly lovable. They are profoundly lovable. They’ll pull the beaters out of the cake batter and hand them to you to lick clean before shooing you out of the kitchen. They’ll turn on the sprinklers for you to run through, and they’ll put the chain back on your bike even if you’re just the neighbor kid passing by. When the streetlights wake up and call you home, they’ll usher you in and bandage your scuffed knees and scrub your hands soapy clean.
And then, after they’ve passed the plates and broken the bread, they’ll share their wisdoms earnestly, with the pitch-perfect believability of people who have no idea they are wrong.
I was wrong, too, it turns out. I thought I would one day be able to look back on that promise I made as a child and see it as more intolerant than anything that happens anywhere else. I hoped to escape the suspicion and hatred that so many people around me expressed anytime they encountered someone different. These aspirations, of course, conveniently ignored my own capacity for widespread disdain and my own continual compulsion to sort everyone into an Us box and a Them box. Oops.
When I left to find this utopia, the inhabitants of my small town were the nicest people I knew. That’s not so strange; I hadn’t met anyone else. But it would have given me pause, back then, to know that this past year, sixty-nine cities and eleven countries later, I have confirmed that they still are.
I think I might owe them an apology.
These women, my skaters, worked so much harder than I expected, and with an astonishing level of humility and integrity. They weren’t too insecure to accept feedback. Having become used to dealing with the sort of identity-oriented fanaticism that can cause people to defend their choice of bicycle-gear style with rabid ferocity, I couldn’t believe how easily they would accept a suggestion, and even thank me for it.
And holy smokes, they made me laugh. Even their gratitude had a sense of humor, judging from the unicorn head on a stick I was offered as a token of their appreciation.
That picture was taken at a surprise birthday party they organized for me upon realizing that I knew hardly anyone in town besides them. Not a single one of them was vegan, but my birthday cake was. When I had decided to take the coaching position, I had been adamant that I would not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in my league, but in retrospect, I had little reason to worry about it. At practice, it was not unusual to see a Mormon skater standing next to a Wiccan skater standing next to a butch woman in a COUGAR BAIT T-shirt.
The Midwestern stereotype still exists for a reason, of course, but guess what? It’s just a stereotype, and it’s not the only one out there. On average, perhaps big-city folk are less likely to judge you for being gay than their rural counterparts, but an alarming number of them will judge you for almost everything else you can imagine, including visible pantylines and meals at chain restaurants. They are more progressive, but they can also be more shallow and almost exhausting in their hatred of any fashion trend or any style of tattoo or any other gesture that could be seen as conformist or contrived or played out.
I know Midwesterners who would not be caught dead at a gay wedding or at a rap concert. I know city dwellers who would not be caught dead eating at Olive Garden or wearing a scrunchie. In either scenario, the person in question has an overblown sense of impropriety. In either scenario, a sense of prim virtue is maintained. In either scenario, someone has to be inferior.
I mean, really, “the flyover states”? I know people who will defend the rights of animals and ethnic groups and drag queens but will still use that expression in mixed company.
Before the credits rolled on my cinematic year, I didn’t learn that home is where the heart is. I didn’t find where I belonged. I didn’t tear up any plane tickets or stick a SOLD! sign in the yards of any picturesque houses or make any other dramatic declarations that the Midwest is the place to be. Much to my regret, I did not deliver a baby cow and then name it Norman and adopt it, Billy Crystal style.
But I did confirm that kindness and positivity get more done than a subscription to any particular creed or belief system, and that intolerance and bigotry are both more widespread and less uniformly present in any given group of people than a lot of us enjoy believing.
“Man, I bet you’re glad to be out of there!” is a sentiment I hear frequently now that I’ve moved to the Bay Area–a subtle, sometimes anxious request for confirmation that I don’t have a Glenn Beck poster on my bedroom ceiling. I don’t really mind, but I can’t help but laugh at the irony: if I wanted to walk around promising people that I’m just like them and always will be, I might as well have never left home.
We’re not so different after all? Make love, not war?
I guess these do kind of sound like themes from a cheesy movie. I may not be Emilio Estevez, but I don’t call it my cinematic year for nothing. And I have to warn you … it gets worse.